The Name of the Rose | Study Guide

Umberto Eco

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The Name of the Rose | Context


Historical Mystery

The Name of the Rose is a mystery, but not an ordinary crime novel. Umberto Eco was a scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle Ages (500–1500 CE), and his erudition, or extensive knowledge gained from books, is evident throughout the novel. The details he provides about thought, belief, and history bring the novel to life.

The main character in the novel is a monk named William of Baskerville. William is portrayed as a medieval sleuth with the same keen observational skills and powers of logical reasoning as British author Arthur Conan Doyle's (1859–1930) famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. That Eco's detective is said to be from Baskerville is a nod to Conan Doyle's famous novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901).

Similarly, the character of the blind monk Jorge of Burgos is named after the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), who was also blind and who wrote a story about a library, "The Library of Babel" (1941). It is no slight to the masterful Argentinian that the novel's villain is named after him.

Medieval Conflict

Fourteenth-century Europe was riven by conflict between the Catholic Church and the secular state. This church-versus-state struggle is an important subplot in the novel. The Church was immensely wealthy, getting its riches from vast landholdings, which yielded rents and exploitable resources. Wealth flowed to the papacy through the bishops appointed by the pope to manage the lands. The Church also made a fortune selling indulgences, money ordinary Christians paid to priests and bishops for the absolution (forgiveness) of sins.

In the novel these hostilities play out between representatives of Pope John XXII (reigned 1316–34) and the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV (1283–1347). Pope John was determined to retain control of the land, wealth, and power of the Church. His ambition impinged on the emperor's desire to strengthen and enrich the Holy Roman Empire, an area including much of western and central Europe centered in modern Germany. Louis found that an alliance with the Franciscan orders, Christian religious orders founded in the early 13th century by Saint Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), was politically beneficial in his ongoing struggle against the pope. Thus, the pope's antagonism and persecution of the various Franciscan orders was partly an attempt to undermine or defeat Louis.

The conflict is explained in the novel during the meeting between the two factions. William of Baskerville, Ubertino, Michael of Cesena, and other Franciscan monks argue that a life of poverty in imitation of Jesus is the true Christian way. They don't ask openly for the Church to give up its wealth but ask that it simply stop persecuting them as heretics. The papal delegation, led by the inquisitor Bernard Gui (c. 1261–1331), argues that Christ and the Bible wanted the Church to be wealthy and therefore the Franciscans are heretics.

Medieval Religious Orders and Heresies

By the 14th century numerous Christian monastic orders existed throughout Europe. The novel takes place in a Benedictine monastery, an order founded by Italian monk Saint Benedict (c. 480–547). The Benedictine orders were the most numerous in the Middle Ages. Other Church-approved monastic orders of the period were the Cluniacs and Cistercians, both offshoots of the Benedictines.

Life in a medieval monastery was organized around "liturgical hours," or times of prayer for the monastic community. Liturgical hours were as follows: Matins, between 2:30 and 3:00 a.m.; Lauds, between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m.; Prime, around 7:30 a.m.; Terce, around 9:00 a.m.; Sext, around noon and the midday meal; Nones, between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m.; Vespers, around 4:30 p.m.; and Compline, between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m., after which the monks went to bed. When not at prayer, some monks copied and illuminated religious manuscripts. In all monasteries were monks who worked as herbalists or healers, gardeners who grew food for the monastery, librarians, and others who performed tasks necessary for the upkeep of the grounds and well-being of the monks. An abbot was the ultimate authority in an abbey, or monastery.

Various heretical orders also existed during the Middle Ages. Some, like the Franciscan order and its offshoots—such as the Friars Minor and Spirituals—were deemed heretical because they challenged the wealth of the Church by living lives of poverty. Other groups were more recognizably heretical, for example, the rebellious order of Fra Dolcino (c. 1250–1307) whose followers pillaged, sometimes killing people, to survive. Other heretical groups mentioned in the novel are Waldensians, a mendicant (beggar) order that also lived and preached a life of poverty, and the Beghards, laymen who were not monks but who dedicated their lives to prayer and service. The Beguines were the female branch of this order. One of the most popular heretical groups, the Cathars, had been all but eliminated by the 14th century. Cathars believed that everything immaterial and spiritual was good, while everything in the material world was evil. Cathars lived an exceptionally ascetic life of self-denial and spiritual discipline.

The Inquisition

The Inquisition was the Church's judicial forum for determining the crime of heresy. At first, the papacy left it to local bishops to organize and conduct inquisitions, but by the mid-13th century the papacy oversaw the Inquisition, which had authority to judge everyone except bishops and the clerics who worked for them.

In 1252 Pope Innocent IV (reigned 1243–54) approved the use of torture to elicit admissions of heresy among intractable heretics. Most torture was carried out by enthusiastic laymen, not clerics. Torture was widely used on members of the religious military order the Knights Templar (1119–1314) and was a significant factor in their destruction. Torture was also common for those accused of witchcraft. Following interrogation during a trial, a verdict (often predetermined) was announced. The secular power, not the Church, executed the condemned. There is no documentation of exactly how many Europeans were victims of the Inquisition, but hundreds, if not thousands, were burned at the stake.

The well-known Spanish Inquisition began in Spain in 1478 and lasted through 1834.


Semiotics is the study of signs of all types including words, images, sounds, symbols, and natural objects. Signs are things that convey information, and semiotics analyzes them to understand or interpret culture. Eco's work in semiotics emphasizes the need for a code in order for a person to interpret a sign. For example, the statement, "My advice is carpe diem," makes no sense to a person who does not know the code, which is a Latin phrase (carpe diem = seize the day). A person needs to know the code for a sign to make sense or be correctly interpreted.

Another key to Eco's semiotics is the notion of the open work, something "radically ambiguous in its message that invites or may compel the reader, listener, or viewer to participate in the creative process." The Name of the Rose is an open work insofar as the reader is invited to interpret the signs William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk find. The reader is encouraged to think with them about the clues that may help solve the mystery. William of Baskerville pronounces a semiotician's principle when he advises, "Recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book."

A Note about Latin

Latin words and phrases are used throughout the novel. As many Latin words and phrases as possible have been translated for the reader. In-text translation takes the following form: "A fool exalts his voice in laughter" (stultus in ... vocem suam). The names of ancient books and manuscripts are not translated. For complete translations from the novel's Latin into English, as well as other background information, see Adele J. Haft, et al. The Key to "The Name of the Rose." University of Michigan Press, 1999.
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