On Reading Henry Adams

Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, by Henry Adams, is the most moving book I've ever read. Similar experiences with other media include the Ken Burns Baseball series, which required a box of Kleenex to be available for the first few hundred times I watched the series; hearing Eva Cassidy sing "You Take My Breath Away"; listening to the first act of Madama Butterfly, especially before I learned that the parts I thought were so sad are actually the only happy moments in the goddamn opera; and watching David Lynch's "Fire Walk with Me," after which I was so numb that I remember thinking as I drove home that if I swerved into oncoming traffic and died a mangled and horrid death, I wouldn't feel a thing.

Not being religious and certainly not versed in anything architectural, I only read this book because the copy of The Education of Henry Adams that I read—decades after recommendations from people I admire—is from The Library of America volume that includes Education, Chartres, and two novels, and it was so impressive that I resolved to read everything he published, much as I had resolved to buy all Steve Goodman's records after failing to attend the only concert by him I would ever have the opportunity to witness. I achieved the Goodman goal a few years ago, and it was time for a new one. Adams' historical masterpiece—History of the United States...—required two more Library of America volumes, and I was floating in ether after finishing those.

Although later prepared and amended for publication, he didn't write Chartres for "the world." I suspect it was a personal project for a man who had discovered much earlier than I that writing stuff helps you understand what's going on in your mind, a notoriously undisciplined medium. And, really, he needed any readers to feel, and he knew that the right words in the right order can generate feeling.

What he wanted readers to feel was how it felt to be a twelfth-century peasant visiting Chartres, a cathedral they might well have helped to build. An abbot of the time witnessed a thousand such people harnessing themselves to a cart large and strong enough to hold the blocks of granite quarried five miles away, and tow it to the building site. If they had done so because overseers, whips in hand, were making them do so, then this book would not exist. What Adams knew was that those people participated in that project because the Virgin had asked them to.

The Virgin is a problem for the Church, now understood to mean the Catholic Church. Until the fifteenth century, there was only one Church (for all intents and purposes). She is mentioned little in what is currently considered The Bible, but earlier versions of the Bible made a big deal of her, and the peasants (and everyone else of the time) knew that she had even been made Queen of Heaven. Jesus as a little baby certainly presented a human attraction to the religion we call Christianity, but to the people of earlier centuries, the existence of his mother was probably more important. If you have a baby, then you have a mother, and the mother must take care of the baby until it can act on its own. In the politics of the time, this was known as being a regent—acting in the name of the rightful ruler.

The Virgin became an object of veneration by these early Christians, and at Chartres she asked the people of the area to build her a shrine, not for herself—she doesn't need it—but for the people themselves, a place to worship. They complied.

Adams begins his book with a look at Mont Saint Michel, a religious facility honoring Saint Michael, a war-like and very masculine figure. After a decent look at Mont St Michel, we move to Chartres, a distinctly feminine structure that reflects Mary's existence and tastes—surrounded by artifacts of the secular life of the time and place.

Adams joins me in being Christian only in the culture of my country, so his interest in the Virgin should be as little as mine. A teacher in a Philosophy of Religion class once told us that you can never know anything about the subject of a religion, you can only believe. Belief is what all this is founded on, and belief is much easier to understand than knowledge. The people who built Chartres believed in the Virgin, and to understand how they might have felt being in her church, Adams has to guide us. He does it with his descriptions of its architecture but also with reference to both other facilities of the time and also to the history of the period.

Although greatly impressed upon reading this book, I knew that few people today would be willing to read it. Clay Shirky has written, in reaction to a discussion about the Internet ruining reading, that long before the Internet there was television. And that argument could add the earlier radio. We're so used to all these sources of stimulation that I shudder when I think of life even as Henry Adams knew it—he died in 1918. Adams' book on Chartres isn't really there to tell us anything, it is to help us feel something, and he uses a lot of words to attempt this. My hope was to re-read the book and compile a set of excerpts that illustrate what I see in it. As I did so, I realized that today there are many materials that can help a modern reader get more from the book than just what the words can achieve. For example, photographs of all the things in Chartres that Adams describes exist via the Internet, and a digital reader of the book might be helped by experiencing these non-literate appeals to other senses.

Even so, I want to present a collection of excerpts from the book that engender some of the power I felt in the book. If these intrigue you enough to read the book, great. If not, perhaps they can stand alone.

Excerpts from Mont Saint Michel and Chartres

Saint Michael held a place of his own in heaven and on earth that seems, in the eleventh century, to leave hardly room for the Virgin of the Crypt at Chartres...The Archangel stands for Church and State, and both militant.

The man who wanders into the twelfth century is lost, unless he can grow prematurely young.

...one can even travel [to the twelfth century] and see the children sporting on the shore. Our sense is partially atrophied from disuse, but it is still alive, at least in old people, who alone...have the time to be young.

Among the unexpected revelations of human nature that suddenly astonish historians, one of the least reasonable was the passionate outbreak of religious devotion to the ideal of feminine grace, charity and love that took place here in Normandy while it was still a part of the English kingdom, and flamed up into almost fanatical frenzy among the most hard-hearted and hard-headed race in Europe.

...we have set out to go from Mont Saint Michel to Chartres in three centuries, the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth, trying to get, on the way, not technical knowledge; not accurate information; not correct views either on history, art, or religion; not anything that can possibly be useful or instructive; but only a sense of what those centuries had to say, and a sympathy with their ways of saying it.

The Church at Chartres belonged not to the people, not to the priesthood, and not even to Rome; it belonged to the Virgin.

Unless we feel this assertion of divine right in the Queen of Heaven...Chartres is unintelligible.

In correct theology, the Virgin ought not to be represented in bed, for she could not suffer like ordinary women, but her palace at Chartres is not much troubled by theology, and to her, as empress-mother, the pain of child-birth was a pleasure that she wanted her people to share. The Virgin of Chartres was the greatest of all Queens, but she was also the most womanly of women, as we shall see; and her double character is sustained throughout her palace.

We begin with the north porch because it belonged to the Virgin; and it belonged to the Virgin because the north was cold, bleak, sunless, windy, and needed warmth, peace, affection and power to protect against the assaults of Satan and his swarming devils. There the all-suffering, but the all-powerful, Mother, received other mothers who suffered like her, but who, as a rule, were not powerful. Traditionally in the primitive church, the northern porch belonged to the women. When they needed help, they came here, because it was the only place in this world or in any other where they had much hope of finding even a reception. See how Mary received them!

...the worship of the Virgin never was strictly orthodox; but Chartres was hers before it ever belonged to the Church.

The glory of Mary was not one of terror, and her Porch contains no appeal to any emotion but those of her perfect grace... she is Queen Mother...too high to want, or suffer, or to revenge, or to aspire, but not too high to pity, to punish or to pardon. The women went to her Porch for help as naturally as babies to their mother; and the men, in her presence, fell on their knees because they feared her intelligence and her anger.

The Virgin even had the additional charm to the public that she was popularly supposed to have no very marked fancy for priests as such; she was a Queen, a Woman, and a Mother, functions, all, that priests could not perform.

Chartres represents not the Trinity but the identity of the Mother and Son.

Never in all these seven hundred years has one of us looked up at this Rose without feeling it to be Our Lady’s promise of Paradise.

Christ the Trinity might judge as much as he pleased, but Christ the Mother would rescue; and her servants could look boldly into the flames.

The Virgin is not afraid. She has seen many troubles worse than this; she knows how to manage perverse children, and if necessary she will shut them up in a darker room than ever their mothers kept open for them in this world. One has only to look at the Virgin to see!

...the sermon of Chartres, from beginning to end, teaches and preaches and insists and reiterates and hammers into our torpid minds the moral that the art of the Virgin was not that of her artists but her own. We inevitably think of our tastes; they thought instinctively of hers.

The Virgin will wait; she will not be angry; she knows her power; we all come back to her in the end.

Compiled January 2021