Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres

by Henry Brooks Adams
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 886

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.

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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 towers [for Mont Saint Michel], crumbled and fell for want of proper support.” Thus, Adams’s fascinating travel guide may still serve as one possible approach to the era; his own disclaimers that he writes for an intelligent and interested tourist, rather than crusty scholars, is the best antidote when his vision collides with treatments that stress abstract historic fact over feeling.

From the abbey church on the mount, the narrative moves to the great cathedral of Chartres near Paris. There, a fascinatingly detailed and extremely loving account of the outstanding features of the building captures the imagination of the reader, who is introduced to art still in existence in France. Again, the material objects are brought to life as Adams begins to render his interpretation of the meaning of this great architectural masterpiece: “The Church at Chartres belonged not to the people, not to the priesthood, and not even to Rome; it belonged to the Virgin [Mary].”

The cult of the Virgin Mary, whose “fetish power” has overcome the masculine obsession with God and his fiery Archangel Michael that is celebrated at Mount Saint Michael, is for Adams central for the period of the Transition Gothic of the twelfth century in France. A deep “feminine” mysticism has replaced rationalism, he says, and the veneration of the Virgin bestows a deep sense of unity on its culture—a unity, Adams is quick to point out, that his own early twentieth century has lost forever.

From the deeply sympathetic discussion of Chartres, Adams moves to show the depth of the cult of the Virgin in the medieval world. In the chapter “Les Miracles de Notre Dame” (the miracles of Our Lady), Adams guides the reader through a compilation of anecdotes and historical material enriched by his quotation and translation of medieval French texts related to his topic.

To conclude his spiritual and geographical tour of medieval northern France, Adams adds three chapters dealing with the philosophy of the age. “Abelard” deals with the famous abbot and schoolmaster of that name, whose central debate with another scholar is playfully rendered by Adams much in the style of a senatorial debate in the Capitol. A chapter on the mystics of the twelfth century, among whom Francis of Assisi stands out, precedes Adams’s discussion of Thomas Aquinas. For Adams, Aquinas presents the terminal point of scholastic philosophy; from his religious premises, nothing more than his attempted synthesis of faith and reason could be achieved. Adams directs his reader to then-current problems in theoretical physics, in which people struggled again with the issues of unity versus multiplicity in the order of the cosmos.

What started out as a travel guide, then, has become a philosophical meditation on the state of the universe by the time Adams finishes Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. Even though his reading of French medieval history and culture has been criticized, Adams’s vision of an age so different from an increasingly fragmented twentieth century remains a fascinating journey into a foreign country and a past mind-set. In Adams’s celebration of a gentle, unifying Virgin, the reader can see a deep longing for a world different from that encountered at home in Washington, across the street from the White House.

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