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Symbolism in The Name of The Rose and Piers The Ploughman

written by me on 5/9/2001 for my Medieval History class

Some symbols have become so commonplace that one does not necessarily think of the meaning held within it. A few letters do not always mean much to the learned man, but to the un-educated one, a few symbols and pictures can speak volumes. Symbols are still present in various aspects of our lives. From advertising logos to hazard warnings, many symbols are a near universal language. Use of symbols has been present in almost all forms of literature, whether a simple metaphor to describe how an object or person is behaving, or a highly detailed allusion, connecting one work to another in the past. Several symbols can be found in the two books, The Name of The Rose, by Umberto Eco, and in Piers The Ploughman, by William Langland. Both texts are laden with political, social, and economic critiques of medieval Europe. The Name of The Rose is a murder mystery set in a Franciscian abbey following a novice monk, Adso, and his tutor, William of Baskerville. Piers The Ploughman follows several characters, some human, while the rest are personalized versions of intangible forces that affected the average medieval European.

From beginning to end, The Name of The Rose contains a plethora of symbolic descriptions and actions. One section describes the front of the abbey, along with its door. Eco describes in great detail the flying buttresses of the church, along with the intricate carvings of the huge door, saying of the door, ”The silent speech of the carved stone, accessible as it immediately was to the gaze and the imagination of anyone (for images are the literature of the layman), dazzled my eyes and plunged me into a vision that even today my tongue can hardly describe.” Without knowledge of what was carved in this door, the pure awesomeness of it has come across. On top of this awesomeness, the door contained stern carvings of their majestic and imposing God, surrounded by four creatures, a man, an eagle, a bull and a lion, both with serpentine tails and great wings. In a triangular form around this were 24 thrones, for the 24 ancient beings. The doorway seems to show one depiction of heaven, with the omnipotent, omniscient God looking down on his people, with an unhappy look smitten across his face. The throne in the sky, combined with the majestic Seated One, represents God, proven further so by book in his left hand, halo behind his head, and purple tunic he wore, for purple cloth was a symbol for regality and, often, political power in Ancient Rome.

A door to a holy place should be adorned this way, with frightening, powerful creatures and the imposing God, for who better to protect an abbey than the most powerful being and his valiant fear-inducing creations. In a time of rampant heresy, and crazed inquisitors, seeking another victim more than a fair trial, a door like this was necessary to keep the imagined evil spirits away from the sanctuary of the Abbey. More than just spirits, it also sends a sense of seriousness to any mortal who cast eyes upon it, as it clearly did for Adso. One would not wonder in and cause great disturbances if one thought that a great and powerful being protected the place, and would strike back in some form if the place were disturbed.

The library was the most complex and secretive of all the parts of the Abbey. The passageway that led to it was also guarded by several threatening and fear inducing symbols. This was first noticed when William and Adso entered the ossarium to reach the library of the Abbey for the first time. The altar that guided the way was described, as “A series of Skulls with deep hollow eyesockets which filled those who looked at them with terror, set on a pile of what, in the admirable relief, appeared to be tibias.” The skulls and bones are obvious symbols of death, and therefore are a warning to all that would plan on entering. The ossarium itself held the corpses of long deceased monks rested in their eternal slumber. One might question whether continuing the current venture was worth it when surrounded by so much death.

The symbols within The Name of The Rose deal more than just with the protection of the Abbey, the labyrinthine library, or of the powerful knowledge contained inside. The abbot’s ring is a prime example of a symbol of power, and the superior status of the abbot, “The symbol of my authority, but also of my burden. It is not an ornament: it is a splendid syllogy of the divine word whose guardian I am.” This was not solely due to the expensiveness and splendorous beauty of it, but of the meaning each individual gem had attached. Each gemstone represented a different pious attribute and guardian saint. To different people, great jewelry can represent many things. Modern actors and actresses can rent out espensive designer assortments of gems for when they need to dress their best. In medieval times, jewelry represented class, power, and where one stood within their hierarchy. The abbot, presumably the only monk with a ring, and assuredly the only one with a ring of such magnificence, is easily recognized because of this.

The plot of The Name of The Rose is also symbolic. In the final day of the novel, it is clear that one man can be blinded by the search for the truth so much so that he will not stop at any means to see his goal accomplished. Jorge felt that his mission was to protect the populace of the monks from the evil created by the philosopher Aristotle, for fear that “This book could teach that freeing oneself of the fear of the evil is wisdom ... this book could teach learned men the clever and, from that moment, illustrious artifices that could legitimatize the reversal of laughter” However it seems that this book contained more than that, for Jorge wanted to keep it hidden so badly, even to the point of taking his own life to ensure that some knowledge is never learned of again.

Piers The Ploughman does not contain as much straight-foreward symbolism when compared to The Name of The Rose, but instead was more an allegory, promoting Piers as a model peasant, trying to keep the fraying feudal system intact. Piers, similar to Roland, from The Song of Roland, was a model for his class. However there was one big difference between the character of Piers and that of Roland. Roland was most likely used as a proper model for a warrior, save for his overbearing pride, and should be emulated. This as also the intent of Piers, a wise peasant who greatly valued work However, his imagine is instead turned by the peasants into a hero for rebellion, the complete opposite of the character’s intention! Langland created the character to coax the peasants back into accepting their social roles as they once had in earlier times. Suk goes on to mention that the character was probably skewed due to the preconceived notions of the peasants reading the literature.

Another object of this text is to warm the peasants’ feelings towards the church. Langland starts this off simply and bluntly by having an angel come down and speak on behalf of the peasants, who most likely only would have known the tongue of their homeland, and did not know the universally revered Latin. The angel speaking helps to reinforce the fact that heaven cares for them, even if they did not care for heaven, that the peasants have a protector. It continued, mentioning that they should trust the church and it’s dealings for the church represents that heaven that cares for them.

Medieval Europe was a time where many different languages existed among many illiterate people. A symbol would be the easiest form of universal communication. The letters we use are nothing more than symbols themselves, even if they are not as eloquent as the Abbey's door.


Endnotes:

The Name Of The Rose, Umberto Eco, page 41
ibid, Page 160
ibid, page 447
ibid, page 474
Diana V. C. Suk, http://www.chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/sukonpp.html

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