Title: The Name of the Rose (originally Il nome della rosa)
Author: Umberto Eco
Publisher: Vintage Books
Year originally published: 1980
The Name of the Rose has been a bit of a slow burner. I read roughly four to six academic books a week during term time, but when I read non-Tripos books it’ll usually take me about a week. The Name of the Rose has taken me exactly one month to read. I spent the second half of term reading a few pages a night, then term ended and Eco’s book sucked me into its medieval world of heresy and immolations.
The story is told from the perspective of an ageing German monk, Adso, reflecting on his days as a novice, travelling around Europe with an older monk, William of Baskerville, in the first half of the 14th century. They stop off for a week in a magnificent abbey in northern Italy; yet over the course of these seven days, the two monks are embroiled in a puzzling tangle of murders, code, and a mysteriously labyrinthine library.
Once I’d properly started to engage with the story, I loved it. William of Baskerville, hailing from England, seems to have been written in the great tradition of dryly observant English detectives, cut from an incredibly similar cloth to Sherlock Holmes. The 1300s are also a compelling century to read about – with the learned on the cusp of grasping the technologies that have shaped our world today; William introduces Adso to the wonder of reading lenses and proto-compass magnets for divining one’s direction. Confession: I’m slightly biased towards this kind of setting. I studied medieval French literature in 2012 and medieval Italian art in 2013, so I’m bit in love with the Middle Ages, era of morbidly fascinating reliquaries and horrifying accounts of the Black Death. But I really don’t think you have to be a medieval scholar to enjoy this book. A little prior knowledge of ecclesiastical Latin or Romance languages would be useful, but is by no means necessary.
Something I also really appreciated in The Name of the Rose was just how hilarious it was in parts. Adso’s oneiric sequence had me crying with laughter in parts. Meanwhile, the short synopses which opened each chapter were mostly fairly banal, so unexpected injections of humour did not go unappreciated. For example:
‘In which the abbot speaks again with the visitors, and William has some astounding ideas for deciphering the riddle of the labyrinth and succeeds in the most rational way. Then William and Adso eat cheese in batter.’
I’d like some cheese in batter now please.
If you have difficulty connecting with the period, something that really helped me was to ensconce myself in my room, light a candle and create a Spotify playlist full of church music (I especially favoured Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor). From that point I had no difficulty summoning images of cowled monks strolling piously around the cloisters! The Name of the Rose is definitely a book everyone should read at some point in their lives – it’s a great one for reflecting on the vicissitudes of age as well as the extent of our development in terms of technology and civil rights in the seven centuries that have passed.
My verdict: 4/5
Slow to get going, with some relatively heavy passages, but the doses of humour and whodunnit-style murders lent this book some much-needed lightness and made it a compelling read!