What’s in The Name of the Rose?

It’s probably been 15 years since I’ve read anything substantial by Umberto Eco. I’m pretty sure I was maybe a sophomore or junior in college the first time I read The Name of the Rose. Now, I find myself in the position of needing to reread it for a work-related event. In the intervening decade and a half, I’ve gotten a lot better at Latin, and I’ve also been exposed to a lot more primary source material concerning theology, philosophy, science, literature, and history of the European Middle Ages, as well as 20th century literary theory. I’ve read medieval sermons and sermon manuals, disputations, summae including parts of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and Abelard’s Sic et Non, Aristotle’s Poetics, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, some basic semiotics and structuralism including Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude Levi-Strauss, as well as a lot of secondary history of politics, religious orders and faith trends, literary trends and theories, and language use and theory of the western European Middle Ages. And I’ve read most of the primary literature in the original language.

What do my academic qualifications have to do with this book? I remember reading it the first time and thinking something along the lines of ‘I guess that’s that classic off my list’ but I don’t remember any other impression. Coming back to it, I wonder how I could have understood much of anything at all. I’m still pretty sure I only caught/understood half of what’s going on beneath the surface story. I’ve studied enough of the original material to appreciate things like the debate over Aristotle’s Poetics and the missing analysis of humor, the history of scientific thought and practice, some of the distinctions between the Benedictine and Franciscan orders (among others), manuscript production and the role of monastery scriptoria, and I’ve read some original Sherlock Holmes stories. This is more learning in the medieval (and literary) world than most people have, and if even this isn’t enough to fully understand The Name of the Rose, then nearly every reader of this book who appreciates it and enjoys it must probably do so with the understanding that they’re missing something, and accepting that.

This novel is incredibly dense. There’s massive chunks of medieval theological discussion and debate, lots of references to real people and events, but it’s all mixed in with a murder mystery and Eco’s fictional additions which almost fit into the historical. I’m not sure anyone who reads this can really understand it without either one of the “how to read this” books that now exist or multiple PhDs and facility in several languages. As much as I enjoy smart books that include a lot of allusions, Terry Pratchett is a favorite of mine after all, The Name of the Rose is too much. The novel, or perhaps more accurately its author, almost seems to be trying too hard to show off, or at least deliberately daring the reader to try and understand even a fraction of what’s being suggested beneath the surface.

The basic story is simple enough: elderly monk Adso recalls the series of unfortunate events that occurred when he as a young novice monk travels with his master William of Baskerville to an abbey in Italy where William is to serve as a representative and mediator at a historic meeting between two sides of the religious controversy between secular and Church leaders. William’s name should be a give-away as to his general role and method of playing it in the murder mystery, and also by extension Adso’s, but in addition William at various points expresses admiration for William of Ockham and Roger Bacon (both controversial in their days for their scientific ideas). Upon arriving at the abbey which houses a library equivalent to the ancient one of Alexandria, not that I’m foreshadowing or anything, William is informed by the abbot of a mysterious death which must be solved before the various delegations arrive in a few days. A variety of problems of course ensue including multiple suspicious people, more murders, a mysterious manuscript several of the dead have a connection to, a labyrinth, prohibitions about the top floor of the library, etc.

None of this is really the point though; it’s not even the full frame, which gets into treating Adso’s story as itself a lost manuscript. There are pages and pages of descriptions of places, spiritual and some not so spiritual visions, theological disputation on among other things, did Christ ever laugh and why that even matters, and deciphering the signs of the End of Days; there are quite a few allusions and some direct references to the Book of Revelations. There’s a good bit of Latin (some of it historical, some of it fictional), some references to Greek, a little German, and most of it untranslated. Even 1980 when the book was first published in Italy, knowledge of most of these languages was likely fairly limited, meaning most readers couldn’t read significant chunks of the book directly. The number of people who can is probably even less today. The nature of interpretation and meaning is a key concern, which makes sense for two reasons. First, Eco was interested in linguistics and semiotics (a branch of language theory that deals with meaning), and second, words like ‘symbol’, ‘sign’, and ‘signify’ (and their variations) appear almost constantly throughout the book. The theory of semiotics is not something particularly commonly known beyond scholars of literature and linguistics, meaning that a fundamental aspect of the book is not accessible to the general public. And yet, the novel was a best-seller. The movie didn’t do as well, at least not in the US, and it left out a lot of the more academic parts.

This is definitely one of those books that is worth reading at least once, carefully, but with the understanding that it’s intentionally very academic, and even academics have trouble with catching or understanding some of the more obscure references. Don’t even try to read this if you’re a person who needs to understand everything that occurs in a story. Unless you’re an expert in everything Eco was interested in and a bit more, you don’t stand a chance. It’s still worth the read though. At least once.