Knowledge was one of the most powerful tools of the middle ages. It was highly valued by many kings and members of nobility, but the greatest procurer of knowledge through the middle ages was undoubtedly the church. Their motive for the capturing of wisdom was not for their own enrichment, but predominantly self-preservation. If the general public were to get hold of such a wealth of philosophical and scientific works that were withheld in the monastic libraries then they would almost certainly begin to formulate their own religious ideas, therefore releasing the societal stranglehold the church held so tightly at that time.Order now
To survive the church had to keep the knowledge from the masses, and this is something that Umberto Eco has incorporated with finesse into his novel The Name of the Rose. Intertextuality, postmodernism, allusions and an array of interesting characters help to explain the state of education and the availability of knowledge in the middle ages. The labyrinth is one of the most important aspects to the portrayal of knowledge in The Name of the Rose. Its design and purpose are a brilliant metaphor to the churches desire to keep knowledge from the poor and powerless.
The story of the labyrinth goes right back to a Greek myth, which tells of a beast with the head of a bovine and the body of a man, who was conceived of a woman and a snow white bull. It was confined to a labyrinth from which there was no escape without assistance. The concept that Eco uses in The Name of the Rose is very similar, except instead of guarding the Minotaur, Eco’s labyrinth guard’s books, the knowledge that could be the destruction of the church’s vice-like grip upon society.
The minotaur wanted seven young maidens and seven youths per year to quench it’s appetite, and one year the Greek hero Theseus became sick of the killing and offered himself as a sacrifice to the bull, with the intention of killing it. He went in with a ball of string and a sword, the ball of string he used to trace his path back to the start when he had killed the Minotaur. There are distinct parallels between William, and the hero Theseus.
William entered the library with the intention of getting at the contents that it was protecting from society, which of course were the books, just as Theseus entered the Minotaur’s labyrinth to rescue the young men and women. They both succeed in their quest, William emerging from the burning library with some important literary works, and Theseus with the youths and maidens that were soon to be sacrificed. It is also no coincidence that William uses string, much the same as the Greek hero, to escape from the monastic labyrinth.
The true purpose of the library is hinted upon throughout the novel, mostly through Adso and William’s perilous adventures into the labyrinth, which highlight the obvious difficulty of getting inside the library, procuring books, then getting back out. There are however direct references to the labyrinth’s intention, which generally occur in conversations between Adso and William. On page 286 Adso is shocked to find that the library in this Italian monastery has a different purpose to most, “And is a library, then, as instrument not for distributing the truth but for delaying it’s appearance?
The library’s political purposes override its theoretical one, which is to spread knowledge, and this is one of the novel’s greatest ironies. One could hence assume that the library and the monk’s existence is futile in a non-postmodernist sense as they are reproducing and preserving works that they will never intentionally release into society. Eco most deftly portrays the great power of knowledge through perhaps the novel’s most interesting character, William of Baskerville.
He is very different from the other monks in the monastery, as his great wealth of knowledge and ways of thinking recognise him as a renaissance man well before his time. One of the techniques Eco uses to portray William’s importance to the theme of knowledge in The Name of the Rose is intertextuality. It is represented mainly in the form of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, and especially ‘The Hounds of the Baskervilles’.
Such elements as the characters, the time of year, and the ways of thinking portrayed through these characters help to lead the reader to a greater understanding of the text. The obvious similarities between the main characters in these stories is one of the more direct means that Eco uses to incorporate intertextuality into the story. William of Baskerville is a 14th century Sherlock Holmes, with a physique and detective skill that match his 19th century counterpart.
Eco says of him, “Brother William’s physical appearance was at that time such as to attract the attention of the most inattentive observer”, if this is compared to Watson’s first impression of Holmes, “His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer”, it can be seen that Eco did little more than copy the character from one book to the other. The similarities continue when the two authors write in more detail of the character’s looks, Adso says, “His height surpassed that of a normal man and he was so thin that he seemed still taller.
His eyes were sharp and penetrating; his thin and slightly beaky nose gave his countenance the expression of a man on the lookout, save in certain moments of sluggishness of which I shall speak. His chin also denoted a firm will, though the long face covered with frecklesâ€¦could occasionally express hesitation and puzzlement. ” Doyle writes of Sherlock Holmes’ particulars, “In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed taller.
His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during the intervals of torpor which I have alluded; his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. ” They are so similar that one could be forgiven for thinking that the differences are a result of William Weaver’s translation. Another character that is derived from Sherlock Holmes is Adso, who is of course the equivalent of Holmes’ sidekick Watson.
Adso follows William everywhere around the abbey, as does Watson when Sherlock is trying to solve a mystery. Adso converses with William in relation to matters in much the same way as Watson does with Holmes, and you can almost imagine that William is saying to Adso, “Precisely Watson” whenever Adso shows that he is understanding of a concept or situation. Adso’s name is also procured from Doyle’s characters, its real pronunciation being odsan and it only takes a small change to make it Watson.
The reason for Eco’s blatant citation of the Sherlock Holmes characters is not only to make the novel easier for the reader to relate to, but also to highlight a more important facet of his intertextual technique, this being the way that William actually solves the crimes. His way of thinking is bordering on modernism, and he epitomises the advent of logical and scientific chains of thought, as opposed to more superstitious and religious beliefs that had developed as a result of the massive amount of unexplained phenomena that surrounded the human race.
Instead of trying to explain things in unknown quantities he took what he knew which was a vast amount and used it to solve a problem. He never made up an explanation for something that would create further consternation over a completely different answer, but stuck to the laws of science and logic and in this way he was able to use deduction to solve almost anything within the boundaries of his knowledge.
In this manner Eco is able to show the difference between William, who has been exposed to a comprehensive education, and many of the other characters in the novel, who haven’t had access to much of the knowledge that William has been able to gain throughout his life. William can use his great quantities of learning to benefit his well being and that of others, and his logical attitude is very different to that of the monks, who use religious phenomena to explain some happenings, as opposed to looking at the cold hard facts and deriving an answer from that.
A pertinent example is that of the apocalypse and the way they were able to link every crime to it, thus dismissing them as acts of god rather than the doing of mortal beings. By contrasting William of Baskerville’s calculative deduction to the methods of some of the less educated characters in the novel, Eco portrays the effect that the church’s withholding of information has had upon the people and the difference it would have made to society if they had allowed access to their immense coffers of philosophical, scientific and even theological works.
Not only is the difference between the educated and non-educated of the middle ages catered for by Eco’s uses of intertextuality, but also the violent contrast that is present between the ways of thinking that existed in the 1300’s and that of today. Eco uses intertextuality as a powerful vehicle to render his widely acclaimed postmodernist themes within the novel. William of Baskerville is a man ahead of his time, and he uses renaissance and modernist lines of thought to solve problems. Consequently he represents the use of knowledge that occurs in the modern day, a clinical and scientific way of looking at life.
Eco uses him to celebrate the change in thinking between the Middle Ages and the renaissance period, the difference between the deductive and religious modes of thought, which are so differently regarded today than they were in 1327. Whilst the similarities between William and Sherlock Holmes are the main tools Eco uses to emphasize his postmodernist themes, small allusions to postmodernism are added throughout the text. For example at the very beginning Adso writes, “But now we see through a glass darkly,” by this he means that we will never see the true nature of some things until many years later or even until the end of time.
This line is central to the idea of postmodernism as it accentuates the fact that we didn’t really know that the changes society and science were going through would be as revolutionary as they eventually were. It is also a clever allusion to the behaviour of the monks; at the start we assume that they are a good model of discipline and service to god, but eventually we find out that they are all corrupted and have sinned profusely, therefore having not a pure atom inside. In this the ultimate hypocrisy of religion is exposed.
One of the most intriguing enigmas in The Name of the Rose is Jorge’s partiality to the idea that humour and laughter are sinful and a detriment to humanity. Throughout the novel he argues with William with consistency regarding this matter and it highlights the churches fear of losing their control of western civilisation. As William and Adso are on the trail of the murderer William says of the finis Africae, the book that so many monks had been killed over, “If someone kills for a handful of gold, he will be a greedy person; if for a book, he will be anxious to keep for himself the secrets of that book. Jorge set up this whole murder mystery and it’s happenings by putting poison on the pages of the valuable Aristotelian work, thus killing anyone who reads it and protecting its precious secrets. The reality that the he is not in favour of laughter or humour, coupled with the fact that the finis Africae uses humour to convey it’s ideas, would lead one to believe that Jorge is simply following the attitude of the church.
This being that works which use methods to make their concepts especially easy to understand are very dangerous, and therefore they above all others should be prevented from circulation into society. Umberto Eco has made the theme of knowledge a central subject within The Name of the Rose, and the literary techniques he uses as well as his highly complex characters are highly successful in conveying the way knowledge was treated in the era of great power that the catholic church held.
The use of Sherlock Holmes in an intertextual sense and the consequent post-modern aspects of his amalgamation within the story are especially clever methods which serve to provide a very interesting tangent to the novel. The Name Of The Rose can be taken both on surface value as a typical crime story and from underneath as a wonderful political piece that embodies the attitudes of the time whilst still maintaining it’s ironic edge as a Sherlock Holmes murder thriller set in the early 1300’s, 500 years before Doyle’s work, and written in the 1980’s, some 100 years later than the Holmes mysteries were first published.