Western Civilization


Fall 2011

The Name of the Rose


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A Monk Shall Not Laugh.

-Jorge de Borgos, Librarian of the Abbey



This week we will be watching Jean-Jacques Arnnaud 1986 film The Name of the Rose, based on the 1980 novel by Italian author Umberto Eco (personal website). While this will, Im sure, provide a welcome change of pace from the normal routine, my goal in showing it to you is above all to have you engage a variety of issues from the middle ages. Indeed, this film can only truly be understood if you have some knowledge of medieval history – yet another reason why taking a Western Civ course is so useful.


Here is a very quick summary of the film:  In 1327, William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk played by Sean Connery arrives at a wealthy Italian monastery.  He went to take part in a theological debate that would be attended by a papal delegation.  At issue in this debate was the question of Did Christ own the clothes he wore?  This is important, because the ideal of poverty has been embraced by the order of the Franciscans.  The result of this debate might lead the Franciscans to be condemned as heretics.  But when William arrives, he learns that a monk who worked in the scriptorium has recently been murdered.  He begins an investigation to find out why, and uses the tools of logic and reason to find the truth.  That is important, as it signals an important change in medieval intellectual life.  But during his investigation, more monks begin to die.  Someone in the monastery has something to hide, and will stop at nothing to keep it hidden. 


In addition to providing what I hope will be an entertaining mystery, this film also tries to recreate life in a medieval monastery — including both its most holy and its less savory, more corrupt sides.  It also hits upon some of the dominant intellectual, theological, and even political issues that shaped medieval Christianity and the Church.  Finally, it highlights the problematic relationship between monasteries and the Church on the one hand, and peasants on the other. 


As you watch the mystery unfold, you should also consider how the film presents medieval understandings of knowledge and truth.


      What, for the monks of the monastery and indeed most Christians of the age, is the nature of truth. How is the truth of something, especially something that is hard to explain, established?


      How does the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, played by Sean Connery, challenge this understanding of truth and even notions of the sources of good and evil? What intellectual and philosophical developments of the high middle ages does William represent? And why is his method of finding truth potentially so threatening to some?

      Why is the abbot so worried about the murder in his monastery?  What does he fear?

      How does William go about trying to solve the murder?  What is his primary guide?  And why is his method, based on reason, logic, and ultimately Aristotle, in itself so important in this period?


      What is the job of the monks in the scriptorium?  How is their relationship to books different from Williams? 


      Why is Jorge de Burgos, the old blind mink, so suspicious of him?  Why wont he let William in the library?  What theological tradition does Jorge represent?  And why does he think Aristotle is so dangerous?



Some other questions to think about while you watch the film:


      How well does the film recreate the setting of a medieval monastery and the medieval age in general? What popular conceptions of the medieval period does it draw on to create a compelling, interesting setting?


      How are the Benedictine monks portrayed? How are the Franciscan monks portrayed? Who is the audience supposed to find more sympathetic?

      What role does Bernardo Gui play?  What does his character suggest about the nature of the medieval Church?  An intellect to be reckoned with, how does he argue his point?


      How is does the monastery and its library at once preserve and protect books an the secular knowledge they contain while at the same time preventing them from becoming tools of further learning? What explains this particular relationship to books and knowledge?


      What theological question is being debated at the monastery? Why is it so important to the Church? (Keep in mind that the story is set in 1327 and the pope lives in this palace in Avigon.)


      Who were the Dolcinites? What role do they and the Inquisition play in this film?


      How are peasants portrayed in the film and what role do they play? What is the film suggesting about the relationship of the Church to the poor masses of common people?


      There are a few references to women in the film. What do they tell us about the medieval conception of woman?


Below are some terms with links to Wikipedia articles. Knowing a little about them will deepen your understanding of the film. The Wikipedia articles provide a good starting point.


      Benedictine Order

      Franciscan Order

      Ubertino of Casale


      Medieval Inquisition

      William of Ockham (Occams Razor)

      Thomas Aquinas

      Aristotles Poetics

      Ibn Hazm (briefly mentioned, probably to suggest Islamic scholars contribution to Western thought)

      Avignon Papacy

      Dolcinian Heresy (Fra Dolcino)

      Bernardo Gui