The Name of the Rose: Murders in a Medieval Monastery

Eco's novel is not only an entertaining narrative of a murder investigation in a monastery in 1327. It is also a chronicle of the 14th century's religious wars, a history of monastic orders and a compendium of heretical movements.
Umberto Eco

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; 502 pages; $15.95

by Patricia Blake

When a renowned Italian expert in semiotics, the arcane science of signs, sets out to write a thriller, the resulting fiction is bound to bristle with more obscure clues, mysterious ciphers and symbolic happenings than were ever conjured up by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So it is with Umberto Eco’s first novel, The Name of the Rose, a Sherlock Holmesian fantasy in a medieval setting.

Eco, 51, is the author of a study of the sources of James Joyce’s language, as well as more than a dozen other scholarly works, including The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Indiana University Press; 1979). By far the most successful of his writings, The Name of the Rose won the two top literary awards in Italy, the Premio Strega and the Premio Viareggio, and has sold 500.000 copies there since 1980.

In the U.S., where the Middle Ages are less modish than in Europe, the book’s popularity depends on how much medieval esoterica readers are willing to slog through to reach the heart of the story. For Eco’s novel, fluidly translated by William Weaver, is not only an entertaining narrative of a murder investigation in a monastery in 1327. It is also a chronicle of the 14th century’s religious wars, a history of monastic orders and a compendium of heretical movements. All of this is recounted in the language of theological disputation, Scholastic discourse and—caveat lector—Latin.

The author tips his hat to Sir Arthur early on. The name of his medieval detective, William of Baskerville, is an echo of the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles. In the 14th century context, William is a Franciscan friar, famed for his formidable powers of deduction. His companion and disciple is called Adso, or in French, Adson, as in the phrase “Elementary, my dear Adson.’’

The pair are traveling together at a time of troubles for the church. An inquisition is raging against heretics, casting a dark and menacing shadow over the whole era. The Emperor in Milan and the Pope in Avignon are battling for ascendancy over the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperor, Louis IV, has sent William to the abbot of a rich and powerful Benedictine monastery in Italy on a mission of conciliation. The Franciscan and Adso arrive at the abbey right after the body of a young monk has been discovered. Suicide or murder is suspected. The abbot, aware of William’s skills at detection, persuades him to investigate the death.

The atmosphere at the abbey, already poisoned by suspicions of heresy and unholy lust among some of the monks, quickly becomes lethal as other mysterious deaths take place—a total of seven bloody deeds. William speculates that the killer may be inspired by the Book of Revelation, where it is prophesied that a series of seven trumpet calls will signal death and destruction before the Apocalypse.

William’s attention focuses on the abbey’s library, a repository of divine and secular texts that is meant to symbolize all the world’s knowledge. No one but the librarian and his assistant has access to its labyrinthine secret rooms. The abbot explains: “The library defends itself, immeasurable as the truth it houses, deceitful as the falsehood it preserves.’’ William suspects that the victims were murdered for seeking out a single forbidden book. “What the temptation of adultery is for laymen and the yearning for riches is for secular ecclesiastics, the seduction of knowledge is for monks.’’ he muses. “Why should they not have risked death to satisfy a curiosity of their minds, or have killed to prevent someone from appropriating a jealously guarded secret of their own?’’

After some 450 pages, William locales both the forbidden volume and the “Antichrist” who has engineered the murders. It would violate the rules of sport to give more away, except to report that the book is the “lost” second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics. Book I explored the nature of tragedy; Book II supposedly inquired into comedy, extolling it as a force for good. This the murderer could not abide. As William explains to Adso, he “did a diabolical thing because he loved his truth so lewdly that he dared anything in order to destroy falsehood … Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

Critics in Italy have viewed Eco’s book as a parable of contemporary Italian political life, which has its share of murderous fanatics and absolutist ideologies. Others have seen it as a work of vast erudition, to be read on several levels of ethical, political and historical concern. More likely, though, The Name of the Rose is a monumental exercise in mystification by a fun-loving scholar. The enigmatic title offers a clue to his intentions. When queried about its meaning, Eco replied that “the name of the rose” is an expression sometimes used in the Middle Ages to denote the infinite power of words: “Abelard, for example, claimed that the rose subsists in its name, even if the rose is not there, or has never existed.” As a retort, some readers might find a plebeian Latin saying singularly apt. It is res, non verba, which translates roughly into a call for more substance, fewer words.

TIME, June 13, 1983


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