I’m well off the pace of Freddie’s book club, but I’ve been meaning to write something about The Name of the Rose for some time now. Below, you’ll find a few half-formed thoughts on Brother William of Baskervilles. Comments from anyone reading along are very welcome.
I can appreciate some of the challenges faced by the author of a novel like The Name of the Rose: In addition to plot, characters, and any larger themes, Eco has to recreate a historical setting that feels authentic* and reasonably comprehensible to a modern audience. For the most part, I think the book is wildly successful at this task. But I’m occasionally jolted out of Eco’s meticulously crafted setting by the investigations of Brother William of Baskervilles, whose intellectual approach sometimes comes across as a little too modern (for lack of a better word).
I don’t think William’s intellectual acuity or deductive prowess are at odds with the historical context, but the sum total of his actual views seem a little out of place. His position on doctrinal heresy, for example, is just about what you’d expect from a modern intellectual caught up in the ambiguities of Scripture: various theological disputes are an understandable consequence of well-meaning men grappling with God’s teachings, not dangerous heresies. William also vocally expresses reservations about the efficacy and morality of the Inquisition. And when he meets with the Abbot before the Monastery’s lavishly decorated altar, his gentle skepticism of pomp and circumstance suggests an almost Protestant religious sensibility.
William’s reaction to Brother Berengar’s encounter with a “ghost” is also telling. Adso is appropriately credulous, but William immediately discounts the possibility of supernatural intervention and proceeds to explain away the incident in physical terms. As always, his logic is compelling, but it strikes me as odd that a Medieval monk steeped in the mysteries of the Christian faith would dismiss the possibility of a supernatural encounter out of hand.
Taken individually, Brother William’s idiosyncratic views are perhaps understandable or plausibly explained-away. But a comprehensive accounting of William’s beliefs suggests a man out of place in his own time: we’re talking about a repentant former inquisitor who anticipates the invention of cars and airplanes, goes to great lengths to defend the legitimacy of doctrinal differences, and is often set against a pompous, unreflecting Abbot or the reactionary Brother Jorge.
Part of this has to do with the difficulty of writing about European history in a way that distinguishes us from our predecessors without disavowing the very real sense of continuity and intellectual inheritance. An educated clergyman like Brother William should feel at least somewhat familiar to a modern audience – he is, after all, our intellectual and spiritual antecedent. But if a character becomes too familiar, the audience is (sometimes abruptly) reminded that this is a modern work of fiction, not the medieval manuscript Eco purportedly stumbled upon all those years ago. We’re also cheated of the challenge of identifying with someone whose worldview is substantially different from our own. William of Baskervilles is a fascinating character. The Name of the Rose does a wonderful job of creating a fully-realized vision of a Medieval monastery. But every few pages, I remember that this is a modern novel, not some unearthed medieval record.
*I replaced “is” with “feels” at the last minute because it’s entirely possible that my preconceptions about Medieval Europe are at odds with the actual historical record. At his personal blog, William Brafford linked to a great article on the intellectual dynamism of Europe during the High Middle Ages. So perhaps Brother William was a lot closer to us than we realize after all.