Normandy—The Gateway to the Medieval World

By Jenny Weston

Overlooking the coast of Normandy, on a rather imposing hilltop, there sits the small town of Avranches. Despite the town’s quiet and rather tranquil ambiance, Avranches might be considered one of the richest ‘points of entry’ into the world of medieval monks, scribes, and books. The town’s importance in this regard rests upon its proximity to the famous island monastery of Mont-St-Michel. On a clear day, it is possible to just make out the monastery sitting out in the bay. (Hint: It is that little mound on the horizon).

A view of Mont-St-Michel from Avranches

To visit the monastery, one simply needs to head down the hill towards the coast. In centuries past, Mont-St-Michel was only accessible at low-tide, and weary travelers would have to walk across the sandy flats leading to the isolated island. Today there is a free shuttle that is available for those not wishing to get their feet wet.

A closer look at Mont-St-Michel

Once on the island, you can walk through the little medieval town that is nestled at the foot of the monastery, stroll through the church, the cloister, the chapels, the crypts, and the gardens, and see some of the most extraordinary views of the surrounding bay.

First established in the eighth century, Mont-St-Michel has a rich history. For centuries it housed one of the largest medieval library collections, as well as an active scriptorium. The monks eagerly expanded their library and often borrowed books from neighbouring monasteries (such as Bec or Fécamp) to make new copies.

The Scriptorium of Mont-St-Michel

The Scriptorium of Mont-St-Michel

In the modern era, the nearby community of Avranches has taken on the responsibility of preserving many of the manuscripts that were once created (or purchased) by the monks of Mont-St-Michel. There is now a museum in the centre of town called Scriptorial, dedicated to these manuscripts. Visitors can see how ink was produced on the island, how parchment was cut and bound together, and how many of the books have been restored and protected. There is also an impressive manuscript display, which changes every few months to show off the varied richness of the collection.

Avranches BM 235 (Available online at © Enluminures)

Avranches BM 228, Aristotle (Available online at © Enluminures)

Avranches BM 3 (Available online at © Enluminures)

While the monastery of Mont-St-Michel is a ‘must see’ for anyone traveling through Normandy, the town of Avranches is also worth a visit. The people have a passion for medieval history, monks, and books, and they are more than happy to share their treasures with anyone who stops by.

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