The cover photo gives, as much as is possible, some idea of what is inside this most extraordinary of books. Look at it carefully. Rising from surrounding water a ziggurat of stone rendered into yearning patterns of ascent points to the overarching sky. It is a medieval rocket to heaven, a union of all the different worlds, a place that, seeing it, grabs the breath and awes the eye. The French refer to part of it as ‘La Merveille’ but it is all a marvel, almost impossible to comprehend. That the men of the eleventh century were able to make such a place seems scarcely credible, and yet they did, raising a work greater than any of the wonders of antiquity. Although the medievals revered the classical past, in truth they outdid it in what they built, in stone and thought and culture.
This book, faced with such marvels, answers with its own, for it is, without doubt, one of the three or four most extraordinary books I have ever read. The author, Henry Adams, was the great grandson of John Adams, the second president of the United States; his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth president; his father, Charles Francis Adams, was US ambassador to Britain during the American Civil War. So, not much to live up to there then!
What must it be like to grow up in such a milieu? Henry Adams went on to become a historian and journalist, but in terms of obvious accomplishment, he did not match his forbears. Yet he wrote two books, The Education of Henry Adams and this volume, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, that rank as classics, although each are strange members of that class of literature. The Education is an autobiography, of sorts, while Mont Saint Michel is ostensibly a travel guide. But when I was working as a travel writer for publishers such as Time Out, I’d have had my copy spiked if I’d submitted anything like Mont Saint Michel (oh, if only I could write so well!). Perhaps the best comparison, in terms of style, is John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, although that would not be obvious from the playful preface, where Adams dedicates this book to ‘nieces in wish’, willing to read the musings of an uncle on the strange and distant land of France and the stranger and more distant lands of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Adams, with a mix of erudition and wit (he assumes his reader is fluent in French, Latin and reasonably conversant in Greek), leads his niece in wish upwards through Mont St Michel, ascending it in thought and learning, placing it within the compass of the society and times that created it and, in doing so, he does something that I would have thought impossible: despite being something of an Anglo-Saxonist, he makes me appreciate the Normans. Then, by way of the birth of Gothic, Adams takes the visitor to the pinnacle of Gothic architecture, Chartres Cathedral, and sings the hymn of its inspiration and, in truth, its maker, the Virgin herself. No where else have I read such an intense and lived encounter with the medieval mind, such an appreciation of its peculiar and particular genius.
Yet, it was an appreciation born in a nihilism that, occasionally, shatters the stained glass and leaves the reader face to face with the dark cold at the heart of Adams’ world.
It was very childlike, very foolish, very beautiful, and very true,- -as art, at least:—so true that everything else shades off into vulgarity… For seven hundred years Chartres has seen pilgrims, coming and going more or less like us, and will perhaps see them for another seven hundred years; but we shall see it no more, and can safely leave the Virgin in her majesty, with her three great prophets on either hand, as calm and confident in their own strength and in God’s providence as they were when Saint Louis was born, but looking down from a deserted heaven, into an empty church, on a dead faith.
Few saints have seen as clearly into the mystery of Chartres and Mont St Michel as Adams, yet he sees it all as shadow play, and a play of shadows, the footlings of earnest and talented children before they shuffle into the dark.
It is a bleak vision.
But it only breaks through briefly and, for most of the book, Adams is content to walk in the vivid colours of the medieval, letting its bright, primary colours light his prose.
There are other points where the book comes to a juddering, jarring halt, however, and this is wherever Adams mentions Jews. He was, to put it simply, an anti-semite, and on paper at least a vicious one. Reading him, as complete a product of civilised 19th-century culture as one could wish to find, it becomes a little clearer how the 20th century could produce the Holocaust.
For some, these sudden eruptions of nihilism and hatred into this most civilised and civilising of texts might serve to render it beyond reading, and I would have no objections to that. But they are part of what makes this book extraordinary, for they serve to help to define how precious and rare a man of truly civilised culture is, and how even the best of these may be distorted by the culture they embody. This book is a 19th-century understanding of the High Middle Ages and it enlightens the modern reader about both in a way no other book I’ve ever read does. Do read it.