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The Name of the Rose: A mystery for medievalists

  • Jun 18, 2009

Narrated by the 80-year-old Benedictine monk Adso, "The Name of the Rose" relates events that occurred over a one-week period in 1327 when Adso (then an 18-year-old novice) and his master, the English Franciscan monk William of Baskerville, visited an abbey in northern Italy. The action takes place during the controversy over Apostolic poverty that occurred between the Franciscans and Dominicans, and during the course of the story a Papal legation including the inquisitor Bernard Gui arrives to evaluate allegations of heresy. At issue is the poverty of Jesus and whether or not the Church should accumulate wealth. These concerns however are overshadowed by the mysterious death of the monk Adelmo which is followed by 6 sequential murders of monks during the week. William's time is consumed by an investigation of the mysterious deaths, and a large part of the popularity of this novel is based on the clever unraveling of the mystery that occurs as a result of William's deductive reasoning and interpretation of symbols. The abbey has an elaborate labyrinthine library with many rooms laid out as regions of the world as it was known at the time with secret passages accessed by hidden mechanisms. A mysterious book it contains holds the answer to at least some of the murders. Ironically, when the mystery is solved, the murders turn out not to be part of a plan patterned on the Apocalypse, as William suspected, but rather a suicide followed by a serious of murders connected with illicit trysts between monks and an elaborate attempt of one monk to suppress information in Aristotle's book on Comedy (a lost work that suggests laughter is an appropriate response to the mysteries of the universe).


The novel clearly reflects the erudition of its author who is a professor of semiotics and an expert on medieval times. There is a lot of Latin in the book (without translation) which puts the average (Eco would say "unsophisticated") reader like me at a disadvantage. There are long enumerations of medieval minutiae such as the entire chapter devoted to Adso's inspection of the fantastic creatures carved on the church's doors. In the postscript, Eco says the "long didactic passages" were intentional and served to set the pace of the book. His friends and editors advised him to shorten the first 100 pages of the book because this section was "demanding" but he refused, believing "if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey's own pace."


Near the end of the book, William gives Adso some advice about where the real danger (as opposed to the risk of heresy) lies: "The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them." I found this argument very compelling.


Finally, don't ask what the title of the book means. Apparently, Eco wrote the postscript in response to that question, and even after reading the postscript I still don't understand it. He says he chose the rose as a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left. What? The title is a cliché? I guess I am just one of those "unsophisticated" readers! Read the book yourself and decide if it is worth the effort.

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June 18, 2009
This was a great book and reminded me of at medieval Sherlock Holmes. It was also an entertaining movie with Sean Connery playing William of Baskerville and Christian Slater playing Adso. Great review!
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Quick Tip by . June 29, 2010
A difficult but intreguing read. Keep you Lanit dictionary nearby.
Quick Tip by . June 16, 2010
Loved it. Eco certainly knows how to pick his settings. A fantastic blend of suspense and erudition
Quick Tip by . June 15, 2010
This was such a good book, though Eco can be difficult to follow on occasion. Worth the effort, though.
About the reviewer
Steve DiBartola ()
Ranked #155
I was invited to join Lunch by one of the developers, who apparently read some reviews I posted on Library Thing. My interests are books, music, and movies. I enjoy both classical and contemporary fiction, … more
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 Eco, an Italian philosopher and best-selling novelist, is a great polymathic fabulist in the tradition of Swift, Voltaire, Joyce, and Borges. The Name of the Rose, which sold 50 million copies worldwide, is an experimental medieval whodunit set in a monastic library. In 1327, Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate heresy among the monks in an Italian abbey; a series of bizarre murders overshadows the mission. Within the mystery is a tale of books, librarians, patrons, censorship, and the search for truth in a period of tension between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. The book became a hit despite some obscure passages and allusions. This deftly abridged version, ably performed by Theodore Bikel, retains the genius of the original but is far more accessible. Foucault's Pendulum, Eco's second novel, is a bit irritating. The plot consists of three Milan editors who concoct a series on the occult for an unscrupulous publishing house that Eco ridicules mercilessly. The work details medieval phenomena including the Knights Templar, an ancient order with a scheme to dominate the world. Unfortunately, few listeners will make sense of this failed thriller. The Island of the Day Before is an ingenious tale that begins with a shipwreck in 1643. Roberta della Griva survives and boards another ship only to find himself trapped. Flashbacks give us Renaissance battles, the French court, spies, intriguing love affairs, and the attempt to solve the problem of ...
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ISBN-10: 0307264890 (hbk.)
ISBN-13: 9780307264893 (hbk.)
Author: Umberto Eco
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Everyman's Library
Date Published: September 26, 2006
Format: Translated from the Italian by William Weaver ; with an introduction by David Lodge
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