William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk’s investigation into the mysterious deaths at the abbey increasingly revolves around the abbey’s library, where many of the dead monks worked as scholars, scribes and illuminators. Although monks may work in the scriptorium, few are authorized to enter the library, a vast labyrinth accessible only through hidden doors. As William and Adso find their way through the labyrinth, they also come closer to unraveling the mystery—not only of the identity of the murderer, but of the forbidden book hidden in the library’s secret chamber, the “finis Africae.” In this sense, the overlapping of the murder mystery plot and the discovery of the lost book of Aristotle’s Poetics suggests that the quest for knowledge and the process of solving a murder are inherently linked. Both plots involve fighting for justice and bringing the truth to light. However, the library and its labyrinthine design also poses other philosophical questions, such as whether the ideas contained in books can be dangerous, and if so, who should have access to them.
William describes the abbey’s library as “the greatest in Christendom,” containing books in Latin, Greek, French, Italian, English, German, Arabic, and many other languages. However, all that knowledge is, quite literally, under lock and key: only the librarian may enter the library. As the librarian Malachi of Hildesheim explains, the monk asks the librarian for the text he wishes to consult and the librarian fetches it from the library above—but only if the request is “justified and devout.” Access to books, then, is regulated by the librarian, who alone can enter the library and who decides whether a request is “justified.” When Adso asks how Malachi locates books in the library, the librarian says sternly that it is “right and sufficient that only the librarian know how to decipher these things.” And indeed, the library is designed as a labyrinth for the very purpose of deceiving intruders: it takes William and Adso several visits to discover that the plan of the library is laid out as a map of the world, and that the books are organized according to their country of origin.
The effect of all this mystery, shrouding, and secrecy is that many of the books in the library are never read and are not accessible to the monks at the abbey, let alone the broader public. William laments this state of affairs when he says that “without an eye to read them, a book contains signs that produce no concepts; therefore it is dumb” (the word “dumb” here meaning “unable to speak”). In the absence of readers, in other words, a book is just a collection of marks on a page and signifies nothing. The librarians—Malachi, and then Benno of Upsala after him—claim that the library exists to preserve and protect its collections. Although the library may have been created “to save the books it houses,” William observes, “now it lives to bury them.” William’s words prove prophetic: when the abbey’s library burns to the ground at the end of the novel, it becomes a graveyard for the books it had been built to protect.
Throughout the book, religious officials associate certain forms of knowledge with sin—a direct reference to the story of the Garden of Eden, in which Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden because they eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Therefore, the secrecy surrounding the library is intended to rein in the monks’ appetite for knowledge. For example, Ubertino of Casale accuses the dead Adelmo of Otranto of “pride of the intellect,” connecting desire for knowledge to the sin of pride. He accuses William of this vice too, advising him to “mortify [his] intelligence, learn to weep over the wounds of the lord, [and] throw away [his] books.” Several monks make the link between sexual desire and desire for the knowledge contained in books: Ubertino asks Adso if he is troubled by “yearnings of the flesh,” and Adso responds that he is disturbed instead by “the yearnings of the mind, which wants to know too many things.” And when Berengar of Arundel offers to acquire a mysterious book for Adelmo in exchange for sex, Berengar is impelled by physical desire, but Adelmo is motivated by his passion for learning. As William observes, “there is lust not only of the flesh.” The Name of the Rose suggests that lust for books can be as powerful as more physical forms of desire, and that attempting to suppress either impulse can lead to disaster. Adelmo, for instance, is tormented by guilt after his sexual encounter with Berengar and kills himself, while Venantius of Salvemec and Malachi both die when they are tempted to try to read the forbidden book. Desire is natural, Willam implies, but the disastrous fates that befall Adelmo, Venantius, and Malachi are anything but natural, suggesting that there are murderous forces of repression at work in the abbey.
People tend to think of a library as a repository of knowledge preserved for future generations and made accessible to all. The abbey’s library, however, seems to operate on opposite principles: secrecy, obscurity, confusion, and exclusion. “Is a library, then, an instrument not for distributing the truth but for delaying its appearance?” Adso asks. Just as the truth of the murders becomes ever more shrouded in mystery, the secret at the center of the library proves similarly elusive. Eventually, Jorge of Burgos burns down the library in his attempt to keep the hidden book from coming to light, in a final demonstration of the way the library’s secrecy proves its undoing. As Adso observes sadly, “the library had been doomed by its own impenetrability, by the mystery that protected it, by its few entrances.” In this sense, the novel’s tragic ending strongly suggests that a library should not be a fortress designed to keep out intruders, and the destruction of the library demonstrates that attempts to suppress the mind’s hunger for knowledge can lead only to violence and catastrophe.
Knowledge and Secrecy ThemeTracker
Knowledge and Secrecy Quotes in The Name of the Rose
I concluded that Adso’s memoirs appropriately share the nature of the events he narrates: shrouded in many, shadowy mysteries, beginning with the identity of the author and ending with the abbey’s location, about which Adso is stubbornly, scrupulously silent.
On sober reflection, I find few reasons for publishing my Italian version of an obscure, neo-Gothic French version of a seventeenth-century Latin edition of a work written in Latin by a German monk toward the end of the fourteenth century.
[The] divine plan will one day encompass the science of machines, which is natural and healthy magic. […] Unheard-of machines are possible.
But you must not worry if they do not exist, because that does not mean they will not exist later.
[O]nly the librarian knows, from the collocation of the volume, from its degree of inaccessibility, what secrets, what truths or falsehoods, the volume contains. Only he decides how, when, and whether to give it to the monk who requests it; sometimes he first consults me. Because not all truths are for all ears, not all falsehoods can be recognized as such by a pious soul.
And, Benno added with a smile, how many times had he himself not been stirred by desires of the intellect so violent that to satisfy them he would have consented to complying with others' carnal desires, even against his own inclination.
This place of forbidden knowledge is guarded by many and most cunning devices. Knowledge is used to conceal, rather than to enlighten. I don’t like it. A perverse mind presides over the holy defense of the library.
There, I said to myself, are the reasons for the silence and the darkness that surround the library: it is the preserve of learning but can maintain this learning unsullied only if it prevents its reaching anyone at all, even the monks themselves. Learning is not like a coin, which remains physically whole even through the most infamous transactions; it is, rather like a very handsome dress, which is worn out through use and ostentation. Is not a book like that, in fact? Its pages crumble, its ink and gold turn dull, if too many hands touch it.
“But then,” I said, “what is the use of hiding books, if from the books not hidden you can arrive at the concealed ones?”
“Over the centuries it is no use at all. In a space of years or days it has some use. You see, in fact, how bewildered we are.”
“And is a library then, an instrument not for distributing the truth
but for delaying its appearance?" I asked, dumbfounded.
The good of a book lies in its being read. A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things. Without an eye to read them, a book contains signs that produce no concepts; therefore it is dumb. This library was perhaps born to save the books it houses, but now it lives to bury them.
“He wants me to leave tomorrow morning, does he? Very well, it’s his house; but by tomorrow morning I must know. I must.”
“You must? Who obliges you now?”
“No one ever obliges us to know, Adso. We must, that is all, even if we comprehend imperfectly.”
The library had been doomed by its own impenetrability, by the mystery that protected it, by its few entrances. The church, maternally open to all in the hour of prayer, was open to all in the hour of succor. But there was no more water, or at least very little could be found stored, and the wells supplied it with a parsimony that did not correspond to the urgency of the need.