The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco. 502 pp.
Secker and Warburg, 1983

This delightful book, now a best-seller in Italy, is a detective story set in an Italian monastery in 1325. One monk after another is found dead in mysterious circumstances, until the mystery is resolved by a Franciscan friar, the Englishman William of Baskerville, seconded by his faithful Watson, Adso of Melk, who is also the narrator. The author, Umberto Eco, deserves to be taken seriously as a medievalist; he has published a study of the aesthetics of St Thomas Aquinas. He is of course much better known as a semiotician, and what he has done, in this brilliant tour de force, is to produce a work of fiction which exemplifies his own theories of literature and has at least as many meanings as medieval theologians found in the Bible – in other words, four.

The Name of the Rose is worth reading for the literal sense alone, as a well-constructed thriller, though even here intertextuality makes its appearance in the form of references to Conan Doyle. The book can also be read as an allegory, a book about structuralism. William of Baskerville is a hound with a good nose for clues, which enables him to track the murderer as he tracked a lost horse at the beginning of the story. He is as well aware as Carlo Ginzburg (in his essay on 'Clues') of the importance, in detection of any kind, of apparently trivial details. In this particular case, in which the murders are associated with the monastery library, the clues are often verbal, and the solution is reached when William, like a good structuralist, realises that 'the discourse is de dicto and not de re', in other words, that he should be looking for signs of signs. At the third level of meaning, the moral, we find a contrast between the humanity of the detective and the rival fanaticisms of heretics and inquisitors.

There is also a historical level. With a few exceptions, like Macaulay, who read Scott with enthusiasm, most professional historians (myself included), dislike historical novels, or more exactly, regard them with suspicion, because, whether accurate or inaccurate in outward details, they are, again with a few exceptions, profoundly anachronistic at the level of attitudes, of psychology, of mentalities, as the dialogue soon reveals. Eco, however, has made a serious and largely successful attempt to reconstruct the millenarian and anti-intellectual mentality of medieval Benedictines, while much of his dialogue is in fact quotation from contemporary texts (medievalists can give themselves the pleasure of tracking down all these quotations). As for the hero, as an Englishman and a Franciscan (a follower of Roger Bacon and a friend of William of Ockham), he may quite legitimately practise his empiricism. Although there are occasions when he gives his characters anachronistic insights, historically speaking Eco generally plays the game.

It might have been expected that one of the many literary allusions in this extremely allusive book would have been to another major best-seller on the fourteenth century, and William of Baskerville does slip in a reference to the inquisitor Jacques Fournier, the investigator of Montaillou. Eco's novel, which illustrates the history of mentalities, is not so far from Le Roy Ladurie's history of mentalities, which reads like a novel. If a prize were offered for the most successful recent display of historical imagination, Eco, like Le Roy Ladurie, would certainly reach the semi-final.

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter