War of the Rose: The Historical Context of “The Name of the Rose”

Like the plot of the novel itself, the historical context of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose consists of a number of overlapping circles, related to one another in intricate and subtle ways. The immediate context is a particularly fierce episode in the perennial medieval conflict between’ he papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. In 1314 a disputed imperial election produced two claimants to the throne, one of whom, Louis of Bavaria (Louis IV), triumphed over his rival within a few years. In 1305 the papacy had moved to Avignon. However, the first electoral consistory following that move, also in 1314, dragged on over two years, amidst a great deal of intrigue and even threats of violence against the cardinals, until in 1316 it elected a Frenchman who chose the name John XXII.

John’s intention was to restore papal authority in Italy, and to that end he sided with Louis IV’s rival and ultimately declared Louis himself excommunicated. Louis responded by invading Italy, “deposing” the pope, and setting up his own anti-pope. It is this war, with Louis’s armies advancing towards Rome, which is the immediate setting for the novel, the narrator Adso’s own father being among the imperial supporters. Louis in fact entered Rome in 1328, a year after the events in the novel. His quarrel with the papacy outlasted John XXII, who died in 1334, and was compromised during two subsequent papacies. Louis died in 1347.

In his war against the pope the Emperor found unlikely allies in the so-called Spiritual Franciscans, or Fraticelli (“little brothers”), a group within the Franciscan order calling for a return to the radical character of St. Francis’s original ideal of poverty, which forbade not only individual friars but also the community as a whole to own anything. The matter had supposedly been settled in the thirteenth century by vesting all Francis&n property in the Holy See and allowing the Franciscans merely its use. John XXII at one point returned this property to the order, a gesture which might ordinarily be thought of as one of great friendliness, but was in fact intended to bring rebellious Franciscans to heel by forcing them to repudiate what the pope regarded as an extreme doctrine.

Much more was involved in the Spiritualist position than the Franciscan lifestyle itself. Some of the Fraticelli had come to teach that radical poverty was the essence of the Christian life and that the only true Christians were those who practiced it. This was highly reminiscent of the Waldensian heresy of the late twelfth century and logically carried with it a sweeping condemnation of pope and bishops, none of whom pretended to practice radical poverty. There were degrees within the Spiritualist movement, but the more extreme wing seemed prepared to repudiate all ecclesiastical hierarchy as a perversion of the Gospel.

Louis IV, it may be assumed, had no personal attachment to the practice of poverty. However, by espousing the Fraticelli’s cause he armed himself with a useful weapon against the papacy, since he could then argue that John XXII had forfeited the title Vicar of Christ because of his own manner of living and his condemnation of the radical Franciscans. (The central point of theological dispute became whether Jesus and the Apostles had owned anything, either individually or in common.)

In the novel the only pictures of John XXII come from his enemies, who portray him as a kind of monster. The real pope seems to have been an able, astute, fairly austere man who was rather ruthless in matters of politics and diplomacy. He also spawned one of the greatest enigmas in the history of the papacy (discussed in Eco’s novel) when he preached publicly that the souls of the dead do not enter heaven or hell until after the Last Judgment. There was a great outcry against this novel idea, and John backed down, admitting that he was speaking not as pope but merely as a theologian. (This incident is tailor-made for modern demythologizers of papal authority, yet is rarely cited, presumably because so many of the debunkers are ignorant of Church history.)

At the time the general of the Franciscans was Michael of Cesena, who was highly sympathetic to the Spirituals. He makes an appearance in the novel, and talks with William of Baskerville (the protagonist of the story), who is also a Franciscan. Michael is on his way to Avignon, where he has been summoned by the pope to answer for his actions. He would flee the papal city the following year and he deposed by the Franciscans at the pope’s bidding. Michael then went to the court of the emperor, where he soon died.

The most radical wing of the Fraticelli shaded off into the bewildering underworld of late medieval heresies, which were especially strong in Italy. There are numerous references in the novel to individuals or movements which combined, in varying proportions, the ideal of radical poverty, varieties of mysticism, rejection of ecclesiastical authority, and sometimes violence against the existing social order. These movements were often suppressed ferociously.

Much of this radical theology was derived from the writings of the late twelfth-century Italian Cistercian abbot Joachim of Flora, by far the most influential late-medieval apocalypticist. According to Joachim, there will be three ages of history, corresponding to the persons of the Trinity. The age of the Son, which he thought was about to end, was essentially the age of the Incarnation, with its corollary of a visible and hierarchical Church. In the dawning age of the Holy Spirit, however, all things material and structural would pass away, and Christians would be guided by direct interior illumination. Mystical prophecy would replace hierarchical authority.

At Avignon, Michael of Cesena joined the most influential philosopher of the day. his fellow Franciscan William of Occam, also a supporter of the Spiritualists. Occam fled the papal city with Michael and accompanied him to Louis’ court, where he too spent most of the rest of his life. Baskerville in one place refers to Occam as his friend.

Cesena and Occam formed a triumvirate with Marsilius of Padua, for a time Louis’s vicar in Italy. Marsilius’s book The Defender of Peace was perhaps the single most radical medieval attack on the papacy in particular and the temporal power of the Church in general. Written as part of Louis’s war against John XXII, the book also stands on its own as an exercise in undermining both the spiritual and temporal claims of the papacy, .which is said to be a purely man-made institution, and in proposing that the Church be firmly subordinated to the state in all its activities.

Occam was the chief representative of the philosophical school that came to be called Nominalism, which contended that the mind cannot know the real essence of things but only their appearances. Thus, when we name something, we do not really state what it is but merely give it a convenient designation. Occam’s position marked a significant departure from the Thomistic belief in the mind’s wide-ranging powers, in the openness of reality to metaphysical understanding.

The book takes its title from precisely this philosophical position. Its last line is a Latin quote (from Occam?) “Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus” — which I take to mean, “The rose stands by its original name; we hold (understand) the bare names.” In other words, names and appearances are all we really have, and they must be enough.

Baskerville’s name obviously recalls Sherlock Holmes, and his first appearance in the novel is marked by a typically Sherlockian feat of deduction. He is not exactly a Nominalist, but is an English Franciscan alongside William of Occam, and also counts himself a disciple of the thirteenth-century English Franciscan Roger Bacon, who is often cited as an early proponent of the scientific method and of the potential blessings of technology.

Baskerville is sympathetic to the Spirituals, as he is to all those accused of heresy, but his sympathy falls short of full acceptance of their beliefs. He rather represents the sceptical, practical, empirical English temper of which Ecco himself seems to approve. It is an antidote to all forms of fanaticism, and the temper most appropriate to the obdurate opaqueness of reality.

Thus most of the sympathetic characters in the story are Franciscans who, besides espousing poverty, simplicity, and distaste for power, also manifest a down-to-earth individualism, a refusal to venture much beyond the world of human experience. In one place Baskerville makes Bacon a prophet of some vague notion of democracy, and in another he assimilates the Franciscans to the earthy world of the peasants.

By contrast the Dominicans — the other order of friars, founded almost simultaneously with the Franciscans — are villains, particularly in the person of the Inquisitor, Bernard of Gui. The Dominican spirit is one of abstraction, spurious rationality, dogmatic certitude, and the exercise of power. As expressed in the Inquisition, their spirit is even more lethal than that of cynical politicians who merely use ideas, because it is based on the claim to know universal truth, precisely the claim Nominalism was at pains to deny.

Baskerville’s detective work is successful because he uses empirical, piecemeal methods and refuses to go beyond the evidence of his sense. That he is a detective rather than a philosopher is significant, because all he does is unmask relatively superficial mysteries, not the inner meaning of the universe. Indeed, his solving of the crimes deepens the sense of the ultimate opaqueness, perhaps even meaninglessness, of existence, showing among other things that those who claim to have pierced that darkness, except in modest ways, thereby perpetrate crimes.

There are, however, certain ambiguities here. The murderer is himself an anti-rationalist of an older kind, recalling St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He bitterly regrets that Aristotle, now a “saint” of the Dominicans, was ever heard of in the Christian West. Ecco may or may not have in mind the irony that, within a few generations, scholars elsewhere in Italy would be attacking Aristotle with equal vehemence, albeit for different reasons, as part of the movement we call Renaissance Humanism.

The murderer, even more than he is anti-Aristotle, is anti-laughter, which he and Baskerville, to opposite effect, both think is the means by which earthly, undogmatic, “outcast” peasant culture demystifies the pretentions of the learned and powerful. In a world which does not yield its secrets except piecemeal, and only to those like Bacon who have modest and practical aims, this is the only healthy attitude, the novel seems to say, and the murderer’s attempt to suppress laughter makes him, in Baskerville’s view, almost literally the devil, of whose transcendent existence the friar seems to have doubts.

The great monastery where the story takes place seems obviously a symbol of the medieval Church as a whole. There Adso obtains occasional glimpses of divine truth, but as a community it is horribly disfigured by every kind of selfishness, corruption, dishonesty, and cruelty.

Its greatest pride is its library, representative of the Church’s claim to be the depository of truth. Yet the library is sterile — genuine seekers after truth are hampered in their use of it, and much of the monks’ energy goes into the mechanical processes of copying what past sages have written. The murders occur, and the monastery is ultimately destroyed, precisely because the Church cannot afford, in Ecco’s view, to tolerate the genuine search for truth. In the epilogue, the aged monk Adso has rescued from the ruins only various fragments of the medieval books, those mere snatches of older wisdom which will be of some use in the modern world.

Except as a detective story, the novel cannot be understood other than as profoundly anti-Catholic, not merely as anticlerical. It is a tract in favor of modernity and in defense of the proposition that the medieval Church had to be destroyed so that humanity might live.

Thus Eco collects around his detective-protagonist everything in late medieval culture which can in any sense be called “progressive” from the modern standpoint: the rising secular state which clips the Church of its power to enforce its teachings; movements which are revolutionary in both religious and a political sense; the scientific method; a kind of nihilistic despair about ultimate truth; the draining of the religious spirit out of institutions and its survival as purely inward and subjective states of the soul; and sexual liberation (Adso does not repent his brief affair with a woman, and in old age he confesses to homosexual impulses). As the elderly monk Adso contemplates death he seems to repudiate belief both in a personal god and in personal immortality in favor of a vague expectation of being reabsorbed into infinity. As far as possible Ecco has attempted to find in the world of 1327 all those things which a “post Christian” might find credible in 1985.

The great monastery burns for three days and three nights. Unlike its Lord, it does not rise again.


  • James Hitchcock

    James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. He is the author of many books including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton) and, most recently, The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 2012).

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