Henry Adams, “Mont Saint Michel”

From the context of modernity, science and reason, the medieval period strikes us as the exact opposite.  Rather than driven by reason, people of the middle ages embraced superstitions.  Instead of investing wealth in industry and “progress,” they invested massive wealth in cathedrals, castles, and a religious hierarchy.  They uplifted science over philosophy.  In Mont Saint Michel and Charters, Adams makes these distinctions.  It is less of a history of the architecture and philosophy of the Middle Ages and more of a nostalgic sigh, reminding people in the early 20th century of how people thought and created in the 13th century.  Through it all is not only do we not understand the medieval period, but that we have lost a perspective of value and richness.

Adams’ poem “Prayer to the Virign of Chartes” sums up this theme of lost and modernity’s tendency to reject the old as not only dated, but on some level worthless. “For centuries I brought you all my cares, and vexed you with the murmurs of a child; you heard the tedious burden of my prayers; you could not grant them, but at least you smiled!  If then I left you, it was not my crime, or if a crime, it was not mine alone.  All children wander with the truant Time.” (1202)  Throughout Mont Saint Michel, “The Virgin” is a symbol of the medieval perspective on life.


This is contrasted in his poetry (and later in The Education of Henry Adams) with the “dynamo.”  While the Virgin is known to be forgiving and kind the dynamo is morally opaque.  “We know not whether you are kind, or cruel in your fiercer mood; but be you Matter, be you Mind, We think we know that you are blind, and we alone are good.”  Despite this, the Virgin is a mystery and a riddle, but the spirit of the dynamo demands knowledge of all.  No mystery can be unrevealed.  “Seize, then, the Atom! rack his joints! Tera out of him his secret spring! Grind him to nothing!–though he points to use, and his life-blood anoints me–the dead Atom-King!” (1204-1205)  Adams sees a danger in a science that will reveal all.  “The man who solves the Infinite, and needs the force of solar systems for his play, will not need me, nor greatly care what deeds made me illustrious in the dawn of day.” (1205-1206)  Mont Saint Michel develops these themes by trying to get into the head of the people of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries.

Mont Saint Michel

Mont Saint Michel

He looks across the middle ages broadly, but focuses on a few issues such as the massive investment in time, energy, and money in the building of great cathedrals such as the one in Chartes, the prominent role of women – such as the Eleanor or Heloise, folklore and legends, and philosophy.  In every area he finds a world directly opposed to ours, which is why this is not strictly a travelogue of a tour of medieval French sites, or a history.  On the grandeur and apparent waste of a cathedral, Adams writes.  “One has grown so used to this sort of loose comparison, this reckless waste of words, that one no longer adopts an idea, unless it is driven in with hammers of statistics and columns of facts.” (425)  When dealing with architecture, Adams is fascinated by the investment involved in these structures.  A capitalist would never make such investments.  Even the hope of Heaven, these investments would be a risk.  “One may be sure, too, that the bourgeois capitalist and the student of the schools, each from his own point of view, watched the Virgin with anxious interest.  The bourgeois had put an enormous share of his captain into what was in fact an economical speculation, not unlike the South Sea Scheme, or hte railway system of our won time; except that in one case the energy was devoted to shorting the road to Heaven; in the other, to shortening the road to Paris.”  (431)  Of course, we know that no capitalist today would make such an investment without the promise of a return.  This is summed up later in the work.  “Society had staked its existence, in this world and the next, on the reality and power of the Virgin; it had invested in her care nearly its whole capital, spiritual, artistic, intellectual and economical, even to the bulk of its real and personal estate; and her overthrow would have been the most appalling disaster the western world had ever known.” (576)  From the perspective of the modern world, Aquinas is not less awe-inspiring than the cathedrals as it reflects the same investment into the spirit that modern capital invests in “technological progress.” In the chapter on Aquinas, Adams constructs his view of God with the dynamo, his representation of 19th century progress.  But the difference is great: in one the created is trying to understand the creator.  In the dynamo, the creator lamely watches progress unfold.


I am not entirely convinced that the Middle Ages has much to teach us.  Adams, of course, ignores the exploitation of working people that stood at the foundation of medieval society and the creation of the Cathedrals.  For Adams, each Cathedral was the collective work of religious artisans, and not masons taking a job to support a family – or worse, deluded masses manipulated in producing palaces for the elite.  I do not know which is true, but I for one find little desire to return to 13th century France.  I am reminded that we need to keep on the lookout for alternatives.  If William James is correct, we cannot imagine outside of our experience and history.  If the Middle Ages can show us a world where women commanded political authority, where people were not slaves to capitalist logic, where the solving of mysteries produced as much respect as the investing of wealth, and where stories of heroes and poetry and craftsmanship and art produced wounder, then I am not opposed to opening a door to that world and time.  Perhaps we need a bit more wonder and mystery if we are to escape the enforced boredom of late capitalism.

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