The Name of the Rose is a novel by Italian author Umberto Eco. It is an intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory. First published in Italian in 1980 under the title Il nome della rosa, it appeared in 1983 in an English translation by William Weaver.
Along with his apprentice Adso of Melk (named after the Benedictine abbey Stift Melk), the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville journeys to an abbey where a murder has been committed.
As the plot unfolds, several other people mysteriously die. The protagonists explore a labyrinthine medieval library, the subversive power of laughter, and come face to face with the Inquisition. It is left primarily to William's enormous powers of logic and deduction to solve the mysteries of the abbey.
On one level, the book is an exposition of the scholastic method which was very popular in the 14th century. William demonstrates the power of deductive reasoning, especially syllogisms. He refuses to accept the diagnosis of simple demonic possession despite demonology being the traditional monastic explanation. Although the abbey is under the misapprehension that they are experiencing the last days before the coming of Antichrist (a topic closely examined in the book), William, through his empirical mindset, manages to show that the murders are, in fact, committed by a more corporeal instrument. By keeping an open mind, collecting facts and observations, following pure intuition, and the dialectic method, he makes decisions as to what he should investigate, exactly as a scholastic would do. However, the simple use of reason does not suffice. The various signs and happenings only have meaning in their given contexts, and William must constantly be wary of which context he interprets the mystery. Indeed, the entire story challenges the narrator, William's young apprentice Adso, and the reader to continually recognize the context he is using to interpret, bringing the whole text to various levels which can all have different hermeneutical meanings. The narrative ties in many varied plot lines, all of which consider various interpretations and sources of meanings. Many of the interpretations and sources were highly volatile controversies in the medieval religious setting, all while spiraling towards what seems to be the key to understanding and truly interpreting the case. Although William's final theorems do not exactly match the actual events as written, those theorems do allow him to solve the abbey's mystery.
Eco wrote that he liked this title "because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left."(1)
The book's last line, "Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus" translates literally as "Yesterday's rose endures in its name, we hold empty names". The general sense, as Eco pointed out,(2) was that from the beauty of the past, now disappeared, we hold only the name. In this novel, the lost "rose" could be seen as Aristotle's book on comedy (now forever lost), the exquisite library now destroyed, or the beautiful peasant girl now dead. We only know them by the description Adso provides us — we only have the name of the book on comedy, not its contents.
(1)"Postscript to the Name of the Rose", printed in The Name of the Rose (Harcourt, Inc., 1984), p. 506.
(2)"Name of the Rose: Title and Last Line". http://www.umbertoeco.com/id-39/UmbertEco_Name_of_the_Rose_Umberto_Eco.html.