Set in the late medieval period during the Avignon papacy, The Name of the Rose narrates the mysterious and daily deaths of monks in the monastery where a papal delegation and the leaders of a poverty movement are meeting. It is a book about words: pious, deadly, heretical, hypocritical, veiled, and valuable words. At the same time, it is a book about ideas, because the ideas are conveyed through the words. Likewise, it is a book about world views. Is pious thought of paramount importance? What is pious thought? What makes a heresy? If there are heresies, should their ideas be censored or allowed to propagate?

The discussion begins as Adso, then a novice sent as the assistant of William of Baskerville, relates how William introduces himself to the abbey with a Sherlock Holmes deduction from invisible details concerning an escaped horse of the abbot’s. It is fortunate that he is a mystery solver, because one of the monks mysteriously committed suicide the evening before. Detective activities commence and we learn that the largest library in Christendom is housed in a labyrinth, that the librarian Malachi has a suspicious disinclination to dispense books on certain subjects, that his apprentice has a certain hunger about him, and that the blind Jorge fervently believes that the Apocalypse is upon us.

Sadly, the night the scholarly Venantius is found dead in the pigs blood originally destined for puddings, although he did not die there. We find that the assistant, Berengar, had a certain love of the first deceased monk, and that Venantius wrote a coded message in invisible ink in the margins of the notes for the book he was translating, and that old Alindardo knows the entrance to the labyrinthine library (behind the altar with the skulls). William and Adso look at Venantius’ papers in the evening, along with an unknown third party, who steals a book from Venantius’ desk and Williams reading lenses. They enter the labyrinth and are lucky to find their way out.

The next night Adso goes to the library by himself and, coming down, discovers a peasant girl, who has, as it is discovered later, sold herself for food, but preferred Adso. In the morning Berengar is found in the bath, with black stains on his tongue.
William discovers that Severinus, the herbalist, had a potent vial of poison given to him that disappears when his storehouse door became strangely unfashioned during a storm. William decodes Vanantius’ message, which says something about finis Africae. He evokes a confession from the cellarer that he has a certain passion for the village women. He logics a map of the library and they enter it again, are not lost, and find finis Africae but do not know the secret of entry. As Adso remarks, this library seems withhold truth rather than dispense it as would seem to be the purpose of a library.

William is not at the abbey to solve a mystery, however. He is at the abbey for political reasons, representing the Holy Roman Emperor for the Friars Minor, who hold that Christ was poor and wish their monastic sect to do likewise. Pope John, who is accused of loving money and power while verbally saying otherwise, finds this sect disturbing and makes life dangerous for them. A delegation from the Pope is meeting with a delegation from the poverty movement (sponsored by the Emperor, who would be happy if the Church were poorer and less potent politically) at the abbey to discuss terms for a meeting between the Pope and the representative of the movement, Michael of Cesena.

As is gradually explained, there has been a reaction against the Church’s wealth and power, originally by the Benedictines, but since they became wealthy and powerful, by the Minorites. The Minorites merely wish to be permitted to live in poverty, but have been branded as heretics by the Pope. This is partly because the simple (i.e the masses) are unable to distinguish orthodoxy and are naturally misled by those claiming a Minorite viewpoint, but in the notorious case of Fra Dolcino, really a group rebelling against authority (literally and rather bloodily). However, the threat that a group claiming poverty has on the wealthy Church is no small part, either.

So there are several competing ideas. The first is the wealthy and powerful Pope, who is able to define and enforce orthodoxy. The second is the Minorite view that one should be free to practice what Christ so obviously taught. Brother William subscribes to a variant of this, namely that the Church should be in charge of spiritual laws but not temporal ones (as the Emperor would naturally desire). Finally there are the monks, who wish to preserve the truth of God so that the people can maintain their faith in God.

Adso discovers over the course of his stay in the monastery a wide range of grey. William at one end, perhaps not entirely orthodox in his freedom of ideas; Ubertino, a Minorite rather wistful of women and fond of the Virgin Mary, who is on the edge of heresy yet still orthodox; the abbot whose subconscious love of riches is revealed by his pious soliloquies on the language of beautiful things but firmly orthodox; the librarians, who are hiding secrets written in books, unwilling to destroy a book whose value they recognize but whose ideas they see as too dangerous; and finally, the Inquisitors, enforcers of truth.

The cellarer’s servant is discovered performing folk magic, and when Severinus is murdered, the papal legation assumes authority over the abbey, conducts a farce of a predetermined trial of the cellarer himself, who it is discovered to have been a member of Fra Dolcino’s murderous band. In fact, it seems he was one of the simple who was misled and left after the truth became perhaps too obvious. Malachi reveals he was carrying a (undelivered) letter from Fra Dolcino and under pressure from the Inquisitor, the cellarer decides that, as long as he is destined to die as a heretic, he might as well actually be one, performs his final act of rebellion before being imprisoned. In this climate, an agreement of protection for Michael is simply out of the question.

Benno, suspected of taking the book that seemed to have found its way to Severinus’ lab, is appointed assistant library at Compline and the abbot decides to avoid potential scrutiny for heresy in his message and appoints Jorge to give it, who gives a terrifying warning of the portentous trumpets announcing the Antichrist: Hail (the first monk died in a hailstorm), blood (Venantius was found in blood), floods (Berengar), the third part of the sky (Severinus was killed with an armillary sphere, i.e. mace). The fifth trumpet, scorpions of fire makes itself known as Malachi stumbles into Matins, late, and dead.

Brother William tells the abbot of his current thinking and the abbot commands him to halt his investigations, which he does not. Adso unwittingly leads William to the correct train of thought as well as the secret to understanding Ventantius’ notes on finis Africae, they enter the library for the final time and discover finis Africae and Jorge. Jorge is himself a protector of the truth, as the library holds the only, hitherto unknown copy of Aristotle’s rumored second volume of Poetics, discoursing on laughter. Too many of Aristotle’s ideas lead to a lessoning of the simple Biblical explanations, but if there is an ideological framework for laughing at an idea in an attempt to understand its significance that is quite dangerous. For if one can laugh at the Resurrection, one can render it meaningless. Thus the idea must be stamped out.

Jorge used Severinus’ potion to paint the pages of the book. They stuck together, so the monks, reading the forbidden text in the forbidden library, would wet their finger to separate the pages and, to the extent they wanted knowledge, would poison themselves. Jorge, having failed to persuade William and failed to trick him, for William wore gloves and had deduced the poison, began to destroy the book, ripping the pages out and eating them. William chased after him, wanting to save the book and in the struggle, Jorge knocks over the oil lamp, setting fire to the ancient, dusty, dry, and rather incendiary parchments. The library quickly blazes and although William tries to carry water himself and Adso rings the church bell to alert the abbey, without the leadership of the abbot (whom Jorge had trapped in a secret passage), the monks could not decide on a course of action before the magnificent library was lost. With the stormy winds, the magnificent cathedral-church and the rest of the abbey follow the firey destruction predicted of the defeat of the Antichrist at Armageddon.

Although written in a piously orthdox style, set in a pious and orthodox monastery, the story is a ringing critique of thoughtless orthodoxy, of enforced ideology. The “justice” of the Inquisitor led to three deaths by people largely innocent of heresy and the protectionism of ideas led to the destruction of them. An Italian novel, translated in beautifully archaic, yet modern, English, it obliquely critiques the modern Catholic Church, which has maintained its dogmatic orthodoxy, if not entirely its power and wealth.

Perhaps because I saw the movie a long time ago and knew the plot, I found the two parts of the book somewhat disjoint. On the one hand, there was the main plot, the mystery, intruiging even to one who vaguely remembers the unfortunate ending. Yet the theme of the book was mostly expressed in the discussions concerning the papal legation and the past events leading up to it. Some creeps in at the beginning, and it becomes clear at the end, but a few interesting tidbits of anachronistic modern thinking expounded by William are all that creep into the main plot. Admittedly, the church history takes up a rather large section of the book, but since it is an esoteric discussion unrelated to the plot it is somewhat boring.

It is, however, a magnificent piece of historical fiction which apparently breathed life back into the genre. Although set in a rather localalized time period, the scope is, nonetheless, epic, with ideas developed over long stretches of time meeting in a temporal nexus clothed by vivid descriptions of buildings and people. Anyone who has lived the Christian life and read the overly pious monastic writings, orthodox and somehow irrelevant, will find the characters and setting to be especially believable. Those thoughtful readers willing to distill the message will find a subtle critique of the Church, which while only the standard modern reactionary ideas, still offers a thoughtful picture counteracting the natural tendency of faith to become dogmatic.
Review: 8.9
Captures the monastic style quite vividly. The English translator did an excellent job, although footnotes for the Latin would be appreciated by the less scholarly of us. Human nature, is captured beautifully and very believably. Unfortunately, while Brother William’s modern ideas are eloquently expressed in medieval thoughts, they occasionally reveal themselves in sharp contrast to the setting. More problematic is the lack of integration of the ideological discussions and the main text. It is quite noticeable and leaves even the reader interested in the message wishing that they were shorter and we could get back to the plot. A gorgeous setting, but once the mystery and themes are known, it somehow it doesn’t leave me wanting to re-read it and so it falls short of the top ranks.

Interesting ideas

  • People immersed in books and learning may commit crimes for the sake of knowledge (especially if knowledge is scarce).
  • People who create books (or knowledge) may not be able to destroy them, even if they hate their contents.