Last Updated on December 12, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3062
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.
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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 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 experience for him, but afterward he is plagued by guilt and confesses to William, who absolves him of his sin and tells him that the girl was most likely brought there from the nearby village to exchange sexual favors for scraps of food from Remigio. Then, still believing that the serial deaths may be following a pattern from Revelation, William takes Adso to the balneary, where they discover the body of Berengar, drowned in a bath. Severinus examines the corpse and points out the dark stain on Berengar’s fingers, a stain that was also on Venantius’s fingers when he died. William suspects the two monks were poisoned.
Later that morning, William tells Adso that he has succeeded in translating the final part of Venantius’s parchment, which had been written in Greek. William believes he can reconstruct the nature of the mysterious lost book from the notes Venantius took while reading it. While William retires to his bed to think, Adso goes truffle hunting with Severinus and sees the Minorites arriving. William confers with Michael of Cesena and the other members of the legation, along with Ubertino, and there is much discussion of the Pope’s corruption and greed. The legation from Avignon arrives shortly after, led by Cardinal Bertrand del Poggetto and the inquisitor Bernard Gui. The latter proves to have a particularly antagonistic relationship with William, who gave up his own position as an inquisitor when he realized inquisitorial methods often produced confessions but not truths. Bernard takes it upon himself to attempt to solve the mystery of the serial deaths at the abbey.
William and Adso resume their own investigation of the library that night. They discover that the labyrinth is arranged as an approximation of a map of the world, but, not having solved the riddle of Venantius’s explanation, they are unable to open the secret chamber of the finis Africae. When they emerge into the cloister, they witness Bernard Gui and his men seizing Salvatore and the young woman with whom Adso is now hopelessly in love on accusations of witchcraft. (Salvatore did, in fact, bribe the girl to bring him ingredients for a spell.) Adso is horrified, and William and Michael fear Bernard will find a way to use these new accusations against both the Minorites and the abbey.
The next day, what is meant to be a civil debate on poverty between representatives of the Minorites and their critics from the papal court devolves into a raging quarrel. When the two groups break, Severinus approaches William and Adso to tell them he has found a strange book in the infirmary, one that does not belong in his private collection of herbalist’s lore. Later that same day, the debate is interrupted by the discovery that Severinus has been murdered, his head bashed in with an armillary sphere. Remigio, who was found at the scene, is arrested by Bernard and his men. William and Adso discover that the strange book the herbalist had mentioned is gone—stolen, as it turns out, by Benno, who then returns it to Malachi in exchange for being appointed assistant librarian.
That afternoon, Bernard puts Remigio on trial, manipulating and tormenting the cellarer into confessing not only to the murder of his fellow monks, but to all manner of heresies and sins, including his past as a follower of the heretic Fra Dolcino. These confessions are clearly largely false, but they are good enough for Bernard, who has succeeded in displaying his power and preventing a reconciliation between the papal envoys and the Minorites. Michael, however, has made up his mind to go to Avignon regardless; Ubertino, fearing assassination because of his association with the Spirituals—whom the Pope is eager to equate with the Dolcinians and other heretical groups—flees the abbey. That night Jorge delivers a sermon in which he warns of the presence of the Antichrist and the coming of the apocalypse, and Adso mourns the fate of the village girl, who will be taken to be burned as a witch by the departing legation from Avignon.
The following morning during matins, Malachi falls down dead, his fingers bearing the same stain as Venantius’s and Berengar’s. William continues his investigation, still believing the serial deaths may correspond to the signs of the apocalypse laid out in the Book of Revelation. Adso falls asleep in church and has a vivid dream that William realizes was inspired by a comedic poem that many novices learn in monasteries. William takes the dream as a clue, and after questioning Benno and consulting the library’s catalogue, the Franciscan is on the brink of solving the mystery of the abbey’s serial deaths. When he attempts to explain what he has learned to Abo, however, the abbot—realizing that William knows too much and concerned about preserving the abbey’s good name above all—dismisses him from the job. The two are instructed to leave the next morning, and William resolves to crack the case before their expulsion.
Jorge is suspiciously absent that night in church. William and Adso see Abo go into the Aedificium to close it for the night and wait to see what he does when he emerges. While they are waiting, an offhand comment by Adso inspires William to solve the last piece of the mystery: the way to enter the finis Africae, which William believes houses the book which has been at the center of all the past week’s strange events. Master and pupil rush into the library and through the secret door to the forbidden chamber, where they find Jorge of Burgos sitting calmly in the dark. Abo, meanwhile, has been locked by Jorge in the secret stairway that leads from the finis Africae to the refectory and is suffocating there. As Jorge has disabled the mechanism that would allow the passage to be opened again, he has effectively murdered the abbot.
All is revealed in this final confrontation with William’s grim nemesis, who has been waiting for him to arrive. Jorge has been the real master of the library, and therefore the abbey, for decades. His mission has been to keep secret the existence of the book that William and Adso have been seeking: as William suspected, the only known copy of the second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics, a treatise on the art of comedy. Jorge brought this book, which was bound together with three other manuscripts in different languages, back from his native Spain before he lost his sight and, believing the influential philosopher’s praise of laughter and humor to be a dangerous threat to the power of the Church, had it hidden in the finis Africae. Shortly before William and Adso’s arrival, Berengar hinted at the book’s existence during the debate on laughter in the scriptorium, and Jorge executed a plan he had had for some time: he smeared a sticky poison on the book’s pages, ensuring that anyone who licked his fingers to turn them would unwittingly kill himself. Berengar, meanwhile, convinced Adelmo to sleep with him in exchange for access to the famous lost work. Adelmo, overcome with guilt after receiving confession from Jorge, then leapt to his death. Venantius, who had heard about the lost volume while conferring with Adelmo and Berengar, was exposed to the poison after breaking into the finis Africae in search of the book, and Berengar, to distract attention from the library, dragged the scholar’s dead body to the jar of pig’s blood. The assistant librarian then went to the infirmary to read the book for himself. Feeling the effects of the poison, he left the book behind and sought relief in the balneary but died there instead. Severinus discovered the book but was killed by Malachi, who had a passion for his assistant and believed, on Jorge’s word, that the herbalist had traded Berengar access to the book for sex. Benno, however, had already seized the book, which he later returned to Malachi in exchange for replacing Berengar as assistant librarian. Contrary to Jorge’s plans, the librarian then gave in to his curiosity about the book and became the third victim of poisoning. All the while, Jorge encouraged William’s idea, inspired by the ravings of Alinardo, that the deaths were following a pattern from the Book of Revelation. Alinardo, it turns out, hates Jorge, who was chosen to be librarian instead of him many years ago; when Jorge went blind, he made Malachi his puppet. Now aware of the cause of the deaths—and influenced by the group of Italian monks sympathetic to Alinardo, who want the library and its secrets opened to all—Abo agreed to meet Jorge in the finis Africae, where Jorge said he would give up the lost volume of Aristotle and then take his own life so as not to bring any more shame upon the abbey. Jorge, of course, locked Abo in the stairwell instead, then waited for William to arrive.
Adso watches as the two men face off, admiring each other’s intellect yet despising each other’s philosophies. William’s humanistic, pluralistic view of life and religion sharply opposes Jorge’s narrow, rigid outlook, which leaves no room for laughter or questioning of Church teachings. Certain that preventing Aristotle’s lost treatise from being read is his divine purpose, Jorge chooses to begin eating the poisoned pages rather than hand the book over to William. Taking the book with him, Jorge then runs from the finis Africae. In the chase that follows, Jorge knocks over Adso’s lamp, igniting a fire that quickly spreads throughout the library. When William and Adso close in on him, he throws the rest of Aristotle’s book into the flames, and William knocks him into a bookshelf, rendering the old monk unconscious. Adso and his master flee the burning library, and in the apocalyptic conflagration that follows, the entire abbey is destroyed.
With their home in ruins, the monks scatter. William and Adso travel to Munich, where they part ways before Adso returns to his home monastery of Melk. Adso never sees William again, learning years later that his master eventually died of the plague. On a solitary trip to the ruined abbey as a grown man, Adso collects the scraps of parchment that are all that is left of the library and reconstructs from them a kind of symbolic library of his own. Writing now as a very old man, Adso questions whether there is any meaning either in this reconstruction or in the story he has told. He believes the world is descending into darkness and chaos and looks forward to the divine silence with which he believes he will be united in death.