The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

These pages: The Name of the Rose

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second page


William Weaver


medieval mysteries

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The Name of the Rose

translated from the Italian by William Weaver

Copyright © 1980 by Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri-Bompiani, Sonzogno, Etas S.p.A.
English translation copyright © 1983 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. and Martin Secker & Warburg Limited

Note (Hal’s):
The historical and philosophical background of this novel is explored in Richard E. Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children.

— end note


In the past men were handsome and great (now they are children and dwarfs), but this is merely one of the many facts that demonstrate the disaster of an aging world. The young no longer want to study anything, learning is in decline, the whole world walks on its head, blind men lead others equally blind and cause them to plunge into the abyss, birds leave the nest before they can fly, the jackass plays the lyre, oxen dance. Mary no longer loves the contemplative life and Martha no longer loves the active life, Leah is sterile, Rachel has a carnal eye, Cato visits brothels, Lucretius becomes a woman. Everything is on the wrong path. In those days, thank God, I acquired from my master the desire to learn and a sense of the straight way, which remains even when the path is tortuous.



In time I realized that what seemed a lack of confidence was only curiosity, but at the beginning I knew little of this virtue, which I thought, rather, a passion of the covetous spirit. I believed instead that the rational spirit should not indulge such passion, but feed only on the Truth, which (I thought) one knows from the outset.
Once, when I asked him what it was, he said laughing that a good Christian can sometimes learn also from the infidels, and when I asked him to let me taste it, he replied that herbs that are good for an old Franciscan are not good for a young Benedictine.



One day I found him strolling in the flower garden without any apparent aim, as if he did not have to account to God for his works. In my order they had taught me quite a different way of expending my time, and I said so to him. And he answered that the beauty of the cosmos derives not only from unity in variety, but also from variety in unity. This seemed to me an answer dictated by crude common sense, but I learned subsequently that the men of his land often define things in ways in which it seems that the enlightening power of reason has scant function.



“And I say to you that God wishes them to be, and certainly they already are in His mind, even if my friend from Occam denies that ideas exist in such a way; and I do not say this because we can determine the divine nature but precisely because we cannot set any limit to it.”


William of Occam

First Day Terce

“Why,” he asked, “do you insist on speaking of criminal acts without referring to their diabolical cause?”

“Because reasoning about causes and effects is a very difficult thing, and I believe the only judge of that can be God. We are already hard put to establish a relationship between such an obvious effect as a charred tree and the lightning bolt that set fire to it, so to trace sometimes endless chains of causes and effects seems to me as foolish as trying to build a tower that will touch the sky.”

Sext And this is the evil that heresy inflicts on the Christian people, obfuscating ideas and inciting all to become inquisitors to their personal benefit. For what I saw at the abbey then (and will now recount) caused me to think that often inquisitors create heretics. And not only in the sense that they imagine heretics where these do not exist, but also that the inquisitors repress the heretical putrefaction so vehemently that many are driven to share in it, in their hatred for the judges.
It does not seem to me that they were preaching things contrary to the Gospel, but when the possession of earthly things is in question, it is difficult for men to reason justly. I was told that years later, the new general of the order, Raymond Gaufredi, found these prisoners in Ancona and, on freeing them, said: “Would God that all of us and the whole order were stained by such a sin.” A sign that what the heretics say is not true, and there are still men of great virtue living in the church.
“He belongs to that race of men who are always their adversary’s best champions.”



Toward Nones

“He is, or has been, in many ways a great man. But for this very reason he is odd. It is only petty men who seem normal. Ubertino could have become one of the heretics he helped burn, or a cardinal of the holy Roman church. He came very close to both perversions. When I talk with Ubertino I have the impression that hell is heaven seen from the other side.”

I did not grasp his meaning. “From what side?” I asked.

“Ah, true,” William acknowledged the problem. “It is a matter of knowing whether there are sides and whether there is a whole. But pay no attention to me.”

After Nones And I admired the vivid memory thanks to which, blind perhaps for many years, he could still recall the images whose wickedness he decried. I was led to suspect they had greatly seduced him when he had seen them, since he could yet describe them with such passion. But it has often happened that I have found the most seductive depictions of sin in the pages of those very men of incorruptible virtue who condemned their spell and their effects. A sign that these men are impelled by such eagerness to bear witness to the truth that they do not hesitate, out of love of God, to confer on evil all the seductions in which it cloaks itself; thus the writers inform men better of the ways through which the Evil One enchants them. And, in fact, Jorge’s words filled me with a great desire to see the tigers and monkeys of the cloister, which I had not yet admired.
Vespers “Excess of loquacity can be a sin, and so can excess of reticence. I didn’t mean that it is necessary to conceal the sources of knowledge. On the contrary, this seems to me a great evil. I meant that, since these are arcana from which both good and evil can derive, the learned man has the right and the duty to use an obscure language, comprehensible only to his fellows.”

[...] all things considered, I would prefer to respect the customs of this place.”

“Then why do you want to know?”

“Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.”



Second Day Matins

“He could have killed him, rather than another, to leave a sign, to signify something else.”

“Omnis mundi creatura, quasi liber et scriptura . . .” I murmured. “But what would that sign be?”

“This is what I do not know. But let us not forget that there are also signs that seem such and are instead without meaning, like blitiri or bu-ba-baff. . . .”

“It would be atrocious,” I said, “to kill a man in order to say bu-ba-baff!”

“It would be atrocious,” William remarked, “to kill a man even to say ‘Credo in unum Deum.’ . . .”

Prime “There was, one hundred, two hundred years ago, a great wind of renewal. There was a time when those who spoke of it were burned, saint or heretic as they may have been. Now all speak of it. In a certain sense even the Pope discusses it. Don’t trust renewals of the human race when curias and courts speak of them.”
“And they who killed the crazed penitents, repaying death with death, to defeat true penitence, which produced death, replaced the penitence of the soul with a penitence of the imagination, a summons to supernatural visions of suffering and blood, calling them the ‘mirror’ of true penitence. A mirror that brings to life, for the imagination of the simple and sometimes even of the learned, the torments of hell. So that—it is said—no one shall sin. They hope to keep souls from sin through fear, and trust to replace rebellion with fear.”
Terce William had undoubtedly been insinuating, had tried to say to him, that there was little difference between his mystic (and orthodox) faith and the distorted faith of the heretics. Ubertino had taken offense, as one who saw the difference clearly. My own impression was that he was different precisely because he was the one who could see the difference.
Nones “The life of the simple, Abo, is not illuminated by learning and by the lively sense of distinctions that makes us wise. And it is haunted by illness and poverty, tongue-tied by ignorance. Joining a heretical group, for many of them, is often only another way of shouting their own despair. You may burn a cardinal’s house because you want to perfect the life of the clergy, but also because you believe that the hell he preaches does not exist. It is always done because on earth there does exist a hell, where lives the flock whose shepherds we no longer are.”

“When the massacre was complete, the city was sacked and burned.”

“A holy war is nevertheless a war.”

“For this reason perhaps there should not be holy wars.”




“Legions of scholars have wondered whether Christ laughed. The question doesn’t interest me much. I believe he never laughed, because, omniscient as the son of God had to be, he knew how we Christians would behave.”



Third Day Terce There, I said to myself, are the reasons for the silence and the darkness that surround the library: it is the preserve of learning but can maintain this learning unsullied only if it prevents its reaching anyone at all, even the monks themselves. Learning is not like a coin, which remains physically whole even through the most infamous transactions; it is, rather, like a very handsome dress, which is worn out through use and ostentation. Is not a book like that, in fact? Its pages crumble, its ink and gold turn dull, if too many hands touch it.



Sext In broken words, obliging me to recall what little I knew of Provençal and of Italian dialects, he told me the story of his flight from his native village and his roaming about the world. And in his story I recognized many men I had already known or encountered along the road, and I now recognize many more that I have met since, so that after all this time I may even attribute to him adventures and crimes that belonged to others, before him and after him, and which now, in my tired mind, flatten out to form a single image. This, in fact, is the power of the imagination, which, combining the memory of gold with that of the mountain, can compose the idea of a golden mountain.
He explained to me that all his life preachers had told him the Jews were the enemies of Christianity and accumulated possessions that had been denied the Christian poor. I asked him, however, whether it was not also true that lords and bishops accumulated possessions through tithes, so that the Shepherds were not fighting their true enemies. He replied that when your true enemies are too strong, you have to choose weaker enemies.



Nones “Francis wanted to call the outcast, ready to revolt, to be part of the people of God. If the flock was to be gathered again, the outcasts had to be found again. Francis didn’t succeed, and I say it with great bitterness. To recover the outcasts he had to act within the church, to act within the church he had to obtain the recognition of his rule, from which an order would emerge, and this order, as it emerged, would recompose the image of a circle, at whose margin the outcasts remain.”



“The recovery of the outcasts demanded reduction of the privileges of the powerful, so the excluded who became aware of their exclusion had to be branded as heretics, whatever their doctrine. And for their part, blinded by their exclusion, they were not really interested in any doctrine. This is the illusion of heresy. Everyone is heretical, everyone is orthodox. The faith a movement proclaims doesn’t count: what counts is the hope it offers. All heresies are the banner of a reality, an exclusion. Scratch the heresy and you will find the leper. Every battle against heresy wants only this: to keep the leper as he is.”



“Bacon believed in the strength, the needs, the spiritual inventions of the simple. He wouldn’t have been a good Franciscan if he hadn’t thought that the poor, the outcast, idiots and illiterate, often speak with the mouth of our Lord. The simple have something more than do learned doctors, who often become lost in their search for broad, general laws. The simple have a sense of the individual, but this sense, by itself, is not enough.”



“You understand, Adso, I must believe that my proposition works, because I learned it by experience; but to believe it I must assume there are universal laws. Yet I cannot speak of them, because the very concept that universal laws and an established order exist would imply that God is their prisoner, whereas God is something absolutely free, so that if He wanted, with a single act of His will He could make the world different.”

“And so, if I understand you correctly, you act, and you know why you act, but you don’t know why you know that you know what you do?”



Vespers “I do not know why, but I have never seen a machine that, however perfect in the philosophers’ description, is perfect in its mechanical functioning. Whereas a peasant’s billhook, which no philosopher has ever described, always functions as it should.”



After Compline And I understood that, madman or seer as he might be, he knowingly wanted to die because he believed that in dying he would defeat his enemy, whoever it was. And I understood that his example would lead others to death. And I remain amazed by the possessors of such steadfastness only because I do not know, even today, whether what prevails in them is a proud love of the truth they believe, which leads them to death, or a proud desire for death, which leads them to proclaim their truth, whatever it may be. And I am overwhelmed with admiration and fear.

text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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Background graphic copyright © 2004 by Hal Keen