William and Adso approach an unnamed abbey somewhere in northern Italy, where William plans to attend a summit between the envoys of the Pope and Emperor. Adso admires the abbey’s Aedificium, an octagonal building constructed on a hill. The building includes four towers with seven sides each, five of which are visible from the outside. Adso admires the building’s proportions because these numbers are not just aesthetically pleasing, but symbolically significant: eight is a “number of perfection,” four is the number of Gospels, five is the number of zones in the world, seven is the number of the gifts of the Holy Ghost. Despite the physical beauty of the building, however, Adso also has a sense of “fear” and a “subtle uneasiness.”
Adso continues to focus on the difficulty of interpreting signs. As a monk, Adso is used to reading signs for their Biblical references. For him, the construction of the abbey’s Aedificium is symbolically significant. This demonstrates his eagerness to read signs as symbols of God’s will and glory. However, his fear and sense of foreboding suggest that perhaps not all is right in this abbey.
William and Adso encounter Remigio of Varagine, the cellarer, who is searching for the abbot’s lost horse, Brunellus. William amazes both Adso and Remigio when he is able to accurately deduce the horse’s name, appearance, and which way it has gone. On their walk up to the abbey, William explains to Adso how he was able to assess the evidence and come to this conclusion. William saw footprints in the snow. Because the prints were small and the gallop was regular, he deduced that the horse had a steady gait. He knew that it took the right path because some twigs of a blackberry bush on that side of the road had been broken off at a height of five feet when the horse had turned in that direction.
This incident is the first demonstration of William’s remarkable powers of deduction: he is able to locate the lost horse using only the physical evidence of broken twigs and prints in the snow. From that evidence, he makes the hypotheses that seem most likely to him. William explains that he is simply interpreting the signs he sees in the world. Those signs can “speak” like words on the pages of a book, if one knows how to read them correctly. This skill will prove highly useful as William is thrust into the midst of a mystery with many hard-to-interpret clues.
William was able to accurately describe the horse’s appearance (small head, sharp ears, big eyes) because those are the most valued physical traits in horses, which the abbot’s favorite horse would naturally possess. And finally, William knew that the horse was called Brunellus because that is the stock name for a horse in the writings of the famous Paris theologians.
William does not only interpret physical evidence like prints in the snow. He also uses his knowledge of human nature—for example, that people value certain traits more in horses—to make intelligent guesses. This shows that he is an astute observer of people.
William and Adso arrive at their destination. As they enter through the courtyard, Adso notices that the Aedificium is much older than the other buildings around it. They are greeted by Abo of Fossanova, the abbot. Abo thanks William for finding his horse, and asks him about his past, when he worked for the Inquisition. William explains that he believed the Devil sometimes worked through the judges as well as the accused, an allegation that seems to make Abo uncomfortable. He also tells Abo that he was reluctant to condemn people because he could never believe that the Devil was working through the defendants. After all, “reasoning about causes and effects is a very difficult thing” at any time, let alone in judging a matter of such importance, and he believes the only true judge is God.
The Inquisition was the medieval Catholic Church’s court for prosecuting “heretics”—people who don’t conform to religious orthodoxy. William explains that he stopped working for the Inquisition because he did not feel comfortable sentencing people to death based on tenuous evidence that they had collaborated with the Devil. This demonstrates William’s skepticism and reluctance to judge or condemn others. Many church officials are all too happy to sentence to death anyone who strays from their vision of righteousness, but William seems to have a less absolute moral compass.
Abo appears somewhat disturbed by William’s arguments. Nevertheless, he requests William’s expertise as a detective and inquisitor in solving a mystery: a monk named Adelmo of Otranto, who illustrated manuscripts in the scriptorium, recently fell to his death from the Aedificium. The case particularly disturbs Abo because it is not clear whether Adelmo fell or was pushed: the windows were closed, so he might not have thrown himself off the top of the tower. The top floor of the Aedificium, which houses the library, is forbidden to all monks except the librarian. Abo worries that an “evil force, whether natural or supernatural,” is at work in the abbey. He doesn’t think any of the abbey’s one hundred fifty servants could have committed the murder, because they are also forbidden to enter the Aedificium at night, so he fears that one of the monks is the guilty party.
The library is clearly important to the mystery of Adelmo’s murder. However, Abo seems to have some reason for wanting to keep people out of the library—even the monks themselves. This demonstrates that the abbot is hiding something, and that the library holds secrets that it doesn’t want to come to light. William’s murder investigation will thus have to contend with two difficulties: not only solving the murder, but penetrating the layers of secrecy that surround the library.
William agrees to help, provided that he is given the authority to move freely throughout the abbey and question everyone involved. Abo grants this permission, but insists that the library will remain off-limits. He explains that the abbey’s library is different than any other, in that it has one of the largest collections of books in Christendom, and monks come from all over the world to study and copy its manuscripts. Because the library has thousands of books from many different cultures and traditions, some of the books contain “falsehoods,” and thus only the librarian is permitted to enter the library and fetch the books requested. This is because “not all truths are for all ears” and “not all falsehoods can be recognized as such,” Abo explains. The library is secret and impenetrable because the knowledge it contains might be dangerous to its readers.
Abo explains the reasons for the library’s secrecy. Since some of the books contain “falsehoods,” the abbey strictly regulates who has access to books and when. The more secret and inaccessible the book, the more potentially dangerous it might be. The abbey keeps its books under lock and key, preventing the free circulation of knowledge—but this stands in direct opposition to the purpose libraries supposedly serve. Libraries are usually thought of as places that preserve books in order to circulate them, but this library hides books, essentially ensuring that no one will ever lay eyes on them.
Adso contemplates the door of the church, which is decorated with elaborate carvings of Biblical figures. At the center is a figure of God seated on a throne with a Bible in his hands, surrounded by carvings of twenty-four ancient kings dancing in ecstasy. Although Adso is first transported with joy, he then sees that the interwoven figures at the base of the pillars include diabolical figures such as a “voluptuous woman…gnawed by foul toads,” a “proud man” with a devil on his shoulders, and creatures from “Satan’s bestiary,” such as sirens, hippocentaurs, and gorgons.” Adso is horrified and fascinated by the images, and comes to feel that “the vision was speaking precisely of what was happening in the abbey.” Over the next few days, he returns several times to contemplate the door.
The church door is yet another assemblage of signs that symbolize deeper meanings. At first, the door seems to glorify God—like the abbey itself. But just as Adso felt a sense of “unease” as he approached the Aedificium, he soon notices that the door is more disturbing than he had thought. In addition to the figure of God, it also presents grotesque images of sin, torture, and death. That Adso comes to feel that these horrible images symbolize what is happening at the abbey suggests that even the most supposedly holy of places is not immune to the darkness of human nature.
Adso’s reverie is broken by the appearance of Salvatore of Montferrat, a vagabond-looking monk and former Franciscan who speaks an odd combination of several different languages including Latin, Provençale, and the local Italian dialect. William asks him if, as a Franciscan, he knew the “so-called apostles,” but Salvatore goes pale and runs away.
This is one of the first references to Salvatore’s past as a follower of Fra Dolcino, which will become important later in the novel. The passage suggests that the abbey has been sheltering former “heretics” like Salvatore.
William introduces Adso to Ubertino of Casale, a Franciscan who has taken refuge at the abbey because his views on the poverty of Christ have put him out of favor with the Pope. Adso explains Ubertino’s background: he is a Spiritualist, meaning he belongs to a faction of the Franciscans who advocate for a return to absolute poverty and a renunciation of worldly goods. Ubertino tells William that “they were on the point of killing [him]” at the Pope’s court in Avignon.
Like Salvatore, Ubertino seems to be in hiding at the abbey, suggesting that the abbey is a friendly place to those whose beliefs may not conform to the orthodoxy of the day. This raises the question of whether perhaps the murder at the abbey had something to do with the persecution of heretics under the Inquisition and the political strife to which it has given rise.
William and Ubertino greet each other warmly and seem to be old friends. Ubertino tells William that he disassociates himself from Spiritualists like the “Pseudo Apostles,” who lived in the hills and raided villages for food, preaching free love and abolition of property. William points out that these people were friends of Clare of Montefalco, a nun with whom Ubertino was very close, but Ubertino angrily denies any connection with them. His primary objection to the Pseudo Apostles is their sexual practices (they advocated for free and love and abolition of marriage) which Ubertino considers sinful.
This conversation introduces the problem of distinguishing between different “heretical” groups. Like Ubertino, the Pseudo Apostles advocated for poverty. However, the Pseudo Apostles also advocated a restructuring of society which was too radical for Ubertino, even though he shared some of their views. It seems that nearly every character in the novel has their own vision of what does and does not constitute sinful behavior, and most are quick to judge others for their different views.
Ubertino accuses William of weakness in his prosecution of heretics: he believes that William was overly lenient when he worked as a judge for the Inquisition. Ubertino also has some less-than-kind words for Adelmo, whom he accuses of “pride of the intellect.” In his eyes, scholarship has made William “idolize reason” and lose his prophetic capacities. Ubertino, on the other hand, believes that the Last Judgment is at hand. To prepare for the coming of the Antichrist, he advises William to “mortify your intelligence, learn to weep over the wounds of the lord, throw away your books.” Before they part, William asks Ubertino about Salvatore and Remigio: Ubertino admits that they were once followers of a “heretical” group as well.
Ubertino’s critique of Adelmo implies that he has little time for what he sees as William’s worldly concerns and the abbey’s over-preoccupation with books and learning. For him, it is sinful and prideful to desire to know more than God intended. Instead of looking for more knowledge, he believes people should prepare themselves for the Last Judgment. This introduces one of the arguments that Adso will come up against repeatedly throughout the book—that the desire for knowledge is antithetical to a life of piety. Importantly, William takes a different view.
William and Adso meet Severinus of Sankt Wendel, the herbalist, who gives them a tour of the abbey. On the tour, they see that the kitchen is on the ground floor of the Aedificium, and that the scriptorium and the library are on the top floors. In the infirmary, Severinus explains how he protects the dangerous herbs that can induce visions. Afterwards, William and Adso visit the scriptorium, where they meet Malachi of Hildesheim, the librarian: he is tall and thin and there is something “upsetting about his appearance.” Adso thinks that his face looks as if he had “many passions which his will had disciplined.”
Severinus mentions that he keeps dangerous and poisonous herbs in the infirmary, a detail that will become important later. The description of Malachi is also significant: to Adso’s eyes, the librarian looks like he is suppressing his “passions.” Indeed, it later emerges that Malachi has been keeping many secrets—not just about the contents of the library, but about his personal desires as well.
William and Adso also meet Berengar of Arundel, Malachi’s assistant. They also meet Venantius of Salvemec, a translator, and Benno of Uppsala, a rhetorician. Malachi explains that the library is a labyrinth and only the librarian knows its secrets. The catalogue indicates where the books are stored, but only he knows how to retrieve them.
The abbey allows the monks to use the books in its collections, but they are not given freedom to explore the library themselves. Malachi acts as the gatekeeper of the knowledge contained in the library, suggesting that the abbey regards knowledge as potentially dangerous rather than an unequivocal virtue.
Malachi shows them Adelmo’s now empty desk. Adelmo’s marginal illustrations are very creative and unusual, including one drawing of two baboons kissing, Adso thinks that these drawings “naturally inspired merriment, though they were commenting on holy pages.” The other monks gather around and begin laughing at Adelmo’s drawings. They are interrupted by Jorge of Burgos, an aged and blind monk. Jorge thinks that Adelmo’s illustrations are “nonsense,” and that they turn the “masterpiece of creation” into the subject of laughter. William argues that marginal images provoke laughter for useful purposes, keeping people interested and engaged in the religious content.
This is the first of many debates between Jorge and William on the subject of laughter. Adelmo’s drawings demonstrate that the murder victim had a witty and irreverent sense of humor, even when illustrating the Bible. Jorge is opposed to any mixing of comedy and religion. William, on the other hand, believes that comedy has the potential to work as a teaching tool by providing entertainment along with education, suggesting he has a less solemn and narrow view of the forms that a person’s faith may take.
Jorge accuses Adelmo of taking pleasure in the “monsters he painted,” and of following the “path of monstrosity” himself. Venantius speaks up and defends Adelmo, revealing that Jorge had debated with Adelmo on the topic of laughter just before his mysterious death. Adelmo argued that it is better to use corporeal things to convey the truth of God, because corporeal things are more easily understood than images of the divine. According to Venantius, Adelmo had said he remembered reading something in the works of Aristotle on this point. Jorge sharply cuts Venantius off when he mentions Aristotle, saying that he does not remember this conversation.
Jorge’s accusation that Adelmo followed “the path of monstrosity” implies that there was something in Adelmo’s personal life of which Jorge disapproved. By coming to Adelmo’s defense, Venantius demonstrates that he too is intellectually curious and believes that laughter can convey higher truths. Jorge is angered by the reference to Aristotle’s work on laughter, and seems to want to stop the conversation from continuing on that front.
Venantius persists, however, insisting that Berengar had also participated in the conversation. Berengar also denies remembering; Venantius suggests that he should remember a conversation involving his “dear” friend, alluding to a particular closeness between Berengar and Adelmo. Jorge warns William and Adso that the Apocalypse is at hand, and that they should not squander the last seven days by laughing.
Venantius implies a particular closeness between Berengar and Adelmo, perhaps even romantic or sexual intimacy. Jorge’s apparent eagerness to end the conversation by saying that the Apocalypse is at hand suggests that he is hiding something.
Before they leave the scriptorium, Malachi tells William and Adso that there are no doors between the kitchen and the scriptorium: thus it would have been possible for someone to enter the scriptorium at night, despite the abbey’s prohibition. William and Adso explore the rest of the abbey and talk with Nicholas of Morimondo, the master glazier. Nicholas is very impressed with William’s glasses, and William praises the capacity of science to improve human life. Although he admits that people of his own age are dwarves on the shoulders of giants, at least when it comes to science, “we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they.” Nicholas points out that “many would speak of witchcraft and diabolic machination” when faced with new technologies, and William confesses that he avoided using his glasses when he worked for the Inquisition, since he knew that he might be accused of being in league with the devil himself. William expresses concern that technology might fall into the wrong hands, and that people might use technology for ill ends such as waging war.
William imagines a world transformed by technology, in which people will one day have access to more miraculous machines like his glasses. At the same time, however, the negative and judgmental responses to William’s glasses—by those who might suggest he was conspiring with the Devil, for instance— demonstrates that people tend to fear what they don’t understand. William also raises another problem: who should have access to this new knowledge? After all, some people might misuse the power of technology. In this way, William grapples with the same problem of knowledge and secrecy that animates the discussions of whether the library should make its books freely accessible.
Afterwards, William hypothesizes that Adelmo’s death had something to do with his intimate relationship with Berengar. He also believes that many people have tried to enter the library at night, and that Adelmo may have killed himself. This is because it is the simplest explanation, as it would have been far easier for Adelmo to throw himself from the top of the tower than for someone to have killed him and hoisted his lifeless body out the window.
William hypothesizes that Adelmo killed himself because it is the simplest explanation. This is a principle of interpretation known as Occam’s razor, named after the medieval philosopher William of Occam. Occam’s razor holds that, among competing explanations, the one that requires the least explanation is probably true.
At dinner that night, William and Jorge argue again about laughter. Jorge asserts that Christ never laughed, so neither should anyone else. William points out that, actually, the Scriptures are silent on the subject of whether Christ laughed or not (they just don’t mention it)—and in fact there is no reason why he shouldn’t have laughed, since “laughter is proper to man.” William also gives several examples of jokes in the Christian tradition: for instance, Saint Lawrence told his executioners to “eat, for it is well done,” as they roasted him on a spit. Jorge replies that this merely proves that laughter is “something very close to death.”
Jorge argues that Christ never laughed, but William retorts that this isn’t exactly true—the Bible just doesn’t mention that Christ laughed. It’s up to the reader to decide whether he laughed or not. William’s interest in the unresolved ambiguities of the Bible demonstrates that he acknowledges the limitations of people’s ability to fully comprehend the truth. By contrast, Jorge believes that all truth is already known.
Abo says that the librarian locks all the doors to the Aedificium at night. William asks him how the librarian gets out, but Abo “glares at him” and says stiffly that the librarian obviously does not sleep in the kitchen. William deduces from this evidence that there must be a secret entrance to the Aedificium. And indeed, that night, William and Adso see Malachi emerging from the chapel, suggesting the entrance must be in the crypt. Adso asks William whether he plans to break into the library, and William says that he is only trying to evaluate as many possibilities as he can.
Before he can interpret the signs he sees in the world, William needs to gather as much evidence as possible. He deduces that there is another entrance to the Aedificium—so someone could have broken in without the librarian’s knowledge—but he is not ready to make any interpretations or suggest any hypotheses yet. William’s desire to make careful and evidence-based judgements helps to explain why he disliked working with the Inquisition, where many of the judgements made were hasty and founded on fear and rumor rather than fact.