Study Guide

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres

by Henry Brooks Adams

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Initially written only for a small circle of friends, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres became so popular that Adams finally consented to have the American Institute of Architects publish a trade edition in 1913. The work’s thought-provoking mixture of presentation of the religious monuments of medieval Normandy and the author’s intelligent (and often idiosyncratic) reflections on the history and philosophy of a bygone era (and their potential applications to his own time, the early twentieth century) have lost nothing of their power to fascinate a reader.

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres opens with a powerful portrait of the abbey of Saint Michael on the northern coast of France. As is the case throughout the text, the physical description of the abbey and its features is embedded in Adams’s narration of the history of the place. In a move perhaps typical for the American view of Europe of the time, Adams tries to entice his readers into the narrative further by telling of the Norman migration across the English Channel into England after the battle of Hastings and then of the eventual immigration of the descendants of the builders of Mont Saint Michel to the New World, where they would become Adams’s ancestors.

The oldest surviving parts of the abbey church serve as the starting point for Adams’s reflections on the history, culture, and spiritual mind-set of the eleventh century. In what is clearly his own reading, Adams sees the century united in its “masculine” Christian belief in power, heroic battle, and a philosophic materialism exemplified by the Romanesque style of architecture. Contemporary and later historians often have disagreed with this, and other of Adams’s views, stressing disunity and civic strife where he saw harmony and community.

Although later critics stressed individual ambition as central to the age, Adams’s personalized account of one of the abbots is still in general accordance with the modern picture: “One might linger over Abbot Robert of Torigny, who was a very great man in his day, and an especially great architect, but too ambitious. All his work, including the two...

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Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres is the study of two great medieval buildings, one a Norman abbey and the other a Gothic cathedral. In the author’s mind, however, the book has a far wider purpose. Henry Adams set out to evoke the mood of an era in France, the eleventh to the thirteenth century, in all aspects: art, theology, philosophy, and music. Behind this wider purpose is still another. Adams subtitled the book A Study of Thirteenth Century Unity, asking that it be read along with his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1907), in which he discusses what he called twentieth century multiplicity.

Adams was a historian, and his two books suggest a theory of history and an attitude toward history. Western civilization had moved from unity to multiplicity, from a God-centered culture in which faith was the major force to an uncentered culture of competing ideologies and conflicting scientific theories. Adams’s attitude is one of quiet regret, and his survey of medieval France is informed by an intellectual’s poignant yearning. This emotional longing for the order of a medieval culture is more than balanced, however, by the rigorous intellection Adams exercises. Translations of old French lyrics, incisive summaries of Thomist theories, detailed analyses of architectural subtleties—these are among Adams’s self-imposed duties in the book. Scholars agree that Adams fulfilled his duties with grace and considerable accuracy.

Adams’s method is deceptively casual. In the preface he announces the desired relationship between himself and the reader: An uncle is speaking to a niece, as a guide for a summer’s study tour of France. Readers soon see that the genial uncle has planned the course of study quite rigorously. It operates partly in the way that Adams’s own mind tended to operate, by emphasizing opposites. Adams concerns himself with contrasts: St. Michel and Chartres, the masculine temperament and the feminine, Norman culture and French culture. All this is within the major contrast of the thirteenth century and twentieth century. Adams also uses the device of paradox. He insists that his purpose is not to teach, yet the book is a joy only if the reader’s intellect stands alert to follow Adams’s careful exposition.

By 1904, when the book was privately printed, Adams had befriended several of the young American scholars who were awakening universities in the United States to the importance of the medieval period. Adams himself had done sporadic writing and study in this realm years before. The book can be usefully thought of as an old person’s legacy to a new generation, an unpretentious structure of affectionate scholarship, carefully built with some of Adams’s finest prose.

Basically, the book contains three parts. The opening chapters deal with Mont-Saint-Michel on the Normandy coast. A transition chapter enables Adams to traverse the route to the cathedral town of Chartres. Six chapters examine the great cathedral, leading the reader to see its full symbolic meaning. The six concluding chapters then attend to history, poetry, theology, and philosophy—the medieval setting in which the jewel of the cathedral shines. Adams’s focus is medieval France, and his book begins at the offshore hill of St. Michel, where the great abbey was built between 1020 and 1135. Instantly, the salient characteristics accumulate, for later contrast with those of Chartres: isolation, height, energy, modest size, utter simplicity, dedication to the archangel St. Michael (representing the Church militant).

As Mont-Saint-Michel “was one of the most famous shrines of northern Europe,” so in French The Song of Roland (twelfth century) achieved unequaled eminence. How song and shrine complement each other is Adams’s theme in the second chapter. The song and the shrine represent the militant temper of the time just before the Battle of Hastings; both...

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Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Adams, Henry. Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, with an introduction by Lord Briggs. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980. Contains a helpful introduction to this work and its place in the writings of Henry Adams. Illustrations of Mont-Saint-Michel, Chartres, other works of medieval architecture, and scenes of medieval life from illuminated manuscripts aid in visualizing Adams’ description of medieval monuments, culture, and society.

Byrnes, Joseph F. The Virgin of Chartres: An Intellectual and Psychological History of the Work of Henry Adams. London: Associated University Presses, 1981. Studies the intellectual and psychological development of Henry Adams, particularly regarding women. His ideals culminate in the medieval symbol of the Virgin as expressed in Chartres Cathedral.

McIntyre, John P. “Henry Adams and the Unity of Chartres.” Twentieth Century Literature 7 (January, 1962): 159-171. Explains the historical method that Adams used in writing Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. Shows how Adams achieves a unified conception of medieval history by utilizing Romanesque and Gothic architectural monuments as documents of social and cultural history.

Mane, Robert. Henry Adams on the Road to Chartres. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971. Examines Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by looking at the personal and educational background that led Adams to write on Chartres. Also analyzes the literary work itself.

Samuels, Ernest. Henry Adams: The Major Phase. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964. The third of a three-volume biography of Adams. Contains an extensive examination of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres within the context of Adams’ life.