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Laughter, Doubt and Fear in 'The Name of the Rose'

Humor as an instrument of truth in the hands of the "enemies" of faith.


«And yet, Aristotle devoted his second book of Poetics to comedy as an instrument of truth». [LPDS/Wombo Art]

The Name of the Rose is a best-selling novel by the Italian writer Umberto Eco, which in 1986 was successfully made into a film. Broadly speaking, it is a mystery story set in the 14th century in which a Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, goes with his disciple Adso to an abbey in Italy with the aim of trying to solve a series of crimes that are taking place in it. Although the book is absolutely recommended, the film also includes some devastating messages when it comes to addressing concepts such as faith, knowledge and fear, and their perverse and effective combination to maintain control over human beings.

The Laughter

One of those pills occurs when both protagonists visit the abbey scriptorium to investigate the latest death under strange circumstances. That of a monk who, through his miniatures, had left curious messages in the book he was working on before his tragic end. Fr. William, equipped with magnifying lenses -oculi de vitro cum capsula-, can thus account for some illustrations where mockery is used by the author to secretly express his opinion on the ecclesiastical hierarchy, giving rise to the following dialogue with one of the oldest friars of the abbey, who bursts onto the scene angrily...

— A donkey teaching the Scriptures to the bishops. The pope as a fox. And the abbot as a monkey. He really had a daring talent for comic images.

Verba vana aut risui apta non loqui. I trust my words didn't offend you Brother William, but I heard the persons laughing at laughable things. You, Franciscans, however, belong to an Order where merriment is viewed with indulgence.

— Yes, it's true. Saint Francis was much disposed to laughter.

— Laughter is a devilish wind which deforms the lineaments of the face and makes men look like monkeys.

— Monkeys do not laugh. Laughter is particular to man.

— As a sin. Christ never laughed.

— Can we be so sure?

— There is nothing in the Scriptures to say that He did.

— And there's nothing there to say that He did not. Even the saints have been known to employ comedy to ridicule the enemies of the faith. For example, when the pagans plunged Saint Maurus into the boiling water, he complained that his bath was cold. The Sultan put his hand in and scalded himself.

— A saint immersed in boiling water does not play childish tricks. He restrains his cries and suffers for the truth.

— And yet, Aristotle devoted his second book of Poetics to comedy as an instrument of truth.

— You have read this work?

— No, of course not. It's been lost for many centuries.

— No, it is not! It was never written! Because Providence doesn't want futile things glorified.

— Oh, that I must contest...

— Enough! This abbey is overshadowed by grief. Yet you would intrude on our sorrow with idle banter!

— Forgive me, Venerable Jorge. My remarks were truly out of place.

The Doubt

In another memorable scene from the film, William and Adso manage to access a hidden place in the abbey for most of its inhabitants, where a treasure of incalculable value is hidden. The friar's hunch and surprise merge in an explosion of joy at such a discovery...

— Adso, do you realize? We're in one of the greatest libraries in the whole of Christendom.

— How are we going to find the book?

— In time... Oh, The Beatus of Liébana. That, Adso, is a masterpiece... and this is the version annotated by Umberto da Bologna. How many more rooms?! How many more books?! No one should be forbidden to consult these books.

— Perhaps they're thought to be too precious, too fragile...

— No, it's not that, Adso. It's because they often contain a wisdom that's different from ours and ideas that could encourage us to doubt the infallibility of the word of God... And doubt, Adso, is the enemy of faith.

The Fear

Immersed in the labyrinthine library that he has just discovered, Fr. William and his disciple come across Brother Jorge again, who jealously guards the works found there, especially the second book of Poetics by Aristotle, about which William has shown a special interest in its pages...

— Venerable brother, there are many books that speak of comedy. Why does this one fill you with such fear?

— Because it's by Aristotle.

— But what is so alarming about laughter?

— Laughter kills fear and without fear there can't be any faith. Because without fear of the devil... there is no more need of God.

— But you will not eliminate laughter by eliminating that book.

— No, to be sure. Laughter will remain the common man's recreation, but what would happen if because of this book learned men work to pronounce it permissible to laugh at everything? Can we laugh at God? The world would relapse into chaos. Therefore, I seal that which was not to be said in the tomb I become.