August 05, 2022

#08-229: Mont Saint Michel and Chartres

Mont Saint Michel

Note: The historian Henry Adams uses two tourist destinations in France as a "hook" to discuss the Middle Ages in a beautiful little book.

Get Ready: What do you know of the art and architecture of the European Middle Ages? What are its main themes?

In his small book Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, the American historian Henry Brooks Adams sets out to give "a sense of what those centuries"--the 11th, 12th, and 13th in medieval France--"had to say, and a sympathy with their ways of saying it."

The book is more than merely a report on these two prominent French destinations. Adams spreads out to discuss disparate but related subjects: the French national epic The Song of Roland, about a military campaign (because Saint Michael, to whom Mont Saint Michel is dedicated, was depicted as a soldier with a sword); the scholar/monks Peter Abelard and St. Thomas Aquinas; and such Christian mystics as Adam of St. Victor and St. Francis of Assisi. Adams considers the physical structures at the heart of the book to be outward expressions of the thoughts and spirituality of men like these.

To get a feeling for Adams's approach and style, let's read a few of the first lines of the book:

Describing the highest point of the church of Saint Michel:

"The Archangel loved heights. Standing on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot, Saint Michael held a place of his own in heaven and on earth..."

As a result of the Archangel's presence, Adams says,

"[S]oldiers, nobles, and monarchs went on pilgrimage to his shrine; so the common people followed, and still follow, like ourselves."

On the visitor's arrival in front of the church:

"The church stands high on the summit of this granite rock, and on its west front is the platform…" From the edge of this, "the eye plunges down, two hundred and thirty-five feet, to the wide sands or the wider ocean, as the tides recede or advance, under an infinite sky, over a restless sea…"

But then:

"...when we turn from the western view, and look at the church door, thirty or forty yards from the parapet where we stand, one needs to be eight centuries old to know what this mass of encrusted architecture meant to its builders, and even then one must still learn to feel it."

The book is a magnificent experience, worth a slow reading.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. cock
  2. disparate
  3. encrusted
  4. medieval
  5. parapet
  6. perched
  7. plunges
  8. recede
  9. summit
  10. vigilance

  1. move back
  2. placed carefully
  3. covered with a hard layer
  4. goes down steeply
  5. of the Middle Ages
  6. keeping careful watch
  7. the highest point; peak
  8. a low protective wall
  9. a rooster; male chicken
  10. entirely different

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for August 5, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. i; 2. j; 3. c; 4. e; 5. h; 6. b; 7. d; 8. a; 9. g; 10. f