High above the cliffs at the eastern end of Omaha beach stand ruins of the Chapelle Saint-Siméon de Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes. Old walls are shored up by brambles and protected by mud and horses. This small valley ‘Val des Hachettes’ has been cut over thousands of years by a small stream heading for the sea, and it is because of this stream that the chapel is here at all.
There have been a few Saints’ Siméon but this one was originally a 10th century Sicilian monk who dreamt of being a recluse. From a poor community, he was sent to Normandy to beg money from Richard II Duke of Normandy. After surviving an attack by Pirates along the Nile and a very long walk to Rouen, he discovered the Duke was dead and Normandy in turmoil.
Saints in high demand
Although many Norman knights had built reputations and fortunes in Sicily, the bishop of Rouen did not welcome yet another hungry monk from the island, and was not inclined to help. Turfed out and with his feet worn to shreds, Siméon stopped at a stream, bathed his feet, and was miraculously healed. He then headed off on a long journey to sainthood, ending his life as he wished, a hermit walled up in a tower in Trier, Germany. Siméon’s piety and the healing miracles that happened around his tomb soon elevated him to sainthood. Tales of the miraculous healing of his feet in Normandy gave him a strong following in the region.
Saints were in high demand during the Middle Ages. Life was hard, medicine deadly and there were many unpleasant ways to die. A saint who offered miraculous healing was always going to be popular. Particularly in this part of Normandy where a tiny winged monster was lurking in the marsh.
The monster was Anopheles Atroparvus, a malaria carrying mosquito that lived snug in brackish marsh waters along the Normandy coast during those ‘medieval warm period’ years.
Unlike their more tropical cousins, larvae of the Anopheles Atroparvus are quite happy to grow in salty stagnant pools and ditches alongside the sea. Ditches waded in by farmers laying down hemp stalks to soften in the water.
There was no way for the local people to know this was why every humid summer and particularly after storms, so many of them suffered from the ‘trembling’.
Malaria is a parasite, passed by blood sucking mosquitos, that sets up home in the human liver. The infected person will first feel a debilitating, shivering cold (‘Trembling’) then high temperatures, lots of sweating and a deep sleep. Symptoms may disappear for months, or even years, only to return again. Sufferers are unlikely to reach old age.
A King’s blessing
Perhaps the cool clear water of the valley stream that emerged as a fountain near the cliff edge, offered respite from the fever. Or perhaps it was a miracle. But for whatever reason, sometime after Siméon became a saint, a chapel was built for him and for sufferers of the Trembling, high on the cliffs overlooking the sea. With little else to protect them, the chapel became very popular.
By the 13th century the sea had eaten away at the cliffs and the old chapel was destroyed. Erosion along these cliffs is always robbing Normandy of land.
Still popular, needed, a new chapel was built. The Red Book of the Bishopric of Bayeux 1261 reveals how highly regarded the chapel was; King Louis IX approved it saying “out of love for God, and for the honour Saint-Siméon , we grant that canon Jean le Gendre may build this chapel…”.
A superstitious revolution
The local lords of Grand-Val paid for its construction and maintenance and in return received a ‘havage’; the right to levy a payment of four deniers for each chapel candle they could hold in one hand on Saint Siméon’s feast day. A right recognised for hundreds of years; on 11 May 1620 Guillaume Piquod, lord of Grand-Val is noted to have received a ‘havage’ of four deniers.
During the French revolution the chapel like all religious buildings came under close scrutiny. Locals, freed from the tyranny of the church eyed its stones covetously – there was many a wall in need of mending. Two citizens in front of a crowd loudly challenged the old ‘superstitious’ ways of the chapel and called for it to be destroyed. But as soon as they finished speaking both became pale and began to tremble… After a few days of fever that no doctor could break, the two sickly men repented and visited the chapel, where of course they were cured.
The cliffs continued to crumble and by the nineteenth century another chapel was needed. The Poitevin family who farmed at Grand Hameau, had it built. This is the building whose ruins we can see today.
Centuries of tradition end in a day
While malaria was a lesser problem, the waters were still drunk by the faithful. They would soak cloths with its healing waters to bind ill loved ones, and dunk children suffering with rickets into its clear depths. The local parish priest recorded 6000 pilgrims in 1862.
Pilgrims continued to visit for the next hundred years, until 1944.
Just yards from Omaha beach, the chapel was heavily damaged during D-Day, 6 June 1944. A huge amount of reconstruction was needed across Normandy after the bombardment and for many reasons this chapel was not rebuilt. The fountain could be reached until the 1960’s but not more.
Today just the main, undecorated, walls stand. A silent reminder of an old faith, a recent war and a monster in the marsh.