The abbey burns for three days and three nights, until the monks give up and begin to abandon the site. William and Adso find two horses in the woods and head east, to Bobbio. They hear that the political situation is bad, as the Emperor is now so estranged from the Pope that he has chosen another Pope of his own, Nicholas V. Supporters of Pope John are being persecuted and tortured. Rome rebels against the Emperor, and Michael of Cesena flees Avignon, fearing for his life. William and Adso decide to leave Italy, seeing that the tide is turning against the Emperor and his supporters. They travel to Munich, in Germany, where they separate.
William and Adso flee the abbey, since there is nothing left for them there. The Pope re-takes power in Rome, and the political situation in Italy becomes increasingly difficult for them, as supporters of the Emperor. The cycle of religious and political violence continues, with both sides suffering losses. As at the abbey’s disputation, it seems that all hope of reconciliation between the Pope and the Emperor is lost. This suggests that religion will continue to be a cause of political conflict in Europe for many years to come.
William gives Adso the glasses that Nicholas had made him, telling him that they might come in handy someday. Indeed, the older Adso notes, “I am wearing them on my nose now, as I write these lines.” William returns home to England, and Adso learns later that he died of the Black Death, a massive plague that swept Europe in the fourteenth century. He still prays for William’s soul, and that God forgives him for the sins his “intellectual vanity” made him commit.
Adso continues to use William’s glasses years after their separation and William’s death. Even decades later, then, the glasses symbolize William’s passion for knowledge and enthusiasm for new technologies. William may have been “vain,” but Adso’s use of the glasses shows his continuing affection for him.
Adso returns home to Melk. Many years later, he is sent to Italy by his abbot and returns to the site where the abbey had once stood. Only scattered ruins remain. There are a few traces of the church door that Adso so admired: the left eye of the enthroned Christ, and a piece of the lion’s face. The two outer towers of the Aedificium are miraculously still standing. Piecing through the rubble, Adso finds scraps of parchment and begins to collect them, as if trying to piece together the torn pages of a book. He climbs the towers to what remains of the library, where along one stretch of wall he finds a bookcase, largely rotted by termites but containing a few pages. He salvages these few fragments of the library, hoping to reconstruct what had once been the greatest collection of books in Christendom. These scraps of parchment and bindings are a “lesser library,” a symbol of the greater, lost collection.
For Adso, these fragments of books symbolize the larger whole of the lost library. He spends all day in a seemingly pointless task of salvaging fragments of burnt books, but he does this because he hopes that the parts of a few books might stand in for the whole collection. Just as William reconstructed the lost book of Aristotle’s Poetics by finding traces of it in other books, Adso attempts to reconstruct a lost library from a few remaining fragments. This final passage provides another demonstration of the idea that lost books can be found again, which is a central motif in the novel. Adso calls his fragments a “lesser library” out of a recognition that all books are fragments, to a greater or lesser extent.
Over the years, he writes, he has read and re-read these fragments, as if a message from the library might reach him. He is increasingly convinced that there is in fact no meaning, but can’t shake the impression that what he is writing now is “an immense acrostic” that speaks of these fragments. He isn’t sure if he is speaking of the fragments or if they are speaking through him. And yet, on the threshold of his own death, he cannot say if what he has written contains “some hidden meaning, or more than one, or many, or none at all.” All he can do now is be silent. It is cold now in the scriptorium, and his thumb aches. He ends his memoirs with the Latin tag “stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus” (“the rose of old remains only in its name; we possess naked names”).
Adso wants to interpret these fragments of the library as a meaningful text. He calls his memoirs an “acrostic”—a sequence of letters that means something else. But as always in the novel, the interpretation of signs remains a difficult task. He is not sure whether the fragments add up to anything meaningful. In any case, he is now close to death and will soon have nothing more to say. He ends by saying that we have only the “naked name” of the “rose of old”— suggesting that the names and signs of things from the past remain, but their meanings often escapes us.