It should be noted that the name of the book probably comes from a transcription error.

At the end of the book, the narrator writes: "Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus", which means : "The ancient Rose remains by its name, naked names (are all that) we have". As it stands, this sentence can be seen as a hint at the relationship between the thing and the word, between the remanent sign and the transient signified - an appealing conclusion for a semiologist such as Eco.

However, this verse comes from the poem De contemptu mundi ("On the Contempt of the World"), written by Bernard of Cluny (aka Bernard of Morlay). This poem is mainly a satire against the moral corruption of the world in general (and of the Catholic Church in particular) in the 12th century. Among other things, this long poem (3000 verses) stresses the transitory nature of this world's pleasures and glories, and uses the great cities of the past (Babylone, Rome) as an example. The most coherent reading for the verse that Eco cites is actually : "Stat ROMA pristina nomine", etc. Here is the context:
    Nunc ubi Regulus aut ubi Romulus aut ubi Remus?
    Stat ROMA pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus
"Where is Regulus now, and where is Romulus, and where is Remus ? The antique Rome only remains through its name, empty names are all that we hold".

The Name of the Rose is a masterpiece of contemporary literature. I tend to think that this misreading makes this mysterious, evocative title even more poetic. Of course, ymmv.
In addition to the book The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, there is a movie of the same name starring Sean Connery as Brother William and Christian Slater as Adso. I mention the (otherwise excellent) movie in connection with the book primarily because of the earlier excellent discussion concerning the name of the book, which is offered up as an error in translation, as well it might be, though if so it is an interesting error. The movie takes some serious departures from the book (as they tend to in such situations) and (IIRC) ends with the line "...and I never even knew her name." This last is a reference to the girl with whom the young monk Adso has a sexual encounter, and whom he choses to abandon to continue his search for spiritual perfection. The line also recapitulates the title ("The Name of the Rose") and leaves one thinking that the name of the rose, and the name/nature of the woman, are the central mystery within the mystery. This I think is no accident (or at least if it is an accident then it is a delightful one) and I wonder if Eco himself had a similar notion with his chosen ending.

For the movie (similar to the book) also critically points out the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the...ah...practice of male love, and reveals the confusion of the monks regarding the worship of a woman who in their theology is blessed above all while real women are perverse and untouchable, fornicators with Satan, the cause for the fall of man. There is a scene where the naked peasant girl, riding atop Adso as they climax, is given a similar cinematic treatment as an earlier shot of the Virgin as a marble statue above the prostrate elder monk, who loves her with his his eyes averted, face against the cold floor. The symbolism could hardly be lost (that is unless one is too busy admiring the actress's admirable performance.)

Having read the book and seen the movie, and appreciated the erudite discussion elsewhere on the topic of the literary name itself, I sense that there is (or could be) more to glean from the title. Is the name of the rose indeed the same thing as the rose itself? Is the Virgin and the lost woman the same in the end or is one more real; one for having been given a holy name and then venerated as an image in stone by a man for all of his adult life, or the other for having simply been carnal with him for a passing moment before meeting the flames and being lost to the world for eternity? And if all we have is the name (or even less, just the scent and the feel) are we able to say we have it still though the thing is lost, nameless, and burnt? It seems to me to speak to the ongoing struggle between the abstract and the physical, idea and reality, stone and flesh, as we have struggled with so many abstractions over the ages, and not always to our profit. The point of the tale seems to be that the naming of the Virgin and carving her in stone did not make her more real than the nameless, lost girl giving her best to a young monk, who is himself to be lost into the church for the rest of his days. For at the end of his life Adso is not clear about what is gained or lost in his lifetime service of God, but he readily confesses that he has never forgotten that one moment of touch, that contact, with the flesh and life of a girl who was to be lost unto the flames of the Inquisition. What they gained, and then pitifully lose, strikes us just as nameless and timeless as purest stone, whatever the shape that stone might take.

Others have written about the deep layers of The Name of the Rose (enjoyable as a murder mystery on the surface, with allegory lurking in the depths).

I'll just add that Umberto Eco used symbols and layers even for his characters' names and appearances.

It's easy to lift the masks of (at least) two of the characters:

William of Baskerville is Sherlock Holmes

  • Their adventures are chronicled in first person by their assistants.
  • Holmes is a cocaine addict, William chews some unspecified herbs "good for an old Franciscan, but not for a young Benedictine".
  • Both detectives can describe in detail a scene that they've never seen, relying only on logic deductions.
  • Holmes solved the famous case of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
  • They are both native English speakers.

Jorge of Burgos is Jorge L. Borges

  • They are blind.
  • Jorge of Burgos was a librarian with a gift for tongues; Borges wrote the famous short story "The library of Babel".
  • Jorge of Burgos is the keeper of a labyrinthine library with mirrors in some of the rooms; mazes and mirrors feature prominently in Borges' works.
  • Their names sound similar.
  • They are both native Spanish speakers.

Eco also had some plain old fun with the names:

  • The monk that betrays his closest friend is Salvatore, a name that in Italian means "Saviour".
  • One of the old abbots is Roberto of Bobbio, a nod to the (late) Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio.
  • The original name of the narrator is "Adso da Melk". Grab your closest Italian-speaking friend and make him say that ten times fast; the name will morph into an obscene suggestion. Ok, it's just my dirty mind. Mr. Eco is a respected writer and professor, and these are childish jokes. Naughty Vorbis, naughty...

This is another book that I have surprisingly not read until recently. And this is despite the fact that I am an Umberto Eco fan, and have read most of his other books---but I had not read this book, his first novel, and still probably the most popular. My edition, an English translation published in 1984, has a quote on the back to the effect that Umberto Eco had written his first novel! It is hard to imagine, now, an audience surprised by that one Italian semiotician writing a novel, but at one point, Eco was more known as a literary critic than a writer of experimental (but action-packed) novels. And I read this book backwards: I had already read Foucault's Pendulum and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana before I read it, so it seemed slightly more tame, linear and less "meta" than his later works. But for readers at the time, it was probably quite a surprise!

The Name of the Rose is set in a medieval monastery, with the main characters all being monks of different orders. Within that, there are two major plots or themes. The first is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Our narrator (who is a monk) is the Watson to a Sherlock Holmes figure (who is also a monk) who is investigating a murder in a monastery. The murders quickly multiply, each one being more bizarre and filled with seeming symbolism than the other. The monastery turns out to be a labyrinth of hidden chambers and not-so-hidden rivalries, with our investigator, Brother William, being surprised and confused despite his great logical powers of deduction. In the parallel part of the book, there is a political conflict between The Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire over whether poverty in monastic orders is heretical. This gets to be very confusing, as the different factions and alliances are described at great length. This also provides some of the urgency for Brother William's investigation---the monastery is scheduled to be the meeting site for a conference between the two sides, and the escalating death toll is on course to derail the conference.

My main question while reading this book was what was the most important thing for Umberto Eco, and just how important it was. Was the deep dives into medieval theology and politics an important part of the text, or was it basically a shaggy dog story? Was he trying to draw a topical connection between the social situation at the time of writing and current events, or was it all just a red herring for the reader? In the book's climactic scene, Brother William makes statements to the effect that our minds make patterns out of chaos where none exist, but it isn't clear whether that is William or Eco talking. The book also has so many allusions, most of which even a well-educated reader would miss (the opening line of the novel is a reference to Snoopy, for example), that it is hard to see what is a point, and where Eco is just playing.

I will say, however, that in contrast to the last book I read that made me think "but why?", the "but why" in this book felt more amusing. Over 40 years after its publication, this book is now considered a classic, and I enjoyed it. Even when I didn't know why.

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