The Rise and Fall of the Rose


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Like Dickens’s 18th century, the 14th century was an age of wisdom and of foolishness, of belief and incredulity, of light and darkness, of hope and despair. It was not the best of times. In European history it was—with the unhappy exception of the 20th century—the worst of times. The land, drained of its resources after two hundred years of population growth and overuse, yielded smaller and smaller crops. The climate turned a cold wet shoulder on the West. Winters were longer and colder; rain fell in merciless abundance, spoiling the sheaves in the fields. Famine became a frequent visitor, killing vast numbers and leaving the survivors weakened and vulnerable to disease. In their despair people were reduced to eating rodents, decaying wheat that caused hallucinations and horrible convulsions; they ate grass and tree barks. Some chroniclers report cannibalism.

In 1348 the bubonic plague arrived from the east–the terrible death, the Black Death, or simply–The Plague. It spread with great speed along the trade routes, leaving behind it dreadful devastation. In less than a generation about a third of Europe’s population lay dead. Whole villages were wiped out. The Scandinavian settlement in Greenland, for example, suffered total annihilation. Administration collapsed in many communities. Medicine—both physical and spiritual—was powerless. Terror spread everywhere. All over Europe the population tried to exorcize its inner demons by putting to the flame its imaginary enemies—Jews, lepers, Gypsies, witches. Somebody had to take the blame. It was expedient to offer such sacrifices before God would settle the score in his own terrible way.

While their flocks were in desperate need of guidance and support, the shepherds—both spiritual and temporal—seemed strangely incapable of rising to the challenge. The kings of England and France continued the so-called 100-Years War between the recurring outbursts of the plague; the doctors continued to stick to their old and worthless explanations for epidemics, and the Church continued its business as usual. Early in the century the popes abandoned the tombs of the apostles in Rome and moved to Avignon. The Avignon popes were all French. They were highly educated skilful administrators. They were not saints.  When the plague arrived, Clement V ordered the gates of the papal palace bolted and locked himself in his chambers before huge fires that were supposed to purify the air. The vicars of Christ were more interested in their own well being, in their endless legalistic quibbles about real or imaginary rights, in their tax collectors and in their protégés than in their subjects—the people of God.

The feeling of moral crisis and lack of leadership was further enhanced by the failure of the Franciscan movement. To his many admirers in the 13th century St. Francis was a second Christ, a new beginning, a veritable harbinger of a spiritual renaissance. The promise, alas, failed to materialize. Francis’s followers were not very different from other ecclesiastics. They too were greedy and worldly like the rest of the Church. And if parts of the order wanted to maintain the austere self-denial, the holy poverty, demanded by their founder, the papacy would have none of it. The last thing it needed was puritans within the fold. Moral perfection ought to be handled with care. If it is so easy to reach, why are we not perfect? The Franciscans who insisted on being holier than us were denounced and persecuted.

Partly out of their own self-doubt and partly out of a growing disenchantment with the world the Franciscan theologians, Johannes Duns Scotus and William of Occam, attacked, and finally shattered, the great theological systems of the Dominicans, Thomas and Albert. The world, claimed the Minorites, was not a serene reflection of a supreme reason; it was the troubled and troubling reflection of a supreme will. It was not the realm of order and harmony, nor was it the best of all possible worlds. It was rather the sphere of God’s absolute and unfathomable power—potentia dei absoluta. Good seemed weak and distant in this world; evil powerful and at hand. The end of time was near. A strong smell of sulfur was in the air.

This is the world that Umberto Eco chose as the setting for his celebrated novel, The Name of the Rose. The year is 1323. The worst is yet to come. It is a world of eschatological expectations and moral crisis, a world of a worldly church and of otherworldly heretics, cynical inquisitors and resentful peasants. The narrator, a young German Benedictine, Adso of Melk, follows as an innocent and wide-eyed Watson Eco’s Franciscan detective, Brother William of Baskerville. William, a faithful disciple of his namesake and compatriot, William of Occam, is a 14th century Sherlock Holmes, keen on making bold inferences in the name of reason. William and Adso arrive in the Italian Benedictine abbey that is to be the scene of many crimes as participants in a secret meeting planned between the representatives of Pope John XXII and a group of Franciscans led by Michael of Cesena, former Minister General of the Franciscan Order.

The purpose of the meeting is to try and reach a compromise between the Franciscans and the papacy. The former claimed that poverty is the highway to perfection, the latter that it was just one way among others. The papal court, in other words, could continue to fill its coffers without risking its eternal salvation, or, worse, its political power. Did Christ and the apostles live in total poverty? If the answer was yes, then the renunciation of private property was indeed a sine-qua-non of salvation and papal wealth a scandal; if it was no—as John XXII firmly believed (or at least firmly declared), then the extreme wing of the Franciscan Order was nothing but a group of fanatics. In former years both parties were willing to turn a blind eye to each other. Now they were moving toward open conflict.

While our two protagonists are waiting for the arrival of the other delegates, a series of murders occurs at the abbey and Brother William is called to help find an explanation and a murderer. He performs brilliantly. There are clues everywhere. Death is not meaningless. It follows a pattern—the signs of the apocalypse. The abbey is not the respectable Benedictine oasis it seemed at first sight, but a web of intrigue, of repressed feelings and murderous traps. Nevertheless, in spite of William’s successive victories on behalf of reason, the murders continue. To make things worse another delegate, an investigator of another type altogether arrives on the scene. Bernard Gui was a Dominican inquisitor and the author of a famous manual for inquisitors. In 1323 He has been tracking down and eliminating the enemies of Christ for about 16 years. Eco’s Gui is not a man of rationalistic niceties. He is a fanatic who believes in brute force. Before long he accuses the abbey’s cellarer and his feeble minded assistant of being Dolcinites—Dolcinites believed in giving social teeth to Franciscan idealism—murderers and devil worshippers. An innocent peasant girl with whom Adso lost his virginity shortly before is accused of witchcraft, and all three are condemned to death by the inquisitor.

The negotiations fail. The parties were unable to find common ground. The delegates and the inquisitor leave. Only then is the true identity of the murderer discovered. It turns out to be not a heretic but a pious blind monk, Jorge of Burgos—a tongue in cheek homage to the blind Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges. The venerable Jorge sought to prevent the monks from discovering and copying the sole surviving copy of Aristotle’s book on comedy. Laughter—especially laughter with the philosopher’s seal of approval–the old man fears, will bring an end to faith. Faith is a serious matter worth shedding blood for.

William and Adso succeed, it seems, in solving the puzzle through the use of reason. They find not only the murderer but also the way to the inner sanctum of the huge labyrinth that forms the abbey’s library; they even find the lost book that turns out to be the murder weapon. But Eco’s novel offers the reader no happy end. In the struggle that ensues between the detectives and the murderer, the precious book is destroyed and then a big fire devours much of the library. Fanaticism has the upper hand. Even the brilliant solution to the murder mystery was a delusion. The brilliant deductions were all wrong; William’s solution was based on chance, not on reason. The protagonists leave the abbey defeated and disillusioned.

Eco’s Il nome de la rosa first appeared in 1980. It was quickly translated into many languages and became a huge success. It is undoubtedly Eco’s best book. It is clever, but unlike Eco’s other works not too clever for its own good. It is very erudite. Eco is thoroughly familiar with the historical materials. At times he cites almost verbatim long passages from 14th century documents. His characters have real depth and reflect both bright and shady aspects of their period. The protagonists are true to their age’s obsessions and prejudices and are not 20th century characters in fancy dress. In 1986 The Name of the Rose was made into a film, an English speaking Italian, French and German co-production, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Naturally, a film of 130 minutes cannot transmit every nuance of the book's 500 pages. The long passages in which Eco reflects on questions of medieval aesthetics and theology are gone, as do some of the lesser characters. Annaud focuses on the action. This is a reasonable decision. A film is obviously not a book. But something else happens in the process. If Eco’s book tried to flesh up the one-dimensional image of the Middle Ages, the film signals their triumphant return. The celluloid version of the Middle Ages has been quite consistent throughout the years. The Middle Ages were an era of ignorance and fanaticism. It is the age of blind faith, best represented by dirt and rudeness, by an unthinking belief in the supernatural; it is the age of the bloodthirsty inquisitor, the witch, and the stake. This image of the Middle Ages, invented by the humanists and corroborated by the philosophers of the enlightenment serves a double purpose. As the evil mirror image of the enlightenment, it demonstrates both the superiority of our way of thinking—we were saved by liberalism from a living hell—and the dangers lurking out there in the dark. The Dark Ages are always around the corner, if we don’t watch out. In short, the Middle Ages are not just any other, relatively inferior, period; it is the “Other,” the Uncanny par excellence.

Annaud uses visual images that signal to the modern viewers otherness and inferiority—dirt, blood, darkness and ugliness. Many of the characters are deformed. In contrast, William and Adso are both clean and handsome. Adso spends much of his time staring, mouth and eyes wide open, to signify puzzlement and aversion at the sights and sounds that confront him. William whose character is given a significant number of flaws by Eco, has become perfection—20th century perfection, that is. He is smart, tolerant and open-minded, a Dante, or rather a Voltaire in medieval hell. He is—need I say more–Sean Connery. Nothing remains of this Occamist’s love for scholastic hair-splitting or of his indifference to anything that is not books or ideas. Indeed when Annaud chooses to portray a scholastic debate—on the question of Christ’s poverty—he does everything to deride it. The debaters’ arguments are presented as ridiculous and the whole debate ends up in meaningless barking sounds of the participants.

If William is Sean Connery, Bernard Gui is F. Murray Abraham. Surely one can expect nothing good from the man who has murdered Mozart. The inquisitor, a fanatic authoritarian in the book becomes truly monstrous in the film. In reality he was a fairly average person in his age’s terms. He was indeed an inquisitor, but he was responsible for very few executions. He was a prolific writer of biographies and histories who showed few signs of fanaticism. In the film we first see him in a shot that captures him from below—he is the person destined to dominate the scene. Throughout the movie he is dressed in a sparkling clean Dominican habit, and wears gloves, which he never removes. This does not signify a propensity for personal hygiene, but the antiseptic detachment of a murderous surgeon. The script adds elements that will enhance our revulsion for Gui. In his first encounter with the peasant girl—Adso’s “lover” who is about to be accused of witchcraft—an accusation that the historical Gui considered fairly minor—he grabs the girl’s clothes and in a somewhat unlikely feat reaps it from top to bottom exposing her naked flesh. This gesture of symbolic rape was added, no doubt, to arouse in the viewer that combination of sexual excitement and horror so dear to modern filmmakers. In the trial scene, where Gui tries and convicts the cellarer and his assistant of heresy and murder, the film makes the inquisitor nominate William—against the book and against common sense—as one of the judges in the tribunal (in reality an inquisitor judged alone and behind closed doors). It allows him to put in William’s mouth a moving oration in defense of the accused and of tolerance in general. This brings upon the cinematic-William an accusation of being the defender of heretics and an accessory to murder. None of this can be found in the book. William makes no attempt to save either the girl accused of witchcraft—“be quiet, fool," he warns Adso, “the girl is lost; she is already burnt flesh”—nor the former heretics. Part of the shocking effect of the book is the relative indifference of William to the lives of others. But of course this won’t do for Sean Connery.

The adaptation to the strict canons of Hollywood character building does not end here. The execution scene does not appear in the book. It is pure cinematic invention. In the book, Gui convicts the three and takes them with him to France. There they will be handed over to the secular arm for burning. An inquisitor could not do his own killings nor was there much point in performing those rare burnings that he did initiate in a God-fearing environment. The heretics were to be led to one of the villages where heresy was endemic and there burned as a warning for would-be heretics. But a film needs a catharsis and that should arrive after evil seems to have the upper hand. The three convicts on the hill are meant to remind us of Christ and the two thieves. It is clear who Christ is. The girl is innocent, beautiful, and as the camera zooms on her face her hair is seen falling upon her brow a la Jesus. The two other convicts are ugly and deformed. One is defiant, the other, Salvatore, even offers a grim moment of comic relief. The Hollywood logic makes them dispensable. But the girl is too pretty. She needs to be saved and is. As for the inquisitor he is dealt the grim death he so richly deserved and which neither the book nor history assigned for him.

So there are good guys and bad guys. The former cannot change history, but they can punish the villain. There is still a missing third side to the cinematic triangle—the girl. In the book she plays a fairly minor role. She makes love to Adso, is convicted of witchcraft and is led to her death in the north. In the film she obeys the rules of Hollywood stereotype. Take for example her speech. Throughout the film she expresses herself in almost meaningless screams and screeches. Now in the book Adso also fails to understand her, but that has a perfectly realistic reason. Adso speaks German and Latin and has trouble making sense of the girl’s dialect. In the film the girl alone is incomprehensible. Other Italians speak perfect English. The director obeys the tacit rule that women of the lower classes babble. Where the girl becomes very easy to understand is in the sexual sphere. She, somewhat audaciously, rides Adso—eyes wide open and mouth agape as usual—revealing, as could be expected, the beautiful body of a supermodel. Saved by her fellow villagers and by her monastic lover, the girl reappears to Adso and William. She is silent as usual, but seems to beg the young monk to stay. Like every hero with a mission, Adso moves on after some hesitation. But he will always remember her, his one true love. It is her name, which he has never learned, that is the name of the rose.

The book ends quite differently. The girl was forgotten many pages earlier. Sitting in his cold room, Adso reflects upon his life and its meaning. “Soon I shall be joined with my beginning, and I no longer believe that it is the God of glory of whom the abbots of my order spoke to me or of joy, as the Minorites believed in those days, perhaps not even of piety. Gott ist ein lauter Nichts [God is pure nothingness]…It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches. I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about: stat rosa pristine nomine, nomina nuda tenemus [nothing remains of the old rose but its name; we cling to bare names].”

The film's transformation of the message from meaninglessness to meaning, from existential to amorous, reminds me—although I am sure that this wasn’t the filmmaker’s intention of another famous book and equally famous film. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ends with a memorable scene between the narrator, Marlow, and Kurtz’s fiancée. She demands to know Kurtz’s last words. “I was on the point of crying at her, ‘Don’t you hear them?’ The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. ‘The horror! The horror!’

“’His last word—to live with’, she insisted. ‘Don’t you understand I loved him—I loved him! I loved him!’

The last word he pronounced was—your name.’

“I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by the cry of inconceivable triumph and unspeakable pain. ‘I knew it—I was sure!’…She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle.”

The film betrays the spirit of the book, the emptiness and despair with which it ends. In a deeper sense it betrays viewers by presenting them with simplified, black and white image. Luckily, the heavens do not fall for such a trifle.

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