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, and how 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 been found dead under mysterious circumstances—his body was discovered on the cliffside below the abbey. Abo asks William to solve the mystery of Adelmo’s death before the papal legation arrives and can become suspicious. William and Adso also learn from Abo of the supreme importance the monks place on the abbey’s library—said to be the greatest in Christendom—which occupies the top floor of the Aedificium and was constructed hundreds of years ago as a labyrinth. Only the librarian and assistant librarian are permitted to enter the stacks.
William, who loves an intellectual challenge, immediately begins his investigation of the mystery and tour of the abbey, taking Adso with him. The pair meet with William’s old friend and teacher, Ubertino of Casale, a member of the Franciscan sect known as the Spirituals who has come to the abbey fleeing persecution. They are also introduced to Severinus of Sankt Wendel, the master herbalist, and Nicholas of Morimondo, the master glazier. In the scriptorium, which occupies the floor below the library, they meet Malachi of Hildesheim, the librarian; his assistant, Berengar of Arundel; Venantius of Salvemec, a Greek and Arabic translator; Benno of Uppsala, a student of rhetoric; and the blind Jorge of Burgos, the abbey’s second-oldest monk, who, in opposition to the younger scholars, vehemently condemns laughter and comedy as dangerous forms of heresy.
The next morning during lauds, the dead body of Venantius of Salvemec, a friend of Adelmo’s, is discovered upside-down in a vat of pig’s blood in the courtyard. William deduces that Venantius must have died in the library and then been dragged into the courtyard to distract attention from the library. He and Adso continue their investigation, collecting clues and rumors. In the scriptorium, William finds himself debating the value of laughter with Jorge and becomes convinced that there is something important hidden among Venantius’s papers. From Benno, he and Adso learn that Adelmo slept with Berengar in exchange for access to a forbidden book. William and Adso then meet with the abbot, who encourages William in his investigation. Adso reflects that Abo has agreed to collaborate with the Franciscans in order to oppose the overreaching authority of the Pope, which poses a threat to the power of the Benedictine monasteries. Afterward the two encounter the Italian monk Alinardo of Grottaferrata, the oldest member of the abbey, who is no longer quite in full possession of his wits. Alinardo tells them about a secret entrance to the library and theorizes that the deaths are following a pattern laid out in the Book of Revelation.
That night, William and Adso enter the scriptorium on their way to the library but discover the book William was looking for, which he believes both the dead monks had been reading, has been stolen from Venantius’s desk. They do, however, discover a sheet of parchment on which Venantius has written something in code—but as the two prepare to leave, someone rushes by in the darkness and steals William’s glasses from the table. Adso runs after the shadowy figure but is unable to catch the thief. He and William proceed to the labyrinthine library, where they attempt to solve the puzzle of its organization. Adso falls victim to visions produced by herbs that have been left smoking on a table, and he and William lose their way for quite some time before finally emerging from the stacks.
The next morning’s prayers are again interrupted, this time by the discovery that Berengar has gone missing and a bloodstained cloth has been found in his cell. Over breakfast, Adso listens to the life story of Salvatore, a monk who speaks in a strange gibberish made up of several different languages. He learns how Salvatore roamed the countryside and eventually joined up with an extremist sect who enforced their ideals of poverty through violence. He then fled persecution by joining a convent of Minorite monks. There he became the personal assistant of the man who is now the abbey’s cellarer, Remigio of Varagine. Adso next meets with William, who, after treating his scribe to a philosophical discussion of heresy, announces that he has succeeded in translating the first part of Venantius’s coded writing, which reveals how to open the secret room in the library. The monks call this room the finis Africae, and it is from here that the lost book Berengar, Adelmo, and Venantius were reading appears to have been stolen.
That evening, Adso seeks out Ubertino in the church in order to ask him about a heretic of whom he has several times heard mention: Fra Dolcino. Ubertino explains what he believes to be the difference between Dolcino’s violently heretical sect and his own Minorite order. He discusses the difference between earthly love, which he views as terribly dangerous, and holy love, which is purely spiritual. In a state of restlessness and some confusion, Adso then enters the library, where he is agitated by images in books he finds left out on a table, in particular an illustration of the Whore of Babylon. Upon arriving back downstairs in the kitchen, Adso sees a shadowy figure who immediately flees. Sensing that someone is still there, however, the novice approaches and discovers a beautiful young woman crying. Though the two cannot understand each other’s languages, they begin sweetly talking to one another, and before he knows it, Adso is having the first and only sexual experience of his life. It is a transcendent...
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