Mont Saint Michel and Chartres

Book Review
Title: Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres
Author: Henry Adams
Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (June 3, 1986). Originally published 1904.

Henry Adams toured French mediæval gothic architecture, and apparently took a lot of notes, focusing on the Grande Cathedrals of Mont-Saint-Michel (built in the 1100s) and Chartres (built in the late 1100s to 1200s). The notes became the book. If that were the extent of the book, however, it could be summed with a few nice photos and captions. But there’s also 360 pages of mystery and fascination surrounding the architecture. Most of the book is Adams’ observations on the culture surrounding the buildings, moreso than on the buildings themselves. Adams takes us on a gothic travelogue through the intrigues of mediæval royal families of France, clashes in the cloisters of church hierarchy, power struggles in church and court, dark-age philosophers and poets telling stories captured in sparkling gothic stained-glass perfection.

Reminiscent of Melville’s long chapters on the anatomy of the whale, there are long detailed descriptions of the elements of the cathedral. Wading through that pays off. The stories told literally and figuratively in the massive stained glass paintings, in themselves and in their relation to other architectural features, represent the heart and soul of people’s faith, fears, allegiances, loves, hates, and pivotal events of the time.

So many fascinating stories and events converge in the 1100s and 1200s: the Golden Legend; the founding of Orders; the Chanson de Roland as metaphor for Mont-Saint-Michel, or vice versa; the intellectual romance of Abélard and Héloïse, Christian of Troyes retelling the age-old story of Tristan and Iseult (originating from a pre-Islamic Persian story); the famous invention and flowering of “Courteous Love” and how it is epitomized in the chantefable Aucassins et Nicolette; the real-life romances of Thibaut and Blanche of Castille; the backdrop of the Crusades; the touching familial closeness of Richard Cœur de Lion and Mary of Champagne; the Magna Charta and the Zodiac Window; the scholastic vs. mystic battles of theology between Abélard and Bernard of Clairvaux; inquiries into universals of geometry and syllogisms, and unity versus multiplicity; the controversy of the two Popes and its effects on people’s careers. The book closes out the 1200s with Thomas Aquinas’ rise from “dumb ox” to Summa Theologica—building his Church Intellectual to complement the Church Architectural—a “gothic Cathedral to the Trinity” (329). As Adams puts it, “His sense of scale and proportion was that of the great architects of his age” (354, 355). For culture, science, and art, the equilibrium of the universe rested on the delicate balance of the flying buttresses.

To most people, the above references have little meaning, if any. But if you read this book, they will have a lot of meaning and enrich your experience. The broad brushstrokes across history, occasionally filled in with colorful detail, renewed my interest in the period. So after finishing the book, I searched on key people and events and found additional fascinating bits of historical intrigue. The book covers so much of the culture, arts, science, philosophy, politics, and social aspects of the period, it’s a great reference point for further investigation. I’ve been enjoying classics of history and literature since I became a literature major in the late 1970s. Since the late 1990s, the Internet has added this new way of enjoying them even more: read a Classic, then search the Internet for “bonus features” in as many different directions as you like.

After Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904), Henry Adams wrote The Education of Henry Adams (1907), loosely considered a sequel. I just started it, and it looks like it will be as good or better.

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