In 1980, an unnamed narrator explains how he came across the “terrible story” written by Adso of Melk, a fourteenth-century German monk. He first encountered a published version of the manuscript in 1968, translated into French in the nineteenth century by the Abbé Vallet and published by the “Abbaye de la Source.” The narrator transcribed Adso’s memoirs, but lost the book when it was stolen by his traveling companion (with whom he was romantically involved, and it ended badly—thus, there is no possibility of asking for it back). Perplexingly, he has found no record that the book ever existed, and a medievalist scholar has informed him that no Abbé Vallet ever published books in the nineteenth century on the presses of the “Abbaye de la Source.”
The manuscript of Adso’s memoirs is shrouded in as many mysteries as the “terrible story” it contains. The unnamed narrator first encounters Adso’s story in a nineteenth-century French edition that he later lost, and he can now find no evidence that the book ever existed—suggesting that it might be a forgery. The “Abbaye de la Source” is a pun on the word “source,” meaning the original text. Since the source is nowhere to be found, the reader is invited to question the authenticity of Adso’s story.
Because the narrator has no more luck finding the manuscript source of Vallet’s book, he wonders if it might be a forgery. But two years later, browsing a bookshop in Buenos Aires, he finds quotations of Adso’s story in an Italian translation of a Georgian book from the 1930s. That book was quoting a seventeenth-century Latin work by Father Athanasius Kircher, who was quoting Adso. Although the narrator is still many degrees removed from the original text and hasn’t seen the book himself, he now has independent confirmation that Adso’s manuscript existed—at least at one point—and that people other than Vallet had seen it.
Because he also finds quotations from Adso’s memoirs in a seventeenth-century Latin work, the narrator has evidence that the manuscript exists and Abbé Vallet’s edition is not a forgery. Although the source is lost, traces and references to Adso’s book remain in other texts. The tendency of books to “speak of other books” is an important idea throughout the rest of the novel and is first introduced here.
Although the narrator is “full of doubts” and is still not fully convinced of the text’s authenticity, he decides he has enough evidence of its veracity to translate and publish his Italian version. He explains that Adso wrote his memoirs near the year 1400, but that the events described took place around 1327. In describing the editorial conventions he has used, he explains that the manuscript is divided into seven days, and each day into eight sections corresponding to the hours of the day at which the monks prayed (matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers, and compline). He suggests that Vallet “took some liberties” in his translation and that this is the reason why Adso anachronistically references texts published after the 1300s. The narrator also theorizes that the short summaries that preface each chapter must have been added by Vallet.
The book translated and published by the unnamed narrator is an Italian version of a French version of a Latin version of a lost fourteenth-century manuscript. It is thus several degrees removed from the original text. The narrator has “doubts” about publishing a text that may not even be authentic, and by expressing these doubts, the narrator passes them to the reader. The reader is thus made to question the truth and authenticity of Adso’s story, adding another dimension to the questions of truth and interpretation that Adso himself will struggle with throughout the story.
The narrative then switches to Adso’s point of view. At the end of the fourteenth century, he writes a prologue to his memoirs and reflects on events that took place in November 1327, when he was a young novice monk, about eighteen years old. At that age, Adso had first joined the Benedictines, an old, prestigious, and wealthy order of monks that emphasizes silent prayer and reflection. He knows that he is now close to death, and hopes to leave behind a record of the strange and terrible events that he saw as a young monk. He will not try to “seek a design” or explain the reasons for these incidents, but will instead leave behind “signs” for the reader to decipher.
Adso’s prologue introduces a theme—the difficulty of interpreting signs—that will be central to the novel. Instead of trying to explain exactly what happened, he will leave “signs” that readers must puzzle out on their own. By refusing to offer an overarching explanation of the story’s“design,” Adso leaves interpretation in the hands of the reader. In this story, many questions of interpretation will be raised, but clear-cut answers will prove to be in short order.
As an aid to the reader, Adso provides some context in order to better explain the political situation in Italy in the 1320s. At that time, he explains, the seat of the papacy was in Avignon, in France, and the popes were traditionally allied with the kings of France. Pope John XXII was in a power struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis the Bavarian: the Pope claimed the right to appoint the Emperor, and the Emperor claimed the right to appoint his own bishops and maintain sovereignty in his own domain. By the end of the 1320s, relations had deteriorated far enough that the Pope had excommunicated the Emperor, and the Emperor was openly calling the Pope a heretic.
Before and during the events of Adso’s memoirs, the Pope is in a power struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor over who will hold political power in medieval Europe. The conflict between the Pope and the Emperor raises the question of whether the church or monarchs should have more power in Europe, and also has implications for the question of whether to separate the powers of church and state—though this is a debate that did not exist prior to the events Adso describes.
The Franciscan order had become the Pope’s enemies and the Emperor’s allies, because the general of the Franciscans, Michael of Cesena, claimed that the church should renounce its political authority and its officials should return to a state of poverty, following Christ’s example. The Emperor applauded this theological proposition, because it seemed to reduce the power and political influence of the Pope. Thus, Franciscans like Michael are on the side of the Emperor and receive his political protection.
Michael’s proclamation puts the Franciscans on the wrong side of the Pope and makes him a political ally of the Emperor. Such political allegiances within the church are suboptimal because they create conflicts of interest and raise the question of whether the church exists to line the pockets of its own clergy members, or to preach the glory of God and save the souls of sinners.
Adso’s father—a wealthy German nobleman—was fighting on the side of the Emperor. In order to avoid the fighting, he removed Adso from his monastery at Melk and sent him to Italy. Deciding that it was not appropriate for a young man to wander Italy alone and without guidance, Adso’s father placed him in the service of William of Baskerville, an English Franciscan. Adso was appointed to work as William’s scribe and servant. Together they traveled through northern Italy, a region where the abbeys were generally allied with the Emperor and opposed to the “heretical, corrupt Pope.”
Adso is caught in the middle of the political and religious conflicts of the day. His father fights for the Emperor, and so places him in the service of William, who is also on the side of the Franciscans. Although monasteries are often thought of as shelters from the turbulence of worldly affairs, Adso has to leave his monastery to avoid becoming caught in the midst of political strife, underscoring how thoroughly the church is implicated in the political turmoil of the time.
Adso describes William’s unusual physical appearance: he is about fifty years old, very tall and thin, and wears glasses for reading. After some time traveling with William, Adso has gotten to know the quirks and habits of his new master fairly well. William is passionate about other new technologies, like the clock, the astrolabe, and the magnet. He believes that one day, people will be able to visit the bottom of the sea and fly through the air. He is often very energetic, but can sometimes lie down for hours with a “vacant, absent expression” when he’s thinking. In sum, William is the most brilliant and unusual person the young Adso has ever met.
It is unusual that William wears glasses because reading glasses were a new technology in medieval Europe. This demonstrates one of William’s most significant character traits: his enthusiasm for learning and excitement about new technologies, which he believes will change the world one day. His reading glasses thus symbolize knowledge, learning, and progress.