Abbot Suger: what does this name mean to you? Counsellor and friend to French kings, who instilled order and a respect for hierarchical government in Capetian France? Indeed, the man who invented the idea of France? Or how about the original theologian who advocated Neo-Platonism and the anagogical method, who met and corresponded on equal terms with popes and saints? Or perhaps the radical and transforming architect who introduced the western world to the glories of Gothic through his grand works at St-Denis? Well, this book is for you, for you are right and you are wrong. And here's how!
Suger is a seminal figure in both art history and the political history of early-medieval France. But first you need to know from where I am coming. As a history graduate (of other times and other realms), but as a non-academic with an interest in architecture and the medieval world, I found this volume a fascinating read. I have also visited the abbey, now lost in a suburb of greater Paris. So my review is from someone with a layman's keen interest, but one informed by wide reading, who remembers a little of his Panovsky and has savoured some of Suger's own writings.
Dr Grant has split her work into four parts in which she respectively sets the scene; examines Suger's secular life; considers his ecclesiastical career; and finally assesses his influence. It is a revisionist text that seeks over its three-hundred pages to re-assess closely the traditional view of Suger as a reformer and innovator: "The Suger that emerges from a close inspection of his life is a very different figure from the genial, generous, warm-hearted enthusiast imagined by Panovsky." She argues that Suger was not an original political thinker or an original theologian, but "was a consummate politician, which is a very different thing. ... [and] his theological views were governed by a strong desire for orthodoxy." The originality of his artistic endeavours are also attacked. His primary motivation was not necessarily to promote the glory of France, the glory of Louis VI and VII, or to the reformist cause, but was rather to promote the Abbey of St-Denis: "We come back to the fact that it would be impossible to overstress the importance to Suger of his saint and his abbey."
The author's arguments are cogent ones as she marshals the facts of authorship and chronology, and reviews the materials that have survived the depredations of time. Indeed, it is the very accident of survival that has skewed previous approaches to Suger, creating misleading impressions of his importance and character. This is not, though, a hatchet job worthy of a tabloid newspaper editor. She gives credit where credit is due, and one senses that her respect for her subject grows the more she cuts away the forest of misconceptions - some planted by later historians, some planted by contemporaries, and some planted by Suger himself - that surround his person and actions. For instance, she readily grants that Suger's important role as a patron of new building and new arts is unassailable, only "the irony is that the last thing Suger was trying to get his workforce to do was to create something new."
Dr Grant spends a chapter reading Suger's own writings afresh, and concludes that, whilst he was prolific, he was not great. Contrary to received opinion, his `De Administratione' is not an original work in both form and content, and we do him wrong to see him as an unsophisticated peasant seduced by all that glitters. Equally, his historical works rely on patterns and procedures adopted by near-contemporaries. The life of Suger compiled after his death by his secretary is identified as the source of a number of myths about the great abbot, not only about his size and origins - "Suger was short, but he did not emerge from the very bottom of the social pile" - but also about the extent of his influence over kings, magnates and bishops.
Dr Grant's story ranges wide, as needs it must, for Suger's life encompassed a great deal of travelling and a great deal of diplomatic work. As a result, much background of Capetian France in the first half of the twelfth century is filled in, from who held power and why, to the role of the church in government and society. I do not intend to write further about the intricacies of Suger's life that Dr Grant has uncovered and relates, suffice to say that it is extensive and absorbing. By the time of his death, however, he was already seen as old-fashioned, with many of the effects of the so-called twelfth-century renaissance passing him by, especially in the field of education - witness the growth of the schools in Paris (note, not St-Denis) - and monastic reform.
She concludes by testing Suger's claim to greatness: "Many historians have done their best to thrust greatness upon the man who commissioned the first extant Gothic building, usually by imputing to him original thoughts. But he was not an original thinker; he was not a doomed hero, but a highly successful administrator; and his personality - moderate, efficient, hard, rigid, strict to the point of tyranny, but quite pleasant if you knew him well - does not fire the imagination as Bernard [of Clairvaux], Abelard, Stephen de Garlande, Becket or Henry II do."
Dr Grant addresses readers at the beginning to warn them that this is an historical, not an art-historical work; its subtitle is "Church and State in Early Twelfth-Century France". This is not a strict biography either - the original material is too scarce for that - but an attempt to place Suger in his place and time and to address his role in the political and ecclesiastical milieu, And, yes, there are references to his art-historical role, but these are clearly subservient.
A clear indication of this is the fact that there are no illustrations in the book beyond the jacket cover. There are, though, genealogical tables of the Suger family, of the Capetians, and of the Anglo-Normans relationship with the Counts of Blois and Champagne; there are two cluttered maps, one of northern France and Flanders, the other showing the Île-de-France in more detail; and there are three plans of the abbey of St-Denis and the building campaigns undertaken by Suger during his abbacy. The book ends with a useful index. There is no bibliography, but references appear in footnotes and a list of Suger's own writings, other primary sources and frequently cited secondary works appear at the start of the story.
This book is part of Longman's weighty "The Medieval World" series, edited by David Bates. It is a worthy addition to the series.