The next morning, Adso sees Bernard conferring with Malachi about some papers. He then enters the chapter house through a doorway carved with statues depicting the spread of Christianity throughout the world, and thinks this is a good omen (unlike the frightening images on the church doorway, which seemed to predict some horror), since it suggests that the words of the Gospel spread peace to all people. He decides that he is weak to think so much of the girl, when an important event in the history of Christianity is taking place.
Adso is now trying to read signs for their positive meanings rather than the frightening implications of the statues carved on the church door. However, there are still many signs that not all is right. Bernard and Malachi confer together before the disputation, suggesting that there is some plot between them, highlighting the ways in which human greed and violence still attend even a supposedly holy theological disputation.
At the disputation, the Pope’s envoys and the Emperor’s supporters argue about whether Christ had been poor, and whether the church should follow his example by renouncing property and political influence and returning to a state of poverty. Abo summarizes recent events, explaining that in 1322 Michael of Cesena proclaimed that Christ and his apostles had never owned any property, a claim that was supported by the Emperor. The Pope then summoned Michael to Avignon to answer for what he had said, but he claimed to be ill.
The Emperor supported Michael’s claim that Christ had been poor because it implies that the present Pope should give up his wealth and surrender political power to the Emperor. The Pope’s angry response attests to the politicization of this particular theological debate. What is at stake is nothing less than the balance of power in medieval Europe.
Michael asks Ubertino to sum up the position of the Franciscans on Apostolic poverty. Ubertino argues that Christ never owned property other than necessities of life such as clothing and food. One of the Pope’s envoys, by contrast, asserts that Christ was the owner of all earthly goods—his rightful property was simply taken from him by the Jews. Jerome of Kaffa then makes what Adso describes as a “fairly confused” argument that the “Orientals and Greeks” believe in the poverty of Christ, and they are heretics, so to deny the poverty of Christ makes the present assembly more heretical than the heretics. As the debate continues, William explains the stakes of the argument to Adso, saying that the word “’poor’ does not so much mean owning a palace or not; it means, rather, keeping or renouncing the right to legislate on earthly matters.” This, Adso says, “is why the Emperor is so interested” in what the Franciscans say about poverty.
The debates on poverty pose a direct threat to the wealth and land holdings of the church. If Christ never owned property other than necessities—such as clothing and food—it will be hard to justify the abbey keeping 150 servants and owning much of the surrounding agricultural property, for instance. But as William explains to Adso, “poverty” is not just about wealth. It also implies the right to be involved in politics. This is why Franciscans like Michael and Ubertino are allied with the Emperor and persecuted by the Pope. Arguments for the poverty of Christ imply that the church (and by extension, the Pope) should stay out of politics.
The disputation descends into personal insults and physical brawling, and Bernard’s archers have to intervene to separate the opposing parties. Meanwhile, Severinus enters the chapter house and asks to speak to William privately. Apparently Berengar was in the infirmary before he died in the bath. He tells William that there is a “strange book” that he must come and examine in the infirmary. William orders Severinus to go back to the infirmary and lock himself in, making sure that the book is kept safe. Jorge, Remigio, and Aymaro seem to overhear, and follow Severinus out. On William’s orders, Adso follows them, but Jorge goes to the Aedificium, Aymaro disappears, and Remigio goes back to the kitchens. Severinus seems to make it back to the infirmary safely.
Severinus’s reference to a “strange book” is a confusing and mysterious sign that William and Adso will have to decipher, as it raises many questions, including the question of what makes this book so strange. Just moments ago, William and Adso seemed to be getting closer to solving the mystery, but every day generates yet more puzzles and mysteries. Just when they think they’ve reached a conclusion, a new clue sends them in different interpretative directions.
William is asked to speak for the Franciscans. He makes a radical proposition that the church should withdraw from political life and leave governing to an “elected assembly of the people.” He suggests that this assembly should be empowered to make and interpret laws, arguing that while one man can do harm from ignorance or malice, a group of elected leaders would do better.
These are radical arguments for medieval Europe. William suggests that political power should reside with a representative assembly of the people (i.e., elected leaders). This would be a much more egalitarian form of government than the authoritarian regimes of either the Pope or the Emperor.
William argues that if Christ had not wanted his apostles to have any “worldly or coercive power,” so it follows that the successors of the apostles—the present church—should not have governing power either. The Pope, then, has no right to determine who should be Emperor, since “the servant of the servants of God is on this earth to serve and not be served.” While it cannot be definitively proven that Christ was poor, there is no evidence that he ever sought governing power, and so the Pope should withdraw from politics. The audience appears shocked by these propositions. Bernard suggests that William should come to Avignon to make these arguments to the Pope in person, but William pleads illness.
In other words, William is arguing that the Pope should have no political power and should submit to the Emperor’s authority, since that is the order “decreed by God.” The church should stop trying to influence politics, which is not part of its spiritual mandate. This is a theological position that has significant political implications. Bernard’s invitation to the Pope’s court is a clear threat, since William’s views would probably get him killed. This demonstrates just how dangerous and politicized this debate has become.
After the debate, William and Adso go to check on Severinus. When they get to the infirmary, it is too late: they find Severinus murdered. He is wearing leather gloves, his head is bashed in, and his shelves are in great disorder, as if someone had been looking for something in the infirmary. Bernard has already arrived and arrested Remigio, who was found in the infirmary rummaging through the shelves, but the cellarer protests his innocence. As Remigio is dragged away, he shouts at Malachi, who responds “I will do nothing to harm you.” Benno whispers to William and Adso that he saw Malachi hiding in the infirmary before Remigio arrived.
As always, Bernard is quick to leap to judgment and is particularly eager to punish the poor. Thus, he immediately comes to the conclusion that Remigio murdered Severinus. This demonstrates the harshness of his prejudices and condemnations. Benno’s whispered confidence that he saw Malachi in the infirmary before Remigio arrived suggests that Malachi might have committed the murder.
Left alone in the infirmary, William, Adso, and Benno search for the “strange book” that Severinus had mentioned. William thinks they are looking for a Greek book, since everyone who has died thus far knew Greek, so they quickly discard an Arabic manuscript as a possibility. William hypothesizes that the murders are following a plan according to the Book of the Apocalypse: hail (Adelmo fell from the tower of the Aedificium), blood (Venantius died of poison), water (Berengar died of drowning), and now the stars (Severinus was killed with a metal model of the heavens). After leaving the infirmary, William and Adso realize their mistake: the “strange” book was the Arabic manuscript, which actually contains several volumes, one of which is in Greek. They run back to the infirmary, but it is too late. The book has been stolen again.
William is busy looking for patterns to interpret the recent mysterious events. For instance, he is intrigued by the idea that the murders are following an apocalyptic plan. He also decides that the forbidden book must be in Greek, since there is another pattern there: everyone who has died knew Greek. In searching for these patterns, however, he doesn’t realize until too late that the “strange book” was an Arabic manuscript that also contained a Greek text. This shows how, in looking for an overarching design that will interpret and explain everything, one can sometimes miss the smaller details.
Bernard puts Remigio on trial, accusing him of murder and of having known Fra Dolcino. Salvatore is brought into the court, having clearly been tortured. He tells Bernard that he met Remigio among the heretics, and that Fra Dolcino himself had entrusted Remigio with “certain letters,” which Remigio gave to Malachi for safekeeping. Bernard then calls Malachi for interrogation. Malachi admits that he kept the letters for Remigio, but did not know what they were. Malachi is dismissed without punishment, but as he leaves the court, someone shouts: “You hid his letters and he showed you the novices’ asses in the kitchen!”
Salvatore confirms that that the abbey has been sheltering “heretics” who once followed Fra Dolcino. Malachi’s explanation for hiding the heretical letters seems to satisfy Bernard. However, the malicious shout from the audience—which is probably Aymaro, given his propensity for gossip—suggests that Malachi, like Remigio, has also hypocritically made trades for sexual favors.
Bernard tells Remigio that he must confess to two crimes: that he is a heretic who followed Fra Dolcino, and that he is guilty of all the murders that have taken place at the abbey. Adso observes that Bernard doesn’t have “the slightest interest” in knowing who killed the other monks, but only wants to make a connection between the crimes and those who advocate for the poverty of Christ and deny the authority of the Pope. Remigio confesses to his past as a follower of Dolcino with increasing fervor, “feeling again the emotions that had once exalted him.” Still, however, he denies the murders. But when Bernard threatens him with torture, Remigio falsely confesses to the murders, naming Salvatore as his accomplice—an act of revenge for Salvatore’s betrayal. Bernard sentences Salvatore and Remigio to death. He then tells the Emperor’s supporters that anyone who shares these heretical ideas will be punished—preventing any chance of reconciliation between Ubertino and Michael and the Pope’s envoys.
Bernard doesn’t have “the slightest interest” in knowing who killed the other monks because his aim is not to bring justice to the abbey, but to make a connection between the crimes and the followers of Fra Dolcino. By showing that Remigio believed in the poverty of Christ and is a murderer, Bernard is able to severely weaken Michael and Ubertino’s position by associating their views with the disreputable activities of Dolcino’s followers. Bernard even uses physical violence to accomplish this goal, torturing Salvatore and threatening Remigio with the same to elicit a confession. This shows that Bernard will stop at nothing to attack and discredit the Pope’s enemies. He doesn’t care about justice, but about his own political ends.
After the disastrous trial, William convenes with Ubertino and Michael. Michael says that despite the threat to his life, he is determined to go to Avignon and face the Pope, prepared to compromise on “everything except the principle of poverty.” William advises Ubertino to ask Abo for provisions and escape the abbey under cover of darkness, since Bernard seems to have directed his hostility towards him in particular. Ubertino takes his advice and flees that night. After supper, Benno admits that he stole the forbidden book from the infirmary and returned it to the library when Malachi chose him for the position of assistant librarian, replacing Berengar. William fears that the library’s secrecy and the intellectual greed of its custodians will destroy it. Because he has been elevated to a position of authority, Benno now hides the knowledge he once tried to discover.
William laments the intellectual greed and hypocrisy of the librarians. Benno once sought the forbidden book, but now that he’s become assistant librarian, he participates in the suppression of that book. William fears that the library is no longer disseminating knowledge and making books accessible, but is deliberately hiding the knowledge contained in its vast store of books. Worse, that agenda of secrecy is self-perpetuating. Benno’s hypocrisy demonstrates that the library strategically shares it secrets with a few people. Those people then greedily hoard that knowledge and prevent others from having access to it, in order to protect their own privileges.
That evening, Jorge preaches a sermon reproaching the scholar-monks for their “sin of pride” in seeking to know more than God intended. He argues that all truth has been known from the beginning: “there is no progress,” only “recapitulation.” The role of the library should not be to produce new knowledge, but to gloss and preserve the knowledge passed down from earlier ages. William whispers to Adso that Jorge’s sermon is a warning that if the monks continue being overly intellectually curious, the terrible events will continue. Jorge predicts that the Apocalypse is at hand. After the sermon, William sends Adso to bed. Adso remarks on the unfairness of the “simple folk” (like Remigio, Salvatore, and the girl) suffering for the sins of the powerful.
For Jorge, all truth is written in the Bible, and so there is no need for any new production of knowledge. Instead, he believes the role of a monk is to preserve the words of the Bible and of the Church Fathers. For Jorge, there is only one correct interpretation, and speaking the truth means passing down knowledge from earlier ages. Jorge’s speech demonstrates the stark contrast between his uncompromising system of belief and William’s more flexible and skeptical attitude to the truth. William believes that there is always room for doubt, and that some truths can never be entirely known.