“Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever. For what is the time of a man, except it be interwoven with that memory of ancient things of a superior age?”
Marcus Tullius Cicero, 46 B.C.
Le Mont St Michel is indeed the wonder of the western world. Only the transept crossing of its great abbey church sits on the rock itself. The rest is built up on strongly pillared crypts. And more crypts. All rising up to the gilded St Michael atop the spire, brandishing the archangelic sword that acts as the abbey’s lightning conductor. Many times down the ages the abbey has been licked by ‘the devil’s fire’, as the monks named those conflagrations that tore through libraries and living quarters.
Attached to the north side of the church is a group of buildings known, rightly, as the Marvel. It rises up the side of the rock in three tiers of vast rooms one piled upon another. The Mont has all the features of a conventional monastery but here they have to be arranged vertically, not laterally.
The ascending rooms reflect the mediæval social order, with stores and an almonry for the poor at the bottom, guest accommodation for visiting aristocrats in the middle and the monks’ own refectory (left) and cloister at the top. The same three classes of ‘working men’, ‘fighting men’ and ‘praying men’ who appear in King Alfred’s commentaries four centuries earlier. The cloister (below) is a remarkable creation, the original roof garden, leading out from the side of the church with sweeping views across the blur of sea and sand from which the Mont erupts.
The Couesnon river, which formed the boundary between Brittany and Normandy, runs just to the west, or does today, and so the abbey’s history has been predominantly Norman rather than Breton. Come the Revolution and the abbey’s suppression, power passed to the authorities of the département of La Manche. The abbey’s illuminated manuscripts were carted off to the municipal library at Avranches, where those that survived further pilfering are now displayed in a spectacular new setting. The abbey’s more mundane records fared worse, burnt to ashes when the 3,000 files of the archives départementales at St Lô fell victim to Allied bombing in 1944.
Libraries and archives are always vulnerable to accidents but when conflict calls they can rarely be assured of complete safety. In the 20th century alone there were grievous losses in Louvain, Dublin, Naples, Warsaw, Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, all the result of bombing, shelling or simply inter-communal rage. In 1943 the Germans systematically destroyed the State archive of southern Italy – Europe’s second richest after the Vatican’s – as revenge for the Italians switching sides. Those they most disadvantaged included their own scholars, for whom the Naples record office was the first port of call for research on Friedrich von Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, who held cosmopolitan court at Palermo in the 13th century. Just how cosmopolitan can be seen from his coronation mantle, used at every imperial coronation thereafter and now displayed among the Habsburg treasures in Vienna. It is made of silk from Byzantium or Thebes and embroidered around the hem in Kufic script by a Mahometan craftsman in the royal workshop. The strangest of all the symbols of German unity.
At Naples, the royal archivist, Count Riccardo Filangieri, spent the post-war years reconstructing whatever he could, tracking down books, journals, unpublished notes, contemporary copies in other archives, and then publishing the results to minimise the risk of future loss. But mostly the essence of archives is that they house unique documents. The more that is destroyed, the bigger the holes in history become. A fresh start, a new dawn, liberation from the past, is often the rallying cry of revolutionaries, but their true motivation is always that to be found embedded in Cicero’s warning.