Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres
Henry Adams was the grandson of President John Quincy Adams. He became the preeminent American historian of his day and was friends with some of America’s most distinguished men: Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt’s great Secretary of State John Hay. Adams and Hay shared a home across the park from the White House, designed by the great Henry Richardson. Adams had been personal secretary to his father, the US Ambassador to Great Britain, at the same time that Hay had been Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary during the Civil War. On retirement Adams wrote his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, which posthumously won a Pulitzer Prize in 1919. Many have named it the best American book of the twentieth century. During the later years of his retirement, Adams also wrote and self-published one hundred copies of Mont-Saint- Michel and Chartres, intended as a gift to his friends. The American Institute of Architecture prevailed upon him to be allowed to publish it for the public. In print ever since, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres has become an American classic.
In Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres Henry Adams is visiting the sites of High Medieval France with an imaginary niece, giving her the benefit of his learning and his love for that culture and its remaining artifacts: cathedrals, statues, stained glass, and poetry. Fair warning: He leaves much French poetry for his niece (readers) to translate as they will, but Adams himself translates more than enough so that his readers do not become discouraged. We start at the island fastness of the abbey of Saint Michel, built during the eleventh century by Normans on the command of the Archangel Michael himself, just before the bloody Norman Conquest of England. The Normans were among the most ruthless, masculine, and militaristic societies known to us and Mont-St-Michel was their shrine. By Adams’ art we attend a dinner at Mont-St-Michel in the year 1058, attended by Duke William the Bastard and his retinue, which included the hostage Harold, future king of England, who was to be slaughtered along with his army at Hasting only eight years later. At the dinner "The Song of Roland" is sung by a famous minstrel, bringing the hard men to tears as he sings of Roland’s righteous death in battle, a fate that came to nearly all in attendance.
All of this is in preparation for the true purpose of the Mont-St-Michel. Adams takes us to Notre Dame de Chartres, Our Lady of Chartres, built by the Lady’s command and to her tastes. In less than one hundred years France, Norman France, and Norman England have been transformed by their devotion to Mary, resulting in one of the most splendid outpouring of art, architecture, and literature in human history, known then as the “new” but to us by its later name, “gothic.” Adams wants his reader to see Chartres with our hearts as its builders felt about the great shrine. We become peasants and nobles, singing together their love of Mary as they drag huge stones weary miles from the quarries to the cathedral. We experience the victorious struggles of the great queens who dominated the French High Middle Ages: Eleanor of Aquitaine, her daughter Mary of Champaign, and Eleanor’s granddaughter, Blanche of Castile. We feel the courtly love of the era and wonder at the bitter scholastic conflicts of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Abelard about the nature of the Holy Trinity. Most importantly, through stories from the French Marian literature of the era, we come to understand Mary, their Mary, the Queen Mother who ruled and who appeared to them and loved the sinner, but jealously, brooking no worldly rivals.
Mont-St-Michel and Chartres is a gift to the serious reader and a travelogue of sorts for the serious tourist. But, with the Internet, we do not need to have visited the primary tourist destinations of Gothic France to enjoy Adams’ writing. Images of the many sites he mentioned are readily available online, as are the biographies of historical personages he occasionally neglects to introduce. Adams is good company, who engages the reader with a wry wit and a ready hope that we readers will come to love his subject, the French High Middle Ages.
Reading Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres we can’t help but love them as we have visited them in our imaginations with one of the grand old men of American letters.