The delightful meta-irony of this book is that it depicts medieval monks laboring to pass on the written memories of an ancient culture, just like Umberto Eco himself did by writing this. The Name of the Rose is the kind of rediscovery of lost knowledge for which its own protagonists are yearning, and what is unearthed is the importance and relevance of medieval thinkers.
The exciting abbey murder mystery is the story’s engine, and I’m not going to spoil it for you. Instead of giving a play-by-play of the travails of Ye Olde Holmes and Watson and their groundbreaking scientific method, I’ll get philosophical, just like the author does for the majority of the pages (consider yourself warned).
A Game of Thrones has sparked a positive reassessment of medieval people’s intelligence, but our popular imagination of the era is still perhaps best captured by the video of Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance”. Hence Eco’s portrayal of an abbeyful of intelligent people dedicated to thought, and of continent-wide intellectual debates moderated but also censored by great powers with their own selfish ends, is exhilarating.
It is commonly believed that the West as a whole fell from the Roman Empire into darkness and then the Catholic Church kept them there. It’s true that much knowledge was destroyed and lost over the years of war and economic disruption that ended the western empire, and many Catholic leaders failed, but it’s forgotten that the educated Romans we admire were always a minuscule percentage of the people in Europe. Even Rome itself was full of unschooled slaves, and the infamous superstitions of medieval people preceded Christianity. Meanwhile, the Church, while conservative, also safeguarded knowledge and provided education to all on a scale unlike any institution that preceded it, while also using its moral authority to protect anti-establishment liberals like the Franciscans.
Let’s look at three major debate subjects of the story—heresy, poverty, and the Book of Revelation—and their relevance to today.
Heresy: As long as there are organizations that uphold certain values, there will be inquisitions, i.e. “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Eco provides us a valuable resource by helping us see how inquisitors thought and worked. Their interest in guilt by association, for example, reminded me of political articles like “X is connected to the Koch Brothers and thus is evil!” These sections must have been especially poignant in 1980, when the Cold War was still being fought and the Red Scare was only a few years back in the rear-view mirror.
Even more important than that, however, is the depiction of how people become heretics. Some are true apostates with a warped sense of divine mission (ISIS leaders), but others are merely lashing out at a society that has failed them by joining the nearest utopian anti-establishment organization they can find (the Taiping Rebellion). Hence crushing a heretical movement, either intellectually or physically, is not enough to prevent a reprise; institutions must also reform themselves to enfranchise the marginalized and keep them from becoming desperate.
Eco is also firm in his refutation of fanaticism, saying both the inquisitors and true heretics are guilty of the same sins, of wanting to burn the world down and trample people for their convictions. This warning was proved true in the 20th century just as it was in the 14th.
Poverty: Was Jesus poor? Did He even own possessions? At the time of this story there was a massive debate on this subject, which had great implications for how society should be organized and how secular rulers and the Church should conduct themselves. The Pope himself was on the wrong side, as several of the Franciscans point out; one character even says the Pope is the Antichrist, putting to rest any misconception you may have of the expansiveness of papal infallibility. (The politically motivated Papal Schism was not far away.) Ubertino’s disquisition on the nature of property is relevant today, and the dynamics of the debate between have-nots and their ideals holding forth against the haves and their control of the use of force is sadly familiar. It seems clear the inequality of medieval times stemmed not from ignorance of economic principles but rather from the rich’s desire to keep things as they were in order to stay on top. True Christians have always been threatened.
Revelation: After reading The Name of the Rose, I appreciated more than ever how important it was that the Bible contain the Apocalypse of St. John. It is not only comfort for the afflicted but also a scriptural safeguard against triumphalism and blind obedience to authority. Time and time again Eco’s characters refer to it to explain the suffering of the current times and to imply the authorities with whom they disagree are false prophets. Because Revelation is so easily read as prophecy, it also warns church leaders that history will not steadily and peacefully progress forward, but may instead be convulsed and wrecked by evildoers. Because it begins with admonitions to churches, it provides a platform for self-criticism.
Not to mention that on the artistic and literary side, the Book of Revelation gave religious license to surrealism that reverberates today.
The book’s apocalyptic frame, established very early by a vision by the narrator, Adso—who is himself a parallel of John in both the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation—is a fitting metaphor for the emerging intellectual battle between the Aristotelians the Church condoned by recognizing the truth of St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology and the Platonists to preserving beautiful ideals and respect for authority. The reasons for resistance to the new school of thought and fear of its consequences are amply explained and personified.
Eco upholds the values we now call modern but, crucially, also presents the point of view of the losing intellectual side, a modern parallel to the Catholic monks preserving the works of Muslim writers. This is a salvo against the tragedy of forgetting. That Western Europe had an officially protected and apolitical group preserving thought is a godsend, considering the much greater degree of historical and literary censorship in regions like China.
While showing characters that think like us (and why official historians would censor them from memory), Eco also respectfully portrays their cultural differences, so by reading this we can enrich our own knowledge of the palette of human experience. For example, he says of one scene: “I was not so much interested in ___ itself as I was to describe how a young monk would experience ___ through his cultural sensibility. So I made a collage of at least fifty different texts of mystics describing their ecstasies, together with excerpts from the Song of Songs. In the entire two pages that describe ____, there is hardly a single word of mine. Adso can only understand ____ through the lens of the culture he has absorbed. This is an instance of style, as I define it.”
This book is now inextricably linked to The Da Vinci Code. It’s a sad irony, as The Name of the Rose is roughly a million times better and more respectful of history. Eco himself has had a laugh about it: “The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.” The Name of the Rose doesn’t flow from scene to scene in the same way, but it doesn’t make any inventions that contradict with the historical record; it teaches about the past rather than heavy-handedly retrofitting the past to the present; and it encourages open-mindedness and skepticism rather than Gnosticism and faith in conspiracy theories.
So if you’re interested in the West of the 14th century, read this, and if you like a good mystery, even better.
And if you’ve already read this and want more fiction on monks preserving learning, check out A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller and “The Library of Babylon” by Jorge Luis Borges.