Teaching The Name of the Rose

David M. Perry (Dominican University)

The 1986 movie The Name of the Rose (directed by Jean-Jacques Arnaud) offers a moderately historically accurate tale of murder, sex, torture, politics, religion, and, perhaps surprisingly for a thriller, a plot centered on a book in ancient Greek. But it’s because of these features that the movie is useful in a class. The events in the book are fabricated. The historical figures that dart in and out of the story are mutated to suit the narrative’s purpose. Perhaps no true medieval monk was as wise as William of Baskerville (played by Sean Connery) or as pretty as the very young Christian Slater. No, this movie’s chief accomplishment is capturing a certain feel of the medieval intellectual milieu. It accomplishes this slippery task by rendering all the excitement mere supporting features in a drama focused on the conflict between two modes of thought, superstition and reason, both of which are subordinated to the pursuit of a better understanding of God’s work.

The movie has been extracted from a much better book, written by famed Italian scholar of medieval semiotics (the study of the meaning of symbols), Umberto Eco. Eco, however, assumes that the reader either possesses considerable knowledge of medieval culture or is willing to attain it, and thus writes in such a way as to lose the interest of the average student. The movie, with its one-time star power and high drama, ought to keep eyes glued to the screen. The question is whether one can lead the viewer past the surface action to the deeper meaning; a question that might have appealed to William of Baskerville or the figure on whom the detective-monk was based, William of Ockham (c. 1288 – c. 1348).

The story opens with the arrival of William, an aging Franciscan monk, and his young novice, at a Benedictine monastery in order to participate in a debate about poverty and the church. The monk quickly deduces that something is amiss, confronts the Abbot, and is then asked to solve a mystery. A young and beautiful monk was found dead at the base of a tower beneath a locked window, and many now fear that the Devil walks among them. Brother William initially calms these fears by demonstrating that the death was suicide, but soon more and more monks die, their tongues and index fingers blackened mysteriously. Adding to the terror, the bodies are found in sites that are suggestive of signs of the Antichrist in the Book of Revelations. William continues to maintain that all the deaths were caused by human hands, but many monks soon lose their faith in reason, convinced the Devil is walking among them and committing murder.

The plot thickens with the arrival of Bernardo Gui, a famed inquisitor loosely based on the real inquisitor of the same name. Gui and William, it turns out, have a history, dating back to William’s own days as a member of the Papal Inquisition. As an inquisitor, William had tried to serve in the Holy Office as an agent of truth, whereas Gui (as portrayed by F. Murray Abraham) seems interested only in exploiting fear for his own benefit. It is no surprise, therefore, when the two come into conflict while addressing the murders. Ultimately, in the movie, the murder plot is untangled, the Inquisition burns a heretic or two but fails to kill the girl with whom Christian Slater’s character, Adso the novice, has fallen in love, and Gui dies at the hands of outraged peasants. Sadly, the great library burns.

For the teacher, the movie can be mined for useful gems. The historical debate on the poverty of the clergy is simplified here, but not mutated beyond recognition. Students might be asked the same question as presented in the debate – “Did Christ or did He not own the clothes that He wore” (and why would anyone care)? The scenes of life in the Abbey offer many windows into the challenges and promises of monastic life. Fat cellarer and dithering abbot, dedicated illuminator and quirky herbalist demonstrate the breadth of occupation and personality contained within the walls of a monastery. Moreover, while I have my doubts that the emergence of new intellectual trends in the 13th and 14th centuries led deranged blind monks to poison the corners of a book by Aristotle (the means of murder), Eco chose his time period well. In the fourteenth-century intellectual world, a new emphasis on reason challenged scholastic reliance on authority. Meanwhile, many divorced from the scholarly world turned increasingly to superstition, heretical movements, or apocalyptic outbursts to make sense of an increasingly turbulent world. The details are fictionalized, but the feel has a certain verisimilitude.

We live in a moment in which religion and reason are often placed in diametrical opposition. In The Name of the Rose, we find instead a conflict over what type of thought best serves a religious purpose – superstition and emotion, blind acceptance of authority, or logical inquiry? Although reason’s champion, William of Baskerville, is our hero and eventual victor, his arrogance and egotism endanger him and his comrades and provide some nuance to the contest. It may well be the young Adso who represents a holistic integration of the best aspects of rational thought, reverence for authority, and emotional response. In the final moment of the film, though, he does choose reason and the life of the mind over “the girl” who waits for him.

Eco’s book is arguably the best piece of medieval historical fiction ever written. Arnaud’s movie is a lesser creation, too much focused on the plot at the expense of the intellectual narrative, but still has much to recommend it to the teacher. And if your students just refuse to get excited about logic versus apocalyptic fear, there’s always the violence and conflagration to glue them to their seats.

Further Reading

The origins of the Papal Inquisition, the Franciscan order, the history of medieval monasticism, and the split between “spiritual” and “conventual” Franciscans are all important topics that have been studied in depth by many medieval historians. But for a book that introduces all these subjects, turn to the classic by Richard Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Penguin, re-printed 1990). This text can open up the beautiful but complex world of medieval intellectual history.

For primary sources, one should begin with the Rule of St. Benedict. So much of life of this movie is bound by the rhythms of monastic life as laid out by The Rule, and an examination of St. Benedict’s often provokes lively classroom discussion. David Burr, emeritus professor of History at Virginia Tech, has helpfully provided translations of numerous relevant sources at his website. Pay special attention to the manual for Inquisitors written by Bernardo Gui, the villain of the movie, as well as the translation of sentences. Burr’s translation of Usus Pauper, a fourteenth-century text on poverty and the Franciscans, offers a succinct primary summary of the arguments on the side of the Franciscan debaters.

William of Baskerville is heavily based on the historical friar William of Ockham (d. c. 1348). Ockham’s writings can be very difficult, but are widely available in translation. Students may be best served by going to encyclopedias of philosophy and reading articles on Ockham before pursuing more advanced study.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom , Volume VII, Issue 2, Fall 2009

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.   No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.


TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies