The Name of the Rose is filled with Latin phrases, literary allusions, medieval history and theology, and deconstructionist and semiotic theory. It has enjoyed wide acclaim despite its complexity. A critical success, it won the Strega Prize and the Viareggio Prize in Italy and the Medicis Prize in France. Before its translation into English, it sold half a million copies in Italy. It has been on the best-seller lists of Italy, France, Germany, and the United States, and in 1986 it was adapted for film.
Such response reveals the irony of Eco’s claim in the preface that the story is “gloriously lacking in any relevance for our day, atemporally alien to our hopes and our certainties.” Not only do late twentieth century characters appear thinly disguised, not only does the book reflect late twentieth century skepticism, but also, in its plea for tolerance, it offers a nuclear world its best and last hope for survival.
The novel is no more exclusively a twentieth century book than it is medieval. The eighteenth century novelist Henry Fielding, defending the realism of his characters, observed that not only were they living as he wrote, they had been alive for the past two thousand years. So, too, with Eco’s characters. The historical background helps clarify the plot, but it also reveals how history repeats itself. Each period has its orthodoxy and its heresies, which may well change places in the succeeding age. Indeed, at any moment it may not be clear which is which. When Nicholas of Morimondo says he would be willing to destroy those who are “enemies of the people of God,” William asks, “But who today is the enemy of the people of God? Louis the Emperor or John the Pope?” Eco’s claim to atemporality thus contains some validity; like all classics, it stands outside time because it speaks to all ages.