Sunday 13 March 2016

Tolle et lege

'The Name of the Rose' by Umberto Eco was acquired only a few months ago, and Monkey and I started reading it aloud ... but it was far too wordy so it was abandoned in favour of Game of Thrones. When I heard a few weeks ago that Umberto Eco had died I decided it was a fitting time to pick it back up. This is not a book for the faint hearted, a simple murder mystery it certainly is not. I watched the film many many years ago but only retained an image of Sean Connery in a monk's habit, and a very young Christian Slater being seduced. I now know far more about medieval theology than is necessary for modern life, though it became strangely fascinating. For those of you who might be interested there is a very helpful website that translates the latin passages in the book, since no footnotes are provided.

We meet William and Adso as they arrive at the abbey, the purpose of their visit being a meeting with an envoy from the Pope, an attempt, it seems, to mend the breach with the Emperor. I confess I skim read the theology stuff to begin with because it did not seem relevant, but it soon became obvious that what was going on was linked to the machinations within the Catholic church; at the time pretty much everyone was accused by everyone else of being heretical, even the Pope himself. The dispute centres around the idea of Christ's poverty, whether he owned anything, whether monks should follow this example, and the Franciscan order who's approach to this issue becomes a direct confrontation with the wealth of the church. The Inquisition was very active and William himself had previously been an inquisitor. Life for the monks is a routine of offices from matins at 2.30am through to compline at 6pm, and the book's chapters chime the bells to mark the passage of time. The atmosphere of the story is very secretive, as is life at the abbey, as is the Catholic church. Even the vast library is not held to enable study and learning, it's contents are strictly controlled, all part of the feeling that knowledge is considered dangerous, even heretical itself. Here the abbot talking about the library in his first meeting with them:

"Only the librarian has, in addition to the knowledge, the right to move through the labyrinth of the books, he alone knows where to find them and where to replace them, he alone is responsible for their safekeeping. The other monks work in the scriptorium and may know the list of the volumes that the library houses. But a list of titles often tells very little; only the librarian knows, from the collocation of the volume, from its degree of inaccessibility, what secrets, what truths of 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 recognised as such by a pious soul; and the monks, finally, are in the scriptorium to carry out a precise task, which requires them to read certain volumes and not others, and not to pursue every foolish curiosity that seizes them, whether through weakness of intellect or through pride or through diabolic prompting." (p.37 Terce, The First Day)

Poor Brother Adelmo has already fallen to his death from the library before their arrival and the abbot asks William to investigate what is going on. Soon the monks are dropping like flies and everyone is watching and suspecting everyone else. William and Adso only make it to church a few times, and when they do it is more to observe the other brothers than to partake of the prayers, as the demands of their investigation forces them to discover how to invade the inner sanctum of the library itself. The books are revered, but at the same time I felt that they become a kind of symbol for the corruption of the church:

"It's pages crumble, its ink and gold turn dull, if too many hands touch it. I saw Pacific's of Tivoli, leafing through an ancient volume whose pages had become stuck together because of humidity. He moistened his thumb and forefinger with his tongue to leaf though his book, and at every touch of his saliva those pages lost vigour; opening them meant folding them, exposing them to the harsh action of the air and dust, which would erode the subtle wrinkles of the parchment and would produce mildew where the saliva had softened but also weakened the corner of the page. As an excess of sweetness makes the warrior flaccid and inept, this excess of possessive and curious love would make the book vulnerable to the disease destined to kill it." (p.185 Terce, The Third Day)

The atmosphere of the period is summed up I felt in this lovely list, containing all the flotsam and jetsam of society, this is what happened to you if you failed to fit in and conform, I didn't find it reassuring that there were so many options available:

"false monks, charlatans, swindlers, cheats, tramps and tatterdemalions, lepers and cripples, jugglers, invalid mercenaries, wandering Jews escaped from the infidels with their spirit broken, lunatics, fugitives under banishment, malefactors with an ear cut off, sodomites, and along with them ambulant artisans, weavers, tinkers, chair-menders, knife-grinders, basket-weavers, masons, and also rogues of every stripe, forgers, scoundrels, cardsharps, rascals, bullies, reprobates, recreants, frauds, hooligans, simoniacal and embezzling canons and priests, people who lived on the credulity of others, counterfeiters of bulls and papal seals, peddlers of indulgences, false paralytics who lay at church doors, vagrants fleeing from convents, relic-sellers, pardoners, soothsayers and fortunetellers, necromancers, healers, bogus alms-seekers, fornicators of every sort, corruptors of nuns and maidens by deception and violence, simulators of dropsy, epilepsy, haemorrhoids, gout, and sores, as well as melancholy madness." (p.189 Sext, The Third Day)

And then there is this lovely conversation:

" 'Oh as far as that goes,' Remigio said, 'a normal family down there has as much as fifty tablets of land.'
'How much is a tablet?'
'Four square trabucchi, of course.'
'Square trabucchi? How much are they?'
'Thirty-six square feet is a square trabucco. Or, if you prefer, eight hundred linear trabucchi make a Piedmont mile. And calculate that a family - in the lands of the north - can cultivate olives for at least half a sack of oil.'
'Half a sack?'
'Yes, one sack makes five emine, and one emina makes eight cups.'
'I see,' my master said, disheartened. 'Every locality has its own measures. Do you  measure wine, for example, by the tankard?'
'Or by the rubbio. Six rubbie makes one brenta, and eight brente, a keg. If you like, one rubbio is six pints from two tankards.'
'I believe my ideas are clear now,' William said, resigned." (p.269 Prime, The Fourth Day)

The delegation from the Pope arrives before they are able to get to the bottom of the mystery and following another murder where the perpetrator is apparently caught in the act several people are taken into custody and interrogated. William and Adso have to watch powerless as words and meanings are twisted to suit the purposes of the inquisitor. Here Bernard explains precisely the catch 22 situation, there is no way out, and no way to defend yourself or others from the persecutors:

"Heresy's supporters can be distinguished by five indications. First, there are those who visit heretics secretly when they are in prison; second, those who lament their capture and have been their intimate friends (it is, in fact, unlikely that one who has spend much time with a heretci remains ignorant of his activity); third, those who declare the heretics have been unjustly condemned, even when their guilt has been proved; fourth, those who look askance and criticise those who persecute heretics and preach against them successfully, and this can be discovered from the eyes, nose, the expression they try to conceal, showing hatred towards those for who they feel bitterness and love towards those whose misfortune so grieves them; the fifth sign, finally, is the fact that they collect the charred bones of burned heretics and make them an object of veneration ... But I attach great value to a sixth sign, and I consider open friends of heretics the authors of those books where (even if they do not openly offend orthodoxy) the heretics have found the premise with which to syllogise in their perverse way." (p.389-90 Nones, The Fifth Day)

Now we have another list, this one details the relics that are housed in the abbey's vaults. Is it just me or is there just a hint of mockery going on? :

"Then Nicholas showed us other things, and I could not describe them all, in their number and their rarity. There was, in a case of aquamarine, a nail of the cross. In an ampoule, lying on a cushion of little withered roses, there was a portion of the crown of thorns; and in another box, again on a blanket of dried flowers, a yellowed shred of the tablecloth from the last supper. And then there was the purse of Saint Matthew, of silver links; and in a cylinder, bound by a violet ribbon eaten by time and sealed with gold, a bone from Saint Anne's arm. I saw, wonder of wonders, under a glass bell, on a red cushion embroidered with pearly, a piece of the manger of Bethlehem, and a hand's length of the purple tunic of Saint John the Evangelist, two links of the chains that bound the ankles of the apostle Peter of Rome, the skull of Saint Adalbert, the sword of Saint Stephen, the tibia of Saint Margaret, a finger of Saint Vitalis, a rib of Saint Sophia, the chin of Saint Eobanus, the upper part of Saint Chrysostom's shoulder blade, the engagement ring of Saint Joseph, a tooth of the Baptist, Moses's rod, a tattered scrap of the very fine lace from the Virgin Mary's wedding dress." (p.423 Prime, The Sixth Day)

The infighting and jostling for positions of power within the abbey heats up as the events progress and by the time we neared the end I was even suspecting the abbot himself. Theological motivations become entangled with more personal vendettas, but the library is key, and William and Adso have to discover what is hidden in the inaccessible room at the centre of the labyrinth. The final showdown does not disappoint. I will leave you with this exchange between William and Adso, which only in retrospect becomes more prophetic:

"Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside the books. Now I realised that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.
'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 the 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.
'Not always and not necessarily. In this case it is.' " (p.286 Terce, The Fourth Day)

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