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Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres
By Henry Adams
With an introduction by Ralph Adams Cram
From the moment when, through the courtesy of my friend Barrett
Wendell, I came first to know Mr. Henry Adams's book, Mont-Saint-
Michel and Chartres, I was profoundly convinced that this privately
printed, jealously guarded volume should be withdrawn from its
hiding-place amongst the bibliographical treasures of collectors and
amateurs and given that wide publicity demanded alike by its
intrinsic nature and the cause it could so admirably serve.
To say that the book was a revelation is inadequately to express a
fact; at once all the theology, philosophy, and mysticism, the
politics, sociology, and economics, the romance, literature, and art
of that greatest epoch of Christian civilization became fused in the
alembic of an unique insight and precipitated by the dynamic force
of a personal and distinguished style. A judgment that might well
have been biased by personal inclination received the endorsement of
many in two continents, more competent to pass judgment, better able
to speak with authority; and so fortified, I had the honour of
saying to Mr. Adams, in the autumn of 1912, that the American
Institute of Architects asked the distinguished privilege of
arranging for the publication of an edition for general sale, under
its own imprimatur. The result is the volume now made available for
In justice to Mr. Adams, it should be said that such publication is,
in his opinion, unnecessary and uncalled-for, a conclusion in which
neither the American Institute of Architects, the publishers, nor
the Editor concurs. Furthermore, the form in which the book is
presented is no affair of the author, who, in giving reluctant
consent to publication, expressly stipulated that he should have no
part or parcel in carrying out so mad a venture of faith,--as he
estimated the project of giving his book to the public.
In this, and for once, his judgment is at fault. Mont-Saint-Michel
and Chartres is one of the most distinguished contributions to
literature and one of the most valuable adjuncts to the study of
mediaevalism America thus far has produced. The rediscovery of this
great epoch of Christian civilization has had issue in many and
valuable works on its religion, its philosophy, its economics, its
politics, and its art, but in nearly every instance, whichever field
has been traversed has been considered almost as an isolated
phenomenon, with insufficient reference to the other aspects of an
era that was singularly united and at one with itself. Hugh of Saint
Victor and Saint Thomas Aquinas are fully comprehensible only in
their relationship to Saint Anselm, Saint Bernard, and the
development of Catholic dogma and life; feudalism, the crusades, the
guilds and communes weave themselves into this same religious
development and into the vicissitudes of crescent nationalities;
Dante, the cathedral builders, the painters, sculptors, and music
masters, all are closely knit into the warp and woof of philosophy,
statecraft, economics, and religious devotion;--indeed, it may be
said that the Middle Ages, more than any other recorded epoch of
history, must be considered en bloc, as a period of consistent unity
as highly emphasized as was its dynamic force.
It is unnecessary to say that Mr. Adams deals with the art of the
Middle Ages after this fashion: he is not of those who would
determine every element in art from its material antecedents. He
realizes very fully that its essential element, the thing that
differentiates it from the art that preceded and that which
followed, is its spiritual impulse; the manifestation may have been,
and probably was, more or less accidental, but that which makes
Chartres Cathedral and its glass, the sculptures of Rheims, the Dies
Irae, Aucassin and Nicolette, the Song of Roland, the Arthurian
Legends, great art and unique, is neither their technical mastery
nor their fidelity to the enduring laws of all great art,--though
these are singular in their perfection,--but rather the peculiar
spiritual impulse which informed the time, and by its intensity, its
penetrating power, and its dynamic force wrought a rounded and
complete civilization and manifested this through a thousand varied
Greater, perhaps, even than his grasp of the singular entirety of
mediaeval civilization, is Mr. Adams's power of merging himself in a
long dead time, of thinking and feeling with the men and women
thereof, and so breathing on the dead bones of antiquity that again
they clothe themselves with flesh and vesture, call back their
severed souls, and live again, not only to the consciousness of the
reader, but before his very eyes. And it is not a thin simulacrum he
raises by some doubtful alchemy: it is no phantasm of the past that
shines dimly before us in these magical pages; it is the very time
itself in which we are merged. We forgather with the Abbot and his
monks, and the crusaders and pilgrims in the Shrine of the
Archangel: we pay our devoirs to the fair French Queens,--Blanche of
Castile, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mary of Champagne,--fighting their
battles for them as liege servants: we dispute with Abelard, Thomas
of Aquino, Duns the Scotsman: we take our parts in the Court of
Love, or sing the sublime and sounding praises of God with the
Canons of Saint Victor: our eyes opened at last, and after many days
we kneel before Our Lady of Pity, asking her intercession for her
lax but loyal devotees. Seven centuries dissolve and vanish away,
being as they were not, and the thirteenth century lives less for us
than we live in it and are a part of its gaiety and light-
heartedness, its youthful ardour and abounding action, its childlike
simplicity and frankness, its normal and healthy and all-embracing
And it is well for us to have this experience. Apart from the
desirable transformation it effects in preconceived and curiously
erroneous superstitions as to one of the greatest eras in all
history, it is vastly heartening and exhilarating. If it gives new
and not always flattering standards for the judgment of contemporary
men and things, so does it establish new ideals, new goals for
attainment. To live for a day in a world that built Chartres
Cathedral, even if it makes the living in a world that creates the
"Black Country" of England or an Iron City of America less a thing
of joy and gladness than before, equally opens up the far prospect
of another thirteenth century in the times that are to come and
urges to ardent action toward its attainment.
But apart from this, the deepest value of Mont-Saint-Michel and
Chartres, its importance as a revelation of the eternal glory of
mediaeval art and the elements that brought it into being is not
lightly to be expressed. To every artist, whatever his chosen form
of expression, it must appear unique and invaluable, and to none
more than the architect, who, familiar at last with its beauties,
its power, and its teaching force, can only applaud the action of
the American Institute of Architects in making Mr. Adams an Honorary
Member, as one who has rendered distinguished services to the art,
and voice his gratitude that it has brought the book within his
reach and given it publicity before the world.
Whitehall, Sudbury, Massachusetts, June, 1913.
I. SAINT MICHIEL DE LA MER DEL PERIL
II. LA CHANSON DE ROLAND
III. THE MERVEILLE
IV. NORMANDY AND THE ILE DE FRANCE
V. TOWERS AND PORTALS
VI. THE VIRGIN OF CHARTRES
VII. ROSES AND APSES
VIII. THE TWELFTH-CENTURY GLASS
IX. THE LEGENDARY WINDOWS
X. THE COURT OF THE QUEEN OF HEAVEN
XI. THE THREE QUEENS
XII. NICOLETTE AND MARION
XIII. LES MIRACLES DE NOTRE DAME
XV. THE MYSTICS
XVI. SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS
Some old Elizabethan play or poem contains the lines:--
. . . Who reads me, when I am ashes,
Is my son in wishes . . . . . . . . .
The relationship, between reader and writer, of son and father, may
have existed in Queen Elizabeth's time, but is much too close to be
true for ours. The utmost that any writer could hope of his readers
now is that they should consent to regard themselves as nephews, and
even then he would expect only a more or less civil refusal from
most of them. Indeed, if he had reached a certain age, he would have
observed that nephews, as a social class, no longer read at all, and
that there is only one familiar instance recorded of a nephew who
read his uncle. The exception tends rather to support the rule,
since it needed a Macaulay to produce, and two volumes to record it.
Finally, the metre does not permit it. One may not say: "Who reads
me, when I am ashes, is my nephew in wishes."
The same objections do not apply to the word "niece." The change
restores the verse, and, to a very great degree, the fact. Nieces
have been known to read in early youth, and in some cases may have
read their uncles. The relationship, too, is convenient and easy,
capable of being anything or nothing, at the will of either party,
like a Mohammedan or Polynesian or American marriage. No valid
objection can be offered to this choice in the verse. Niece let it
The following lines, then, are written for nieces, or for those who
are willing, for those, to be nieces in wish. For convenience of
travel in France, where hotels, in out-of-the-way places, are
sometimes wanting in space as well as luxury, the nieces shall count
as one only. As many more may come as like, but one niece is enough
for the uncle to talk to, and one niece is much more likely than two
to listen. One niece is also more likely than two to carry a kodak
and take interest in it, since she has nothing else, except her
uncle, to interest her, and instances occur when she takes interest
neither in the uncle nor in the journey. One cannot assume, even in
a niece, too emotional a nature, but one may assume a kodak.
The party, then, with such variations of detail as may suit its
tastes, has sailed from New York, let us say, early in June for an
entire summer in France. One pleasant June morning it has landed at
Cherbourg or Havre and takes the train across Normandy to Pontorson,
where, with the evening light, the tourists drive along the
chaussee, over the sands or through the tide, till they stop at
Madame Poulard's famous hotel within the Gate of the Mount.
The uncle talks:--
SAINT MICHIEL DE LA MER DEL PERIL
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 which seems, in the eleventh century, to leave hardly
room for the Virgin of the Crypt at Chartres, still less for the
Beau Christ of the thirteenth century at Amiens. The Archangel
stands for Church and State, and both militant. He is the conqueror
of Satan, the mightiest of all created spirits, the nearest to God.
His place was where the danger was greatest; therefore you find him
here. For the same reason he was, while the pagan danger lasted, the
patron saint of France. So the Normans, when they were converted to
Christianity, put themselves under his powerful protection. So he
stood for centuries on his Mount in Peril of the Sea, watching
across the tremor of the immense ocean,-immensi tremor oceani,-as
Louis XI, inspired for once to poetry, inscribed on the collar of
the Order of Saint Michael which he created. So soldiers, nobles,
and monarchs went on pilgrimage to his shrine; so the common people
followed, and still follow, like ourselves.
The church stands high on the summit of this granite rock, and on
its west front is the platform, to which the tourist ought first to
climb. From the edge of this platform, 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, which even we tourists can understand and feel without
books or guides; but 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 man who wanders into the twelfth century
is lost, unless he can grow prematurely young.
One can do it, as one can play with children. Wordsworth, whose
practical sense equalled his intuitive genius, carefully limited us
to "a season of calm weather," which is certainly best; but granting
a fair frame of mind, one can still "have sight of that immortal
sea" which brought us hither from the twelfth century; one can even
travel thither 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, as a class, have the time to be young.
One needs only to be old enough in order to be as young as one will.
From the top of this Abbey Church one looks across the bay to
Avranches, and towards Coutances and the Cotentin,--the Constan-
tinus pagus,--whose shore, facing us, recalls the coast of New Eng-
land. The relation between the granite of one coast and that of the
other may be fanciful, but the relation between the people who live
on each is as hard and practical a fact as the granite itself. When
one enters the church, one notes first the four great triumphal
piers or columns, at the intersection of the nave and transepts, and
on looking into M. Corroyer's architectural study which is the chief
source of all one's acquaintance with the Mount, one learns that
these piers were constructed in 1058. Four out of five American
tourists will instantly recall the only date of mediaeval history
they ever knew, the date of the Norman Conquest. Eight years after
these piers were built, in 1066, Duke William of Normandy raised an
army of forty thousand men in these parts, and in northern France,
whom he took to England, where they mostly stayed. For a hundred and
fifty years, until 1204, Normandy and England were united; the
Norman peasant went freely to England with his lord, spiritual or
temporal; the Norman woman, a very capable person, followed her
husband or her parents; Normans held nearly all the English fiefs;
filled the English Church; crowded the English Court; created the
English law; and we know that French was still currently spoken in
England as late as 1400, or thereabouts, "After the scole of
Stratford atte bowe." The aristocratic Norman names still survive in
part, and if we look up their origin here we shall generally find
them in villages so remote and insignificant that their place can
hardly be found on any ordinary map; but the common people had no
surnames, and cannot be traced, although for every noble whose name
or blood survived in England or in Normandy, we must reckon hundreds
of peasants. Since the generation which followed William to England
in 1066, we can reckon twenty-eight or thirty from father to son,
and, if you care to figure up the sum, you will find that you had
about two hundred and fifty million arithmetical ancestors living in
the middle of the eleventh century. The whole population of England
and northern France may then have numbered five million, but if it
were fifty it would not much affect the certainty that, if you have
any English blood at all, you have also Norman. If we could go back
and live again in all our two hundred and fifty million arithmetical
ancestors of the eleventh century, we should find ourselves doing
many surprising things, but among the rest we should pretty
certainly be ploughing most of the fields of the Cotentin and
Calvados; going to mass in every parish church in Normandy;
rendering military service to every lord, spiritual or temporal, in
all this region; and helping to build the Abbey Church at Mont-
Saint-Michel. From the roof of the Cathedral of Coutances over
yonder, one may look away over the hills and woods, the farms and
fields of Normandy, and so familiar, so homelike are they, one can
almost take oath that in this, or the other, or in all, one knew
life once and has never so fully known it since.
Never so fully known it since! For we of the eleventh century, hard-
headed, close-fisted, grasping, shrewd, as we were, and as Normans
are still said to be, stood more fully in the centre of the world's
movement than our English descendants ever did. We were a part, and
a great part, of the Church, of France, and of Europe. The Leos and
Gregories of the tenth and eleventh centuries leaned on us in their
great struggle for reform. Our Duke Richard-Sans-Peur, in 966,
turned the old canons out of the Mount in order to bring here the
highest influence of the time, the Benedictine monks of Monte
Cassino. Richard II, grandfather of William the Conqueror, began
this Abbey Church in 1020, and helped Abbot Hildebert to build it.
When William the Conqueror in 1066 set out to conquer England, Pope
Alexander II stood behind him and blessed his banner. From that
moment our Norman Dukes cast the Kings of France into the shade. Our
activity was not limited to northern Europe, or even confined by
Anjou and Gascony. When we stop at Coutances, we will drive out to
Hauteville to see where Tancred came from, whose sons Robert and
Roger were conquering Naples and Sicily at the time when the Abbey
Church was building on the Mount. Normans were everywhere in 1066,
and everywhere in the lead of their age. We were a serious race. If
you want other proof of it, besides our record in war and in
politics, you have only to look at our art. Religious art is the
measure of human depth and sincerity; any triviality, any weakness,
cries aloud. If this church on the Mount is not proof enough of
Norman character, we will stop at Coutances for a wider view. Then
we will go to Caen and Bayeux. From there, it would almost be worth
our while to leap at once to Palermo. It was in the year 1131 or
thereabouts that Roger began the Cathedral at Cefalu and the Chapel
Royal at Palermo; it was about the year 1174 that his grandson
William began the Cathedral of Monreale. No art--either Greek or
Byzantine, Italian or Arab--has ever created two religious types so
beautiful, so serious, so impressive, and yet so different, as Mont-
Saint-Michel watching over its northern ocean, and Monreale, looking
down over its forests of orange and lemon, on Palermo and the
Down nearly to the end of the twelfth century the Norman was fairly
master of the world in architecture as in arms, although the
thirteenth century belonged to France, and we must look for its
glories on the Seine and Marne and Loire; but for the present we are
in the eleventh century,--tenants of the Duke or of the Church or of
small feudal lords who take their names from the neighbourhood,--
Beaumont, Carteret, Greville, Percy, Pierpont,--who, at the Duke's
bidding, will each call out his tenants, perhaps ten men-at-arms
with their attendants, to fight in Brittany, or in the Vexin toward
Paris, or on the great campaign for the conquest of England which is
to come within ten years,--the greatest military effort that has
been made in western Europe since Charlemagne and Roland were
defeated at Roncesvalles three hundred years ago. For the moment, we
are helping to quarry granite for the Abbey Church, and to haul it
to the Mount, or load it on our boat. We never fail to make our
annual pilgrimage to the Mount on the Archangel's Day, October 16.
We expect to be called out for a new campaign which Duke William
threatens against Brittany, and we hear stories that Harold the
Saxon, the powerful Earl of Wessex in England, is a guest, or, as
some say, a prisoner or a hostage, at the Duke's Court, and will go
with us on the campaign. The year is 1058.
All this time we have been standing on the parvis, looking out over
the sea and sands which are as good eleventh-century landscape as
they ever were; or turning at times towards the church door which is
the pons seclorum, the bridge of ages, between us and our ancestors.
Now that we have made an attempt, such as it is, to get our minds
into a condition to cross the bridge without breaking down in the
effort, we enter the church and stand face to face with eleventh-
century architecture; a ground-plan which dates from 1020; a central
tower, or its piers, dating from 1058; and a church completed in
1135. France can offer few buildings of this importance equally old,
with dates so exact. Perhaps the closest parallel to Mont-Saint-
Michel is Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire, above Orleans, which seems to have
been a shrine almost as popular as the Mount, at the same time.
Chartres was also a famous shrine, but of the Virgin, and the west
porch of Chartres, which is to be our peculiar pilgrimage, was a
hundred years later than the ground-plan of Mont-Saint-Michel,
although Chartres porch is the usual starting-point of northern
French art. Queen Matilda's Abbaye-aux-Dames, now the Church of the
Trinity, at Caen, dates from 1066. Saint Sernin at Toulouse, the
porch of the Abbey Church at Moissac, Notre-Dame-du-Port at
Clermont, the Abbey Church at Vezelay, are all said to be twelfth-
century. Even San Marco at Venice was new in 1020.
Yet in 1020 Norman art was already too ambitious. Certainly nine
hundred years leave their traces on granite as well as on other
material, but the granite of Abbot Hildebert would have stood
securely enough, if the Abbot had not asked too much from it.
Perhaps he asked too much from the Archangel, for the thought of the
Archangel's superiority was clearly the inspiration of his plan. The
apex of the granite rock rose like a sugar-loaf two hundred and
forty feet (73.6 metres) above mean sea-level. Instead of cutting
the summit away to give his church a secure rock foundation, which
would have sacrificed about thirty feet of height, the Abbot took
the apex of the rock for his level, and on all sides built out
foundations of masonry to support the walls of his church. The apex
of the rock is the floor of the croisee, the intersection of nave
and transept. On this solid foundation the Abbot rested the chief
weight of the church, which was the central tower, supported by the
four great piers which still stand; but from the croisee in the
centre westward to the parapet of the platform, the Abbot filled the
whole space with masonry, and his successors built out still
farther, until some two hundred feet of stonework ends now in a
perpendicular wall of eighty feet or more. In this space are several
ranges of chambers, but the structure might perhaps have proved
strong enough to support the light Romanesque front which was usual
in the eleventh century, had not fashions in architecture changed in
the great epoch of building, a hundred and fifty years later, when
Abbot Robert de Torigny thought proper to reconstruct the west
front, and build out two towers on its flanks. The towers were no
doubt beautiful, if one may judge from the towers of Bayeux and
Coutances, but their weight broke down the vaulting beneath, and one
of them fell in 1300. In 1618 the whole facade began to give way,
and in 1776 not only the facade but also three of the seven spans of
the nave were pulled down. Of Abbot Hildebert's nave, only four
Still, the overmastering strength of the eleventh century is stamped
on a great scale here, not only in the four spans of the nave, and
in the transepts, but chiefly in the triumphal columns of the
croisee. No one is likely to forget what Norman architecture was,
who takes the trouble to pass once through this fragment of its
earliest bloom. The dimensions are not great, though greater than
safe construction warranted. Abbot Hildebert's whole church did not
exceed two hundred and thirty feet in length in the interior, and
the span of the triumphal arch was only about twenty-three feet, if
the books can be trusted. The nave of the Abbaye-aux-Dames appears
to have about the same width, and probably neither of them was meant
to be vaulted. The roof was of timber, and about sixty-three feet
high at its apex. Compared with the great churches of the thirteenth
century, this building is modest, but its size is not what matters
to us. Its style is the starting-point of all our future travels.
Here is your first eleventh-century church! How does it affect you?
Serious and simple to excess! is it not? Young people rarely enjoy
it. They prefer the Gothic, even as you see it here, looking at us
from the choir, through the great Norman arch. No doubt they are
right, since they are young: but men and women who have lived long
and are tired,--who want rest,--who have done with aspirations and
ambition,--whose life has been a broken arch,--feel this repose and
self-restraint as they feel nothing else. The quiet strength of
these curved lines, the solid support of these heavy columns, the
moderate proportions, even the modified lights, the absence of
display, of effort, of self-consciousness, satisfy them as no other
art does. They come back to it to rest, after a long circle of
pilgrimage,--the cradle of rest from which their ancestors started.
Even here they find the repose none too deep.
Indeed, when you look longer at it, you begin to doubt whether there
is any repose in it at all,--whether it is not the most unreposeful
thought ever put into architectural form. Perched on the extreme
point of this abrupt rock, the Church Militant with its aspirant
Archangel stands high above the world, and seems to threaten heaven
itself. The idea is the stronger and more restless because the
Church of Saint Michael is surrounded and protected by the world and
the society over which it rises, as Duke William rested on his
barons and their men. Neither the Saint nor the Duke was troubled by
doubts about his mission. Church and State, Soul and Body, God and
Man, are all one at Mont-Saint-Michel, and the business of all is to
fight, each in his own way, or to stand guard for each other.
Neither Church nor State is intellectual, or learned, or even strict
in dogma. Here we do not feel the Trinity at all; the Virgin but
little; Christ hardly more; we feel only the Archangel and the Unity
of God. We have little logic here, and simple faith, but we have
energy. We cannot do many things which are done in the centre of
civilization, at Byzantium, but we can fight, and we can build a
church. No doubt we think first of the church, and next of our
temporal lord; only in the last instance do we think of our private
affairs, and our private affairs sometimes suffer for it; but we
reckon the affairs of Church and State to be ours, too, and we carry
this idea very far. Our church on the Mount is ambitious, restless,
striving for effect; our conquest of England, with which the Duke is
infatuated, is more ambitious still; but all this is a trifle to the
outburst which is coming in the next generation; and Saint Michael
on his Mount expresses it all.
Taking architecture as an expression of energy, we can some day
compare Mont-Saint-Michel with Beauvais, and draw from the
comparison whatever moral suits our frame of mind; but you should
first note that here, in the eleventh century, the Church, however
simple-minded or unschooled, was not cheap. Its self-respect is
worth noticing, because it was short-lived in its art. Mont-Saint-
Michel, throughout, even up to the delicate and intricate stonework
of its cloisters, is built of granite. The crypts and substructures
are as well constructed as the surfaces most exposed to view. When
we get to Chartres, which is largely a twelfth-century work, you
will see that the cathedral there, too, is superbly built, of the
hardest and heaviest stone within reach, which has nowhere settled
or given way; while, beneath, you will find a crypt that rivals the
church above. The thirteenth century did not build so. The great
cathedrals after 1200 show economy, and sometimes worse. The world
grew cheap, as worlds must.
You may like it all the better for being less serious, less heroic,
less militant, and more what the French call bourgeois, just as you
may like the style of Louis XV better than that of Louis XIV,--
Madame du Barry better than Madame de Montespan,--for taste is free,
and all styles are good which amuse; but since we are now beginning
with the earliest, in order to step down gracefully to the stage,
whatever it is, where you prefer to stop, we must try to understand
a little of the kind of energy which Norman art expressed, or would
have expressed if it had thought in our modes. The only word which
describes the Norman style is the French word naif. Littre says that
naif comes from natif, as vulgar comes from vulgus, as though native
traits must be simple, and commonness must be vulgar. Both these
derivative meanings were strange to the eleventh century. Naivete
was simply natural and vulgarity was merely coarse. Norman naivete
was not different in kind from the naivete of Burgundy or Gascony or
Lombardy, but it was slightly different in expression, as you will
see when you travel south. Here at Mont-Saint-Michel we have only a
mutilated trunk of an eleventh-century church to judge by. We have
not even a facade, and shall have to stop at some Norman village--at
Thaon or Ouistreham--to find a west front which might suit the Abbey
here, but wherever we find it we shall find something a little more
serious, more military, and more practical than you will meet in
other Romanesque work, farther south. So, too, the central tower or
lantern--the most striking feature of Norman churches--has fallen
here at Mont-Saint-Michel, and we shall have to replace it from
Cerisy-la-Foret, and Lessay, and Falaise. We shall find much to say
about the value of the lantern on a Norman church, and the singular
power it expresses. We shall have still more to say of the towers
which flank the west front of Norman churches, but these are mostly
twelfth-century, and will lead us far beyond Coutances and Bayeux,
from fleche to fleche, till we come to the fleche of all fleches, at
We shall have a whole chapter of study, too, over the eleventh-
century apse, but here at Mont-Saint-Michel, Abbot Hildebert's choir
went the way of his nave and tower. He built out even more boldly to
the east than to the west, and although the choir stood for some
four hundred years, which is a sufficient life for most
architecture, the foundations gave way at last, and it fell in 1421,
in the midst of the English wars, and remained a ruin until 1450.
Then it was rebuilt, a monument of the last days of the Gothic, so
that now, standing at the western door, you can look down the
church, and see the two limits of mediaeval architecture married
together,--the earliest Norman and the latest French. Through the
Romanesque arches of 1058, you look into the exuberant choir of
latest Gothic, finished in 1521. Although the two structures are
some five hundred years apart, they live pleasantly together. The
Gothic died gracefully in France. The choir is charming,--far more
charming than the nave, as the beautiful woman is more charming than
the elderly man. One need not quarrel about styles of beauty, as
long as the man and woman are evidently satisfied and love and
admire each other still, with all the solidity of faith to hold them
up; but, at least, one cannot help seeing, as one looks from the
older to the younger style, that whatever the woman's sixteenth-
century charm may be, it is not the man's eleventh-century trait of
naivete;--far from it! The simple, serious, silent dignity and
energy of the eleventh century have gone. Something more complicated
stands in their place; graceful, self-conscious, rhetorical, and
beautiful as perfect rhetoric, with its clearness, light, and line,
and the wealth of tracery that verges on the florid.
The crypt of the same period, beneath, is almost finer still, and
even in seriousness stands up boldly by the side of the Romanesque;
but we have no time to run off into the sixteenth century: we have
still to learn the alphabet of art in France. One must live deep
into the eleventh century in order to understand the twelfth, and
even after passing years in the twelfth, we shall find the
thirteenth in many ways a world of its own, with a beauty not always
inherited, and sometimes not bequeathed. At the Mount we can go no
farther into the eleventh as far as concerns architecture. We shall
have to follow the Romanesque to Caen and so up the Seine to the Ile
de France, and across to the Loire and the Rhone, far to the South
where its home lay. All the other eleventh-century work has been
destroyed here or built over, except at one point, on the level of
the splendid crypt we just turned from, called the Gros Piliers,
beneath the choir.
There, according to M. Corroyer, in a corner between great
constructions of the twelfth century and the vast Merveille of the
thirteenth, the old refectory of the eleventh was left as a passage
from one group of buildings to the other. Below it is the kitchen of
Hildebert. Above, on the level of the church, was the dormitory.
These eleventh-century abbatial buildings faced north and west, and
are close to the present parvis, opposite the last arch of the nave.
The lower levels of Hildebert's plan served as supports or
buttresses to the church above, and must therefore be older than the
nave; probably older than the triumphal piers of 1058.
Hildebert planned them in 1020, and died after carrying his plans
out so far that they could be completed by Abbot Ralph de Beaumont,
who was especially selected by Duke William in 1048, "more for his
high birth than for his merits." Ralph de Beaumont died in 1060, and
was succeeded by Abbot Ranulph, an especial favourite of Duchess
Matilda, and held in high esteem by Duke William. The list of names
shows how much social importance was attributed to the place. The
Abbot's duties included that of entertainment on a great scale. The
Mount was one of the most famous shrines of northern Europe. We are
free to take for granted that all the great people of Normandy slept
at the Mount and, supposing M. Corroyer to be right, that they dined
in this room, between 1050, when the building must have been in use,
down to 1122 when the new abbatial quarters were built.
How far the monastic rules restricted social habits is a matter for
antiquaries to settle if they can, and how far those rules were
observed in the case of great secular princes; but the eleventh
century was not very strict, and the rule of the Benedictines was
always mild, until the Cistercians and Saint Bernard stiffened its
discipline toward 1120. Even then the Church showed strong leanings
toward secular poetry and popular tastes. The drama belonged to it
almost exclusively, and the Mysteries and Miracle plays which were
acted under its patronage often contained nothing of religion except
the miracle. The greatest poem of the eleventh century was the
"Chanson de Roland," and of that the Church took a sort of
possession. At Chartres we shall find Charlemagne and Roland dear to
the Virgin, and at about the same time, as far away as at Assisi in
the Perugian country, Saint Francis himself--the nearest approach
the Western world ever made to an Oriental incarnation of the divine
essence--loved the French romans, and typified himself in the
"Chanson de Roland." With Mont-Saint-Michel, the "Chanson de Roland"
is almost one. The "Chanson" is in poetry what the Mount is in
architecture. Without the "Chanson," one cannot approach the feeling
which the eleventh century built into the Archangel's church.
Probably there was never a day, certainly never a week, during
several centuries, when portions of the "Chanson" were not sung, or
recited, at the Mount, and if there was one room where it was most
at home, this one, supposing it to be the old refectory, claims to
be the place.
LA CHANSON DE ROLAND
Molz pelerins qui vunt al Munt
Enquierent molt e grant dreit unt
Comment l'igliese fut fundee
Premierement et estoree.
Cil qui lor dient de l'estoire
Que cil demandent en memoire
Ne l'unt pas bien ainz vunt faillant
En plusors leus e mespernant.
Por faire la apertement
Entendre a cels qui escient
N'unt de clerzie l'a tornee
De latin tote et ordenee
Pars veirs romieus novelement
Molt en segrei por son convent
Uns jovencels moine est del Munt
Deus en son reigne part li dunt.
Guillaume a non de Saint Paier
Cen vei escrit en cest quaier.
El tens Robeirt de Torignie
Fut cil romanz fait e trove.
Most pilgrims who come to the Mount
Enquire much and are quite right,
How the church was founded
At first, and established.
Those who tell them the story
That they ask, in memory
Have it not well, but fall in error
In many places, and misapprehension.
In order to make it clearly
Intelligible to those who have
No knowledge of letters, it has been turned
From the Latin, and wholly rendered
In Romanesque verses, newly,
Much in secret, for his convent,
By a youth; a monk he is of the Mount.
God in his kingdom grant him part!
William is his name, of Saint Pair
As is seen written in this book.
In the time of Robert of Torigny
Was this roman made and invented.
These verses begin the "Roman du Mont-Saint-Michel," and if the
spelling is corrected, they still read almost as easily as Voltaire;
more easily than Verlaine; and much like a nursery rhyme; but as
tourists cannot stop to clear their path, or smooth away the
pebbles, they must be lifted over the rough spots, even when
roughness is beauty. Translation is an evil, chiefly because every
one who cares for mediaeval architecture cares for mediaeval French,
and ought to care still more for mediaeval English. The language of
this "Roman" was the literary language of England. William of Saint-
Pair was a subject of Henry II, King of England and Normandy; his
verses, like those of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, are monuments of
English literature. To this day their ballad measure is better
suited to English than to French; even the words and idioms are more
English than French. Any one who attacks them boldly will find that
the "vers romieus" run along like a ballad, singing their own
meaning, and troubling themselves very little whether the meaning is
exact or not. One's translation is sure to be full of gross
blunders, but the supreme blunder is that of translating at all when
one is trying to catch not a fact but a feeling. If translate one
must, we had best begin by trying to be literal, under protest that
it matters not a straw whether we succeed. Twelfth-century art was
not precise; still less "precieuse," like Moliere's famous
The verses of the young monk, William, who came from the little
Norman village of Saint-Pair, near Granville, within sight of the
Mount, were verses not meant to be brilliant. Simple human beings
like rhyme better than prose, though both may say the same thing, as
they like a curved line better than a straight one, or a blue better
than a grey; but, apart from the sensual appetite, they chose rhyme
in creating their literature for the practical reason that they
remembered it better than prose. Men had to carry their libraries in
These lines of William, beginning his story, are valuable because
for once they give a name and a date. Abbot Robert of Torigny ruled
at the Mount from 1154 to 1186. We have got to travel again and
again between Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres during these years, but
for the moment we must hurry to get back to William the Conqueror
and the "Chanson de Roland." William of Saint-Pair comes in here,
out of place, only on account of a pretty description he gave of the
annual pilgrimage to the Mount, which is commonly taken to be more
or less like what he saw every year on the Archangel's Day, and what
had existed ever since the Normans became Christian in 912:--
Li jorz iert clers e sanz grant vent.
Les meschines e les vallez
Chascuns d'els dist verz ou sonnez.
Neis li viellart revunt chantant
De leece funt tuit semblant.
Qui plus ne seit si chante outree
E Dex aie u Asusee.
Cil jugleor la u il vunt
Tuit lor vieles traites unt
Laiz et sonnez vunt vielant.
Li tens est beals la joie est grant.
Cil palefrei e cil destrier
E cil roncin e cil sommier
Qui errouent par le chemin
Que menouent cil pelerin
De totes parz henissant vunt
Por la grant joie que il unt.
Neis par les bois chantouent tuit
Li oiselet grant et petit.
Li buef les vaches vunt muant
Par les forez e repaissant.
Cors e boisines e fresteals
E fleutes e chalemeals
Sonnoent si que les montaignes
En retintoent et les pleignes.
Que esteit dont les plaiseiz
E des forez e des larriz.
En cels par a tel sonneiz
Com si ce fust cers acolliz.
Entor le mont el bois follu
Cil travetier unt tres tendu
Rues unt fait par les chemins.
Plentei i out de divers vins
Pain e pastez fruit e poissons
Oisels obleies veneisons
De totes parz aveit a vendre
Assez en out qui ad que tendre.
The day was clear, without much wind.
The maidens and the varlets
Each of them said verse or song;
Even the old people go singing;
All have a look of joy.
Who knows no more sings HURRAH,
Or GOD HELP, or UP AND ON!
The minstrels there where they go
Have all brought their viols;
Lays and songs playing as they go.
The weather is fine; the joy is great;
The palfreys and the chargers,
And the hackneys and the packhorses
Which wander along the road
That the pilgrims follow,
On all sides neighing go,
For the great joy they feel.
Even in the woods sing all
The little birds, big and small.
The oxen and the cows go lowing
Through the forests as they feed.
Horns and trumpets and shepherd's pipes
And flutes and pipes of reed
Sound so that the mountains
Echo to them, and the plains.
How was it then with the glades
And with the forests and the pastures?
In these there was such sound
As though it were a stag at bay.
About the Mount, in the leafy wood,
The workmen have tents set up;
Streets have made along the roads.
Plenty there was of divers wines,
Bread and pasties, fruit and fish,
Birds, cakes, venison,
Everywhere there was for sale.
Enough he had who has the means to pay.
If you are not satisfied with this translation, any scholar of
French will easily help to make a better, for we are not studying
grammar or archaeology, and would rather be inaccurate in such
matters than not, if, at that price, a freer feeling of the art
could be caught. Better still, you can turn to Chaucer, who wrote
his Canterbury Pilgrimage two hundred years afterwards:--
Whanne that April with his shoures sote
The droughte of March hath perced to the rote...
Than longen folk to gon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken strange strondes...
And especially, from every shires ende
Of Englelonde, to Canterbury they wende
The holy blisful martyr for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seke.
The passion for pilgrimages was universal among our ancestors as far
back as we can trace them. For at least a thousand years it was
their chief delight, and is not yet extinct. To feel the art of
Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres we have got to become pilgrims again:
but, just now, the point of most interest is not the pilgrim so much
as the minstrel who sang to amuse him,--the jugleor or jongleur,--
who was at home in every abbey, castle or cottage, as well as at
every shrine. The jugleor became a jongleur and degenerated into the
street-juggler; the minstrel, or menestrier, became very early a
word of abuse, equivalent to blackguard; and from the beginning the
profession seems to have been socially decried, like that of a
music-hall singer or dancer in later times; but in the eleventh
century, or perhaps earlier still, the jongleur seems to have been a
poet, and to have composed the songs he sang. The immense mass of
poetry known as the "Chansons de Geste" seems to have been composed
as well as sung by the unnamed Homers of France, and of all spots in
the many provinces where the French language in its many dialects
prevailed, Mont-Saint-Michel should have been the favourite with the
jongleur, not only because the swarms of pilgrims assured him food
and an occasional small piece of silver, but also because Saint
Michael was the saint militant of all the warriors whose exploits in
war were the subject of the "Chansons de Geste." William of Saint-
Pair was a priest-poet; he was not a minstrel, and his "Roman" was
not a chanson; it was made to read, not to recite; but the "Chanson
de Roland" was a different affair.
So it was, too, with William's contemporaries and rivals or
predecessors, the monumental poets of Norman-English literature.
Wace, whose rhymed history of the Norman dukes, which he called the
"Roman de Rou," or "Rollo," is an English classic of the first rank,
was a canon of Bayeux when William of Saint-Pair was writing at
Mont-Saint-Michel. His rival Benoist, who wrote another famous
chronicle on the same subject, was also a historian, and not a
singer. In that day literature meant verse; elegance in French prose
did not yet exist; but the elegancies of poetry in the twelfth
century were as different, in kind, from the grand style of the
eleventh, as Virgil was different from Homer.
William of Saint-Pair introduces us to the pilgrimage and to the
jongleur, as they had existed at least two hundred years before his
time, and were to exist two hundred years after him. Of all our two
hundred and fifty million arithmetical ancestors who were going on
pilgrimages in the middle of the eleventh century, the two who would
probably most interest every one, after eight hundred years have
passed, would be William the Norman and Harold the Saxon. Through
William of Saint-Pair and Wace and Benoist, and the most charming
literary monument of all, the Bayeux tapestry of Queen Matilda, we
can build up the story of such a pilgrimage which shall be as
historically exact as the battle of Hastings, and as artistically
true as the Abbey Church.
According to Wace's "Roman de Rou," when Harold's father, Earl
Godwin, died, April 15, 1053, Harold wished to obtain the release of
certain hostages, a brother and a cousin, whom Godwin had given to
Edward the Confessor as security for his good behaviour, and whom
Edward had sent to Duke William for safe-keeping. Wace took the
story from other and older sources, and its accuracy is much
disputed, but the fact that Harold went to Normandy seems to be
certain, and you will see at Bayeux the picture of Harold asking
permission of King Edward to make the journey, and departing on
horseback, with his hawk and hounds and followers, to take ship at
Bosham, near Chichester and Portsmouth. The date alone is doubtful.
Common sense seems to suggest that the earliest possible date could
not be too early to explain the rash youth of the aspirant to a
throne who put himself in the power of a rival in the eleventh
century. When that rival chanced to be William the Bastard, not even
boyhood could excuse the folly; but Mr. Freeman, the chief authority
on this delicate subject, inclined to think that Harold was forty
years old when he committed his blunder, and that the year was about
1064. Between 1054 and 1064 the historian is free to choose what
year he likes, and the tourist is still freer. To save trouble for
the memory, the year 1058 will serve, since this is the date of the
triumphal arches of the Abbey Church on the Mount. Harold, in
sailing from the neighbourhood of Portsmouth, must have been bound
for Caen or Rouen, but the usual west winds drove him eastward till
he was thrown ashore on the coast of Ponthieu, between Abbeville and
Boulogne, where he fell into the hands of the Count of Ponthieu,
from whom he was rescued or ransomed by Duke William of Normandy and
taken to Rouen. According to Wace and the "Roman de Rou":--
Guillaume tint Heraut maint jour
Si com il dut a grant enor.
A maint riche torneiement
Le fist aller mult noblement.
Chevals e armes li dona
Et en Bretaigne le mena
Ne sai de veir treiz faiz ou quatre
Quant as Bretons se dut combattre.
William kept Harold many a day,
As was his due in great honour.
To many a rich tournament
Made him go very nobly.
Horses and arms gave him
And into Brittany led him
I know not truly whether three or four times
When he had to make war on the Bretons.
Perhaps the allusion to rich tournaments belongs to the time of Wace
rather than to that of Harold a century earlier, before the first
crusade, but certainly Harold did go with William on at least one
raid into Brittany, and the charming tapestry of Bayeux, which
tradition calls by the name of Queen Matilda, shows William's men-
at-arms crossing the sands beneath Mont-Saint-Michel, with the Latin
legend:--"Et venerunt ad Montem Michaelis. Hic Harold dux trahebat
eos de arena. Venerunt ad flumen Cononis." They came to Mont-Saint-
Michel, and Harold dragged them out of the quicksands.
They came to the river Couesnon. Harold must have got great fame by
saving life on the sands, to be remembered and recorded by the
Normans themselves after they had killed him; but this is the affair
of historians. Tourists note only that Harold and William came to
the Mount:--"Venerunt ad Montem." They would never have dared to
pass it, on such an errand, without stopping to ask the help of
If William and Harold came to the Mount, they certainly dined or
supped in the old refectory, which is where we have lain in wait for
them. Where Duke William was, his jongleur--jugleor--was not far,
and Wace knew, as every one in Normandy seemed to know, who this
favourite was,--his name, his character, and his song. To him Wace
owed one of the most famous passages in his story of the assault at
Hastings, where Duke William and his battle began their advance
against the English lines:--
Taillefer qui mult bien chantout
Sor un cheval qui tost alout
Devant le duc alout chantant
De Karlemaigne e de Rollant
E d'Oliver e des vassals
Qui morurent en Rencevals.
Quant il orent chevalchie tant
Qu'as Engleis vindrent apreismant:
"Sire," dist Taillefer, "merci!
Io vos ai longuement servi.
Tot mon servise me devez.
Hui se vos plaist le me rendez.
Por tot guerredon vos require
E si vos veil forment preier
Otreiez mei que io ni faille
Le premier colp de la bataille."
Li dus respondi: "Io l'otrei."
Taillefer who was famed for song,
Mounted on a charger strong,
Rode on before the Duke, and sang
Of Roland and of Charlemagne,
Oliver and the vassals all
Who fell in fight at Roncesvals.
When they had ridden till they saw
The English battle close before:
"Sire," said Taillefer, "a grace!
I have served you long and well;
All reward you owe me still;
To-day repay me if you please.
For all guerdon I require,
And ask of you in formal prayer,
Grant to me as mine of right
The first blow struck in the fight."
The Duke answered: "I grant."
Of course, critics doubt the story, as they very properly doubt
everything. They maintain that the "Chanson de Roland" was not as
old as the battle of Hastings, and certainly Wace gave no sufficient
proof of it. Poetry was not usually written to prove facts. Wace
wrote a hundred years after the battle of Hastings. One is not
morally required to be pedantic to the point of knowing more than
Wace knew, but the feeling of scepticism, before so serious a
monument as Mont-Saint-Michel, is annoying. The "Chanson de Roland"
ought not to be trifled with, at least by tourists in search of art.
One is shocked at the possibility of being deceived about the
starting-point of American genealogy. Taillefer and the song rest on
the same evidence that Duke William and Harold and the battle itself
rest upon, and to doubt the "Chanson" is to call the very roll of
Battle Abbey in question. The whole fabric of society totters; the
British peerage turns pale.
Wace did not invent all his facts. William of Malmesbury is supposed
to have written his prose chronicle about 1120 when many of the men
who fought at Hastings must have been alive, and William expressly
said: "Tune cantilena Rollandi inchoata ut martium viri exemplum
pugnaturos accenderet, inclamatoque dei auxilio, praelium
consertum." Starting the "Chanson de Roland" to inflame the fighting
temper of the men, battle was joined. This seems enough proof to
satisfy any sceptic, yet critics still suggest that the "cantilena
Rollandi" must have been a Norman "Chanson de Rou," or "Rollo," or
at best an earlier version of the "Chanson de Roland"; but no Norman
chanson would have inflamed the martial spirit of William's army,
which was largely French; and as for the age of the version, it is
quite immaterial for Mont-Saint-Michel; the actual version is old
Taillefer himself is more vital to the interest of the dinner in the
refectory, and his name was not mentioned by William of Malmesbury.
If the song was started by the Duke's order, it was certainly
started by the Duke's jongleur, and the name of this jongleur
happens to be known on still better authority than that of William
of Malmesbury. Guy of Amiens went to England in 1068 as almoner of
Queen Matilda, and there wrote a Latin poem on the battle of
Hastings which must have been complete within ten years after the
battle was fought, for Guy died in 1076. Taillefer, he said, led the
Incisor-ferri mimus cognomine dictus.
"Taillefer, a jongleur known by that name." A mime was a singer, but
Taillefer was also an actor:--
Histrio cor audax nimium quem nobilitabat.
"A jongleur whom a very brave heart ennobled." The jongleur was not
noble by birth, but was ennobled by his bravery.
Hortatur Gallos verbis et territat Anglos
Alte projiciens ludit et ense suo.
Like a drum-major with his staff, he threw his sword high in the air
and caught it, while he chanted his song to the French, and
terrified the English. The rhymed chronicle of Geoffrey Gaimer who
wrote about 1150, and that of Benoist who was Wace's rival, added
the story that Taillefer died in the melee.
The most unlikely part of the tale was, after all, not the singing
of the "Chanson," but the prayer of Taillefer to the Duke:--
"Otreiez mei que io ni faille
Le premier colp de la bataille."
Legally translated, Taillefer asked to be ennobled, and offered to
pay for it with his life. The request of a jongleur to lead the
Duke's battle seems incredible. In early French "bataille" meant
battalion,--the column of attack. The Duke's grant: "Io l'otrei!"
seems still more fanciful. Yet Guy of Amiens distinctly confirmed
the story: "Histrio cor audax nimium quem nobilitabat"; a stage-
player--a juggler--the Duke's singer--whose bravery ennobled him.
The Duke granted him--octroya--his patent of nobility on the field.
All this preamble leads only to unite the "Chanson" with the
architecture of the Mount, by means of Duke William and his Breton
campaign of 1058. The poem and the church are akin; they go
together, and explain each other. Their common trait is their
military character, peculiar to the eleventh century. The round arch
is masculine. The "Chanson" is so masculine that, in all its four
thousand lines, the only Christian woman so much as mentioned was
Alda, the sister of Oliver and the betrothed of Roland, to whom one
stanza, exceedingly like a later insertion, was given, toward the
end. Never after the first crusade did any great poem rise to such
heroism as to sustain itself without a heroine. Even Dante attempted
no such feat.
Duke William's party, then, is to be considered as assembled at
supper in the old refectory, in the year 1058, while the triumphal
piers of the church above are rising. The Abbot, Ralph of Beaumont,
is host; Duke William sits with him on a dais; Harold is by his side
"a grant enor"; the Duke's brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, with the
other chief vassals, are present; and the Duke's jongleur Taillefer
is at his elbow. The room is crowded with soldiers and monks, but
all are equally anxious to hear Taillefer sing. As soon as dinner is
over, at a nod from the Duke, Taillefer begins:--
Carles li reis nostre emperere magnes
Set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne
Cunquist la tere tresque en la mer altaigne
Ni ad castel ki devant lui remaigne
Murs ne citez ni est remes a fraindre.
Charles the king, our emperor, the great,
Seven years complete has been in Spain,
Conquered the land as far as the high seas,
Nor is there castle that holds against him,
Nor wall or city left to capture.
The "Chanson" opened with these lines, which had such a direct and
personal bearing on every one who heard them as to sound like
prophecy. Within ten years William was to stand in England where
Charlemagne stood in Spain. His mind was full of it, and of the
means to attain it; and Harold was even more absorbed than he by the
anxiety of the position. Harold had been obliged to take oath that
he would support William's claim to the English throne, but he was
still undecided, and William knew men too well to feel much
confidence in an oath. As Taillefer sang on, he reached the part of
Ganelon, the typical traitor, the invariable figure of mediaeval
society. No feudal lord was without a Ganelon. Duke William saw them
all about him.
He might have felt that Harold would play the part, but if Harold
should choose rather to be Roland, Duke William could have foretold
that his own brother, Bishop Odo, after gorging himself on the
plunder of half England, would turn into a Ganelon so dangerous as
to require a prison for life. When Taillefer reached the battle-
scenes, there was no further need of imagination to realize them.
They were scenes of yesterday and to-morrow. For that matter,
Charlemagne or his successor was still at Aix, and the Moors were
still in Spain. Archbishop Turpin of Rheims had fought with sword
and mace in Spain, while Bishop Odo of Bayeux was to marshal his men
at Hastings, like a modern general, with a staff, but both were
equally at home on the field of battle. Verse by verse, the song was
a literal mirror of the Mount. The battle of Hastings was to be
fought on the Archangel's Day. What happened to Roland at
Roncesvalles was to happen to Harold at Hastings, and Harold, as he
was dying like Roland, was to see his brother Gyrth die like Oliver.
Even Taillefer was to be a part, and a distinguished part, of his
chanson. Sooner or later, all were to die in the large and simple
way of the eleventh century. Duke William himself, twenty years
later, was to meet a violent death at Mantes in the same spirit, and
if Bishop Odo did not die in battle, he died, at least, like an
eleventh-century hero, on the first crusade. First or last, the
whole company died in fight, or in prison, or on crusade, while the
monks shrived them and prayed.
Then Taillefer certainly sang the great death-scenes. Even to this
day every French school-boy, if he knows no other poetry, knows
these verses by heart. In the eleventh century they wrung the heart
of every man-at-arms in Europe, whose school was the field of battle
and the hand-to-hand fight. No modern singer ever enjoys such power
over an audience as Taillefer exercised over these men who were
actors as well as listeners. In the melee at Roncesvalles, overborne
by innumerable Saracens, Oliver at last calls for help:--
Munjoie escriet e haltement e cler.
Rollant apelet sun ami e sun per;
"Sire compainz a mei kar vus justez.
A grant dulur ermes hoi deserveret." Aoi.
"Montjoie!" he cries, loud and clear,
Roland he calls, his friend and peer;
"Sir Friend! ride now to help me here!
Parted today, great pity were."
Of course the full value of the verse cannot be regained. One knows
neither how it was sung nor even how it was pronounced. The
assonances are beyond recovering; the "laisse" or leash of verses or
assonances with the concluding cry, "Aoi," has long ago vanished
from verse or song. The sense is as simple as the "Ballad of Chevy
Chase," but one must imagine the voice and acting. Doubtless
Taillefer acted each motive; when Oliver called loud and clear,
Taillefer's voice rose; when Roland spoke "doulcement et suef," the
singer must have sung gently and soft; and when the two friends,
with the singular courtesy of knighthood and dignity of soldiers,
bowed to each other in parting and turned to face their deaths,
Taillefer may have indicated the movement as he sang. The verses
gave room for great acting. Hearing Oliver's cry for help, Roland
rode up, and at sight of the desperate field, lost for a moment his
As vus Rollant sur sun cheval pasmet
E Olivier ki est a mort nafrez!
Tant ad sainiet li oil li sunt trublet
Ne luinz ne pres ne poet veeir si cler
Que reconuisset nisun hume mortel.
Sun cumpaignun cum il l'ad encuntret
Sil fiert amunt sur l'elme a or gemmet
Tut li detrenchet d'ici que al nasel
Mais en la teste ne l'ad mie adeset.
A icel colp l'ad Rollanz reguardet
Si li demandet dulcement et suef
"Sire cumpainz, faites le vus de gred?
Ja est co Rollanz ki tant vus soelt amer.
Par nule guise ne m'aviez desfiet,"
Dist Oliviers: "Or vus oi jo parler
Io ne vus vei. Veied vus damnedeus!
Ferut vus ai. Kar le me pardunez!"
Rollanz respunt: "Jo n'ai nient de mel.
Jol vus parduins ici e devant deu."
A icel mot l'uns al altre ad clinet.
Par tel amur as les vus desevrez!
There Roland sits unconscious on his horse,
And Oliver who wounded is to death,
So much has bled, his eyes grow dark to him,
Nor far nor near can see so clear
As to recognize any mortal man.
His friend, when he has encountered him,
He strikes upon the helmet of gemmed gold,
splits it from the crown to the nose-piece,
But to the head he has not reached at all.
At this blow Roland looks at him,
Asks him gently and softly:
"Sir Friend, do you it in earnest?
You know 't is Roland who has so loved you.
In no way have you sent to me defiance."
Says Oliver: "Indeed I hear you speak,
I do not see you. May God see and save you!
Strike you I did. I pray you pardon me."
Roland replies: "I have no harm at all.
I pardon you here and before God!"
At this word, one to the other bends himself.
With such affection, there they separate.
No one should try to render this into English--or, indeed, into
modern French--verse, but any one who will take the trouble to catch
the metre and will remember that each verse in the "leash" ends in
the same sound,--aimer, parler, cler, mortel, damnede, mel, deu,
suef, nasel,--however the terminal syllables may be spelled, can
follow the feeling of the poetry as well as though it were Greek
hexameter. He will feel the simple force of the words and action, as
he feels Homer. It is the grand style,--the eleventh century:--
Ferut vus ai! Kar le me pardunez!
Not a syllable is lost, and always the strongest syllable is chosen.
Even the sentiment is monosyllabic and curt:--
Ja est co Rollanz ki tant vus soelt amer!
Taillefer had, in such a libretto, the means of producing dramatic
effects that the French comedy or the grand opera never approached,
and such as made Bayreuth seem thin and feeble. Duke William's
barons must have clung to his voice and action as though they were
in the very melee, striking at the helmets of gemmed gold. They had
all been there, and were to be there again. As the climax
approached, they saw the scene itself; probably they had seen it
every year, more or less, since they could swing a sword. Taillefer
chanted the death of Oliver and of Archbishop Turpin and all the
other barons of the rear guard, except Roland, who was left for dead
by the Saracens when they fled on hearing the horns of Charlemagne's
returning host. Roland came back to consciousness on feeling a
Saracen marauder tugging at his sword Durendal. With a blow of his
ivory horn--oliphant--he killed the pagan; then feeling death near,
he prepared for it. His first thought was for Durendal, his sword,
which he could not leave to infidels. In the singular triple
repetition which gives more of the same solidity and architectural
weight to the verse, he made three attempts to break the sword, with
a lament--a plaint--for each. Three times he struck with all his
force against the rock; each time the sword rebounded without
breaking. The third time--
Rollanz ferit en une pierre bise
Plus en abat que jo ne vus sai dire.
L'espee cruist ne fruisset ne ne briset
Cuntre le ciel amunt est resortie.
Quant veit li quens que ne la fraindrat mie
Mult dulcement la plainst a sei meisme.
"E! Durendal cum ies bele e saintisme!
En l'oret punt asez i ad reliques.
La dent saint Pierre e del sanc seint Basilie
E des chevels mun seignur seint Denisie
Del vestment i ad seinte Marie.
Il nen est dreiz que paien te baillisent.
De chrestiens devez estre servie.
Ne vus ait hum ki facet cuardie!
Mult larges terres de vus averai cunquises
Que Carles tient ki la barbe ad flurie.
E li emperere en est e ber e riches."
Roland strikes on a grey stone,
More of it cuts off than I can tell you.
The sword grinds, but shatters not nor breaks,
Upward against the sky it rebounds.
When the Count sees that he can never break it,
Very gently he mourns it to himself:
"Ah, Durendal, how fair you are and sacred!
In your golden guard are many relics,
The tooth of Saint Peter and blood of Saint Basil,
And hair of my seigneur Saint-Denis,
Of the garment too of Saint Mary.
It is not right that pagans should own you.
By Christians you should be served,
Nor should man have you who does cowardice.
Many wide lands by you I have conquered
That Charles holds, who has the white beard,
And emperor of them is noble and rich."
This "laisse" is even more eleventh-century than the other, but it
appealed no longer to the warriors; it spoke rather to the monks. To
the warriors, the sword itself was the religion, and the relics were
details of ornament or strength. To the priest, the list of relics
was more eloquent than the Regent diamond on the hilt and the
Kohinoor on the scabbard. Even to us it is interesting if it is
understood. Roland had gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He had
stopped at Rome and won the friendship of Saint Peter, as the tooth
proved; he had passed through Constantinople and secured the help of
Saint Basil; he had reached Jerusalem and gained the affection of
the Virgin; he had come home to France and secured the support of
his "seigneur" Saint Denis; for Roland, like Hugh Capet, was a
liege-man of Saint Denis and French to the heart. France, to him,
was Saint Denis, and at most the Ile de France, but not Anjou or
even Maine. These were countries he had conquered with Durendal:--
Jo l'en cunquis e Anjou e Bretaigne
Si l'en cunquis e Peitou e le Maine
Jo l'en cunquis Normendie la franche
Si l'en cunquis Provence e Equitaigne.
He had conquered these for his emperor Charlemagne with the help of
his immediate spiritual lord or seigneur Saint Denis, but the monks
knew that he could never have done these feats without the help of
Saint Peter, Saint Basil, and Saint Mary the Blessed Virgin, whose
relics, in the hilt of his sword, were worth more than any king's
ransom. To this day a tunic of the Virgin is the most precious
property of the cathedral at Chartres. Either one of Roland's relics
would have made the glory of any shrine in Europe, and every monk
knew their enormous value and power better than he knew the value of
Yet even the religion is martial, as though it were meant for the
fighting Archangel and Odo of Bayeux. The relics serve the sword;
the sword is not in service of the relics. As the death-scene
approaches, the song becomes even more military:--
Co sent Rollanz que la mort le tresprent
Devers la teste sur le quer li descent.
Desuz un pin i est alez curanz
Sur l'erbe verte si est culchiez adenz
Desuz lui met s'espee e l'olifant
Turnat sa teste vers la paiene gent.
Pur co l'ad fait que il voelt veirement
Que Carles diet et trestute sa gent
Li gentils quens quil fut morz cunqueranz.
Then Roland feels that death is taking him;
Down from the head upon the heart it falls.
Beneath a pine he hastens running;
On the green grass he throws himself down;
Beneath him puts his sword and oliphant,
Turns his face toward the pagan army.
For this he does it, that he wishes greatly
That Charles should say and all his men,
The gentle Count has died a conqueror.
Thus far, not a thought or a word strays from the field of war. With
a childlike intensity, every syllable bends toward the single idea--
Li gentils quens quil fut morz cunqueranz.
Only then the singer allowed the Church to assert some of its
Co sent Rollanz de sun tens ni ad plus
Devers Espaigne gist en un pui agut
A l'une main si ad sun piz batut.
"Deus meie culpe vers les tues vertuz
De mes pecchiez des granz e des menuz
Que jo ai fait des l'ure que nez fui
Tresqu'a cest jur que ci sui consouz."
Sun destre guant en ad vers deu tendut
Angle del ciel i descendent a lui. Aoi.
Then Roland feels that his last hour has come
Facing toward Spain he lies on a steep hill,
While with one hand he beats upon his breast:
"Mea culpa, God! through force of thy miracles
Pardon my sins, the great as well as small,
That I have done from the hour I was born
Down to this day that I have now attained."
His right glove toward God he lifted up.
Angels from heaven descend on him. Aoi.
Li quens Rollanz se jut desuz un pin
Envers Espaigne en ad turnet sun vis
De plusurs choses a remembrer li prist
De tantes terres cume li bers cunquist
De dulce France des humes de sun lign
De Carlemagne sun seignur kil nurrit
Ne poet muer men plurt e ne suspirt
Mais lui meisme ne voelt metre en ubli
Claimet sa culpe si priet deu mercit.
"Veire paterne ki unkes ne mentis
Seint Lazarun de mort resurrexis
E Daniel des liuns guaresis
Guaris de mei l'anme de tuz perils
Pur les pecchiez que en ma vie fis."
Sun destre guant a deu en puroffrit
E de sa main seinz Gabriel lad pris
Desur sun braz teneit le chief enclin
Juintes ses mains est alez a sa fin.
Deus li tramist sun angle cherubin
E Seint Michiel de la mer del peril
Ensemble od els Seinz Gabriels i vint
L' anme del cunte portent en pareis.
Count Roland throws himself beneath a pine
And toward Spain has turned his face away.
Of many things he called the memory back,
Of many lands that he, the brave, had conquered,
Of gentle France, the men of his lineage,
Of Charlemagne his lord, who nurtured him;
He cannot help but weep and sigh for these,
But for himself will not forget to care;
He cries his Culpe, he prays to God for grace.
"O God the Father who has never lied,
Who raised up Saint Lazarus from death,
And Daniel from the lions saved,
Save my soul from all the perils
For the sins that in my life I did!"
His right-hand glove to God he proffered;
Saint Gabriel from his hand took it;
Upon his arm he held his head inclined,
Folding his hands he passed to his end.
God sent to him his angel cherubim
And Saint Michael of the Sea in Peril,
Together with them came Saint Gabriel.
The soul of the Count they bear to Paradise.
Our age has lost much of its ear for poetry, as it has its eye for
colour and line, and its taste for war and worship, wine and women.
Not one man in a hundred thousand could now feel what the eleventh
century felt in these verses of the "Chanson," and there is no
reason for trying to do so, but there is a certain use in trying for
once to understand not so much the feeling as the meaning. The
naivete of the poetry is that of the society. God the Father was the
feudal seigneur, who raised Lazarus--his baron or vassal--from the
grave, and freed Daniel, as an evidence of his power and loyalty; a
seigneur who never lied, or was false to his word. God the Father,
as feudal seigneur, absorbs the Trinity, and, what is more
significant, absorbs or excludes also the Virgin, who is not
mentioned in the prayer. To this seigneur, Roland in dying,
proffered (puroffrit) his right-hand gauntlet. Death was an act of
homage. God sent down his Archangel Gabriel as his representative to
accept the homage and receive the glove. To Duke William and his
barons nothing could seem more natural and correct. God was not
farther away than Charlemagne.
Correct as the law may have been, the religion even at that time
must have seemed to the monks to need professional advice. Roland's
life was not exemplary. The "Chanson" had taken pains to show that
the disaster at Roncesvalles was due to Roland's headstrong folly
and temper. In dying, Roland had not once thought of these faults,
or repented of his worldly ambitions, or mentioned the name of Alda,
his betrothed. He had clung to the memory of his wars and conquests,
his lineage, his earthly seigneur Charlemagne, and of "douce
France." He had forgotten to give so much as an allusion to Christ.
The poet regarded all these matters as the affair of the Church; all
the warrior cared for was courage, loyalty, and prowess.
The interest of these details lies not in the scholarship or the
historical truth or even the local colour, so much as in the art.
The naivete of the thought is repeated by the simplicity of the
verse. Word and thought are equally monosyllabic. Nothing ever
matched it. The words bubble like a stream in the woods:--
Co sent Rollanz de sun tens ni ad plus.
Try and put them into modern French, and see what will happen:--
Que jo ai fait des l'ure que nez fui.
The words may remain exactly the same, but the poetry will have gone
out of them. Five hundred years later, even the English critics had
so far lost their sense for military poetry that they professed to
be shocked by Milton's monosyllables:--
Whereat he inly raged, and, as they talked,
Smote him into the midriff with a stone
That beat out life.
Milton's language was indeed more or less archaic and Biblical; it
was a Puritan affectation; but the "Chanson" in the refectory
actually reflected, repeated, echoed, the piers and arches of the
Abbey Church just rising above. The verse is built up. The qualities
of the architecture reproduce themselves in the song: the same
directness, simplicity, absence of self-consciousness; the same
intensity of purpose; even the same material; the prayer is
Guaris de mei l'anme de tuz perils Pur les pecchiez que en ma vie
The action of dying is felt, like the dropping of a keystone into
the vault, and if the Romanesque arches in the church, which are
within hearing, could speak, they would describe what they are doing
in the precise words of the poem:--
Desur sun braz teneit Ie chief enclin Juintes ses mains est alez a
Upon their shoulders have their heads inclined,
Folded their hands, and sunken to their rest.
Many thousands of times these verses must have been sung at the
Mount and echoed in every castle and on every battle-field from the
Welsh Marches to the shores of the Dead Sea. No modern opera or play
ever approached the popularity of the "Chanson." None has ever
expressed with anything like the same completeness the society that
produced it. Chanted by every minstrel,--known by heart, from
beginning to end, by every man and woman and child, lay or
clerical,--translated into every tongue,--more intensely felt, if
possible, in Italy and Spain than in Normandy and England,--perhaps
most effective, as a work of art, when sung by the Templars in their
great castles in the Holy Land,--it is now best felt at Mont-Saint-
Michel, and from the first must have been there at home. The proof
is the line, evidently inserted for the sake of its local effect,
which invoked Saint Michael in Peril of the Sea at the climax of
Roland's death, and one needs no original documents or contemporary
authorities to prove that, when Taillefer came to this invocation,
not only Duke William and his barons, but still more Abbot Ranulf
and his monks, broke into a frenzy of sympathy which expressed the
masculine and military passions of the Archangel better than it
accorded with the rules of Saint Benedict.
The nineteenth century moved fast and furious, so that one who moved
in it felt sometimes giddy, watching it spin; but the eleventh moved
faster and more furiously still. The Norman conquest of England was
an immense effort, and its consequences were far-reaching, but the
first crusade was altogether the most interesting event in European
history. Never has the Western world shown anything like the energy
and unity with which she then flung herself on the East, and for the
moment made the East recoil. Barring her family quarrels, Europe was
a unity then, in thought, will, and object. Christianity was the
unit. Mont-Saint-Michel and Byzantium were near each other. The
Emperor Constantine and the Emperor Charlemagne were figured as
allies and friends in the popular legend. The East was the common
enemy, always superior in wealth and numbers, frequently in energy,
and sometimes in thought and art. The outburst of the first crusade
was splendid even in a military sense, but it was great beyond
comparison in its reflection in architecture, ornament, poetry,
colour, religion, and philosophy. Its men were astonishing, and its
women were worth all the rest.
Mont-Saint-Michel, better than any other spot in the world, keeps
the architectural record of that ferment, much as the Sicilian
temples keep the record of the similar outburst of Greek energy,
art, poetry, and thought, fifteen hundred years before. Of the
eleventh century, it is true, nothing but the church remains at the
Mount, and, if studied further, the century has got to be sought
elsewhere, which is not difficult, since it is preserved in any
number of churches in every path of tourist travel. Normandy is full
of it; Bayeux and Caen contain little else. At the Mount, the
eleventh-century work was antiquated before it was finished. In the
year 1112, Abbot Roger II was obliged to plan and construct a new
group in such haste that it is said to have been finished in 1122.
It extends from what we have supposed to be the old refectory to the
parvis, and abuts on the three lost spans of the church, covering
about one hundred and twenty feet. As usual there were three levels;
a crypt or gallery beneath, known as the Aquilon; a cloister or
promenoir above; and on the level of the church a dormitory, now
lost. The group is one of the most interesting in France, another
pons seclorum, an antechamber to the west portal of Chartres, which
bears the same date (i 110-25). It is the famous period of
Transition, the glory of the twelfth century, the object of our
Art is a fairly large field where no one need jostle his neighbour,
and no one need shut himself up in a corner; but, if one insists on
taking a corner of preference, one might offer some excuse for
choosing the Gothic Transition. The quiet, restrained strength of
the Romanesque married to the graceful curves and vaulting
imagination of the Gothic makes a union nearer the ideal than is
often allowed in marriage. The French, in their best days, loved it
with a constancy that has thrown a sort of aureole over their
fickleness since. They never tired of its possibilities. Sometimes
they put the pointed arch within the round, or above it; sometimes
they put the round within the pointed. Sometimes a Roman arch
covered a cluster of pointed windows, as though protecting and
caressing its children; sometimes a huge pointed arch covered a
great rose-window spreading across the whole front of an enormous
cathedral, with an arcade of Romanesque windows beneath. The French
architects felt no discord, and there was none. Even the pure Gothic
was put side by side with the pure Roman. You will see no later
Gothic than the choir of the Abbey Church above (1450-1521), unless
it is the north fleche of Chartres Cathedral (1507-13); and if you
will look down the nave, through the triumphal arches, into the
pointed choir four hundred years more modern, you can judge whether
there is any real discord. For those who feel the art, there is
none; the strength and the grace join hands; the man and woman love
each other still.
The difference of sex is not imaginary. In 1058, when the triumphal
columns were building, and Taillefer sang to William the Bastard and
Harold the Saxon, Roland still prayed his "mea culpa" to God the
Father and gave not a thought to Alda his betrothed. In the twelfth
century Saint Bernard recited "Ave Stella Marts" in an ecstasy of
miracle before the image of the Virgin, and the armies of France in
battle cried, "Notre-Dame-Saint-Denis-Montjoie." What the Roman
could not express flowered into the Gothic; what the masculine mind
could not idealize in the warrior, it idealized in the woman; no
architecture that ever grew on earth, except the Gothic, gave this
effect of flinging its passion against the sky.
When men no longer felt the passion, they fell back on themselves,
or lower. The architect returned to the round arch, and even further
to the flatness of the Greek colonnade; but this was not the fault
of the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. What they had to say they
said; what they felt they expressed; and if the seventeenth century
forgot it, the twentieth in turn has forgotten the seventeenth.
History is only a catalogue of the forgotten. The eleventh century
is no worse off than its neighbours. The twelfth is, in
architecture, rather better off than the nineteenth. These two
rooms, the Aquilon and promenoir, which mark the beginning of the
Transition, are, on the whole, more modern than Saint-Sulpice, or Il
Gesu at Rome. In the same situation, for the same purposes, any
architect would be proud to repeat them to-day.
The Aquilon, though a hall or gallery of importance in its day,
seems to be classed among crypts. M. Camille Enlart, in his "Manual
of French Archaeology" (p. 252) gives a list of Romanesque and
Transition crypts, about one hundred and twenty, to serve as
examples for the study. The Aquilon is not one of them, but the
crypt of Saint-Denis and that of Chartres Cathedral would serve to
teach any over-curious tourist all that he should want to know about
Photographs such as those of the Monuments Historiques answer all
the just purposes of underground travel. The Aquilon is one's first
lesson in Transition architecture because it is dated (1112); and
the crypt of Saint-Denis serves almost equally well because the Abbe
Suger must have begun his plans for it about 1122. Both have the
same arcs doubleaux and arcs-formerets, though in opposite
arrangement. Both show the first heavy hint at the broken arch.
There are no nervures--no rib-vaulting,--and hardly a suggestion of
the Gothic as one sees it in the splendid crypt of the Gros Fillers
close at hand, except the elaborately intersecting vaults and the
heavy columns; but the promenoir above is an astonishing leap in
time and art. The promenoir has the same arrangement and columns as
the Aquilon, but the vaults are beautifully arched and pointed, with
ribs rising directly from the square capitals and intersecting the
central spacings, in a spirit which neither you nor I know how to
distinguish from the pure Gothic of the thirteenth century, unless
it is that the arches are hardly pointed enough; they seem to the
eye almost round. The height appears to be about fourteen feet.
The promenoir of Abbot Roger II has an interest to pilgrims who are
going on to the shrine of the Virgin, because the date of the
promenoir seems to be exactly the same as the date which the Abbe
Bulteau assigns for the western portal of Chartres. Ordinarily a
date is no great matter, but when one has to run forward and back,
with the agility of an electric tram, between two or three fixed
points, it is convenient to fix them once for all. The Transition is
complete here in the promenoir, which was planned as early as 1115.
The subject of vaulting is far too ambitious for summer travel; it
is none too easy for a graduate of the Beaux Arts; and few
architectural fields have been so earnestly discussed and disputed.
We must not touch it. The age of the "Chanson de Roland" itself is
not so dangerous a topic. Our vital needs are met, more or less
sufficiently, by taking the promenoir at the Mount, the crypt at
Saint-Denis, and the western portal at Chartres, as the trinity of
our Transition, and roughly calling their date the years 1115-20, To
overload the memory with dates is the vice of every schoolmaster and
the passion of every second-rate scholar. Tourists want as few dates
as possible; what they want is poetry. Yet a singular coincidence,
with which every classroom is only too familiar, has made of the
years--15 a curiously convenient group, and the year 1115 is as
convenient as any for the beginning of the century of Transition.
That was the year when Saint Bernard laid the foundations of his
Abbey of Clairvaux. Perhaps 1115, or at latest 1117, was the year
when Abelard sang love-songs to Heloise in Canon Fulbert's house in
the Rue des Chantres, beside the cloister of Notre Dame in Paris.
The Abbe Suger, the Abbe Bernard, and the Abbe Abelard are the three
interesting men of the French Transition.
The promenoir, then, shall pass for the year 1115, and, as such, is
an exceedingly beautiful hall, uniting the splendid calm and
seriousness of the Romanesque with the exquisite lines of the
Gothic. You will hardly see its equal in the twelfth century. At
Angers the great hall of the Bishop's Palace survives to give a
point of comparison, but commonly the halls of that date were not
vaulted; they had timber roofs, and have perished. The promenoir is
about sixty feet long, and divided into two aisles, ten feet wide,
by a row of columns. If it were used on great occasions as a
refectory, eighty or a hundred persons could have been seated at
table, and perhaps this may have been about the scale of the Abbey's
needs, at that time. Whatever effort of fancy was needed to place
Duke William and Harold in the old refectory of 1058, none whatever
is required in order to see his successors in the halls of Roger II.
With one exception they were not interesting persons. The exception
was Henry II of England and Anjou, and his wife Eleanor of Guienne,
who was for a while Regent of Normandy. One of their children was
born at Domfront, just beyond Avranches, and the Abbot was asked to
be godfather. In 1158, just one hundred years after Duke William's
visit, King Henry and his whole suite came to the Abbey, heard mass,
and dined in the refectory. "Rex venit ad Montem Sancti Michaelis,
audita missa ad magis altare, comedit in Refec-torio cum baronibus
suis." Abbot Robert of Torigny was his host, and very possibly
William of Saint-Pair looked on. Perhaps he recited parts of his
"Roman" before the King. One may be quite sure that when Queen
Eleanor came to the Mount she asked the poet to recite his verses,
for Eleanor gave law to poets.
One might linger over Abbot Robert of Torigny, who was a very great
man in his day, and an especially great architect, but too
ambitious. All his work, including the two towers, crumbled and fell
for want of proper support. What would correspond to the cathedrals
of Noyon and Soissons and the old clocher and fleche of Chartres is
lost. We have no choice but to step down into the next century at
once, and into the full and perfect Gothic of the great age when the
new Chartres was building.
In the year 1203, Philip Augustus expelled the English from Normandy
and conquered the province; but, in the course of the war the Duke
of Brittany, who was naturally a party to any war that took place
under his eyes, happened to burn the town beneath the Abbey, and in
doing so, set fire unintentionally to the Abbey itself. The
sacrilege shocked Philip Augustus, and the wish to conciliate so
powerful a vassal as Saint Michel, or his abbot, led the King of
France to give a large sum of money for repairing the buildings. The
Abbot Jordan (1191-1212) at once undertook to outdo all his
predecessors, and, with an immense ambition, planned the huge pile
which covers the whole north face of the Mount, and which has always
borne the expressive name of the Merveille.
The general motive of abbatial building was common to them all.
Abbeys were large households. The church was the centre, and at
Mont-Saint-Michel the summit, for the situation compelled the abbots
there to pile one building on another instead of arranging them on a
level in squares or parallelograms. The dormitory in any case had to
be near a door of the church, because the Rule required constant
services, day and night. The cloister was also hard-by the church
door, and, at the Mount, had to be on the same level in order to be
in open air. Naturally the refectory must be immediately beneath one
or the other of these two principal structures, and the hall, or
place of meeting for business with the outside world, or for
internal administration, or for guests of importance, must be next
the refectory. The kitchen and offices would be placed on the lowest
stage, if for no other reason, because the magazines were two
hundred feet below at the landing-place, and all supplies, including
water, had to be hauled up an inclined plane by windlass. To
administer such a society required the most efficient management. An
abbot on this scale was a very great man, indeed, who enjoyed an
establishment of his own, close by, with officers in no small
number; for the monks alone numbered sixty, and even these were not
enough for the regular church services at seasons of pilgrimage. The
Abbot was obliged to entertain scores and hundreds of guests, and
these, too, of the highest importance, with large suites. Every
ounce of food must be brought from the mainland, or fished from the
sea. All the tenants and their farms, their rents and contributions,
must be looked after. No secular prince had a more serious task of
administration, and none did it so well. Tenants always preferred an
abbot or bishop for landlord. The Abbey was the highest
administrative creation of the Middle Ages, and when one has made
one's pilgrimage to Chartres, one might well devote another summer
to visiting what is left of Clairvaux, Citeaux, Cluny, and the other
famous monasteries, with Viollet-le-Duc to guide, in order to
satisfy one's mind whether, on the whole, such a life may not have
had activity as well as idleness.
This is a matter of economics, to be settled with the keepers of
more modern hotels, but the art had to suit the conditions, and when
Abbot Jordan decided to plaster this huge structure against the side
of the Mount, the architect had a relatively simple task to handle.
The engineering difficulties alone were very serious; The
architectural plan was plain enough. As the Abbot laid his
requirements before the architect, he seems to have begun by fixing
the scale for a refectory capable of seating two hundred guests at
table. Probably no king in Europe fed more persons at his table than
this. According to M. Corroyer's plan, the length of the new
refectory is one hundred and twenty-three feet (37.5 metres). A row
of columns down the centre divides it into two aisles, measuring
twelve feet clear, from column to column, across the room. If tables
were set the whole length of the two aisles, forty persons could
have been easily seated, in four rows, or one hundred and sixty
persons. Without crowding, the same space would give room for fifty
guests, or two hundred in all.
Once the scale was fixed, the arrangement was easy. Beginning at the
lowest possible level, one plain, very solidly built, vaulted room
served as foundation for another, loftier and more delicately
vaulted; and this again bore another which stood on the level of the
church, and opened directly into the north transept. This
arrangement was then doubled; and the second set of rooms, at the
west end, contained the cellar on the lower level, another great
room or hall above it, and the cloister at the church door, also
entering into the north transept. Doorways, passages, and stairs
unite them all. The two heavy halls on the lowest level are now
called the almonry and the cellar, which is a distinction between
administrative arrangements that does not concern us.
Architecturally the rooms might, to our untrained eyes, be of the
same age with the Aquilon. They are earliest Transition, as far as a
tourist can see, or at least they belong to the class of crypts
which has an architecture of its own. The rooms that concern us "are
those immediately above: the so-called Salle des Chevaliers at the
west end; and the so-called refectory at the east. Every writer
gives these rooms different names, and assigns them different
purposes, but whatever they were meant for, they are, as halls, the
finest in France; the purest in thirteenth-century perfection.
The Salle des Chevaliers of the Order of Saint Michael created by
Louis XI in 1469 was, or shall be for tourist purposes, the great
hall that every palace and castle contained, and in which the life
of the chateau centred. Planned at about the same time with the
Cathedral of Chartres (1195-1210), and before the Abbey Church of
Saint-Denis, this hall and its neighbour the refectory, studied
together with the cathedral and the abbey, are an exceedingly
liberal education for anybody, tourist or engineer or architect, and
would make the fortune of an intelligent historian, if such should
happen to exist; but the last thing we ask from them is education or
instruction. We want only their poetry, and shall have to look for
it elsewhere. Here is only the shell--the dead art--and silence. The
hall is about ninety feet long, and sixty feet in its greatest
width. It has three ranges of columns making four vaulted aisles
which seem to rise about twenty-two feet in height. It is warmed by
two huge and heavy cheminees or fireplaces in the outside wall,
between the windows. It is lighted beautifully, but mostly from
above through round windows in the arching of the vaults. The
vaulting is a study for wiser men than we can ever be. More than
twenty strong round columns, free or engaged, with Romanesque
capitals, support heavy ribs, or nervures, and while the two central
aisles are eighteen feet wide, the outside aisle, into which the
windows open, measures only ten feet in width, and has consequently
one of the most sharply pointed vaults we shall ever meet. The whole
design is as beautiful a bit of early Gothic as exists, but what
would take most time to study, if time were to spare, would be the
instinct of the Archangel's presence which has animated his
architecture. The masculine, military energy of Saint Michael lives
still in every stone. The genius that realized this warlike emotion
has stamped his power everywhere, on every centimetre of his work;
in every ray of light; on the mass of every shadow; wherever the eye
falls; still more strongly on all that the eye divines, and in the
shadows that are felt like the lights. The architect intended it
all. Any one who doubts has only to step through the doorway in the
corner into the refectory. There the architect has undertaken to
express the thirteenth-century idea of the Archangel; he has left
the twelfth century behind him.
The refectory, which has already served for a measure of the Abbot's
scale, is, in feeling, as different as possible from the hall. Six
charming columns run down the centre, dividing the room into two
vaulted aisles, apparently about twenty-seven feet in height.
Wherever the hall was heavy and serious, the refectory was made
light and graceful. Hardly a trace of the Romanesque remains. Only
the slight, round columns are not yet grooved or fluted, and their
round capitals are still slightly severe. Every detail is lightened.
The great fireplaces are removed to each end of the room. The most
interesting change is in the windows. When you reach Chartres, the
great book of architecture will open on the word "Fenestration,"--
Fenestre,--a word as ugly as the thing was beautiful; and then, with
pain and sorrow, you will have to toil till you see how the
architects of 1200 subordinated every other problem to that of
lighting their spaces. Without feeling their lights, you can never
feel their shadows. These two halls at Mont-Saint-Michel are
antechambers to the nave of Chartres; their fenestration, inside and
out, controls the whole design. The lighting of the refectory is
superb, but one feels its value in art only when it is taken in
relation to the lighting of the hall, and both serve as a simple
preamble to the romance of the Chartres windows.
The refectory shows what the architect did when, to lighten his
effects, he wanted to use every possible square centimetre of light.
He has made nine windows; six on the north, two on the east, and one
on the south. They are nearly five feet wide, and about twenty feet
high. They flood the room. Probably they were intended for glass,
and M. Corroyer's volume contains wood-cuts of a few fragments of
thirteenth-century glass discovered in his various excavations; but
one may take for granted that with so much light, colour was the
object intended. The floors would be tiled in colour; the walls
would be hung with colour; probably the vaults were painted in
colour; one can see it all in scores of illuminated manuscripts. The
thirteenth century had a passion for colour, and made a colour-world
of its own which we have got to explore.
The two halls remain almost the only monuments of what must be
called secular architecture of the early and perfect period of
Gothic art (1200-10). Churches enough remain, with Chartres at their
head, but all the great abbeys, palaces and chateaux of that day are
ruins. Arques, Gaillard, Montargis, Coucy, the old Louvre, Chinon,
Angers, as well as Cluny, Clairvaux, Citeaux, Jumieges, Vezelay,
Saint-Denis, Poissy, Fontevrault, and a score of other residences,
royal or semi-royal, have disappeared wholly, or have lost their
residential buildings. When Viollet-le-Duc, under the Second Empire,
was allowed to restore one great chateau, he chose the latest,
Pierrefonds, built by Louis d'Orleans in 1390. Vestiges of Saint
Louis's palace remain at the Conciergerie, but the first great royal
residence to be compared with the Merveille is Amboise, dating from
about 1500, three centuries later. Civilization made almost a clean
sweep of art. Only here, at Mont-Saint-Michel, one may still sit at
ease on the stone benches in; the embrasures of the refectory
windows, looking over the thirteenth-century ocean and watching the
architect as he worked out the details which were to produce or
accent his contrasts or harmonies, heighten his effects, or hide his
show of effort, and all by means so true, simpler and apparently
easy that one seems almost competent to follow him. One learns
better in time. One gets to feel that these things were due in part
to an instinct that the architect himself might not have been able
to explain. The instinct vanishes as time creeps on. The halls at
Rouen or at Blois are more easily understood; the Salle des
Caryatides of Pierre Lescot at the Louvre, charming as it is, is
simpler still; and one feels entirely at home in the Salle des
Glaces which filled the ambition of Louis XIV at Versailles.
If any lingering doubt remains in regard to the professional
cleverness of the architect and the thoroughness of his study, we
had best return to the great hall, and pass through a low door in
its extreme outer angle, up a few steps into a little room some
thirteen feet square, beautifully vaulted, lighted, warmed by a
large stone fireplace, and in the corner, a spiral staircase leading
up to another square room above opening directly into the cloister.
It is a little library or charter-house. The arrangement is almost
too clever for gravity, as is the case with more than one
arrangement in the Merveille. From the outside one can see that at
this corner the architect had to provide a heavy buttress against a
double strain, and he built up from the rock below a square corner
tower as support, into which he worked a spiral staircase leading
from the cellar up to the cloisters. Just above the level of the
great hall he managed to construct this little room, a gem. The
place was near and far; it was quiet and central; William of Saint-
Pair, had he been still alive, might have written his "Roman" there;
monks might have illuminated missals there. A few steps upward
brought them to the cloisters for meditation; a few more brought
them to the church for prayer. A few steps downward brought them to
the great hall, for business, a few steps more led them into the
refectory, for dinner. To contemplate the goodness of God was a
simple joy when one had such a room to work in; such a spot as the
great hall to walk in, when the storms blew; or the cloisters in
which to meditate, when the sun shone; such a dining-room as the
refectory; and such a view from one's windows over the infinite
ocean and the guiles of Satan's quicksands. From the battlements of
Heaven, William of Saint-Pair looked down on it with envy.
Of all parts of the Merveille, in summer, the most charming must
always have been the cloisters. Only the Abbey of the Mount was rich
and splendid enough to build a cloister like this, all in granite,
carved in forms as light as though it were wood; with columns
arranged in a peculiar triangular order that excited the admiration
of Viollet-le-Duc. "One of the most curious and complete cloisters
that we have in France," he said; although in France there are many
beautiful and curious cloisters. For another reason it has value.
The architect meant it to reassert, with all the art and grace he
could command, the mastery of love, of thought and poetry, in
religion, over the masculine, military energy of the great hall
below. The thirteenth century rarely let slip a chance to insist on
this moral that love is law. Saint Francis was preaching to the
birds in 1215 at Assisi, and the architect built this cloister in
1226 at Mont-Saint-Michel. Both sermons were saturated with the
feeling of the time, and both are about equally worth noting, if one