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...
(The entire section is 1613 words.)