The Name of the Rose  

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"Laughter kills fear, and without fear there can be no faith, because without fear of the Devil, there is no need of God." -- Jorge de Burgos, explaining his hatred for comedy.

"Since the publication of The Name of the Rose I have received a number of letters from readers who want to know the meaning of the final Latin hexameter, and why this hexameter inspired the book's title. I answer that the verse is from De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Morlay, a twelfth-century Benedictine, whose poem is a variation on the "ubi sunt" theme (most familiar in Villon's later "Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan"). But to the usual topos (the great of yesteryear, the once-famous cities, the lovely princesses: everything disappears into the void), Bernard adds that all these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them. I remember that Abelard used the example of the sentence "Nulla rosa est" to demonstrate how language can speak of both the nonexistent and the destroyed." postscript to The Name of the Rose

"The title may also an allusion to the nominalist position in the problem of universals, taken by William of Ockham. According to nominalism, universals are bare names: there is not a universal rose, only the name rose."--Sholem Stein

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The Name of the Rose (1980) is the first novel by Italian author Umberto Eco. It is a historical murder mystery set in an Italian monastery in the year 1327, an intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory. First published in Italian in 1980, it appeared in English in 1983. It was adapted to film in 1986, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Sean Connery as William of Baskerville and Christian Slater as Adso.

The plot revolves around the lost book on Comedy, the second book of the Aristotle's Poetics, of which the demented monk Jorge (played by Feodor Chaliapin, Jr. in the film) has smeared the pages with poison which will kill anyone who reads this 'forbidden book'.


Plot summary

Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his novice Adso of Melk travel to a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy to attend a theological disputation. As they arrive, the monastery is disturbed by a suicide. As the story unfolds, several other monks die under mysterious circumstances. William is tasked by the abbot of the monastery to investigate the deaths, and fresh clues with each murder victim lead William to dead ends and new clues. The protagonists explore a labyrinthine medieval library, discuss the subversive power of laughter, and come face to face with the Inquisition, a reaction to the Waldensians, a movement which was started in the 12th century and advocated an adherence to the Gospel as taught by Jesus and his disciples. William's innate curiosity and highly developed powers of logic and deduction provide the keys to unraveling the mysteries of the abbey.


Primary characters
At the monastery

Major themes

Eco, being a semiotician, is hailed by semiotics students who like to use his novel to explain their discipline. The techniques of telling stories within stories, partial fictionalization, and purposeful linguistic ambiguity are all apparent. The solution to the central murder mystery hinges on the contents of Aristotle's book on Comedy, of which no copy survives; Eco nevertheless plausibly describes it and has his characters react to it appropriately in their medieval setting – which, though realistically described, is partly based on Eco's scholarly guesses and imagination. It is virtually impossible to untangle fact / history from fiction / conjecture in the novel. Through the motive of this lost and possibly suppressed book which might have aestheticized the farcical, the unheroic and the skeptical, Eco also makes an ironically slanted plea for tolerance and against dogmatic or self-sufficient metaphysical truths – an angle which reaches the surface in the final chapters.

Umberto Eco is a significant postmodernist theorist and The Name of the Rose is a postmodern novel. The quote in the novel, "books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told," refers to a postmodern idea that all texts perpetually refer to other texts, rather than external reality. In true postmodern style, the novel ends with uncertainty: "very little is discovered and the detective is defeated" (postscript). William of Baskerville solves the mystery in part by mistake; he thought there was a pattern but it in fact, numerous "patterns" were involved and combined with haphazard mistakes by the killers. William concludes in fatigue that there "was no pattern". Thus Eco turns the modernist quest for finality, certainty and meaning on its head, leaving the overall plot partly the result of accident and arguably without meaning. Even the novel's title alludes to the possibility of many meanings or of nebulous meaning; Eco saying in the Postscript he chose the title "because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left".


Much attention has been paid to the mystery of what the title of the novel refers to. In fact, Eco has stated that his intention was to find a "totally neutral title". In one version of the story, when he had finished writing the novel, Eco hurriedly suggested some ten names for it and asked a few of his friends to choose one. They chose The Name of the Rose. Umberto Eco. In another version of the story, Eco had wanted the neutral title Adso of Melk, but that was vetoed by his publisher, and then the title The Name of the Rose "came to me virtually by chance."

The book's last line, "Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus" translates as: "The primordial rose abides only in its name; we hold names stripped." The general sense, as Eco pointed out, was that from the beauty of the past, now disappeared, we hold only the name. In this novel, the lost "rose" could be seen as Aristotle's book on comedy (now forever lost), the exquisite library now destroyed, or the beautiful peasant girl now dead. We only know them by the description Adso provides us — we only have the name of the book on comedy, not its contents. As Adso points out at the end of the fifth day, he does not even know the name of the peasant girl to lament her. Does this mean she does not endure at all?

Perhaps this is a deliberate mis-translation. This quote has also been translated as "Yesterday's Rome stands only in name, we hold only empty names". This line is a verse by twelfth century monk Bernard of Cluny (also known as Bernard of Morlaix). Medieval manuscripts of this line are not in agreement (but the best are secure for Roma). Roma here introduces a "false" quantity, with a short-o for the Classical long-o; thus, a foolish scribe, or a mere fool, wrote the "Classically impeccable" rosa, which betrays the overall context and flexible prosody of Bernard. Eco quotes one Medieval variant verbatim, but Eco was not aware at the time of the text more commonly printed in modern editions, in which the reference is to Rome (Roma), not to a rose (rosa). The alternative text, with its context, runs: Nunc ubi Regulus aut ubi Romulus aut ubi Remus? [Remus here also has a "false" long-e]/ Stat Roma pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus. This translates as "Where now is Regulus, or Romulus, or Remus? / Primordial Rome abides only in its name; we hold names stripped (of presence)". See the new excellent source edition of 2009: Bernard of Cluny, De contemptu mundi: Une vision du monde vers 1144, ed. and trans. A. Cresson, Témoins de notre histoire (Turnhout, 2009), p. 126 (bk. 1, 952), and note thereto p. 257.

Also the title of the book has been inspired by a poem written by the Mexican poet and mystic Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695):

Rosa que al prado, encarnada,
te ostentas presuntuosa
de grana y carmín bañada:
campa lozana y gustosa;
pero no, que siendo hermosa
también serás desdichada.

which appears in Eco's Postscript to the Name of the Rose, and is translated into English in "Note 1" of that book as:

Red rose growing in the meadow,
you vaunt yourself bravely
bathed in crimson and carmine:
a rich and fragrant show.
But no: Being fair,
You will be unhappy soon.


To other works

The historical novel with medieval time setting was re-discovered in Italy a short time before by Italo Alighiero Chiusano, with his L'ordalia. The similarities between the two novels (time setting, the fact that both are bildungsroman (coming-of-age novels), the novice main character, and the older monk mentor), and the notoriety that L′ordalia had in 1979, of which an expert on literature such as Umberto Eco was definitely aware, making L'ordalia likely one of the first sources of inspiration of The Name of the Rose.

The name of the central character, William of Baskerville, alludes both to the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes (compare The Hound of the Baskervilles – also, Adso's description of William in the beginning of the book resembles, almost word for word, Dr. Watson's description of Sherlock Holmes when he first makes his acquaintance in A Study in Scarlet) and to William of Ockham (see the next section).

The name of the narrator, his apprentice Adso of Melk is among other things a pun on Simplicio from Galileo Galilei's Dialogue; Adso = ad Simplicio ("to Simplicio"). Adso's putative place of origin, Melk, is the site of a famous medieval library, at Melk Abbey.

The blind librarian Jorge from Burgos is a nod to Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, a major influence on Eco. Borges was blind during his later years and was also director of Argentina's national library; his short story "The Library of Babel" is a clear inspiration for the secret library in Eco's book: "The Library is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite, number of hexagonal galleries, with enormous ventilation shafts in the middle, encircled by very low railings." Another of Borges's stories, "The Secret Miracle", features a blind librarian. In addition, a number of other themes drawn from various of Borges's works are used throughout The Name of the Rose: labyrinths, mirrors, sects and obscure manuscripts and books.

The ending also owes a debt to Borges's "Death and the Compass", in which a detective proposes a theory for the behavior of a murderer. The murderer learns of the theory and uses it to trap the detective. In The Name of the Rose, the librarian Jorge uses William's belief that the murders are based on the Revelation of John to misdirect William, though in Eco's tale, the detective succeeds in solving the crime.

Eco seems also to have been aware of Rudyard Kipling's short story The Eye of Allah, which touches on many of the same themes – optics, manuscript-illumination, music, medicine, priestly authority and the Church's attitude to scientific discovery and independent thought – and which includes a character named John of Burgos.

Eco spent some time at the University of Toronto while writing the book. The stairs in the monastery's library bear a striking resemblance to those in Robarts Library. Throughout the book, there are Latin quotes, authentic and apocryphal. There are also discussions of the philosophy of Aristotle and of a variety of millenarist heresies, especially those associated with the fraticelli. Numerous other philosophers are referenced throughout the book, often anachronistically, including Wittgenstein. The "poisoned page" theme is found in the classic Chinese novel, Jin Ping Mei, and in the Duban story of The Nights.

To actual history and geography

William of Ockham, who lived during the time at which the novel is set, first put forward the principle known as "Ockham's Razor": often summarised as the dictum that one should always accept as most-likely the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts (a method used by William of Baskerville in the novel).

The book describes monastic life in the 14th century. The action takes place at a Benedictine abbey during the controversy surrounding the Apostolic poverty between branches of Franciscans and Dominicans; see Renewed controversy on the question of poverty. The setting was inspired by monumental Saint Michael's Abbey in Susa Valley, Piedmont and visited by Umberto Eco. The Spirituals abhor wealth, bordering on the Apostolics or Dulcinian heresy. The book highlights this tension that existed within Christianity during the medieval era: the Spirituals, one faction within the Franciscan order, demanded that the Church should abandon all wealth, and some heretical sects began killing the well-to-do, while the majority of the Franciscans and the clergy took to a broader interpretation of the gospel.

A number of the characters, such as the Inquisitor Bernard Gui, Ubertino of Casale and the Minorite Michael of Cesena, are historical figures, though the novel's characterization of them is not always historically accurate. Dante Alighieri and his Comedy are mentioned once in passing. However, Eco notes in a companion book that he had to site the monastery in mountains so it would experience early frosts, in order for that action to take place at a time when Bernard Gui could have been in the area. For the purposes of the plot, he needed a quantity of pig blood, but at that time pigs were not usually slaughtered until a frost had arrived. Later in the year Gui was known to have been away from Italy and could not have participated in the events at the monastery.

Part of the dialogue in the inquisition scene of the novel is lifted bodily from the historical Bernard's own Manual for Inquisitors, the Practica Inquisitionis Heretice Pravitatis, for example the dialogue: "What do you believe?" "What do you believe, my Lord?" "I believe in all that the Creed teaches." "So I believe, My Lord"; whereupon Bernard points out that what Remigius the cellarer is saying is not that he (Remigius himself) believes in the Creed, but that he believes that Bernard believes in the Creed. This is itself an example given by Bernard in his book to warn inquisitors against the slipperiness and manipulation of words by heretics. This usage of Bernard's own book by Eco is self-consciously of a piece with his perspective that "books always speak of other books"; in this case, the author makes his character Bernard speak the historical Bernard's own words literally as the latter's text becomes part of the drama played out in the novel.

Adso's description of the portal of the monastery is recognisably that of the portal of the church at Moissac, France. There is also a quick reference to a famous "Umberto of Bologna" – Umberto Eco himself.


In his book The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slovene philosopher, psychoanalyst and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek writes:

"What is really disturbing about The Name of the Rose, however, is the underlying belief in the liberating, anti-totalitarian force of laughter, of ironic distance. Our thesis here is almost the exact opposite of this underlying premise of Eco's novel: in contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, that cynical distance, laughter, irony are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling ideology is not meant to be taken seriously or literally. Perhaps the greatest danger for totalitarianism is people who take its ideology literally ― even in Eco's novel, poor old Jorge, the incarnation of dogmatic belief who does not laugh, is rather a tragic figure: outdated, a kind of living dead, a remnant of the past, certainly not a person representing the existing social and political powers."


References in popular culture

  • The second album of the band Ten, released in 1996 is named The Name of the Rose, and the eponymous opening track is loosely based on the concept of what The Name Of The Rose is referring to.
  • The song "Sign of the Cross" from Iron Maiden is about an execution during inquisition and openly cites the novel/movie title in the chorus lyrics.
  • The song "Abbey of Synn", from Ayreon's album Actual Fantasy, is based on The Name of the Rose, specifically referencing the labyrinth, the blackened fingers, and the book that kills, among other plot points.
  • The song "Neon Bible", from Canadian rock band The Arcade Fire's album Neon Bible, references The Name of the Rose's famous cause of death with the lyrics "Take the poison of your age / Don't lick your fingers when you turn the page". In addition, this song (and many others on the album) addresses Eco's theme regarding the futility of reading any text or message as an absolute truth.
  • The song "Inverted" by the Canadian death metal Band Gorguts takes inspiration lyrically from The Name of the Rose.
  • The videogame Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem features a character who is a Franciscan monk named Paul Luther, who, after arriving to a cathedral in Amiens during the Inquisition, finds the corpse of a monk and is judged guilty for the murder. After escaping arrest from the cathedral's authority, he starts to investigate the cathedral's dark secrets and the real reason of the monk's death.
  • The song "Witch Hunt" sung by the Japanese virtual singer (also named Vocaloid) Megurine Luka is about a red-haired girl who is thought to be a witch. She is finally burnt. Although the majority of the lyrics are in Japanese, some are in Latin. In the chorus, we can find two sentences said by Salvatore in Umberto Eco's book: "Penitenziagite!" and "La mortz est super nos!".

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Name of the Rose" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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