SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 94-page guide for “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 8 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Religion vs. Science/Reason and The Power and Function of Artistic Representation.
The year is 1327. William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar, and Adso of Melk, a young novice travelling under his protection, arrive at a wealthy Benedictine abbey somewhere in Italy on an important secret mission. A group of Franciscans has come under fire from Pope John XXII, who suspects them of heresy. The Holy Roman Emperor, Louis IV, has aligned himself with the Franciscans, and the abbey has been chosen as a neutral location for a theological disputation, with representatives coming from both sides. Upon the arrival of William and Adso at the abbey, they learn that this peaceful community has been disturbed by the mysterious death of a young illuminator, Adelmo of Otranto. The abbot pleads with William to solve the mystery before the arrival of the two delegations.
As the novel unfolds, several other monks die under mysterious circumstances, and William must play detective. His tools are the logic of Aristotle, the theology of Aquinas, and the empirical insights of Franciscan theologian and English philosopher Roger Bacon, whom he reveres. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and explores the eerie labyrinth which protects the abbey’s library. The prodigious collection of books is at the heart of this mystery, for the library is forbidden to all but three men: the abbot, the librarian, and his assistant.
The novel is divided into seven sections, each corresponding to the seven days that William and Adso stay at the abbey. Each section is divided into periods corresponding to the strict liturgical hours in which Benedictine monks are awake, during which they are required to pray, study, eat, and work. On the first day, the novel introduces the principal characters, the layout of the abbey, and the central conflicts within the Catholic Church, and between the Church and the imperial powers of the secular world. The abbey’s scriptorium, the seat of all learning in the medieval monastic world, is also introduced.
Under the surface of this orderly community are countless secrets and rivalries. In the scriptorium, William and Adso meet the stern librarian, Malachi, keeper of the library’s secrets. They also encounter the elderly, blind Jorge of Burgos, the second oldest monk in the abbey, whose ideas about the dangers of reading cast an immense shadow over the library. At their very first meeting, Jorge and William spar about the dangers of representation, and especially the dangers of laughter. It is the first of several such debates, and this moral conflict is threaded throughout the novel.
On the second day, Venantius of Salvemec, translator and scholar of Greek, is found dead in a vat of pig’s blood. To solve the crime, William and Adso must make their way through the mysterious labyrinth that guards the library. They are unable to penetrate its darkest secrets, and vow to return. They manage to decipher the signs and symbols by which the books are organized, and realize there is a secret room, known only to a few. This secret room is called the finis Africae, but that is all they know. Benno of Uppsala, a monk who is a student of rhetoric, reveals that Malachi and Berengar of Arundel, the assistant librarian, are lovers, but Berengar had been trying to seduce Adelmo, who was young and handsome. On the night of Adelmo’s death, they had a sexual liaison, and Benno claims that both Jorge and Venantius were aware of these indiscretions.
By the third day, Berengar is missing, and the sense of doom intensifies. The abbey’s seedy underbelly is further exposed as we meet several of the itinerant men who have taken refuge in the abbey after a life of wandering and misdeeds. Everybody is a suspect and no one is safe. On the third day, Adso commits a carnal sin, succumbing to the sexual advances of a young peasant girl from the local village. He confesses and is absolved by William, for his master is wise and compassionate.
William’s wisdom and intellect, as well as his powers of deduction, lead him to uncover further details about the mysterious deaths in the abbey. With the help of Severinus of Sankt Wendel, the wise herbalist, William discovers evidence that Venantius was poisoned. Other clues seem to be pointing William towards the library, and he begins his quest in the scriptorium, in order to see what the dead scholar was reading. Later, he discovers that Venantius’s desk has been ransacked and a book is missing. William and Adso pursue this missing book for the remainder of the novel, for they believe it holds the key to the murderer’s identity.
The mystery deepens on the fourth day, when the missing Berengar is found drowned in a bath tub. This section is the exact midpoint of the novel, and thus it is significant that the Emperor’s theologians and the papal delegation arrive to begin their negotiations. Travelling with the Pope’s representatives is the notorious inquisitor, Bernard Gui, whom the novel sets up in an explicit contrast with William: William is wise, Gui is brutal. As the novel progresses, readers wonder who will gain the upper hand. As a representative of the Inquisition, Bernard is authorized to take over the investigation from William. He begins interrogating the abbey’s servants and other laypeople, sowing terror wherever he goes. There is a stark contrast between Gui’s brutal methods and William’s reliance on empiricism: Gui uses fear, William employs reason. The fourth section closes with the arrest of the peasant girl whom Adso loves; although she is innocent, she will be burned as a witch. The Inquisition’s worldview triumphs here.
The fifth day opens with the trial of Remigio, the cellarer, whom Bernard Gui suspects is the murderer, due to the monk’s checkered past and his association with a notorious heretic. Remigio’s associate, Salvatore, has already been tortured by Gui’s men, and has revealed all. Remigio ultimately cracks, too, and admits his past misdeeds. When threatened with torture, he confesses to the recent murders as well, but it is clear Bernard has the wrong man. It is unclear whether Bernard really cares who the real guilty party is; but as long as he has a prisoner, he is satisfied. The novel thus continues to question the nature and function of authority, including the power of the Inquisition, the authority of the Emperor, and the integrity of the Pope as Christ’s representative on earth. Corruption appears to be rampant in this world, and the fifth day draws to a close with the murder of Severinus. The visitors and the residents of the abbey are then subjected to a torturous sermon by Jorge, who warns that the Antichrist is coming and that they are all doomed sinners.
The sixth day opens on an even more ominous note: Malachi, the librarian, is missing. He reappears at morning prayers, where he suddenly slumps to the floor and dies. Instead of appointing a new librarian, the abbot clamps down. With a sense of increasing doom, William intensifies his investigation. He visits the treasure crypt to interrogate Nicholas of Morimondo, the glazier, who has now also been made the cellarer, due to Remigio’s arrest. From Nicholas, William learns that the abbey’s rivalries center around the powerful post of librarian; he also learns that whoever is appointed to this post is traditionally next in line to become abbot. This news gives William a new angle from which to pursue his investigation. No one is above suspicion, even the abbot himself. William formulates his new theory about the murderer’s identity and then heads to the scriptorium to look for evidence.
Meanwhile, the abbot is furious that William has failed to solve the mystery of the murders. He is even more furious that the Inquisition has gotten involved in the affairs of the abbey, which diminishes his own power and authority. When William asks too many questions about the abbey’s past, Abo dismisses him: William is told to leave the abbey in the morning. The abbot then sends everyone to bed. The atmosphere is tense: everyone is waiting for the murderer to strike again. At the very end of the sixth day, as night falls and the seventh day begins, William and Adso finally penetrate the most secret room of the library, the finis Africae.
In the forbidden room, Jorge is waiting for them. He is the mastermind behind all of the murders. He has been controlling the library for over forty years, first as librarian, and then, when he became blind, by controlling whoever was appointed librarian. In this way, he was able to bend Malachi to his will. William confronts Jorge and demands that he free his next victim, the abbot himself, whom Jorge has lured to the library. Jorge refuses, and the abbot suffocates in the stairwell in which Jorge has trapped him. William then demands the missing book, which he has now realized is the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics. The second part of this renowned work—in which the philosopher discusses laughter and the virtues of comedy—has been lost for centuries. This book is dangerous, Jorge says, but he allows William to look at it. Then, when William confronts him with his crimes, Jorge insists he has not killed anyone: they died because of their own sins.
Jorge is telling the literal truth: no one has died by his hand. Berengar used the secret of the finis Africae to persuade Adelmo to have sex with him. Adelmo, horrorstruck, kills himself, but not before confessing his sins to Jorge. In order to punish anyone who seeks out the forbidden book, Jorge rubs poisons on its pages. It is then stolen by the curious Venantius, who succumbs to the poison. Berengar finds Venantius’s corpse, and, fearing exposure, dumps the body in the vat of pig’s blood. Then he reads the book himself and is also poisoned. Jorge asks Malachi to retrieve the book, which Berengar had stashed in the infirmary. While doing so, Malachi murders Severinus at Jorge’s instigation. Then Malachi succumbs to curiosity and is also poisoned. Jorge believes that all of the deaths are divine justice, and is unrepentant.
Jorge now plans one final death: his own. In order to prevent the book from ever seeing the light of day, he starts ripping it apart and eating it. He will soon die from the poison, and thus his mission will be fulfilled. William and Adso attempt to stop Jorge, and in the ensuing struggle, Jorge throws their lamp on the ground and a fire breaks out. Then he throws the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics onto the flames, where it is lost forever. The library itself goes up in flames, and the fire eventually engulfs the entire abbey. William and Adso flee, and when they arrive in Munich, Adso bids his beloved master farewell. The time has come for him to take his holy orders. He never sees William again, but he will never forget the events of these seven days. As an older man, his own abbot sends him on a trip through Italy, and Adso “cannot resist” visiting the ruins of the now-abandoned abbey. He rescues bits of ruined books, and fashions “a kind of lesser library,” which he spends years lovingly deciphering and reading.
The novel ends with Adso as a very old man, near the end of his life, leaving us his manuscript. Indeed, he has carried “these pages”—the text of the novel—with him throughout his life, and he has “often consulted them like an oracle.” He is unsure who will find it, and whether there is any meaning or message to be found in the manuscript. In this ambivalent—and ambiguous—ending, Eco leaves us with the conundrum: what is meaning? How is meaning derived? The Name of the Rose will not provide answers, only questions.
Book Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The hook couldn’t be more obvious. When a string of strange deaths plagues a wealthy Italian abbey, Brother William of Baskerville is called to unravel the mystery. In this 14th-century thriller, every death exposes a new piece of an age-old conspiracy. Dangerous knowledge and the future of the Catholic Church hang in the balance. Follow along as William races against time to crack the case!
That’s what I was expecting when I picked up Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: an older, more erudite sibling of The Da Vinci Code: a mass-market page-turner. But I was wrong.
The Name of the Rose is plodding and complex. It does not have the pace of a murder mystery and that’s because it’s actually much more of a historical novel than anything else. Its first priority — far above entertaining the reader or advancing the plot — is to situate itself perfectly in history, to merge so cleanly with the past that the reader can’t see the seams. The Name of the Rose is obsessive in a lot of ways, beginning with its own credibility.
Your typical murder mystery starts with a bang, but this one starts with a fake history lesson. In the opening pages we learn that The Name of the Rose is not actually a novel written by Umberto Eco. Eco has merely translated and titled a book given to him in 1968 by someone named Abbé Vallet. This book was Le Manuscrit de Dom Adson de Melk, Vallet’s 1842 French translation of a Latin text written by an aging monk, Adso of Melk, in 14th-century Italy. Adso’s original text is the story itself: the mysterious saga of seven deaths in 1327, which he witnessed firsthand in his youth while shadowing his master — our detective — William of Baskerville. To recap: you’re reading a (fictitious) Latin 14th-century eyewitness account, translated into French by (the fictitious) Abbé Vallet in 1842, translated again (but not actually) into Italian by Umberto Eco in 1980, and if you’re reading the English version, you can add yet another layer for William Weaver’s (fantastic) 1983 English translation.
With its own origins settled, the book spends the subsequent 500 pages weaving itself as tightly into the fabric of history as possible. The Name of the Rose is part of that special breed of historical fiction that doesn’t merely fork off of recorded events but integrates so completely with them that it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. I certainly struggled with this, so if you’re going to read the book I highly recommend brushing up on the medieval history of the Catholic Church. Key actors and topics include Michael of Cesena, Louis IV, William of Ockham, popes of that time period, and evangelical poverty. You may also wish to learn Latin.
Here’s the background I wish I’d had before I started reading. The Name of the Rose pivots on a doctrine known as evangelical (or apostolic) poverty, which was particularly divisive in the 14th century and which calls for Christians to live without holding any property. The belief stems from Luke 10, in which Jesus sends his 70 disciples on a mission without any supplies: “Go away; lo, I send you forth as lambs in the midst of wolves; carry no bag, no scrip, nor sandals.” Thus a small subset of Catholics began to equate not having any property with being holy. For obvious reasons this idea appealed to the impoverished masses, who had a head start on not owning anything, and the movement picked up steam. In the early 14th century, Pope John XXII made every attempt to block its progression, in fear that it would cast a negative light on the Church and ultimately threaten its wealth and land ownership, and the widespread control they offered. He condemned it as heretical in 1323 but that didn’t stop the Spiritual Franciscans, so named for their devotion to Saint Francis of Assisi, from continuing to live by this contentious doctrine. The Spiritual Franciscans were supported by Louis IV, then king of the Romans and of Italy, and led by Michael of Cesena. In 1327, Pope John would summon Michael to Avignon to answer for his order’s “heretical” behavior, an event that would lead to Michael’s excommunication.
So where does The Name of the Rose fit in? Eco’s story takes place just before Michael’s arrival in Avignon, somewhere along his journey through Italy, in an abbey tucked into the mountains. Here, the story goes, Michael and his order would stop to meet with some of the pope’s men so that they might resolve their differences peacefully and privately. Presiding over the meeting would be William of Baskerville, a Franciscan loyalist who might enable the Franciscans to absolve themselves of heresy before it was too late — before Michael would be forced to walk right into the pope’s hands at Avignon.
The story begins with William and Adso traveling to the abbey a few days early to prepare for the meeting. But upon their arrival they learn some troubling news. One night earlier, a monk plummeted to his death from the tallest building in the abbey. Over the next several days more strange and horrible deaths transpire and so the stakes become clear: William must solve this mystery before the pope’s delegation arrives. Otherwise, foul play will be suspected and the meeting will be for naught. The future of the Franciscan order depends on William’s mystery-solving skills.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow William as he uncovers the abbey’s darkest secrets, often by making forbidden trips to the abbey’s labyrinth of a library, and edges closer to solving the puzzle. But this is no free ride. Much is demanded of the reader; I found it impossible to keep track of everything without taking notes. The Name of the Rose is not only obsessed with situating itself in history but with ensconcing the reader in that rich historical context as well. You will learn more about religious sects and Biblical interpretation than you ever cared to know. You will be invited to ponder the political aspirations of the Church and its relation to various European rulers. The text indulges in erudite discussions of philosophy and semiotics. A central plot device hinges on how certain geographical locations produce — or should produce — certain manners of thinking. Nothing is easy.
Even the most foundational part of the story, its characters, proves challenging. The reader is responsible for tracking a dense list of characters, both real and fictional, that never stops expanding. There are two Williams and two Berengars. There’s Abo and Adso and Adelmo. There are characters introduced early who never reappear and characters introduced late who are essential to the plot. I took notes on twenty-two of them, not counting the historical figures who don’t appear in the story, and I’m probably missing a lot more.
The question isn’t Does Eco pull it off? — he does, spectacularly — but Is it worth the effort? Some books are worth reading simply because they’re hard. Does The Name of the Rose fit that bill or is it somehow also enjoyable? Can it be difficult and fun?
I won’t lie to you. It is absolutely a slog at times. A friend of mine who recently read the book complained to me about a chapter in which Adso spends six pages describing a door. Adso loves to catalog things, almost to the point of hilarity. At one point he gains entry to the abbey’s vault and describes the treasures within — “Gold vestments, golden crowns, studded with gems, coffers of various metals engraved with figures, works in niello and ivory. […] I saw, wonder of wonders, under a glass bell, on a red cushion embroidered with pearls, a piece of the manger of Bethlehem, and a hand’s length of the purple tunic of Saint John the Evangelist, two links of the chains that bound the ankles of the apostle Peter in Rome…” — and it’s amazing he doesn’t run out of commas.
So, sure, there are moments when The Name of the Rose feels more like work than play. But it does reward the reader with some wonderful scenes of sleuthing. Put simply, it is fun in the way you want a detective novel to be. William of Baskerville is a great character: cunning, moral, independent, and always a step ahead. You never tire of watching him solve mysteries. The reader is first exposed to his brilliance during his and Adso’s initial ascent to the abbey. When the pair is approached by a band of monks, William immediately intuits that they are searching for a lost horse. He tells the monks where the horse has been and where it has gone, and describes its appearance in great detail:
“Brunellus, the abbott’s favorite horse, fifteen hands, the fastest in your stables, with a dark coat, a full tail, small round hoofs, but a very steady gait; small head, sharp ears, big eyes.”
This bewilders the monks and Adso, too, because, as William says, “ ‘We haven’t seen him at all.’ ” A few moments later the horse is found exactly where William said he would be. When Adso asks William how he was able to deduce so much without ever seeing the horse, William’s response is perfect:
“During our whole journey I have been teaching you to recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book. […] I am almost embarrassed to repeat to you what you should know. At the crossroads, on the still-fresh snow, a horse’s hoofprints stood out very neatly, heading for the path to our left. Neatly spaced, those marks said that the hoof was small and round, and the gallop quite regular — and so I deduced the nature of the horse, and the fact that it was not running wildly like a crazed animal. At the point where the pines formed a natural roof, some twigs had been freshly broken off at a height of five feet. One of the blackberry bushes where the animal must have turned to take the path to his right, proudly switching his handsome tail, still held some long black horsehairs in its brambles….”
And so on, until every last detail has been explained. There aren’t a lot of these Sherlock Holmes-esque reveals but each is more imaginative than the last, making for a deeply satisfying read.
A good murder mystery is clever when it needs to be, but this one is clever whenever it can be. Eco prefers his humor arid, and I can only assume that for every joke I understood there were about a hundred more that sailed straight over my head. Join the fun — find the joke in this passage:
“But those were times when, to forget an evil world, grammarians took pleasure in abstruse questions. I was told that in that period, for fifteen days and fifteen nights, the rhetoricians Gabundus and Terentius argued on the vocative of ‘ego,’ and in the end they attacked each other, with weapons.”
No? Your Latin is in need of a good dusting. The joke is that the rhetoricians were arguing over the vocative of ego, which is the Latin word for “I.” In Latin, nouns are expressed in cases, with each case serving a particular function. The genitive case, for example, is used to show ownership over something: it’s the Latin version of an apostrophe. The vocative case referred to above is used when directly addressing someone else. If you wanted to say hello to your friend Marcus, you’d say “Salve Marce”; the name “Marcus” changes to “Marce” in the vocative case. The rhetoricians were arguing over the vocative of “I,” which is funny because one never addresses another person with “I,” and so the argument is pointless. Well, at least until weapons get involved.
But silly me. I didn’t realize that this pun isn’t Eco’s own invention but an allusion to a text by the 7th-century author Virgil the Grammarian. The Name of the Rose is many things, but accessible is not one of them.
Occasionally Eco tosses the reader a bone. During William and Adso’s visit to the abbey’s vault, Adso gets starry-eyed over the rare religious artifacts, such as a fragment of the True Cross, and William cautions him not to pay them too much heed:
“I have seen many other fragments of the cross, in other churches. If all were genuine, our Lord’s torment could not have been on a couple of planks nailed together, but on an entire forest.”
You’re not alone if this humor isn’t your cup of tea. Adso has trouble with it, too:
I never understood when he was jesting. In my country, when you joke you say something and then you laugh very noisily, so everyone shares in the joke. But William laughed only when he said serious things, and remained very serious when he was presumably joking.