The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is presented to the reader as the text of an authentic medieval manuscript form the fourteenth century. Its author’s love for the time period radiates from every page; beyond passion, beyond fascination, which as the novel explores, can blind and distort. Instead, what one gets the impression of is Eco’s fidelity to something he knows is irreproducible.
He does not capture a Zeitgeist and prod it to mouth expected cliches and mannerisms; he lets it speak freely, for itself in all its messiness and contradiction.
Our perception of the Middle Ages is that of a time where things were more or less the same for about a thousand years. The features are stable and certain: knights, monks, kings, castles, the Church. We are used to medieval-inspired fiction where we can feel familiar with our surroundings, accept a given level of technology, weaponry and intellectual development. No one is going to pull a gun, fly a plane or start advocating for representative democracy. Yet Eco’s fourteenth-century Europe is dynamic. Natural philosophy is rising in tandem with, or to challenge, revelation as the principal means of knowledge acquisition; a great theological conflict over the poverty of Christ is threatening to split the Roman Church, and beyond that medieval culture war there are those excluded from that conversation point blank but whose influence is pressingly felt at the porous fringes: the heretics.
But, of course, The Name of the Rose is not just about the fourteenth century. No historical novel is solely about the time in which it is set, otherwise, it might as well be a theme park ride, not an art form. While many characters feel thoroughly, authentically medieval with obscure concerns and mindsets alien and hard to comprehend, Brother William, the novel’s object (though not the narrator) is a man who belongs to another age.
In a world where one’s rigidity of doctrine is rewarded above all else, the English monk constantly questions the basis of his fellow brothers’ theological assertions. New knowledge should only be pursued, for his contemporaries, insofar as it confirms what has been foretold already in divine revelation. William on the other hand wants practical science to improve and edify man. He holds that God ought to retreat from the administration of states and that men should govern in council (as they do in the corrupt city-states of the non-monastical secular clergy) as opposed to monarchical one-man rule. Worst of all, he has no wish to blanket-denounce as heresy everything that has the appearance of divergence from orthodoxy, instead, he maintains the need to define and separate the various interpretations the Church has deemed heretical to better understand and combat, or possibly even integrate, them.
This attitude does not set him up for success in a highly factionalised intrigue-wrought time of the papal schism. Born two centuries later, he may have been able to reconcile and temper the excesses of Luther’s break and the counter-response. As it is, he is hopeless to heal the chasm opened up between John XII and the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis the Bavarian. Like Hardy’s Jude, Brother William was born in the wrong era.
Eco’s presentation of the strangeness of the medieval era is truly inspired. From detailed discussions on manuscript marginalia doodles to Adso, our protagonist’s fretful anxiety over the existence of unicorns, to which William replies, “We cannot say that they do not exist.” Adso’s dreams and visions, drawn from his obsession with the Revelation of St John, are far removed from the psychological stew of most modern consciousnesses. As a former Germanist who loves old languages, I loved to see some heartfelt snippets of Mittelhochdeutsch (Adso’s vernacular) left in their expressive original.
Yet some themes we seem to turn to again and again, no matter the generation. What is the proper place of luxury or opulence, if is to be indulged in at all? Is there virtue in hardship or bare minimalism? Can beauty and desire be reconciled? Will laughter lead us close to the truth, or is tragedy more instructive to the soul?
The Name of the Rose may lean a certain way on all these seemingly eternal issues, but even as William’s righteous contempt builds one cannot but acknowledge a kernel of truth in all the bluff and bluster of the opponents of mirth, proponents of splendour and condemners of lust.
It’s a postmodernist, maximalist novel – of course, it doesn’t answer any questions. Even so, we are the better for them being raised and made strange in the most erudite and overwhelming way.
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