Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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,...
(The entire section is 886 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1613 words.)