Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus. “The rose of old stands in name; we hold mere names.” Little is known about the twelfth century Cluniac monk who wrote this, except that he penned a lengthy invective on pride and the subsequent misery that comes from it. Said invective is entitled De contemptu mundi (On Contempt for the World) and the monk is named Bernard of Cluny or Bernard of Morlay (he’s called both names by different scholars); unless you’re a Medievalist or a super nerd, it’s unlikely that you’ll have heard of him or his long, grumpy poem. Yet, it’s from this line that Eco’s novel derives its name. If you’ve seen the Sean Connery flick based on this book, you’ve been lied to: the “rose” has nothing to do with a naked witch lady or a besotted babyfaced monk. No: sic transit gloria mundi, friends! Nothing lasts, the world is horrible, and humans are wretched; so monked the medieval monks in all their monkishness.
But! Even though it’s all about the impermanence of everything, this novel really isn’t depressing. In fact, it’s a riveting mystery featuring the Sherlock Holmes of monks, Franciscan Brother William of Baskerville, and his young Watson, Adso of Melk (also the narrator).
Picture it: Northern Italy, 1327. The mutilated body of Brother Adelmo of Otranto, an attractive and good-humored manuscript illuminator, has been found at the foot of an abbey tower directly below a closed window. Soon, other monks turn up gruesomely murdered, leading most of the monks to speculate that the Devil or Antichrist might be involved. Brother William, who is an amalgam of Sherlock, Roger Bacon, and William of Ockham, is asked to investigate. But, he remains skeptical about all this Devil business– the murdered monks have various ties to the abbey’s enormous labyrinthine library and its ancient blind keeper, Jorge of Burgos.
Jorge is a wonderfully sinister character. He creeps around the abbey alternately raving about the Apocalypse or uttering things like “Verba vana aut risui apta non loqui” (i.e. no chitchat and no joking). He hates everything, and loves talking about how much he hates everything. He’s great!
So William and Adso ignore all this hubbub about the Antichrist and start prying into the abbey’s affairs, which of course reveals all sorts of medieval monk scandal, salacious and otherwise. And then the Inquisition shows up, led by Dominican Bernard Gui, who is sort of like a monk version of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland.
If I tell you much more I will spoil all of the fun. And what more could you want? It’s a medieval monk murder mystery! Just go read it already.