Eco introduces the novel with a preface titled “Naturally, a Manuscript,” in which an unnamed scholar describes how he came into possession of the memoirs of a fourteenth-century monk called Adso of Melk. The scholar describes the difficulties he encountered in authenticating, researching, and translating Adso’s manuscript and presents it as a tale out of time, a “tale of books” into which the reader can escape the modern world.

In the prologue, Adso of Melk takes over as narrator. Adso lives at the Benedictine abbey in the city of Melk. Aware that he is close to the end of his life, he writes of events he experienced as a young novice. He relates how he was removed from the monastery of Melk by his father, a nobleman, so that he might see Italy and the crowning of Emperor Louis; he then wandered Tuscany by himself until his parents made him scribe and student of the British Franciscan monk William of Baskerville. Adso greatly admired, and continues to admire, his unusual master’s wisdom and learning, though he expresses some confusion at the fact that William seemed to embody several contradictions, including an admiration of the ideas of both William of Occam and Roger Bacon.

The story proper begins on a November morning in 1327, when William and Adso arrive after weeks of travel at an unnamed Benedictine abbey in the mountains of northern Italy. William has been summoned there in order to mediate talks between envoys of Pope John XXII and representatives of the Franciscan order, led by Michael of Cesena, who have the support of Emperor Louis IV. Michael has been summoned to the papal seat in Avignon to answer for the Franciscans’ belief in ecclesiastical poverty, which the Pope sees as having given rise to radical sects that pose a threat to the centralized authority, power, and riches of the Church. When William and Adso meet with the monastery’s abbot, Abo, they learn that a young illuminator, Adelmo of Otranto, has recently...

(The entire section is 3062 words.)