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Book Review: Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Henry Adams)

Henry Adams is the type of author, and an author, whom every educated American once read and discussed. Now, he and his type have been replaced by stupid studies of so-called “white privilege,” and the triumphant martryologies of the past have been replaced by the mewling victimologies of the present, much to the detriment of everyone involved, and most of all to the detriment of any useful intellectual discourse, as can be seen from a cursory view of the comments section of any article in the New York Times. But by reading Adams, we can at least educate ourselves, and educate the Remnant, as Isaiah did before the renewal.

Adams, who lived from 1838 to 1918, and was descended from both John Adams and John Quincy Adams, also wrote the more famous The Education of Henry Adams. That book covers the second half of the 19th Century, through which Adams lived and onto which he turned an analytic eye. The Education also overlaps Mont St. Michel in some ways, for it contrasts the modern industrial world, symbolized by the dynamo, with the ancient world of Chartres and the Virgin Mary. Primarily, though, it’s an autobiography. The Education is a fairly straightforward book; Mont St. Michel is more elliptical and philosophical.

What makes Mont St. Michel particularly interesting today is that Adams wrote in 1905 from the perspective of modernity, contrasting that to the totally different world of 12th- and 13th-century France. We, of course, see both Adams and Chartres as elements of the distance past, before the 20th-century erased so much, and we see much more in common between Adams and Chartres than Adams did himself. This makes reading Mont St. Michel doubly interesting.

Adams starts from the premise that the 12th- and 13th-centuries in France were a time of unprecedented, and since unduplicated, explosion of striving, creativity and social ferment, creating works of wonder and laying the groundwork for future progress. He takes this as a combination of social and spiritual behaviors, and analyzes the architecture of the time through this lens. (He is also free from modern day cant; for example, he sees the Crusades as part of this flowering, not some sort of original sin of Christendom, as our current dullard President would have it.)

Adams spent much time in France, and this book was a privately circulated combination of travelogue and philosophy. The first 10% or so is a description, both historical and then-present day, of the Abbey of Mont St. Michel, emphasizing its dedication to the militaristic Michael the Archangel in the context of the Abbey’s history. The next 40% or so is a description of Chartres, liberally interspersed with philosophical asides, and in particular a keen appreciation for and focus on how the people of that time viewed the cathedral and the Virgin Mary who reigned there. This is the most interesting section of the book. Nowadays the usual view is that religion is stupid and useless, except to the extent it services transgender rights, and that no thinking person could possibly believe what they did in a cathedral village in the 12th Century. Adams is a useful corrective to this–no believer himself, it appears, he understood how they thought, though he probably overstates the permanent death of the religious impulse, as we can see in history since 1905.

On the visceral belief of the time, my favorite passage is, talking of the 10,000 people or so at a usual Mass:

“How many women are there, in this mass of thirteenth century suppliants, who have lost children? Probably nearly all, for the death rate is very high in the conditions of medieval life. There are thousands of such women here, for it is precisely this class who come most; and probably every one of them has looked up to Mary in her great window, and has felt actual certainty, as though she saw with her own eyes–there, in heaven, while she looked–her own lost baby playing with the Christ-Child at the Virgin’s knee, as much at home as the saints, and much more at home than the kings. The earth, she says, is a sorry place, and the best of it is bad enough, no doubt . . . but there above is Mary in heaven who sees and hears me as I see her, and who keeps my little boy till I come; so I can wait with patience, more or less! Saints and prophets and martyrs are all very well, and Christ is very sublime and just, but Mary knows!”

The physical descriptions of Chartres are excellent, and with the Internet easy to view along with modern images. Without some images, it’s hard to follow the details of the art description, though. Adams’s discussion is only partially travelogue–a discussion of any particular stained glass window, for example, is the occasion of a discourse on French royal politics of the time, and, in some cases, how that affected the window itself.

What all this meant to a modern of Adams’s time, or means to a modern of our time, probably varies by reader. Adams clearly thought we had lost much, and a thinking reader probably endorses that, and thinks it even more so now, for all that we have gained much since 1300 and since 1905. Those with a Whig view of history think that history is continual progress from worse to better, and what is left behind is justly left behind, but perhaps past is prologue, and a time will come when Western society once again unites behind a transcendent idea and produces art and thought for the ages, as Adams demonstrates convincingly this society did.

The remainder of the book is a more obscure discussion of poetry of the time, including Adams’s translations (only in most cases, though, in case you don’t know Latin or medieval French!), as well as discussion of various key Churchmen of the age (Abelard and his opponents like William of Champeaux; St. Francis; Bernard of Clairvaux), and their arguments and consequences (realism as a descent to pantheism; nominalism as the road to doubt). This is probably, as Lincoln apocryphally said, “for people who like that sort of thing, just about the sort of thing they’d like.” It is fantastically well written, but it is probably not the type of thing that compels most people.

All this may make the book sound like a hard read. But Adams writes extremely well and the book flows; it is not a slog, and it is well worth reading, regardless of your approach to history, philosophy, or religion.

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Published in Architecture & Building Biography & Autobiography Book Reviews Charles Christian History European History Medieval History

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