I've just finished rereading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, which I think is one of the best novel of the last three decades. If a wonderful novel should transport the reader to another time and place, Eco's novel did transport me to late middle ages to a Benedictine abbey in 1327 in Northern Italy. The abbey has the greatest library in all of Europe which attracts monk scholars, but strangely makes it difficult for those scholars to get books since only the librarian is allowed into the library. Characters debate the question who is knowledge for? Should there be an ethics for new knowledge? And should certain ideas be censored? These questions are also relevant to us today.
The hero, William of Baskerville, is a Franciscan who comes along with his novice/pupil Adso to the monastery to prepare a meeting at the abbey trying to make peace between two warring factions: a legation of leading Franciscans, his side, and a legation from Pope John XXII at Avignon. When he arrives, four monks are found dead, so the abbot asks William to find out who killed the monks.
William is a fascinating. Once an inquisitor investigating heretics for the church, he gave that up and now believes in the scientific method, following his two great Franciscan proponents of science, Roger Bacon and William of Occam. After the rediscovery of Aristotle's scientific discovery, Bacon and William of Occam reopened up scientific investigation in the late 13th-early 14th centuries. At one point William explains to Adso that his master Roger Bacon did not have lust for knowledge for his own aggrandizement but "he wanted to employ his learning to make God's people happier, and so he did not seek knowledge for its own sake." The debate over what should be the end of new knowledge is both medieval and contemporary.
William applies the scientific method he learned from Bacon and William of Occam to the solving of the murders at the abbey, and at the same time tries to teach his method to his pupil Adso. At another point William tells Adso, "Books are not made to be believe, but to be subjected to inquiry." William is both medieval man at his best, and the predecessor of what is to come in both the Renaissance and the scientific revolutions exemplified in Galileo.
Other forces within the church such as the inquisitor Bernard Gui, the leader of the Pope's legation, disagree with William about searching for new knowledge. The inquisitor's archers find Salvatore, a monk who worked in the abbey's kitchen, with a poor young peasant woman, a cat, and two broken eggs. Salvatore procured the peasant woman to sleep with his superior monk Remigio, head of the kitchen, but Salvatore wants the woman himself and was in the midst of a doing a love potion.
The inquisitor ignores the simple explanation of two monks sinning by breaking their vows of celibacy. In a riveting chapter he threatens the two men, getting Salvatore to confess that he and Remigio years ago was part of the heretical rebellious movement the Fraticelli. The inquisitor threatens Remigio, who also confesses to be part of the Fraticellis decades earlier. When the inquisitor threatens Remigio with torture, he then confesses to murdering all the monks at abbey to avoid the torture. Then Bernard Gui spins out a tale of two monk heretics, one of whom is a murderer, and the poor starving peasant girl a witch--all in the service of the devil. Gui has successfully painted the abbey as a sinful place, using his theories and knowledge to solidify his side in the debate, so knowledge is used to gain power for his side. Of course, none of Bernard's victims had anything to do with the murders. For Bernard facts are irrelevant and torture is the quickest way to get what you want from people.
Throughout the novel the novice Adso struggles to understand the monks' debate over heresies, and learns from William and other older monks how the church through these debates struggles to deal with rapid changes in society. Adso finds out that Salvatore, who came from an extremely poor family, was once a Fraticelli, a rebellious movement of poor peasants and outcasts who wanted to abolish all class hierarchies and were against all priests. William tells Adso that the Franciscans also spoke to outcasts, but instead of encouraging them in rebellion encouraged them to be part of the church; at the same time the Franciscans wanted a reduction of the "privileges of the powerful," or the idea that the church would not be dedicated to riches. Thus the Franciscans leaders like Michael of Cessna argued that Christ and his apostles had no property in common, thus setting an example of poverty for the whole church. These ideas lead to the Franciscans' great conflict with Pope John XXII, who has great riches, argues that the Franciscans ideas are heretical. Again, the monks debate should society be reformed to include the outcasts?
William also explains to Adso that Roger Bacon believed that simple people--workers, peasants. had great spiritual inventions. As learning was spreading outside the monasteries, Roger Bacon,
William of Occam, and William of Baskerville in the novel begin to argue that the simple people are gaining wisdom to decide their own affairs in an assembly of the people. Thus William along with his master Franciscans are arguing for an earlier form of constitutional government. Later in the big debate with Bernard Gui, William develops his arguments for separation of church and state. In the United States we are still having today arguments about separation of church and state as well as what form of constitutional government, particularly how much powers the President should have?
Thus within the novel the many debates over theology and heresy are all relevant to today as they argue how much church and state should be separated? Can simple people make laws in assembly of the people or should their be One Decider? If many are outcasts, should society reform to include them? How should we use knowledge in our actions? Once the reader discovers that all these debates are deeply connected with who should have power and how power is be used, the debates are fascinating.
One more great debate occurs throughout the novel, between William who argues that laughter is beneficial, while the elderly Benedictine monk, Jorge of Burgos, argues against laughter-- and this debate is the climax of the novel. Jorge has worked for decades to keep the abbey's library off-limits to all but a select few, and particularly to keep hidden the one surviving manuscript of Aristole's 2nd book of Poetics, which is about comedy and laughter. Why would Jorge work so hard to keep this book secret while other monks gave their lives to read this book? William through his great deductive powers have figured out the Aristotle's lost book argues that comedy shows us the ridiculous, helping people to see untruths since they are foolish and ridiculous. Thus Aristotle argues that comedy is a good, instructive force since leading people to separate truths from falsity.
Jorge hates laughter and also Aristotle's book on comedy because he sees Aristotle has elevated comedy to an art, and Jorge thinks that laughter can free common people from fear. Jorge believes that fear is necessary to keep people following the law and to keep believing in God. He believes that if scholars read Aristotle on comedy they will use it to dismantle all belief in holy things. Since he believes that no knowledge is needed after the Bible and Church Fathers, Jorge thinks that the reading of Aristotle has sparked a devilish interest in new knowledge. Jorge believes William by advocating new knowledge is joining the Devil's side, while William says that Jorge is the Devil since the "Devil is not Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt."
So who is the Devil's man? The novel leaves us only with questions, as in the end William of Baskerville doubts his own abilities as a detective/scientist because in looking for who committed the murders of the monks he found many true facts that he linked together in a theory that was wrong but did lead him in the end to the murderer. His pupil Adso says, "But in imagining an erroneous error you still find something ...." or William did find the murderer. Adso, the narrator who at the end of his life at eighty writes about his experiences when eighteen with William, also when he approaches death has doubts: he doubts if he the events in the story he has just told (the novel) has any larger meaning. But since William has argued that real holiness is those whose truth is never arrogant and have doubts, the doubts of the two main characters at the end are fitting.
Name of the Rose is a great novel--read it. Eco has brilliantly recreated the late medieval world in a novel with alive, rich characters who are dealing with great debates; these debates are thoroughly medieval but also totally relevant to us today.