On an unspecified date presumably around early December of 1327 — the timeframe is approximated by action’s story’s commencing on “a beautiful morning at the end of November” — the Inquisition burns the nameless peasant lover of the narrator in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.
Adso of Melk is apprenticed to the scientific-minded William of Baskerville — a deliberate allusion to Sherlock Holmes — when the monk is dispatched to an Italian monastery to sniff about for heresy.
The Name of the Rose unfolds a labyrinthine murder mystery around a literal labyrinth (a maze-like library) as William and Adso fight crime and the superstitious dogmatism of the Church. Well … William fights these things. Young Adso mostly comes along for the ride and keeps the action signposted for the reader with his cluelessness.
As a teenage boy, Adso has his own demons to confront.
During their short stay at the monastery, Adso has a chance, and scorching, sexual encounter with a peasant girl from the lands owned by the monks. This subplot intersects with a relentless Inquisitor — the real-life historical figure Bernard Gui* — in pursuit of refugee Dolcinians and other heretical types who were actually running around northern Italy at this time.
The long and short of it is that the girl is condemned to the stake as a sorceress on ridiculous circumstantial evidence that the reason-favoring duo is in no position to repel, and that Gui is eager to trump up further to politically muscling Dolcinian-friendly monks.
The very watchable 1986 cinematic adaptation of the novel, starring Sean Connery as Brother William and Christian Slater as Adso, takes some liberties with Eco’s text on the matter of the girl.
In the novel, her execution happens “off-camera” but with a numbing certitude; it’s an evil in the world that no protagonist can prevent, and Adso just has to get used to the idea.
I was tempted to follow her … William, grim, restrained me. “Be still, fool,” he said. “The girl is lost; she is burnt flesh.”
Directly after convicting the girl for witchcraft, and nabbing two heretical monks in the process, Gui departs the convent towards the papacy’s then-residence at Avignon for a gratifying show trial. The monks are the real prize; Brother William prophesies that the girl
will be burned beforehand, along the way, to the edification of some Catharist village along the coast. I have heard it said that Bernard is to meet his colleague Jacques Fournier (remember that name: for the present he is burning Albigensians, but he has higher ambitions), and a beautiful witch to throw on the fire will increase the prestige and the fame of both.
The smitten Adso is heartbroken over this cruelty.
“So the cellarer was right: the simple folk always pay for all, even for those who speak in their favor … who with their words of penance have driven the simple to rebel!”
The only sure thing was that the girl would be burned. And I felt responsible, because it was as if she would also expiate on the pyre the sin I had committed with her.
I burst shamefully into sobs and fled to my cell, where all through the night I chewed my pallet and moaned helplessly, for I was not even allowed — as they did in the romances of chivalry I had read with my companions at Melk — to lament and call out the beloved’s name.
This was the only earthly love of my life, and I could not, then or ever after, call that love by name.
The film indulges a happier and very implausible fate for Adso’s hot little number: in this version, the executions take place on-site at the monastery, and other peasants riot, murder the Inquisitor, and free our oblate’s muse. Hey, in a work that’s all about faith, why not a little deus ex machina?
Warning: Spoilers The Name of the Rose is a detective story, and the clips below intercut the execution scene with the mystery’s big reveal. Don’t watch them if you want to approach the film or the book without knowing how it all plays out.
The movie’s softhearted approach has the benefit of allowing a more cinematic and literal presentation of Adso’s choice between the life of the mind/soul and the life of the flesh. The clip below is spoiler-safe, since you already know which one he chooses.
To geek out on this book’s complex tapestry of allusions, you could do worse than this archived study guide.