What is the connection between power and heresy in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose?

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In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, it’s all about power, and during the period in which his novel takes place, the main center of power was the Catholic Church.  The Age of Enlightenment is hundreds of years in the future, and the role of scientific inquiry was minimal.  In fact, scientific inquiry that contradicted Church Doctrine was an offense punishable by torture and execution, such was the power of the religious authorities in Italy during the 14th Century.  Early insights into the connection between “heresy” and power can be gleaned by Eco’s “Prologue.”  A retrospective examination of the incidences that will provide the basis of the story to follow regarding the murders of monks and the investigation into those crimes by William of Baskerville precedes that story.  Comprising the ruminations of Adco of Melk, who apprenticed under William, Eco’s “Prologue” provides a detailed history of the political machinations that dominated much of Europe.  In the following passage, Adco discusses the political transformations that had occurred involving the intense and deadly competition for power and the role of religion in manipulating the course of events to one’s advantage:

“Two years later, in Avignon, the new Pope was elected, Jacques of Cahors, an old man of seventy-two who took, as I have said, the name of John XXII, and heaven grant that no pontiff take again a name now so distasteful to the righteous. A Frenchman, devoted to the King of France (the men of that corrupt land are always inclined to foster the interests of their own people, and are unable to look upon the whole world as their spiritual home), he had supported Philip the Fair against the Knights Templars, whom the King accused (I believe unjustly) of the most shameful crimes so that he could seize their possessions with the complicity of that renegade ecclesiastic.”

Note the last part of that paragraph.  The newly-elected pope has sided with the king in the latter’s efforts at enriching himself at the expense of the Knights Templars.  The pope’s sanctification of the king’s actions, Adco suggests, has provided the monarch with a degree of religious legitimacy that enabled him to out-maneuver the very forces that had been central to the Crusades and who had enjoyed an exalted if somewhat clandestine status. By suggesting that the adversary is in violation of Church Doctrine or, worse, acting at the behest of sacrilegious forces, the king is able to defeat the Knights.

In another passage in Adco’s history, he describes further political intrigues in which one’s claim to legitimacy rested upon his ability to secure the support of the Church’s leadership, which again exerted its influence by undermining the perception of piety on the part of the adversary.  In this passage, central to the novel’s plot, Adco describes the pope’s anger at those pious members of the religious order who dared to advance the cause of poverty on the part of the Church as a symbol of commitment and devotion:

“In 1322 Louis the Bavarian defeated his rival Frederick. Fearing a single emperor even more than he had feared two, John excommunicated the victor, who in return denounced the Pope as a heretic. I must also recall how, that very year, the chapter of the Franciscans was convened in Perugia, and the minister general, Michael of Cesena, accepting the entreaties of the Spirituals (of whom I will have occasion to speak), proclaimed as a matter of faith and doctrine the poverty of Christ . . .A worthy resolution, meant to safeguard the virtue and purity of the order, it highly displeased the Pope, who perhaps discerned in it a principle that would jeopardize the very claims that he, as head of the church, had made, denying the empire the right to elect bishops, and asserting on the contrary that the papal throne had the right to invest the emperor."

And, in discussing the failed efforts of William’s friend, the exiled Franscian friar Ubertino of Casale, and the latter’s regret that that he and his allies had failed in moving the Church in a more pious direction, Adco describes a conversation between this friar and William:

“Ubertino had listened to William’s last words as if not understanding them. From the old man’s expression, as it became filled with affectionate commiseration, I realized he considered William prey to culpable sentiments, which he forgave because he loved my master greatly. Ubertino interrupted him and said in a very bitter voice, “It does not matter. If that was how you felt, you were right to stop. Temptations must be fought. Still, I lacked your support; with it, we could have routed that band. And instead, you know what happened, I myself was accused of being weak toward them, and I was suspected of heresy. You were weak also, in fighting evil. Evil, William! Will this condemnation never cease, this shadow, this mire that prevents us from arriving at the holy source?”

The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery, but it is set against the backdrop of the vicious political infighting that characterized the Church during this medieval period in European history.  The most common tactic employed to discredit one’s opponent and, often, to bring about the latter’s imprisonment or execution, was the charge of heresy.  Because such charges, as we know well from the history of such shameful incidences as the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, are nearly impossible to refute while surviving the process by which one proves one’s innocence.  To be accused of going against Church orthodoxy was tantamount to having one’s death sentence signed, sealed and delivered.

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The Name of the Rose

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