This human 'hamster wheel' may seem like a joke, but is horrifyingly real: for centuries, the power to haul supplies from the base of Mont St Michel to the monastery was provided by prisoners on a treadmill whose physical effort powered a winch to haul supplies up the wall of the citadel by means of a giant sledge.
This may sound like barbaric and archaic torture, but before we get judgmental, we should realise that this sort of hard labour was part of the British penal code until the early part of the 20th century. The immortal Oscar Wilde was condemned to hard labour as part of his sentence for 'corrupting' Bosie, the son of the Marquis of Queensbury (although it is debatable about how much further it would have been possible to corrupt this particularly dissolute young man) and was sentenced to two years of hard labour that involved a similar type of exercise - although at Reading Gaol, it had no purpose other than punishment.
Barbaric by the standards of any time.
Well, to be fair, in the medieval world, sometimes the difference between religious establishment and military infrastructure was blurred, and seldom has this been more apparent than at Mont St Michel ...
The architecture of the monastery is extraordinarily imposing, and heavy on reinforcement, both to cater for the steep slope of the island and provide protection from would-be invading forces. Nevertheless, you can't quite escape the suspicion that the design was also intended to be deliberately intimidating to the layman as the earthly expression of divine power!
I adore stained glass, and am particularly impressed when it is selected to be in keeping with its setting.
Whilst jewel-toned glass is gorgeous in bright, vibrant settings, it can appear gaudy and inappropriate elsewhere. One of the things that most impressed me in the monastery at Mont St Michel was the palate of the stained glass in muted pastal shades that so perfectly reflects the austere granite context and clear northern light.
Although I'm not a great fan of heights, I don't usually suffer from vertigo. However, in the case of the pulley chain that was used to haul goods up into the monastery at Mont St Michel, I'll make a notable exception!
The chain extends down to a loading bay at the base of the precipitous abbey wall, a couple of hundred metres below. Goods and provisions were strapped securely to an outsize sledge which was then dragged up the wall using a treadmill powered by convicts.
Even looking at the photo from the comfort of my chair gives me collywobbles!
Tourists to the monastery have to stick to a prescribed route and are not allowed to explore at will. There are still some monks in residence, and the access restrictions are designed to safeguard their peace and privacy - well, as far as you can do so when you have upwards of a million visitors trekking through your monastery per year!
As you walk through, you will pass litte passageways, some of which are dark, and others which are enticingly lit, like the one in the photo. It's rather like being allowed to wander through a set from 'The Name of the Rose', and it's fun to speculate on what might be at the end of them!
Positioned right next to the convict-powered 'human hamster' treadmill that was used to lift goods and provisions up into the monastery is an example of the sort of sledge onto which these items would have been strapped.
These wooden sledges are enormous - the sort of things you would imagine giants going tobogonning on - and must be immensely heavy even when unladen. The weight of them when they were fully laden must have been immense, and the fact that they were raised solely by manpower brings a chilling new dimension to the concept of 'hard labour'.
Why use sledges in the first place? I haven't been able to find out, but my homebaked theory is that the reason that sledges were used rather than more conventional hoists is that they could have been dragged over the soft sand by animals (whereas wheeled vehicles would have been more easily bogged down) and then hauled up the monastery walls without the need to unload and reload. If you're more informed then I, then just drop me an e-mail and I'll amend this tip accordingly!
One of the things that I like most about visiting monasteries and convents is that you feel as though you have been allowed to temporary access secret worlds that were insulated from the outside.
Because there is still a small community of monks in residence at Mont St Michel, access is restricted to certain parts of the complex, such as this 'secret' garden, which you pass on your way to the ramparts from the treadmill. Most people are so focused on following the route that they don't think to look left, where this tiny, old fashioned garden is largely concealed from view behind a gate.
Be prepared, to do not be disappointed: The "marvel" is not a visual superlative, as we could guess, but a fabulous architectural achievement.
There are lots of more marvelous abbeys, even in France, but the way they managed the space, adapting the construction to the limits and characteristics of the space, without sacrificing its magnificence and safety is... go and see for yourself.
Builded on the top of the 'mont' the monastery overlooks the whole region.
Different styles of architecture dominates these series of buildings...
It's worth visiting, although you have to climb a lot of stairs to reach the entrance