The Name of the Rose

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The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco


Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


First published in Italy in 1980 as Il nome della rosa, William Weaver’s English translation of author Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose appeared in the United States in 1983, and in England in 1984. The novel, with its labyrinthine plot, deep philosophical discussions, and medieval setting, seemed an unlikely candidate for worldwide success. Yet by 2004, the book had sold more than nine million copies and had never been out of print. Critics and readers alike enthusiastically received The Name of the Rose, and the 1986 Jean-Jacques Annaud film, starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater, only fueled interest in the novel.

If The Name of the Rose seems an odd choice for such critical and popular acclaim, Eco’s elevation into literary superstardom seems just as surprising. A scholarly university professor, Eco’s main fields of interest include semiotics, aesthetics, and medieval philosophy. Before The Name of the Rose, Eco was well-known among academicians as the writer of many scholarly books, particularly in the field of semiotics. No one could have predicted the furor caused by his debut novel; yet the well-drawn characters, the mysterious setting, and the detective-fiction plot continue to attract a diverse audience for the book. In addition, new critical studies of The Name of the Rose appear frequently, and there seems to be no slowing of critical interest. Rich, complicated, and multilayered, The Name of the Rose promises to be an important novel for study for years to come.

Author Biography

Umberto Eco was born on January 5, 1932, in Alessandria, Italy, to Guilo and Givovanna Eco. He attended the University of Turin, where he studied medieval philosophy and aesthetics. He published his doctoral thesis, Il Problema estetic in Tommaso d’Aquino (The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas) in 1956. In that same year, he began his academic career as a lecturer at the University of Turin. Eco’s familiarity with and attraction to popular culture was manifested early; he began writing a monthly column called “Diario minimo” in 1959, and has continued to comment actively on current affairs and culture since that time. Eco has continued to teach at a variety of worldwide universities, and he served as the chair of the semiotics department at the University of Bologna in Italy for many years. Beginning in 1999, he served as the President of the Scuola Superiore di Studi Umanistici at the University of Bologna.

For most of Eco’s early career, he was well known as an academic writer and teacher of semiotics and philosophy. Most scholars considered his work to be brilliant. However, in 1980, the publication of Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose) in Italy, followed by the 1983 publication of the English translation, shifted Eco from the relative obscurity of a well-published academic to the public limelight as a literary super star with a bestselling novel. In 1984, Eco published an English translation of an essay on the composition of The Name of the Rose called “Postscript to The Name of the Rose.” This essay is included in the Harcourt 1994 edition of the novel.

Eco has won many awards for his fiction, including the Prix Medicis Etranger, 1982, for The Name of the Rose; France’s Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 1985; the Marshal McLuhan Award from UNESCO Canada and Teleglobe, 1985; the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, France, 1993; Golden Cross of the Dodecannese, Greece, 1995; and the Cavaliere di Gran Croce al Merito della Repubblica Italiana, 1996.

Eco followed the successful The Name of the Rose with several more novels, all translated into English by William Weaver. These include Foucault’s Pendulum (1989); The Island of the Day Before (1995); and Baudolino (2002). In addition, Eco has produced an astounding number of books in Italian, as well as English, on a variety of philosophical topics, as well as countless interviews, articles, and essays.

Plot Summary

Naturally, A Manuscript

The novel The Name of the Rose begins with what appears to be a preface to the book itself. In the opening pages, a narrator who seems to be Eco describes finding a book in 1968 that reproduced a fourteenth-century narration by the monk, Adso of Melk. The preface continues to describe how the narrator then lost the book, only to find it again under strange circumstances. He also describes his choice to publish his edition of the manuscript as well as the editorial choices he has made.

Prologue; First Day; Second Day; Third Day

Next, readers find a prologue provided by Adso of Melk, written as an old man. The events he is about to relate are in the distant past and took place when he was a young Benedictine novice in the service of a Franciscan monk, William of Baskerville.

Adso shifts to the past, specifically to the year 1327, dividing his story into seven days with each day structured by the canonical hours, those hours when the monks engage in formal prayer. On the first day, William and Adso approach the abbey, an abbey that contains the greatest library in all Christendom. They come as emissaries from the emperor to participate in a debate with a papal legation over the poverty of Christ as well as the status of the Franciscan order. They are greeted by the abbey cellarer, Remigio, who is astounded by William’s knowledge about the abbot’s lost horse.

Later, in their room, the abbot Abo visits William and Adso. He tells them the story of Adelmo of Otranto, a young illuminator who has fallen (or was pushed) to his death. He asks William to investigate. The two enter into a discussion about the library, and the abbot explains that only the librarian and his assistant may enter the library.

William and Adso then meet Ubertino, an elderly Franciscan taking refuge at the abbey, as well as Severinus, the herbalist; and Nicholas, the glazier. They also meet Jorge of Borgos, an elderly blind monk who is angry about laughter.

The morning prayers are interrupted early the next day because villagers have found a dead monk in a vat of pig’s blood. It is Venantius, a translator and friend of Adelmo’s. Severinus and William examine the body for evidence. Throughout the day, William and Adso continue to learn more about the library and the abbey. It is clear that the monks are hiding something. In addition, throughout the day, there are a number of learned conversations about laughter and heresy. Eventually, William learns about a secret entrance to the library, and he decides to investigate. He first goes to the Scriptorium, looking for a particular book that he believes both Adelmo and Venantius were reading. While there, William and Adso are disturbed, and someone steals both the book and William’s glasses.

Next, William and Adso enter the labyrinth of the library. William believes that he has figured out the architecture, but he is wrong, and the two have great difficulty leaving the library before eventually finding their way out.

On the third day, Berengar, the assistant librarian, goes missing and a blood stained cloth is found in his cell. William continues his investigation and is successful in deciphering a code left by Venantius that William believes will guide them in further searches of the library for the lost book. Later that night, Adso finds himself alone in the kitchen and encounters a young peasant girl who seduces him. This is his first sexual experience. He falls deeply in love with her, although he does not now or ever learn her name. Confused and guilty, he confesses to William, who offers him absolution. As the day draws to a close, the pair find Berengar dead in a tub of water.

Media Adaptations

  • The Name of the Rose was made into a film in 1986, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Sean Connery as William of Baskerville, Christian Slater as Adso of Melk, and F. Murray Abraham as Bernard Gui. The film was released on DVD in 2004 and is available from Warner Home Video.

Fourth Day; Fifth Day; Sixth Day

On the fourth day, the Franciscan legation arrives, as does Cardinal del Pogetto and Bernard Gui, sent from the Pope. Again, there is a good deal of discussion about heresy, and both sides prepare for the meeting. The reader learns that Bernard Gui is an Inquisitor, a position formerly held by William, who has given up his judgeship because of the difficulty of knowing the truth. Late in the evening, William and Adso again try to find their way to the “finis Africae,” the room in the library where they believe the lost book is located. They are still unable to access this room because they do not know the codes. Meanwhile, Salvatore, who procures women for the cellarer, is captured by Bernard Gui, as is the girl Adso loves. She is accused of witchcraft, and Salvatore and Remigio are placed under arrest.

On the fifth day, a heated debate between the Franciscans and the Pope’s envoys takes place. Meanwhile, Severinus is found murdered, and the book that William has entrusted to him has been stolen. William believes that Malachi has the book. Bernard holds court, questioning the cellarer who eventually confesses to all of the murders as well as to heresy. It is clear, however, that it is the inquisitorial methods that have elicited the confessions rather than the truth.

On the sixth day, Malachi keels over dead during prayer. William continues to investigate the murders and is convinced that there is a pattern that connects all of the murders as well as the mystery of the library. Just as it appears that William will solve the case, the abbot tells William that he no longer wants him to investigate. Remigio has confessed, and the abbot is worried more about the good name of the abbey than the truth. Undaunted, William and Adso return to the library. They discover that the abbot is in a secret stairway and will soon suffocate if they are unable to find their way to the top of the labyrinth and enter the finis Africae. Late that night, the two finally enter the finis Africae.

Seventh Day; Last Page

In the finis Africae, William and Adso find Jorge. He is the mastermind behind the murders, although neither the pattern nor the motive is as William had surmised: Adelmo’s death was a suicide; Venantius, Berengar, and Malachi died from reading the lost book whose pages had been poisoned by Jorge; Malachi killed Severinus; and Jorge refuses to save the abbot who suffocates in the secret stairway. William correctly surmises that the book they have been seeking is Aristotle’s treatise on comedy. Jorge refuses to let anyone read it and instead chooses to eat the poisoned pages. He also knocks over Adso’s lamp and sets the entire library ablaze. William and Adso barely escape with their lives, and the library is lost.

In the chapter called “Last Page,” Adso returns to his present and tells of how William later died of the plague mid-century. He also tells of returning to the charred remains of the library and sifting through the remains, trying to find something that made sense. He ends his manuscript not knowing for whom he writes and no longer knowing what it is about.



Abo is the abbot of the Benedictine abbey who asks William to investigate the murders of several monks. Abo is more interested in the good name of the abbey than he is in the truth. At the end of the novel, Abo has died, the victim of murder himself.

Adelmo of Otranto

Adelmo is a young illustrator of manuscripts. Before the book opens, he has engaged in a homosexual affair with Berengar, perhaps in order to gain access to an important, yet sequestered, book. As a result, he has committed suicide just before William and Adso’s arrival at the abbey.

Adso of Melk

Adso of Melk is an elderly Benedictine monk who writes of his experiences as a young novitiate who accompanies William of Baskervilles on his trip to a northern Italian abbey in 1327 where they encounter a series of murders. Adso thus plays two roles in the novel: in the first place, his is an older voice, one that has had time to consider and reflect on the events of which he writes. In the second, he is young, innocent and naïve, the younger son of a wealthy nobleman, pledged to the church. The Name of the Rose is very much the story of Adso’s coming of age; he loses his virginity to a young peasant girl, and he grows from ignorance to knowledge. He encounters the most pressing theological debates of his day at the abbey, as well as a thirst for knowledge that leads several other young monks to their deaths. He also plays “Watson” to William’s “Sherlock” in the investigation of the murders. Eco’s intention that readers connect Adso to Watson is clear: “Adso” in Italian and French is pronounced nearly identically to Watson in those languages. Adso’s simple questions allow William to expound on his hypotheses and methodology in solving the crimes, mirroring the relationship between Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes in the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ironically, chance comments from Adso provide the key clues for William.

Benno of Uppsala

Benno is a rhetorican, someone who studies the figures of language. He dies by rushing into the library to save books and becomes engulfed in flames.

Berengar of Arundel

Berengar is the assistant librarian at the abbey and is thus privy to many of the secrets of the place. He is also a homosexual who has engaged in affairs with both Malachi, the chief librarian, and Adelmo. Berengar is murdered (by being poisoned with a poisoned book).

Bernard of Gui

Bernard is a real historical figure who was an important judge in the Inquisition, sentencing many heretics to their deaths by fire. In this novel, Eco portrays Bernard as an inquisitor who, in his obsessive pursuit of the Truth, subjects suspects to torture and the threat of horrible death. His inquisitorial techniques lead to confessions; yet it seems clear that, while he arrives at confessions, he fails to arrive at the truth of the murders. His chief role in the novel is as a mirror for William, whose ideas about truth, orthodoxy, and heresy stand in direct contrast to Bernard’s.

Jorge of Burgos

Jorge is a blind, elderly monk who knows a great deal about books and the library. (Late in the book, William deduces that he was even the head librarian for a time.) In one of the most important passages in the novel, he and William enter into a heated debate over laughter. This debate reveals William’s position as an early humanist and liberal theologian, while Jorge is both conservative and strongly opposed to anything but a strict interpretation of the Bible. Toward the end of the novel, it is revealed that Jorge is the real power in the abbey. He has worked diligently across the years to prevent access to Aristotle’s lost book on comedy, even to the extent of poisoning the pages so that anyone who reads the book will die. Jorge believes that the book could cause the complete destruction of Christianity, and so feels that he is doing the will of God by first destroying those who would read the book and finally destroying the book itself.

In a mostly playful tribute, Eco models Jorge after Jorge Luis Borges, the influential Argentine writer. As Eco writes in his “Postscript to The Name of the Rose,” “I wanted a blind man who guarded a library… . and library plus blind man can only equal Borges, also because debts must be paid.”

Malachi of Hildesheim

Malachi is the chief librarian of the abbey. As such, he alone knows the exact location of every book stored in the library and all of the entrances and exits to the building. He has unrestricted access to the library and to the books, but can prevent others from entering or from reading books that he deems dangerous. Malachi serves a gatekeeper role, both to the library and to knowledge. He dies from reading the poisoned book.

Nicholas of Morimundo

Nicholas is the abbey’s glazier. That is, he is the monk in charge of glass in the abbey. He is fascinated by William’s glasses and learns to construct a new pair when William’s are stolen.

Remigio of Varagine

Remigio is the cellarer of the abbey. His job is to supply the abbey with food and to care for the storing of food. He is short, stout, and jolly, someone who clearly partakes of his position to supply himself well. He also satisfies his carnal appetites on peasant women with whom he trades provisions for sex. He was formerly a member of a heretical sect, and under Bernard’s inquiry ends up confessing to all of the murders and to heresy. As a result, he is condemned to burn.


Salvatore is an oddly-shaped and animal-like monk who speaks a pastiche of all the European languages. He procures women for Remigio and was also a member of a heretical cult.

Severinus of Sankt Wendel

Severinus is the herbalist at the abbey, and as such has both knowledge of and access to herbs of all sorts, including poisonous ones. He supplies Malachi with the herbs needed to create visions in anyone who attempts to enter the library, and he also unwittingly supplies Jorge with the poison that contaminates Aristotle’s book on comedy. Severinus is killed by Malachi, who steals Aristotle’s book from him.

Ubertino of Casale

Ubertino is an elderly Franciscan who has taken refuge at the abbey for many years. Many of those who followed him or his fellows bordered on heresy, according to the orthodox church, and thus Ubertino’s life is in danger as a result of the debate between the papal legation and the Franciscan brothers. Ubertino’s role in the novel is to provide a statement of the Franciscan position on love and poverty. His attachment to Adso, however, is not unproblematic. In several scenes, it is clear that Ubertino feels an unseemly attachment to the young man.

Venantius of Salvermec

Venantius is a young translator of manuscripts who recognizes Aristotle’s book on comedy for what it is because of his knowledge of Greek. He dies, poisoned by the book.

William of Baskervilles

William is a Franciscan monk sent by the emperor to mediate the debate between the papal legation and the Franciscan order on the question of Christ’s poverty. William is a former inquisitor; however, he has given up this role as he realizes that the line between heresy and orthodoxy is very thin. He is heavily influenced by the teachings of Roger Bacon, a rational empiricist. This means that William uses his observations to test his hypotheses rather than appealing to either pure reason or authoritative text. Like his teacher, William of Occam, William of Baskervilles is a nominalist and rejects the notion of universals. That is, he believes that only individual things exist, and that abstract general concepts only exist in the mind and nowhere else. For example, a nominalist would say that while there are many individual chairs, there does not exist in reality a universal chair from which all individual chairs are copied.

Topics For Further Study

  • The Name of the Rose is filled with literary, historical, and philosophical allusions. Use “An Annotated Guide to the Historical and Literary References in The Name of the Rose” in The Key to “The Name of the Rose” (1999) by Adele J. Haft, Jane G. White, and Robert J. White, to select one or more significant historical figures to research. How does Eco draw on this figure in his novel?
  • Most critics agree that Edgar Allan Poe is the father of the detective story. Read “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” by Poe, stories that all feature his detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Identify the most striking conventions of the detective story. What do readers expect to find when they read a mystery? How does Eco meet or subvert these expectations? How does reading Poe change or influence your reading of The Name of the Rose?
  • Write out a time line of the major historical events in Western Europe in the fourteenth century. How do these events play a role in The Name of the Rose? How does having a background in medieval history affect your reading of The Name of the Rose?
  • Examine as many copies of medieval manuscripts as you can find. (Good places to look include art history books or on line medieval history sites, such as the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library Western Manuscripts webpages, or the British Library’s Lindisfarne Gospels webpage.) If possible, visit a museum and view a real medieval manuscript. At the same time, research the writing of medieval manuscripts. Write an essay in which you consider the techniques, strategies, problems, and challenges faced by medieval scribes in their efforts to produce texts.

William is a wonderfully complicated character. In some ways, he is clearly modeled after Sherlock Holmes in his name, his appearance, and his method. In other ways, he seems to be modeled after Eco himself. William often seems to be a modern semiotician who finds himself struggling within the confines of medieval debate. He is remarkably intelligent, and yet he arrives at his final solution to the mystery of the murders purely by chance and not by his investigative method. William struggles with his own arrogance and his own thirst for knowledge, the very attributes which lead others in the book to their deaths. Ultimately, it is William’s interference in the case that leads to the destruction of Aristotle’s book on comedy, which is the very thing William seeks.



Semiotics is Eco’s academic field of study, and greatly influences the ideas on which he builds his novel. Semiotics refers to the study of signs, sign systems and the way meaning is derived. Signs can be nearly anything in a given culture that conveys information. Signs are generally conventional; that is, signs are meaningful to those who understand the unwritten codes that underpin them. A good example of this might be the way that people greet each other from culture to culture. In American culture, kissing someone on arrival is a sign designating a close and intimate relationship between the two people. Men, however, rarely kiss each other, although they might hug and slap each other on the back. In France, however, the sign is subtly different, and strangers meeting for the first time might kiss each other on each cheek. For those who understand such signs, the communication is clear.

The Name of the Rose is nothing if not a story of signs, including religious, political, and social signs, among many others. William prides himself as a savvy reader of signs; yet his mistake—in assuming that the system underpinning the series of murders was following the pattern of the Apocalypse—demonstrates how a faulty initial assumption can lead to a complete misunderstanding of a situation. In such a case, while the signs are still there, they have no meaning because there is no underpinning system. Likewise, the novel’s title is ambiguous and mysterious because it is impossible to assign one meaning to the sign “rose.” As Eco writes in the “Postscript,” “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meaning that by now it hardly has any meaning left… . The title rightly disoriented the reader, who was unable to choose just one interpretation.”


Nominalism is also an important topic or theme in The Name of the Rose closely related to language. During the Middle Ages, there was heated debate over the nature of reality. Realists, such as Jorge in the novel, argued that there were such things as universals. Realists support the supposition that to every name and term there corresponds a positive reality that is outside of the mind. Thus, there would be a universal “rose” that exists in reality outside of the mind, and that individual roses only differ accidentally one from another rather than in substance. Nominalists, such as William of Ockham and William of Baskerville, would argue, however, that there are only individuals. Universals are only categories the mind uses to make sense of the world rather than having any extra-mental reality. While this argument seems abstract, it is pertinent to the novel. The closing Latin words, translated into English, demonstrate this: “yesterday’s rose endures in its name, we hold empty names.” Thus, The Name of the Rose is a book about an empty sign, about the name of the rose, rather than the rose itself.


Detective Fiction

Detective fiction is one of the most popular genres of novels in contemporary culture. Yet it seems an unlikely choice of format for such an erudite writer and book. Eco chooses detective fiction very deliberately, however, and not only to make his book more of a commercial success. Detective fiction offers a series of conventions and rules that attract a particular kind of reader, one who knows what ought to happen next. In addition, the reader of detective fiction is not taken in by what people say; rather, they have learned to look carefully at evidence and to make guesses about what might be the reality of the case. Some of the conventions of detective fiction found in The Name of the Rose include the ultra-intelligent detective; his faithful if obtuse young companion; a series of murders; a series of witnesses and interviews; villains who try to foil the investigation; and a final assembly of those involved where the detective reveals the murderer, the motive, and the means of the murder. In The Name of the Rose, Eco plays with his readers’ expectations, creating a tension between what his audience believes will happen and what really happens, calling attention to the novel as a text, not reality. Furthermore, such playing with generic conventions undermines all such conventions, and reminds reader that what they are reading is a novel, not life.


Another device that Eco employs magnificently is intertextuality. Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms define it as “the condition of interconnectedness among texts, or the concept that any text is an amalgam of others, either because it exhibits signs of influence or because its language inevitably contains common points of reference with other texts through such things as allusion, quotation, genre, style, and even revisions.” For postmodernists, the notion of intertextuality is an important one; it suggests that all literature, and for that matter, all writing, is comprised of writing that has already and always been written. Thus, text leads always to more text, rather than to some transcendental truth. The Name of the Rose draws on vast numbers of other texts in its constructions as evidenced by The Key to “The Name of the Rose,” by Adele J. Haft, Jane G. White, and Robert J. White, a whole book dedicated to identifying the medieval historical and literary allusions, and translating passages from Latin and other languages into English. Indeed, some critics have called The Name of the Rose a pastiche, or collage of many other sources, pasted together into something like a novel. By creating such a text, Eco opens the door to many interpretations.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1300s: Religious philosophers argue over the proper interpretation of the written text of the Bible. Those who find themselves on the wrong side of the debate are often burned for heresy.

    1970s: Philosophers of language for the past decades have argued that reality is created by text rather than the reverse. Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, writes that text is no more than the play of signifiers.

    Today: Debate over the meaning (or lack of meaning) of language continues, although deconstruction has less influence in academic debates.
  • 1300s: The Black Death rages across Europe mid-century, leading people to believe that it could be a punishment from God and a sign of the Apocalypse.

    1970s: At the height of the cold war, the entire world fears nuclear holocaust and the post-Apocalyptic vision. Movies such as Planet of the Apes graphically provide images of such a future.

    Today: While the ending of the cold war eases nuclear fears, the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers in 2001 raises renewed fears of destabilization and chaos at the hands of terrorists. Further, it raises fears of another worldwide plague precipitated by terrorists.
  • 1300s: Scribes work long hours copying manuscripts in the attempt to recover and preserve knowledge that was lost during the fall of the Roman Empire but finally makes its way back to Europe through the growing trade with the East.

    1970s: Libraries and books exist worldwide and are easily accessible. Technology such as typewriters and copy machines, as well as radio and television, make information quickly and readily available.

    Today: The explosion of computer technology puts entire encyclopedias on one small disk. There is sometimes the experience of “information overload,” as well as the confidence that anything that needs to be known can be accessed on the Internet.

Historical Context

Italy in the 1970s

While The Name of the Rose is set in the fourteenth century in an unnamed Italian abbey, it may also be read as allegory of Western culture in general, and Italy in the 1970s, specifically. David Richter in his essay, “The Mirrored World: Form and Ideology in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose” argues that whether the reader associates Emperor Louis with the USSR and Pope John XXII with the United States or the reverse, Eco seems to be concerned “with the impact of their struggle on the three billion people elsewhere in nations that might have preferred to remain unaligned …” The cold war, reaching its height during the years that Eco wrote the novel, deeply influenced the writer, and it is little wonder that the confrontation between the papal legation and the Franciscans is so heated.

Perhaps even more relevant to the novel, however, is the kidnapping of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade. The kidnapping took place on March 16, 1978, the month Eco reports he began writing the novel. Moro was the President of the Christian Democratic Party and had been Prime Minister of Italy three times. A series of convoluted negotiations ensued as different parties tried to secure Moro’s release. Much of what happened is ambiguous; however, Moro was eventually murdered. Eco and other Italian intellectuals were deeply shocked by this assassination, and his outrage seems to make it into the pages of The Name of the Rose.

Europe in the 1300s

The fourteenth century was a watershed period in medieval history, and there is little question of why Eco chooses to situate his novel in this troubled time. In the first place, philosophers and theologians were deeply immersed in a number of debates, including not only the question of Christ’s poverty, but also the nature of language and truth. If language cannot be connected to a transcendent reality outside of the words themselves, then it undermines the entire Christian project. While this concern seems more postmodern than medieval, any close reading of medieval philosophers demonstrates the anxiety caused by new ways of thinking. In addition, Eco deliberately chooses to have Adso write about the events of 1327 from the vantage point of the middle of the century, at a time after the ravages of the Black Death. The spread of the plague in the years between 1348 and 1350 was cataclysmic; Europe lost nearly one-third of its total population, sending social, political, and religious institutions into chaos. For Adso, the plague must have seemed Apocalyptic. He mentions the death of William in the plague, and his own existence in an “aged world.” The contemplation of death and of the world grown old is a common medieval motif; yet the images that Eco provides of Adso sifting through the ashes of the burned Scriptorium could just as easily apply to some cold war vision of nuclear holocaust. Thus, the connection between the twentieth century and the fourteenth century seems closer than might otherwise be thought.

Critical Overview

The Name of the Rose, first published in Italian in 1980 and in English in 1983, was both a critical and popular success, staying at the top of the bestseller lists for weeks, and eventually selling more than a million copies in hard cover and more in paper back. The novel has remained in print for more than two decades, and continues to generate a large body of critical commentary. While academic interest might have been predicted, given Eco’s reputation as a scholar, the popular response to the book took all by surprise. Who could have imagined that a long, complicated, multi-layered novel, set in the fourteenth century and with long passages of untranslated Latin, German, and French would appeal to the world-wide reading public?

Contemporary reviews find a variety of reasons for its appeal. Masolino D’Amico, in a review for the Times Literary Supplement, for example, says that The Name of the Rose “is no mere detective story; rather, its framework serves as a vehicle for nothing less than a summa of all the author knows about the Middle Ages … Eco’s rare gift for epitome has a chance to shine forth in this book and his own delight in his task is often infectious.” D’Amico argues that the main point of the book is “to vindicate humour.” Likewise, Gian-Paolo Biasin in World Literature Today writes that “Play is at the core of the plot.” Michael Dirda, in The Washington Post review of the novel credits “Gothic hugger-mugger” with lightening “Eco’s operatic gravity.” He also, however, notes the vast scope of the novel: “In its range, The Name of the Rose suggests an imaginative summa, an alchemical marriage of murder mystery and Christian mystery.”

In the years since the book’s publication, scholars have written volumes dedicated to unpacking the novel. Many note the influence of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer, on Eco. Eco himself makes it clear in the “Postscript to The Name of the Rose” that he deliberately invokes Borges in his character Jorge of Borgos, the blind librarian. Other critics note the connections between The Name of the Rose, Sherlock Holmes, and other detective stories. Jorge Hernández Martín, for example, devotes five chapters of his book Readers and Labyrinths: Detective Fiction in Borges, Bustos Domecq, and Eco to this project. He writes, “The name of Eco’s detective, William of Baskerville, evokes in turn the renowned sleuth of Baker Street and Holmes’s best known case, The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

Still other critics concentrate on the intertexuality of the novel. Teresa De Lauretis in her chapter “Gaudy Rose: Eco and Narcissism,” suggests that The Name of the Rose is “made up almost entirely of other texts.” Likewise, Peter Bonandello in Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture argues that Eco’s “work represents a pastiche and a parody of a number of other traditions—some obvious, others less so—that enable the novel to appeal to all his intended audiences simultaneously.”

Other readings include Jonathan Key’s “Maps and Territories: Eco Crossing the Boundary,” in which he carefully examines the role that the abbey map and the library map play in the reading of the novel. He argues that “the library as map of the world stands as a metonym for the frequently expressed formulation of the novel as a device for mapping the world.”

Indeed, there seem to be as many readings as there are critics of this novel. All are universal in their praise for the richness of the text, and for the possibilities for continued study.


Diane Andrews Henningfeld

Henningfeld is a professor of English at Adrian College who writes widely on literary topics for academic and educational publications. In this essay, Henningfeld discusses the concept of the labyrinth, the encyclopedia, and model reader for The Name of the Rose.

Entering a book as wonderfully rich and complicated as The Name of the Rose is both exhilarating and frightening. Where to begin? How to read? What ought a reader do with the vast quantities of information Eco spills out on every page? One helpful way of entering the text is to first consider two of Eco’s controlling metaphors—the labyrinth and the encyclopedia—then to examine the idea of the model reader, and finally to imagine a number of possible (but by no means exhaustive) entry points.

That Eco wants readers to consider the idea of the labyrinth is clear. Early in the book, Abo tells William to beware of the library: “The library defends itself, immeasurable as the truth it houses, deceitful as the falsehood it preserves. A spiritual labyrinth, it is also a terrestrial labyrinth. You might enter and you might not emerge.” In addition, Eco has written extensively on the idea of the labyrinth in his essays on semiotics. Rochelle Sibley, in her chapter “Aspects of the Labyrinth in The Name of the Rose: Chaos and Order in the Abbey Library,” both reviews and comments on Eco’s use of labyrinths. According to Sibley, Eco classifies labyrinths in three ways: the “classical;” the “Mannerist maze;” and the “rhizome,” or net. The classical labyrinth has just one path in and out, and no decisions are required of the labyrinth walker. The maze, on the other hand, has several entrances, and many dead ends, cross roads, and mis-directions. The abbot’s statement to William seems to refer to this kind of labyrinth; there is always the danger that those entering a maze may become so hopelessly lost that they will never find their way out. Indeed, it is this notion of the labyrinth that may intimidate readers of The Name of the Rose. For readers accustomed to thinking about the labyrinth as a maze where one must choose the right path to reach the center, or heart of the maze, choosing the “right” path into The Name of the Rose is nothing if not daunting. What if the reader makes a mistake and finds him or herself in a blind alley? Further, given the sheer number of entry points the novel offers, choosing just one may prove an impossibility.

However, Eco posits a third kind of labyrinth which he calls the rhizome or net. Sibley quotes Eco’s definition of a net from Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984):

The main feature of a net is that every point can be connected with every other point, and, where connections are not yet designed, they are, however, conceivable and designable. A net is an unlimited territory… . the abstract model of a net has neither a center nor an outside.

Thus, in a rhizome, a labyrinth walker may move from point to point because all points are connected. Moreover, the pathways between the points are not yet fully defined; connections may still be made. Considering the labyrinth in this sense provides the reader with nearly endless possibilities for interpretation. Indeed, wandering in a rhizome ought not elicit fear, but rather laughter, as the reader moves from node to node, recognizing that walking in circles in this kind of maze is not necessarily a bad thing, as new connections might reveal themselves at any moment. As Jorge Hernández Martín writes in his book Readers and Labyrinths: Detective Fiction in Borges, Bustos Domecq and Eco, “The possibilities for reading The Name of the Rose are as varied as the many individuals who appropriate the text by their readings.”

An additional metaphor employed by Eco that is helpful in reading The Name of the Rose is the encyclopedia. Again, this term surfaces primarily in Eco’s semiotic work, and it has technical meanings beyond the scope of this essay. Nonetheless, the reader of The Name of the Rose can think of an encyclopedia in the more common usage of the term: a collection of knowledge, comprised of many sources, categorized and organized so that that a reader can move from topic to topic. Not surprisingly, delving into an encyclopedia often pushes a reader to make new connections. The encyclopedia is a particularly apt metaphor for a novel set in the Middle Ages, which was a time of great encyclopedists. As Christina Farronato observes in her book Eco’s Chaosmos: From the Middle Ages to Postmodernity, “The medieval thinkers had an encyclopaedic approach to the reality of the universe. They elaborated a series of encyclopaedias that served to catalogue every object or event in the universe.” Moreover, the fourteenth century in particular was a time of great social, religious, and political upheaval. Consequently, the medieval encyclopedists felt great pressure to recover and preserve the treasure troves of knowledge endangered by the fall of Rome and the crises of their own time.

Eco uses the notion of encyclopedia on a personal level. Each person is like a continually growing encyclopedia. Thus, for Eco, The Name of the Rose is not merely a novel, but also a cataloguing of his own encyclopedia. It is this encyclopedia that creates the labyrinth and the world of the novel. Why is this important for the reader to know? Because the way a reader brings his or her own encyclopedia to bear on The Name of the Rose will deeply impact the text the reader and the author collaboratively create. As Eco writes in the “Postscript,” “What model reader did I want as I was writing? An accomplice, to be sure, one who would play my game.”

Consequently, because Eco’s encyclopedia is vast, there are many The Name of the Rose novels. It is in format a detective novel. Thus, readers who are aficionados of this genre will have no difficulty recognizing William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. In addition, these readers know from their own experience that there will be murders to be solved and evidence to observe. However, because Eco is also playing a game with the reader, most reader expectations of how the crime will be solved are undermined, not because the crimes go unsolved, but because William turns out to be utterly wrong in his assessment of the situation. He tells Adso, “I have never doubted the truth of signs, Adso; they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand was the relation among signs. I arrived at Jorge through an apocalyptic pattern that seemed to underlie all the crimes, and yet it was accidental.” For the reader of detective novels, such an admission is unheard of; although the detective might follow several blind leads, he or she ought to always find the truth in the end. In The Name of the Rose, however, William simply finds accident, not order, and chaos, not truth.

Readers who hold the literature of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in their personal encyclopedias, likewise, will have no difficulty recognizing other structural influences. Eco uses several of Borges’s stories; he also creates the character of Jorge of Borgos as a blind librarian. Any reader of Borges knows that Borges himself was both a librarian, and blind. Specifically, Eco borrows both style and content from Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a story that opens with these lines: “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.” Borges goes on to write about the loss of an article in an encyclopedia and his search to recover it. The story is remarkably similar to the opening of The Name of the Rose, called by Eco, “Naturally, a Manuscript.” The insertion of a labyrinth in The Name of the Rose also has its roots in another short story by Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In this story, Borges creates a labyrinth that is not a physical labyrinth, but is instead a book. Finally, in Borges’s famous detective story, “Death and the Compass,” the detective follows a series of clues that seem to point to a particular pattern. He fails to apply Ockham’s razor, “the principle that one should not postulate the existence of a greater number of entities or factors when fewer will suffice,” according to Frederick C. Copleston’s Medieval Philosophy. Instead, the detective chooses an elaborate pattern based on the Cabbala to explain a series of murders. Like William, this detective finally finds the answers he seeks, but only accidentally.

What Do I Read Next?

  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978), by Barbara Tuchman, is a fascinating and readable study of Europe in the 1300s.
  • In 1993, noted historian of philosophy Frederick C. Copleston published the second volume of his History of Philosophy, which covers the philosophy of the Middle Ages, including discussions of both Roger Bacon and William of Ockham.
  • Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories (1986) provides an excellent introduction into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth.
  • Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, translated into English by William Weaver in 1989, is another philosophical novel, investigating the secrets of the Knights Templar.
  • Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (1962), edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, contains some of Borges’s most influential stories, including “Death and the Compass,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Finally, readers who bring to the novel an encyclopedia that includes knowledge of medieval history, literature, philosophy, aesthetics, and religion will find a very different kind of reading and will find evidence of Eco’s use of Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, and Thomas Aquinas, among many others. Such a reader will understand the intricacies of the debate between the papal legation and the Franciscans, and will delight in the finer points of orthodoxy and heresy. It is also likely that such a reader will have at least a rudimentary knowledge of Latin, and perhaps German, and so, will find the text less opaque than readers who do not know these languages.

There are countless entries into the labyrinth that is The Name of the Rose, some of them not even yet discovered. This is because, according to Teresa De Lauretis in her essay “Gaudy Rose: Eco and Narcissism,” The Name of the Rose “is a novel made up almost entirely of other texts, of tales already told, of names either well known or sounding as if they should be known to us from literary and cultural history; a medley of famous passages and obscure quotations, specialized lexicons and subcodes … and characters cut out in strips from a generic World Encyclopedia.” Lauretis here echoes Adso’s epiphany:

Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”

Eco welcomes readers into the murmuring labyrinth he has created in The Name of the Rose, and eagerly shares his encyclopedia with those readers who dare to play his game. He invites readers to move quickly from node to node, seeking knowledge, building connections, seemingly finding a pattern in the novel, and in the world. In the end, however, The Name of the Rose does not offer a glimpse of the truth at all, but rather provides only Adso’s “lesser library … a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books.”

Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on The Name of the Rose, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

John J. Burke Jr.

In the following essay excerpt, Burke contrasts the postmodern depiction of medieval times found in Eco’s The Name of the Rose with Sir Walter Scott’s medieval novels.

When we turn to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose we turn to a postmodern story set in medieval times; in 1327, to be precise. Eco’s novel begins with prefatory material that resembles the beginnings of Scott’s novels with their prefatory material from Jedediah Cleishbotham, Laurence Templeton, the Wardour manuscript, and Dr Dryasdust. The point of both is to explain how a story about long ago should only now be surfacing in modern times, but the explanations never really explain anything. It is all very much tongue in cheek.

Instead of the onmiscient narrator who tells the story in a Scott novel, Eco prefers to have his story told through the eyes of Adso of Melk, who at the time of the events in the story was a novice Benedictine. However, Adso is also telling us this story as a monk looking back over the very early part of his life. The story he tells us begins as he and his companion, a Franciscan friar archly named William of Baskerville, approach a Benedictine monastery high in the Appenines in northwest Italy, a place remarkably close to the village where Umberto Eco himself was born and raised. William, a former inquisitor, with Adso as his assistant, has come to the monastery to work out a settlement in the dispute between the Pope and the Emperor, one that touches on the emergence of radical groups within the Franciscan order. The views of those radical Franciscans sound much like the liberation theology that has caused such a stir in our own times. But the Franciscans of the fourteenth century, instead of challenging the entire social order, were primarily challenging a wealthy and worldly church.

Whatever the historical currents, though, Adso’s story almost immediately turns into a murder mystery. Shortly after the two arrive at the monastery they learn that the body of a young monk named Adelmo of Otranto had been found at the foot of some high windows at the entrance to the monastery’s famed library. The mystery thickens when the deaths of other monks by foul play seem to point toward the existence of a serial killer. There are hints that the bloody deeds have something to do with the monastery’s library which we learn was deliberately constructed as a labyrinth. There are further hints that seem to tie the murders to prophecies in the Bible, especially to the final book of the Bible, the fevered, frenzied, obscure Book of the Apocalypse. Among other things the Book of the Apocalypse enumerates seven danger signs that are to precede the coming end. The sequence of the murders continues to follow the pattern spelled out in the Book of the Apocalypse, and before the story comes to an end there are indeed seven murders to correspond to the seven signs. The end of the world would seem to be upon us.

Nevertheless, what we learn at the end is that the seven murders are actually unconnected with one another. After all, there can be no real answers in a poststructural world: logic, order, structure are merely fictions we impose on the world. The human mind compulsively constructs explanations for why things happen, but in the end all is random and accidental. The initial murder was actually a suicide that resulted from a suffocating guilt over homosexual conduct. Another was caused by curiosity about what was forbidden or off limits, or we might say censored, and so on until eventually we come face to face with the distorted face of fanaticism in the person of the blind Jorge of Burgos. Jorge is completely convinced that he is right, and he would willingly become a martyr rather than give up on his view of what the world should be. His real aim, as we see it, is mind control. Jorge wants to keep Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy out of the hands of future generations because he believes they would interpret it as a licence for laughter. Jorge objects to laughter because it is a sign of our refusal to take things seriously. Therefore, laughter is unseemly and irreligious. Jorge is the man who would rather burn books than allow anyone else access to their secrets. He does in fact set a fire which spreads throughout the monastery, eventually reducing all of its treasures to ashes except for a few scattered remains and fragments. It is out of such fragments that Adso has constructed or reconstructed the narrative we have been reading.

The medieval world we see in Eco’s The Name of the Rose provides an instructive contrast with the medieval world we see in Scott’s novels. It may be tempting to think that the difference between them is not so much the difference between the romantic and the postmodern as it is the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic view of the Middle Ages. Though there is certainly some truth to that observation, it would not be sufficient for explaining the nature of the difference. For one thing, it is not at all clear that they differ much about faith. There is no more emphasis on honest religious faith in The Name of the Rose than there is in the Waverley novels. There is fanaticism, to be sure, but the fanaticism of Jorge of Burgos is of the same kind and perhaps of the same degree as that which is portrayed in novel after novel by Scott.

Still, there are differences, and the differences arc quite revealing. Eco chooses a monastery as his setting, an institution thought of as typifying the Middle Ages. But his is a most unusual medieval monastery: Eco’s monks don’t much bother with the practice of monastic silence; nor, curiously enough, do any of them seem to spend much time in prayer; more peculiar yet, there are no communal celebrations of the Catholic liturgy, or if there are they are nowhere in sight. Eco’s monastery, in short, seems conceived of less as a testimony or tribute to religious faith of any type than as an experiment in international communal living. The debates over poverty among the various factions within the Franciscan movement remind us further of various medieval experiments with communal property and/or ownership. It would be hard to believe that Eco when writing this was not thinking about the ideological debates between the capitalist West and the communist East. Eco’s fable has even proved prophetic, perhaps unexpectedly so, but it has to be a gloomy tale for those who share Eco’s Leftist sympathies. For his story acknowledges the predictable failure of all such high-minded social experiments. It will be, as we well know, the wealth of nations, not their poverty, that becomes the master political ideal. Monasticism was doomed to fade away because it was unable to contain the individualistic impulses it sought to harness or repress.

Not only is the religious basis of medieval life nowhere in sight, neither is chivalry. That may be in part because for Eco even the possibility that people could or would act from entirely noble motives is not even worth conceiving, or perhaps that the very act of conceiving it would be harmful because it would nourish dangerous illusions. The conception of character in this book proceeds clearly enough from the proposition that all human behaviour operates according to mixed motives. William of Baskerville may be the book’s nominal hero, but he is not as pure as we may want him to be. His knowledge of the consciousness-raising qualities of herbs and plants is a subject of wonder to those about him, but there is also speculation that his cool detachment from the swirl of passions about him can be attributed to his habit of chewing on something that has a narcotic effect on him. That aside, we are asked to admire William for his tolerance, for his open-mindedness, and for his sparkling intelligence. Nevertheless, the story does undercut its obvious hero, though not because he is a pothead. William fails in the end at all his assignments. Perhaps Eco is suggesting that reason will prove unequal to the task before it. In any event, William is unable to solve the mystery surrounding the murders until it is too late and catastrophe is inevitable. He also fails to bring about peace between the Pope and the Emperor. There is no confidence in the value of good intentions or even of well-meaning actions in this postmodern fable.

The difference between knights and monks may reveal that Eco does not share Scott’s interest in the soldier or warrior as a cultural ideal. Eco clearly prefers men of learning, people suspiciously like modern-day university professors such as himself. Most of the characters are involved in the world of books. Books are represented as powerful and influential, and they are spoken of respectfully. The library, not the chapel, is the most important part of this monastery. Moreover, this library is constructed as a labyrinth, which contains its own allegory of learning. Books inhabit a place where those who succeed in finding their way in may easily get lost, and never find their way out. To emphasise this meaning of his fable Eco has gone on in his Postscript to The Name of the Rose to speak of different kinds of labyrinths, and to suggest that a rhizome labyrinth is the proper model for his own narrative. With other types of labyrinths there is a beginning and an end, but in a rhizome there is no beginning and no end. There can only be constant but purposeless motion in a rhizome labyrinth as people try to find their way out of their predicaments. But there can never be any success because there is no solution, no way out. The point then of this medieval fable about the postmodern world is that it is not to be understood. What joins us to those who have preceded us is a sense of muddle. Nothing really means anything. The only certainty is death. The only defence we have in the face of such absurdity is laughter, and we may even lose that grace because the grim-eyed fanatics would like to steal that away from us too.

The clearest contrast between the medievalisms of Scott and Eco comes, it seems to me, in the theory of history that is projected by their narratives. For Scott the pull of the Middle Ages was undeniably a potent one, but however powerful the enchantment Scott’s feet were firmly planted in the present, as David Daiches and so many others have pointed out to us time and again. History for Scott represented progress, and in that sense his basic allegiance was to the ongoing legacy of the Enlightenment. His stories are not intended to be at the service of escapism. They function rather to confirm the superiority or betterness, if you will, of the present while allowing their pictures of past realities to criticise our sense of the present, thereby enlarging our possibilities for the future.

History in Eco is quite another matter. History represents decline for Adso. Adso’s text winds into other texts, but into none so clearly and so insistently as into the Book of the Apocalypse. Not only does the Book of the Apocalypse provide the false pattern that was supposed to make sense out of the murders in the monastery: it is embedded in the consciousness of characters, most of whom—Friar William being a singular and important exception—are expecting the end of the world at any moment. Eco’s story does indeed teach a kind of apocalyptic end when a great fire actually does consume the great monastery and its magnificent library. The fire and its mushroom cloud of smoke inevitably lead us to think of a possible nuclear conflagration, and thus of the threat of apocalyptic doom that hangs over our own times. That may be the firmest link Eco sees between our own time and the world of the Middle Ages. The story in The Name of the Rose presents itself as a window into the Middle Ages. It tells of conflict between the Pope and the Emperor, heresy and inquisition, monks and monasticism, factions within the Franciscans. But it eventually becomes clear that what appears to be a window is really a mirror. We may think we are looking back at them, but actually we are only looking at ourselves, and that is how Umberto Eco intended it to be. He seems to have discovered that the best way to make comments on our own times in a telling fashion is to make them teasingly. Thus he distances himself as much as possible from the present, selecting a setting so strange that at least initially there would be no confusion between ourselves and them. This is a highly useful narrative strategy. The medievalness of his narrative allows Eco to eliminate or filter out all the superficial trappings what we consider essential to modern life—the ringing of our phones, the buzz of our TV sets—to focus on those things that are more interesting about us, and probably more important. What we can see in Eco’s mirror includes: a gnawing sense that we are not up to the intellectual challenges we face, either individually or collectively; social and political discontent that comes with an unequal distribution of the world’s goods; a pervading sense of doom because the wizardry of modern science has left us perched on the edge of the abyss, waiting for an end that can come at any time. Laughter is the best weapon we have against all this, and possibly the only one. History for Scott was hope. History for Eco is a struggle against despair.

Source: John J. Burke Jr., “The Romantic Window and the Postmodern Mirror: The Medieval Worlds of Sir Walter Scott and Umberto Eco,” in Scott in Carnival, edited by J. H. Alexander and David Hewitt, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1993, pp. 556–68.

Benjamin A. Fairbank Jr.

In the following essay, Fairbank notes connections between The Name of the Rose and the Sherlock Holmes detective stories.

“It seemed to me, as I read this page, that I had read some of these words before, and some phrases that are almost the same, which I have seen elsewhere, return to my mind?” —William of Baskerville to Adso of Melk

In Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, the protagonist, the detective—monk, the intellectual ascetic from England who unravels the murder mystery in the fourteenth-century Italian monastery, is named William of Baskerville. Of all good English names, why William of Baskerville? It is, of course, to suggest the presence of the spirit of Sherlock Holmes bringing light of reason to the monastery—Eco is broadly insinuating that the preeminent detective of recent history is at hand. It may be possible to write a review or an article about The Name of the Rose without mentioning Sherlock Holmes, but we have yet to see one; no one overlooks the hint of the Baskerville.

As Sherlockians read The Name of the Rose they will surely resonate to a sense of the familiar as the story begins and unfolds—a sense that goes far beyond the name of Baskerville. Although Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice who is the narrator, is writing of his relationship with William of Baskerville when he says

During our time together we did not have occasion to lead a very regular life: even at the abbey we remained up at night and collapsed wearily during the day, nor did we take part regularly in the holy offices,

it is plain that the same passage could apply to another detective, as seen by his biographer-assistant. And that assistant, give or take a consonant or two, was very nearly also named Adso. The similarity between Adso and Watson extends further than their names. Both are removed from the main action of the story by literary devices, and both use their bafflement in the methods of their associates to heighten the suspense before the resolution of the mystery.

In the case of Watson, he stands apart from the direct action in the early stories because of his semi-invalid status caused by the aftereffects of his bullet wound in his shoulder that caused his leg to ache, later because of his removal from Holmes due to his marriage and his increasing medical practice, and throughout the stories because of the intellectual gulf between them. Adso cannot participate as an equal with William of Baskerville because of his youth and inexperience, as well as because of his intellectual inferiority.

Holmes’s well-known remark from The Second Stain, “Now, Watson, the fair sex is your department,” suggests another similarity between Watson and Adso. Adso in The Name of the Rose does indeed make the fair sex his department, although the incident is not a major part of his narrative. Is this in part an artful reference to Watson’s proclivity for womanizing?

Holmes and William of Baskerville share other similarities and abilities. Both enjoy impressing a client with the magnitude of their abilities—not only is that evident throughout the Canon, Holmes admits as much himself in one of the two stories told in the Holmesian first person when he says, in The Blanched Soldier, “I have found it wise to impress clients with a sense of power, and so I gave him some of my conclusions.” William of Baskerville greets a searching party from the monastery with as Holmesian a demonstration of off-the-cuff deductions as one is likely to find anywhere outside the Canon when he gives a full description of a horse he has never seen. Later, William explains his deductions to Adso, just as Holmes typically does to his clients and to Watson.

Yet many of these similarities between Holmes and William could be drawn between Holmes and almost any fictional detective. Sherlock Holmes was, alter all, the prototype detective of literature, second only, perhaps, to Dr. Joseph Bell. Is there more direct evidence that Sherlock Holmes and William of Baskerville are equivalent? Indeed there is. Eco lets his readers know early on that the game is afoot. Truly, as Rosenberg quotes from Congreve in his discussion of Sherlock Holmes, “Naked is the best disguise.” Eco nakedly puts into the account of Adso of Melk the following:

On those occasions a vacant, absent expression appeared in his eyes, and I would have suspected he was in the power of some vegetal substance capable of producing visions if the obvious temperance of his life had not led me to reject this thought.

What? What was that? Have Sherlockians not heard those words before? Do they not arouse a sense of recognition, even déjè vu, a description of another man in another time? One described by Watson in A Study in Scarlet as he said:

On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.

And that, if you please, is in a book translated from Italian into English so that any of Watson’s words from Adso’s pen have been twice translated, once from English to Italian and then back again! The similarities do not end there. Close by we find Watson saying of Holmes

… he was possessed of extraordinary delicacy of touch, as I frequently had occasion to observe when I watched him manipulating his fragile philosophical instruments.

Adso makes a remarkably similar observation: “He possessed, it seemed to me, an extraordinary delicate touch, the same that he used in handling his machines.” Moreover, Adso says, “During our period at the abbey his hands were always covered with the dust of books, the gold of still-fresh illumination, or with yellowish substances he touched in Severinus’s infirmary.”

May we hear from Dr. Watson, please, still in A Study in Scarlet? “His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals… .”

William of Baskerville’s temperament and moodiness also bear distinct similarities to those of Sherlock Holmes. Adso offers:

His energy seemed inexhaustible when a burst of activity overwhelmed him. But from time to time, as if his vital spirit had something of the crayfish, he moved backward in moments of inertia, and I watched him lie for hours on my pallet in my cell, uttering barely a few monosyllables, without contracting a single muscle of his face.

Watson, not to be outdone, observes of Holmes, in the same story cited,

Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night.

Not even William’s appearance escapes implicit comparison with that of Holmes. We find Adso saying of William of Baskerville:

Brother William’s physical appearance was at that time such as to attract the attention of the most inattentive observer. His height surpassed that of a normal man, and he was so thin that he seemed still taller. His eyes were sharp and penetrating; his thin and slightly beaky nose gave his countenance the expression of a man on the lookout, save in certain moments of sluggishness of which I shall speak. His chin also denoted a firm will… .

And as for Holmes? Again in A Study in Scarlet the good doctor observes:

His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.

Come, Messrs. Conan Doyle/Watson and Eco/Adso, have you been speaking of two men or of one?

Other reminders of Holmes’s methods and idiosyncrasies reflected in William’s activities abound in the book—a few more here will illustrate their presence. William, in tutoring Adso in his method, instructs: “My good Adso, during our whole journey I have been teaching you to recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book.” Let it be remembered that one of Holmes’s early articles, in which he set out the fundamentals of his system of observation and deduction (which Watson read with indignant skepticism), was titled, according to Watson in A Study in Scarlet, “The Book of Life.”

William’s disquisition on the solving of mysteries could have been spoken by Holmes himself, and his invitation to Adso to join him in a burglary has a distinctly Holmes-and-Watson ring to it:

“… You provide the lamp. Linger in the kitchen at dinner hour, take one… .”

“A theft?”

“A loan, to the greater glory of the Lord.”

“Then count on me.”

The exchange recalls Holmes’s and Watson’s dialogue as Holmes solicits Watson’s cooperation in his deception of Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia or Holmes’s recruitment of the reluctant Watson for the burglary of 13 Caulfield Gardens, the residence of Hugo Oberstein in The Bruce- Partington Plans.

Williams and Holmes’s difficulties in unraveling the tales told by footprints run along similar lines. First let us hear from Adso:

“A fine mess,” William said, nodding toward the complex pattern of footprints left all around by the monks and the servants. “Snow, dear Adso, is an admirable parchment on which men’s bodies leave very legible writing. But this palimpsest is badly scraped, and perhaps we will read nothing interesting on it.”

Watson had a similar story to tell in repeating Holmes’s remarks about the effects of weather on footprints in this dialogue between Holmes and Stanley Hopkins in The Golden Pince-Nez:

“Tut-tut! Well, then, these tracks upon the grass—were they coming or going!”

“It was impossible to say. There was never any outline.”

“A large foot or a small?”

“You could not distinguish.”

Holmes gave an ejaculation of impatience, “It has been pouring rain and blowing a hurricane ever since,” said he. “It will be harder to read than that palimpsest.”

Similarly, both Holmes and William of Baskerville include among their talents the breaking of secret codes. Holmes easily breaks the secret writing which was designed to resemble a child’s playful drawing (The Dancing Men), while William, using similar methods, breaks a more complex code. Even their respective comments on code-breaking are analogous—“What one man can invent another can discover,” says Holmes, while William paraphrases “… remember this—there is no secret writing that can not be deciphered with a bit of patience.”

The two share a certain vanity or need for appreciation regarding their work. Watson tells us that, at the climax of The Six Napoleons,

A flush of colour sprang to Holmes’s pale cheeks, and he bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience. It was at such moments that for an instant he ceased to be a reasoning machine and betrayed his human love for admiration and applause.

There is much the same spirit in the observation of Adso: “I had already realized that my master, in every respect a man of the highest virtue, succumbed to the vice of vanity when it was a matter of demonstrating his acumen… .”

What, then, is the reader to make of all of this? Why this virtual “Case of Identity” between Sherlock Holmes and William of Baskerville? In part, Eco may be slyly nudging fellow Sherlockians in the ribs, as if to say, “Here, along with everything I have worked into the story for artists, for theologians, for medievalists, for antiquarians, and for everyone else, I have included a few tidbits for you—see what you can find.” (That Eco is an accomplished Sherlockian scholar can be seen from a perusal of the book The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce, which he edited with Thomas A. Sebeok, and to which he contributed a chapter titled “Horns, Hooves, Insteps: Some Hypotheses on Three Types of Abductions.”) Although that may be part of the truth, such an interpretation is insufficient—it trivializes an important aspect of a book that is far too significant to treat as trivial.

While others have noted the general Holmes/Baskerville similarity, as when Rodin and Key say “In sum, there is little doubt that the main character of The Name of the Rose possesses some Sherlockian characteristics,” the virtual identity of the key descriptive passages goes beyond mere general similarity. The question of why Eco draws the parallel so strongly with Holmes remains an intriguing one. Clearly it is not a plagiarism in the sense of lifting something from Doyle which makes his story more valuable than it would otherwise be—he has taken no plot, no action, no locale from Doyle to use as his own. The characters, however, are more than similar; they are identical: in appearance, habits, methods, and manners, William of Baskerville is Sherlock Holmes.

In his Postscript to THE NAME OF THE ROSE, in which he comments on many different aspects of The Name of the Rose, Eco gives a clue as to what he had in mind in drawing the Holmes/William parallel when he says: “I needed an investigator, English, if possible (intertextual quotation), with a great gift of observation and a special sensitivity in interpreting evidence.” He never mentions the Holmes/William parallel more explicitly, although he does state, in the Postscript, that the detective aspect of the story was never intended to be paramount. Is his use of Holmes as his detective a cagey device to titillate Sherlockians? Or is there a deeper meaning in the choice, a meaning perhaps related to Eco’s field of semiotics, the study and theory of symbols, signs, and their meaning?

If the use of Holmes as William is intended as a sign, rather than as a quiet jest, what can Holmes stand for? At a minimum, he stands for the most eminent, successful, and widely known detective of fact or fiction. Other figures in The Name of the Rose are said to be patterned after similarly monumental models. Critics and commentators have seen Pope John Paul II, Jorge Louis Borges, Stalin, and Che Guevara, among others, disguised on Eco’s pages. Eco may be matching giant against giant in his narrative. Many another novelist has used the surface of a narrative to convey other, deeper, ideas—Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain comes to mind as a book about which historians and critics have suggested that the individual characters, their conduct and personalities, represent the countries from which they came, and their interactions in the book mirror the attitudes and actions of the same countries prior to World War I.

Other writers have not hesitated to smuggle hidden characters into their work, sometimes in the most unexpected or original ways. Alan Heimert found parallels to contemporary historical issues and figures hidden in Moby Dick, including even parallels between the appearance and political characteristics of John C. Calhoun and Captain Ahab, and between Moby Dick himself and Daniel Webster. In that work Heimert quotes Emerson as saying “The artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and nation to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow men.” Many of the symbols, most especially including Sherlock Holmes, chosen by Eco for use to convey his ideas transcend day and nation and speak to readers of many nations and modern times, though some be symbols current in the fourteenth century. Writing of a lighter work, Diana Butler has pointed out that Lolita was a butterfly; that Nabakov used fragments of scientific descriptions of a butterfly in creating his word picture of Lolita.

It would be a mistake to try to read too much into the Holmes-Baskerville identity. The identity is just one thread of the tangled skein that makes up The Name of the Rose. To Sherlockians, that thread may seem to dominate, but taken as a whole, The Name of the Rose seems well described by Holmes’s remark in The Speckled Band, “These are very deep waters,” or perhaps better yet by his remark in The Reigate Squires, “These are much deeper waters than I had thought.” The Name of theRose has something for almost everyone. The hints and quotations alluded to here are for Sherlockians; other relevant disciplines will have their own guides to the work.

Finally, note that in the preface Eco implies that books can be lost, quoted, found, hidden, intertwined into other books, and generally mixed up in mysterious ways. He may be telling us that such mixings up of books are part of what we are to look for in The Name of the Rose, an idea which is supported by the quotation which prefaces this article, and by several ideas from the Postscript:

Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known (and have told us again and again): books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told … books are made only from other books and around other books… . Moral: there exist obsessive ideas, they are never personal; books talk among themselvcs, and any true detection should prove that we are the guilty party.

The Sherlockian passages presumably are only one group of hidden quotations among many. If so, who is to say how much more gold, how many more hidden books, are to be mined from the same source? Such mining, if it is to be successful, may have to resemble the process of finding a wax vesta buried in the mud, the topic of a conversation between Holmes and Inspector Gregory during the investigation of the murder of John Straker in Silver Blaze:

Source: Benjamin A. Fairbank Jr., “William of Baskerville and Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Identity,” in Baker Street Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2, June 1990, pp. 83–90.

Brendan O’Mahony

In the following essay, O’Mahony, in an attempt to arrive at the hidden moral of The Name of the Rose, explores the dialectical thread running from fanaticism to humor in the story.

I no longer know what it is about.

The reaction of many people to this monumental, labyrinthine novel written in the form of a fourteenth-century manuscript by the world renowned semiotician, Umberto Eco, has been a certain frustration or puzzlement, especially at what the brief Epilogue on the last page seems to suggest: “I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about: stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus [the primal rose remains in name, we retain only pure names].” The final phrase echoes the mysterious title of the book.

It is frustrating to read a bulky, sophisticated, indeed encyclopaedic novel, only to find at the end an admission by the chronicler that he no longer knows what it is about. But I refuse to accept such an admission at face value, and consider that Eco means something quite different from what the text says. I do not exclude the possibility that Eco wrote the novel in a spirit of playfulness; but he brought all his erudition as a historian, philosopher, aesthetician, literary scholar and first-class linguistician to bear on perfecting it. He researched the early fourteenth century thoroughly and attended to extraordinary detail. Despite the violence, general turmoil and complexity, the novel has a message—benign, but serious, perhaps even uncomfortable.

To attempt an interpretation of the novel may be hazardous, in that it may give the impression of trying to say how the book should be interpreted, in a normative fashion. In that regard I am forewarned by what Eco says elsewhere, namely, that the novel is a vehicle for generating interpretations, and by his own refusal to supply a particular interpretation. As a reader, however, one is entitled to attempt an interpretation, conscious that it is not the only one.

My first reaction to the novel was that it was an elaborate joke, a prank in which Eco the linguistician amused himself by reconstructing a typical medieval manuscript, but not baulking at the inclusion of twentieth-century elements, from Joyce and Borges to Wittgenstein; and that he unleashed it on an unsuspecting popular readership (who apparently—and conveniently—found it entertaining) in the form of a detective story. As I read on, however, I began to feel that the work was laced through with serious intent. This was confirmed when William announced that “in this story things greater and more important than the battle between John [the Pope] and Louis [the Emperor] may be at stake.” The story always seemed to be going in two directions at once: while playful, it was serious; despite its historical setting, it spoke of and to our times; it was part factual, part fictional; “behind a veil of mirth it concealed secret moral lessons.” Eco was recreating the fourteenth-century world, but ironically —using actual historical events (e.g. the Inquisition, the disputes about poverty) and identifiable personalities of that period (such as the Franciscans William of Ockham and Roger Bacon of Oxford, Pope John XXII at Avignon, King Philip of France, et al.), but also fictitious characters and a fictitious chronicler of the epoch. He had given the story a historical setting, but it was his story. So it was only quasihistorical, in the style of Manzoni’s I promessi sposi. And like Manzoni’s masterpiece (and so many classic medieval comic stories), it appeared to contain a serious moral. My question thus became one about the content of the book, not about its literary form: “what is this moral lesson?”

After a second reading, I wondered if the potpourri of “marketable” ingredients that is The Name of the Rose (with its murders, tortures, executions, sex, money, religion, witchcraft, magic, and so on) could be unified in terms of one overall theme, a single Ariadne’s thread which would lead us through the labyrinth of the novel. Eventually I decided that it could, and that the thread took the shape of a single dialectical movement, which Eco had orchestrated in an enormously diversified range of conflicts. I wanted to call the work a “Tractatus contra zelotes”, or an “Apologia for Humour”, or perhaps “A Feast of Fools” (an expression used in the novel).

The negative pole of the dialectical movement in the novel is fanaticism. Eco’s work is full of fanatics and of obsessions of all kinds. Some of the monks are fanatics for learning, for example Benno, who has a “lust for knowledge … knowledge for its own sake,” “an insatiable curiosity” for secular or profane as well as religious scholarship, for science and exegesis. The monks in the monastery would do anything, literally take any means, including murder, to acquire knowledge. It is even suggested that young Adelmo might have surrendered his comely body to the lusts of the passionate Berengar in exchange for secret knowledge. Some monks have an obsession for interpretations of the Apocalypse, and there are those who are obsessed with the Abbey Library, which looms so large in the plot: old Jorge of Burgos, for instance, the Library’s blind guardian turned assassin. There are some who are fanatically against homosexuals, as was common at the time. There are fanatical religious, notably the Spirituals or Fraticelli, who were fanatics for the simple life and poverty; while the Flagellantes were fanatics for flogging, for self-inflicted penance. There are reformers, who were so fanatical that they burnt down the houses and belongings of others, only to be branded, in their turn, for heresy and burnt at the stake, going to their death with their truth intact. Remigio, we are told, has a “lust for death.” On the other hand, there is the fanaticism of those who crave for power and wealth, in both Church and State—“our holy and no longer Roman Pontiff lusts for riches”—and the fanaticism of the ecclesiastical and civil authorities, carrying out bloody massacres on any band of dissidents, be they Waldensians, Cathars, Fraticelli or Dolcinians. Both were tyrannical institutions, which demanded conformity. Their power lay not only in wealth and force, but in surrounding themselves with secrecy (creating the division of thosewho-know and the outsiders-who-do-not-know through the myths of élitism and gnosticism) and in instilling fear (by reprisals on opposition, official sanction, excommunication leading to execution, and an elaborate spy system). And the Church, of course, could add the power of guilt.

The novel portrays all these fanaticisms in action, coming into conflict with one another, because people take themselves too seriously. But while the powerful and fanatical guardians of tradition ban other fanatics to the margins of society, they themselves live in fear of something—of a knowledge that would lead to freedom.

Almost from the beginning of the novel, Eco cleverly introduces one weapon which, if released, would undermine the fact that each side is taking itself too seriously; which would combat the loss of freedom and break down fanaticism and fear. That weapon is humour. Humour enables people to set up a distance between themselves and their attitudes so that they might get a healthy perspective on their “truth”. And so we are presented with a spiral of comic deflations. This is the antithesis in the dialectical movement.

Dramatically, this focal concern for interjecting humour takes the most unexpected form of a hunt for a missing Greek manuscript, the missing second book of Aristotle’s Poetics dealing with comedy, elaborately hidden in the labyrinth of the enormous library. This is the forbidden book. It is shielded by Jorge, the eighty-year-old, stern traditionalist, whose sight is turned inward (he is blind) and for whom laughter is demonic.

There is a scene in which Friar William is involved in a serious discussion with the monks about the licitness of laughter. He argues that comedy and laughter can be good medicine and instructive, and that it is a typically human (as opposed to animal) characteristic. Jorge argues, on the contrary, that the fact that “laughter is proper to man is a sign of our limitation,” that Scripture never refers to the man Jesus as laughing. His refrain, “that Christ did not laugh,” is the revered position of the Gospel and the Fathers of the Church. That is the truth, the tradition that must be preserved. He points out that only corrupt, sacrilegious parodies of Scripture, like the Coena Cypriani (an ironic account of the Last Supper attributed to St Cyprian) extol comedy, in the tradition of the ioca monachorum, forbidden reading for novices and young monks, in which everything is described as real but upside down. Only in works like these do you find stories about Jesus joking with the Apostles. William retorts that St Francis of Assisi too “taught people to look at things from another direction.”

Another manuscript in the library among the banned books, the work of a third-century Egyptian alchemist, attributes the creation of the world to divine laughter. But William is curious as to why Jorge wants to shield the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics from everyone, more so than any of the other works which praise laughter. Jorge’s reply is instructive: “Because it was by the Philosopher [i.e. Aristotle]. Every book by that man has destroyed a part of the learning that Christianity had accumulated over the centuries … Every word of the Philosopher, by whom even saints [e.g. Aquinas] … swear, has overturned the image of the world. But he had not succeeded in overturning the image of God. If this book … had become an object for open interpretation, we would have crossed the last boundary.” But Jorge has another reason, which Aristotle understood only too well when he argued that the seriousness of opponents must be deflated with laughter. Jorge says: “Law is imposed by fear. This book would define laughter as the new art … for cancelling fear.” Aristotle’s philosophy would provide a rational justification for what Jorge calls “the marginal jests of the debauched imagination,” whereas Christian tradition “favoured the restraint and intimidation of the effects of laughter by sternness.” Elevated to an art by Aristotle, this comic deflation could be turned on the noble and praiseworthy. Aristotle considered comedy to be a great antidote to fear, but Jorge is afraid of our redemption from fear.

William argues emphatically for the defusion by means of humour or comedy of the lust for the preservation of truth so sternly upheld by Jorge, of this fanaticism for tradition. “Perhaps,” he says, “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.” This alone, he maintains, can save us from becoming “slaves of our ghosts.”

We have thus moved from fanaticism as the negative pole or thesis, to a unique means for breaking it down, namely humour, which becomes the antithesis. The question remains: “what is the positive pole, the synthesis, to which the dialectic now aspires?” I think it can be summed up in the following terms: tolerance, and the celebration of true freedom from the tyranny of absolutes and the fear of repression.

Tolerance is sought on different levels in the novel, one of which concerns the outcast. There are several poignant pleas for bringing the outcast, the marginals of society, heretics and homosexuals, symbolized by the lepers, back into the flock so that they are integrated. William remarks: “The people of God cannot be changed until the outcasts are restored to its body.” There is a further appeal when William and Adso discuss alleged heresies, how they originate and how to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy. Heretics, according to William, are those who are excluded from the closed circle of the so-called faithful: “The recovery of the outcasts demanded the reduction of the privileges of the powerful, so the excluded who became aware of their exclusion had to be branded as heretics… . All heresies are the banner of a reality, an exclusion. Scratch the heresy and you will find the leper. Every battle against heresy wants only this: to keep the leper as he is.” Adso had been surprised that William, a Franciscan, should not consider that St Francis had succeeded in integrating the outcast. Had he not been the first to go among the lepers? William had replied: “Francis wanted to call the outcast … to be part of the people of God. If the flock was to be gathered again, the outcasts had to be found again. Francis didn’t succeed, and I say it with great bitterness. To recover the outcasts he had to act within the Church, he had to obtain the recognition of his Rule, from which an Order would emerge, and this Order, as it emerged, would recompose the image of a circle, at whose margin the outcasts remain.”

The theme recurs in a different context, when William is debating with the Pope’s legation from Avignon. He attacks the tyranny of both Church and State, outlining his concept of a democratically elected government, with legislative power in the hands of the citizens who could express their will by means of “an elective general assembly.” Then he rounds on the exercise of authority in the Church, condemning its involvement in civil administration; and, quoting the example of Christ, who came on earth to serve, not to be served, he adds: “… Christ … did not come into this world to command, but to be subject to the conditions he found in the world … He did not want the apostles to have command and dominion.” From this William draws the conclusion that it seems wise that “the successors of the apostles should be relieved of any worldly or coercive power.” Religion is an area of freedom. One cannot be coerced to believe either by torture or threat of execution. If coercive measures have to be taken against a heretic whose action harms the community of the faithful, then having warned him, one should hand him over to the secular arm. If Christ had willed that his Church have coercive powers, then, “Christianity would no longer be a law of freedom, but one of intolerable slavery.”

This, then, is one level on which the story pleads for tolerance and a restoration of the freedom of the children of God.

Eco approaches the same theme of tolerance and freedom from the point of view of the thirst for truth and certainty in knowledge. This is a typical motif of the detective story (“How do I know I know?”, “How can I be so sure?”), and it anticipates a certain reply: that there is some way I can be sure. It is also an ideological question, and a problem with a long and chequered history in philosophy. Eco makes it clear what has influenced him on this point: two fourteenth-century Franciscan philosophers from Oxford University, the Nominalist William of Ockham and Roger Bacon. The classical realist notion of truth as adaequatio intellectus ad rem—“the adjustment between the thing and the intellect,” or the conformity of our mind with what is (i.e. the given order in the universe)—was already on the decline with philosophers like Ockham; and it is Ockham whom our William echoes when he claims that there is no order in the universe. This scandalizes Adso, who has a nostalgia for order. But order is now seen to derive partly at least from one’s mind’s capacity to regulate and introduce order, so that one’s perspective on the universe becomes increasingly important. The middle-aged William is constantly in doubt, not sure of himself any more, as he had been when, as a young Inquisitor, he handed down judgements of life and death. As if regretting the passing of his early devotion to certainty and truth, based on an independent world-order, he says: “at a time when as a philosopher I doubt the world has an order, I am consoled to discover, if not an order, at least a series of connections in small areas of the world’s affairs.” This is a reference to William of Ockham’s undermining of the classical principle of causality (according to which everything that begins to be must have a cause) and of the power of reason to justify a necessary connection in this principle, reducing it to a simple connection between cause and effect to which we grow accustomed by constant “association”.

If Ockham sowed the seeds of the scepticism so typical of the modern period in philosophy (which begins with Descartes’s methodological doubt in the seventeenth century), Roger Bacon is the late-medieval precursor of the New Science, with its emphasis on methods of observation and experiment. He drew up Categories which were laws of the mind, telling us how we perceive reality. He developed Optics so as to improve on Nature, to correct “the errors of nature,” like William’s eye-glasses. In science there is a definite method, parameters are drawn and one works within a certain framework. Truth is known within that framework, provided one moves coherently, becoming a matter of “coherence” within a given system. This puts paid to the classical view of absolute truth, universally valid for all men at all times and all places, or to so-called eternal verities.

Adso notices William’s reluctance to give a single answer, but does not understand. He is still too young to have acquired that stage of learned ignorance (ignorantia docta) in which “I know that I do not know—any longer.” “I understood at that moment my master’s method of reasoning and it seemed to me quite alien to that of the philosopher who reasons by first principles, so that his intellect almost assumes the ways of the divine intellect.” The innocent Adso then plucks up the courage to say to William: “Therefore you don’t have a single answer?” William replies:

“Adso, if I did, I would teach theology in Paris.”

“In Paris do they always have the true answer?”

“Never,” William said, “but they are very sure of their errors.”

“And you, … never commit errors?”

“Often… . But instead of conceiving only one, I imagine many, so I become a slave to none.”

William plays with many possibilities of meaning, following clues and trying to see connections, which makes Adso despair of his master, for he himself is on the side of “that thirst for truth” that inspires the Inquisitors.

The point Eco is making here is that, if one is sure that one possesses absolute truth or eternal verity, then one cannot easily tolerate another possibility of truth; and if one does not agree, then the other must be wrong. In that age, the operative axiomatic principle was that Error has no rights. This is a formula for intolerance and it justified the atrocities of the Inquisition and the Crusades. Non-conformists had to be excluded or eliminated. If, however, the subjects of rights are neither truth nor error, but persons, then, although people may differ, they have a right to their beliefs. They have a right even to be wrong. If each side claims absolute truth, there is an inevitable clash of contradictory opposites, and no dialectic is possible. Progress can be made only by the elimination of one side or the other.

The question of truth, therefore, is not only one of knowledge (“How do I know that I know?”), but a moral one (“How do I know I am right?”, and correspondingly, “How do I know you are wrong?”). Here, the dividing line is even more blurred. Grey areas increase. All now depends on my system of values, whence it is derived, and how I apply it in my situation, as well as your set of values and your situation. If I, or rather, any institution considers itself to be in possession of indubitable truth about right and wrong on the basis of revelation; and further, if it considers that there is no room for change or progress, one cannot argue with it. It becomes fanatical in ensuring that error, which has no rights, is stamped out. In the novel, William admits that, as he matures, he can no longer clearly distinguish between right and wrong, the sinner and the mystic. He is taking his cue from both Aristotle and Scripture. It is a central tenet of Aristotle’s moral philosophy that only the virtuous man can recognize what is right; and Scripture says: “Judge not and you shall not be judged” (Luke 6:37). Here again we find an intimation that absolute rights and wrongs are hard to come by, which reads as a further plea for tolerance.

The question also raises the matter of religious beliefs and practices, of orthodoxy and heresy. William suggests that the lust for orthodoxy can be transformed into heresy, and that heresy brought under control becomes orthodoxy. The clash between orthodoxy and heresy is typified for us by a conflict over the Koran between the traditionalist Adso, who calls the Koran “the Bible of the infidels, a perverse book”—the librarians had classified it, along with books of natural science, under “books of falsehood”—and William, who replies by referring to the Koran as “a book containing a wisdom different from ours.” William’s plea is for religious tolerance, not in a negative sense, but meaning respect for another’s path, i.e. religious freedom.

Many modern thinkers, since Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, have had a horror of absolutes. For them, there is no single, over-arching metaphysical or religious truth in the light of which a person can say: “I know that I know.” They argue that there are different systems, different perspectives, and that one must not be a slave to any one of them and intolerant of the rest. No one has a monopoly of truth. Whoever claims he does, does not allow truth to emerge in history. He wants, like Jorge, to “preserve” the truth already possessed. And so, the conflict goes on, as the suppression of truth is unabated; and the dialectical movement of the novel passes into the present and stretches indefinitely into the future.

Having followed the dialectical movement of The Name of the Rose, we are now in a position to discern something or Eco’s serious intent, the “moral” of his story, and to interpret what he means when he says at the end: “I no longer know what it [the manuscript] is about.” Just as Beckett might ask: “what does it matter who speaks?”, Eco is saying: “what does it matter who the author is, or what his authority might be to speak?” It is we, the readers, with our obsessive ideas, who are the villains of the piece. We are the culprits who have and spread those attitudes of fear, intolerance, guilt, shame, narrow-mindedness, bias, hatred, fanaticism and repression, which prevent truth from emerging—that truth which would set us free. We imagine that we are innocent, but we all stand accused, like the community and guests of the monastery, on whom Jorge, in his final sermon, passes sentence. “All of you no doubt believe that … these sad events [murders] have not involved your soul,” and that all but one are innocent. “Madmen and presumptuous fools you are!” “The Antichrist, when he comes, comes in all and for all, and each one is a part of him.”

Eco seems to be saying that no one can claim to stand innocent, with unsullied hands, in a blood-stained world: “Pilate wandered around the refectory like a lost soul asking for water to wash his hands.” Like Pilate, we cannot wash our hands clean, we are all guilty. There is no particular culprit; we, the readers, are the assassins. That is the final irony.

Source: Brendan O’Mahony, “The Name of the Rose: ‘Tractatus Contra Zelotes,’” in Italian Storytellers: Essays on Italian Narrative Literature, edited by Eric Haywood and Cormac O’Cuilleanain, Foundation for Italian Studies, 1989, pp. 229–42.


Biasin, Gian-Paolo, Review of Il nome della rosa, in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer 1981, pp. 449–50.

Bondanella, Peter, “‘To Make Truth Laugh’: Postmodern Theory and Practice in The Name of the Rose,” in Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 93–125.

Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, New Directions, 1964, p. 3.

Copleston, Frederick C., Medieval Philosophy, Harper Torchbooks, 1961, p. 121.

D’Amico, Masolino, “Medieval Mirth,” in the Times Literary Supplement, January 9, 1981, p. 29.

De Lauretis, Teresa, “Gaudy Rose: Eco and Narcissism,” in Reading Eco: An Anthology, edited by Rocco Capozzi, Indiana University Press, 1997, p. 243.

Dirda, Michael, “The Letter Killeth and the Spirit Giveth Life,” in Book World–The Washington Post, June 19, 1983, pp. 5, 14.

Eco, Umberto, The Name of the Rose, translated by William Weaver, with Author’s Postscript, Harcourt, 1994.

Farronato, Cristina, Eco’s Chaosmos: From the Middle Ages to Postmodernity, University of Toronto Press, 2003, p. 13.

Haft, Adele J., Jane G. White, and Robert J. White, The Key to “The Name of the Rose,” University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 175.

Key, Jonathan, “Maps and Territories: Eco Crossing the Boundary,” in Illuminating Eco: On the Boundaries of Interpretation, edited by Charlotte Ross and Rochelle Sibley, Ashgate, 2004, p. 16.

Martín, Jorge Hernández, Readers and Labyrinths: Detective Fiction in Borges, Bustos Domecq, and Eco, Garland Publishing, 1995, pp. 150–51.

Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003, p. 219.

Richter, David, “The Mirrored World: Form and Ideology in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose,” in Reading Eco: An Anthology, edited by Rocco Capozzi, Indiana University Press, 1997, pp. 256–75.

Sibley, Rochelle, “Aspects of the Labyrinth in The Name of the Rose: Chaos and Order in the Abbey Library,” in Illuminating Eco: On the Boundaries of Interpretation, edited by Charlotte Ross and Rochelle Sibley, Ashgate, 2004, pp. 28–29.

Further Reading

Eco, Umberto, “How and Why I Write,” in Umberto Eco’s Alternative: The Politics of Culture and the Ambiguities of Interpretation, edited by Norma Bouchard and Veronica Pravadelli, Peter Lang Publishers, 1998, pp. 282–302.

Eco offers an excellent first person account of his writing process, describing how he first builds a world for his novels.

Eco, Umberto, and Thomas A. Sebeok, The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce, Indiana University Press, 1983.

Eco and Sebeok have assembled a collection of ten essays examining the method of abduction in the works of Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes, and American semiotician Charles S. Peirce.

Inge, M. Thomas, ed., Naming the Rose: Essays on Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” University Press of Mississippi, 1988.

Inge has collected ten essays by noted scholars as well as a preliminary checklist of Eco criticism in English, current to 1988.

Radford, Gary P., On Eco, Thomson/Wadsworth, 2003.

Radford provides a cogent and comprehensive introduction to the thinking of Umberto Eco.

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