Medieval Monastic Mysteries

This article uses two modern-day murder mysteries set in the Middle Ages to explore a fundamental intellectual shift that took place at that time and laid the foundations for the current cultural crisis of the West. These mysteries are Ellis Peters’s The Cadfael Chronicles and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The first is a prize-winning series that follows a familiar crime mystery formula; the various Chronicles end always with a solution to the crime, the imposition of justice, and a return to a reassuring, ordered world. The Name of the Rose seems at first to follow this path, albeit with a thick veneer of scholastic learning, but at the end we discover that all is not as it seems and that it is not really a mystery at all. But what is it then? Well, that is a mystery all of its own, with frightening implications for our understanding of the world, as we will see.

To begin with, we require some historical context that also introduces some essential themes. It was November 25, 1120, on the French coast, and Captain FitzStephen was beside himself with excitement. King Henry I and his enormous entourage were about to set sail from Barfleur in Normandy to return to England. The captain’s father had been the skipper of the ship that had carried Henry’s father, William the Conqueror, when he invaded England in 1066, and now FitzStephen begged an audience with King Henry. His own vessel, the White Ship, had been recently refitted, and FitzStephen thought it the perfect craft to carry Henry and his royal party across the Channel. This would allow them all to repeat history, commemorate the earlier epic voyage, and allow FitzStephen to emulate his legendary father. What a triumph it would be!

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Sadly, Henry had already arranged to take another ship, but he allowed many in his retinue to board the White Ship. These included his heir, William Adelin; his illegitimate son Richard of Lincoln; his illegitimate daughter Matilda FitzRoy, Countess of Perche; and many other nobles. Soon there was a festive air and Captain FitzStephen basked in the reflected glory as he began plotting the voyage across the Channel.

It was evening and getting dark; all the better to use the stars for navigation. The jolly mood on board was infecting everyone, and when the crew asked William Adelin if they could sample the wine being enjoyed by his party he saw no reason to refuse. Soon everyone was partaking in great abundance and becoming very uninhibited, even sending away the priests who had arrived to provide the usual benediction. As the time arrived to weigh anchor there were about 300 people on board. Only some saw the trouble brewing and judged discretion to be the better part of valour, returning ashore to join the increasingly apprehensive priests. One of those to disembark was the king’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, apparently overcome by a sudden bout of illness, but destined by that act to play a major role in history.

And so they set out to sea, with the King’s ship well ahead, already making good time. Soon, bravado and a spirit of competition surged forth, and the young royal revellers ordered FitzStephen to go after the King, and make a race of it. After all, the White Ship was renowned for its speed, especially after its refit, and the captain and crew were confident they could reach England first.

It was not to be. Shortly after they left harbour, the White Ship hit a submerged rock on its port side, cracking the hull. Soon it was sinking and capsizing. Water poured in, barrelling over the drunken revellers, now delivered from tipsiness to tragedy. Flailing about in the cold wet churning darkness they were consumed by terror. The royal heir, William Adelin, was able to board a small boat and the crew began desperately to row away from the doomed vessel. Escape and survival were within reach. But then the prince heard the agonised cries of his half-sister, Matilda, and they turned back to save her.

Almost immediately, desperate, clutching hands reached up out of the inky water, grasping and grabbing at the boat’s sides; arms and elbows appeared as people struggled frantically to climb aboard. Looming up from the wet darkness were ashen-white, wide-eyed, panic-stricken faces; they were the last thing William saw as the boat and all aboard were dragged down into the depths.

The White Ship had been engulfed by the black, midnight waters. Everyone but a butcher from Rouen drowned—all 300 people. When Captain FitzStephen had surfaced and realised the scale of the calamity, he embraced his fate and sank into the sea rather than face the King.

Henry was devastated and never got over the tragic loss of William, his only legitimate son and heir. Neither did his realm. His dilemma was this: his surviving male children were illegitimate, and therefore unacceptable as his heirs; his one legitimate heir was his second daughter, another Matilda, but a woman had never ruled in England in her own right and was also unacceptable to the powerful barons. At first, the problem seemed soluble as Henry remarried and awaited the appearance of some male heirs. Meanwhile, Matilda married the Holy Roman Emperor and assumed the title of Empress Maud (as she was commonly known, helpfully distinguishing her from all the other Matildas around at the time).

Years passed and it all came to a head as Henry entered his twilight years. The required male heirs had failed to materialise, and the Empress (as she insisted on being called) had made herself even more unpopular by taking as her second husband Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou, a traditional enemy of England’s ruling class. Upon Henry’s death in 1135, the English ruling class were reluctant to accept Matilda/Maud as queen, even though Henry I had forced them to swear an oath to support her as his rightful heir. They looked around for an alternative, and Stephen of Blois (he who had not joined the party on the White Ship) seized the opportunity and the Royal Treasury, declaring himself King. In response, those loyal to Henry’s wishes gathered their forces behind the Empress Maud and Geoffrey of Anjou and prepared for civil war. Both sides were prepared to fight to the bitter end.

This then seemed to be the ultimate result of the White Ship disaster and the death of William Adelin: a devastating period of political and military chaos known as the Anarchy, which raged across England between 1135 and 1153, dragging in the Welsh and the Scots, spilling over into France, and tearing English society apart.

Ultimately the conflict was resolved after Empress Maud left for Normandy, which her husband had conquered, and left the matter in the hands of her son, Henry FitzEmpress. The contending sides exhausted themselves in war and a peace was negotiated: Stephen would remain King but recognise Henry as his heir. And when Stephen died the next year, Henry duly ascended the throne as Henry II, the first Plantagenet king of England, future husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and father of three English kings: Henry the Young King, Richard the Lionheart, and John; as well as Queen Eleanor of Castile, and Queen Joan of Sicily.

Contemporary chronicles described the Anarchy as a time when “Christ and his saints were asleep”, so terrible were the death, disruption and destruction. This tumultuous period, around 1140, provided the historical setting for the adventures of a fictional Benedictine monk, Brother Cadfael, the protagonist in The Cadfael Chronicles (1977 to 1994), a series of twenty well researched, award-winning, historical murder mysteries written by Edith Pargeter, an English linguist and scholar, writing under the name “Ellis Peters”.

A former soldier, Cadfael was late coming to his vocation, but had found a home at the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in Shrewsbury, near the Welsh border. There he pursued his calling as a world-weary elderly monk, herbalist, match-maker, medieval medical examiner, voice of reason and indefatigable amateur detective. In The Devil’s Novice, Cadfael describes his life:

I have seen death in many shapes; I’ve been a soldier and a sailor in my time; in the east, in the Crusade, and for ten years after Jerusalem fell. I’ve seen men killed in battle. Come to that, I’ve killed men in battle. I never took joy in it … but I never drew back from it either … I was with Robert of Normandy’s company and a mongrel lot we were, Britons, Normans, Flemings, Scots, Bretons—name them, they were there! After Jerusalem was settled and Baldwin crowned, most of us went home … but I had taken to the sea by then, and I stayed. There were pirates ranging those coasts [and] we always had work to do. But then it was time. I had had my way in the world. Now I grow herbs and dry them and make remedies for all the ills that visit us … To heal men, after years of injuring them. What could be more fitting? A man does what he must do.

Cadfael is presented as a wise and intelligent “everyman” who has experienced much that the world has to offer, and especially the First Crusade, an epoch-shaping event of chaos and violence in which he tells us he was involved and from which he has retreated into the cloister. Now there were walls, a rigorously enforced morality, and a rudimentary legal system that functioned to keep the surrounding chaos out of his little community. There he acted time and again as the “justice figure” identified by scholars of crime fiction as the protagonist who applies reason and good sense to solve the crimes that threaten to upset the order and let the chaos in. At first sight, this seems to be the same role played by the chief protagonist in The Name of the Rose (1980) a best-selling, multiple-prize-winning novel by Umberto Eco, to which we now turn.

It is now winter, 1327. Approaching an isolated Benedictine monastery in northern Italy is the esteemed Franciscan friar William of Baskerville. With him is his protégé, Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice who narrates The Name of the Rose, and describes the strange events spread across the next seven days. They are at the monastery to attend a vital ecclesiastical disputation, seeking to resolve a crucial theological disagreement between Pope John XXII and the Franciscans, who have been accused of heresy over their views about the poverty of Jesus (and vast chunks of the book are virtual transcripts of such disputations). The matter is crucial, as extremists propelled by such ideas have taken to murdering the wealthy as they implement their radical theology.

Upon their arrival they learn that the monastery is in uproar over the death of a revered illuminator in the scriptorium. This was the great room devoted to the copying, writing and illuminating of manuscripts, which are then sold or stored in the monastery’s vast library. Because he once served as an inquisitor, William is asked by the abbot to investigate the death. There is growing fear that the Evil One is at large in the previously tranquil monastic community, and that such sinister events foretell the approach of the Apocalypse.

Indeed, a series of murders does then begin, and it seems that the explanation for the crimes may lie in the scriptorium and the library. William is surprised to learn that he, along with everyone else, apart from the head librarian, is prohibited from entering the library, which was designed as a labyrinth to deter or trap unwelcome visitors. Nevertheless, he and Adso sneak in and discover a hidden room obscured by a mirror door. However, they are unable to enter before they are disturbed by someone who escapes with an important book and mysterious notes they had found.

The next day, William continues his investigations and the increasingly bizarre deaths begin to mount. There appears to be a pattern linked by three common factors: the victims had all been associated with a mysterious Greek text; all had black stains on their tongues and fingers; and their modes of demise seemed to echo the scheme of events described in the biblical Book of the Apocalypse.

As he continues his inquiries, William falls into an impromptu debate with the Venerable Jorge of Burgos, a learned but blind and irascible elderly monk. The issue is the nature and value of laughter and humour, and especially its theological implications. The encounter becomes intense and reference is made to a legendary tome, Aristotle’s lost book on comedy, at which point Jorge denounces the entire discussion and storms off. Adso returns alone to the library, but upon leaving he is accosted and seduced by a peasant girl, with whom he has his first sexual encounter.

William learns that Salvatore of Montferrat and Remigio of Varagine, two monks who work in the monastery cellars, were Fraticelli, radicals previously involved with the dreaded Dulcinian heretics.

It seems to William that the first death and subsequent murders arose from attempts to cover up a series of homosexual relationships. However, they also seem to be linked by apocalyptic motifs, but before he can resolve the case, the fearsome Senior Inquisitor, Bernard Gui, arrives at the monastery. He is there for the theological disputation but immediately takes over the investigation. Presently, he disturbs Salvatore in a compromising situation with the peasant girl, who was exchanging her favours for food. Gui has both of them arrested, denounces the girl as a witch, and intimidates Salvatore into admitting his heretical past as well as confessing (falsely) to the murders. Remigio is then similarly implicated and all three are condemned to be burnt at the stake.

While all this has been happening, the delegation of Franciscan monks arrives and begins to prepare for the disputation, which could well determine the future of their order and even their own lives. Increasingly anxious, they beseech their fellow Franciscan, William, to be very careful and not to fall into the clutches of Gui, who is his mortal enemy. Gui soon accuses William of being party to the crimes. By the time the opposing delegation of Dominicans arrives and the disputation begins, the monastery has descended into chaos and hysteria. Seizing the moment, Jorge inflames the situation with an impassioned sermon about the coming of the Antichrist and the looming Apocalypse.

Events now rush forward to the story’s denouement. The murders continue, despite the alleged perpetrators being in custody and about to be executed. Amidst the panic, William seizes the chance to enter the library, find the missing book, and solve the case. Once there, he confronts the fiendish mastermind behind the entire Byzantine plot.

Meanwhile, outside at the base of the monastery, the burnings are about to take place. Gui makes half-hearted offers of clemency to the two heretics if they repudiate their deviant views, while the girl, condemned as a witch, awaits her fate tied to the stake. Denouncing their refusal to repent as proof of their guilt, Gui orders the fires be lit.

Back inside the library the chief villain gleefully reveals his motivations and claims to be acting according to a divine plan. He even grants William’s request to see Aristotle’s work on comedy, possibly the only copy in existence. As William inspects the beautifully presented and priceless tome, he seems to piece together the sequence of the crimes and the reasons behind them. He also reveals to the villain that he is wise to his murderous methods. At this, the villain seizes back the book, begins to destroy it, throws down a lantern to start a fire, and plunges headlong into the growing inferno.

Outside, the sudden blaze breaking out above startles the crowd that is building up around the executions. This now includes a mob of surly peasants outraged by the intended execution of the girl. As the flames begin to envelop the victims, the frantic monks run off to combat the fire, leaving Gui and his entourage at the mercy of the mob. Despite the desperate efforts of the monks and William and Adso, they are unable to stop the fire. Devastated, they are forced to watch as the library and all its irreplaceable books and manuscripts are destroyed in a conflagration that threatens to devour the entire monastery, vindicating the Venerable Jorge’s warnings of the coming End of Days.

Years later, a now aged Adso returns to the ruins of the library. He salvages a few remaining books and fragments from amongst the ashes, and it is from these that he pieces together the story he has just related to us. He also muses upon the time he spent with William and the many things he learned from him before they parted ways. Perhaps also he reflects upon the passionate girl he encountered: she was his only earthly love, but he never even knew her name. It seems the story is over; however, there is a lot more to it than this.

To this point, readers have been carried along through a long engrossing novel, full of well-realised characters, vivid scenes and a complex plot, but now we return to the base of the abbey, as the fires gradually consume the great edifice. Confused and disconsolate, William and Adso have escaped the flames, but William is devastated at the loss of the vast library: Aristotle’s vital tome and many other priceless manuscripts have perished. “It was the greatest library in Christendom,” he laments. “Now the Antichrist is truly at hand, because no learning will hinder him any more.”

Despair finally overwhelms William, and right at the end the novel takes a strange direction. When Adso reminds him that he should take heart because he uncovered the plot, William responds: “There was no plot, and I discovered it by mistake.”

Adso is dumbfounded at this apparently self-contradictory claim. In response, he recounts the many discoveries about the murders that Willian had made, and adds, “I could go on listing all the true things you discovered with the help of your learning”.

Yes, William concedes, I did do all that and I did piece together a fiendish, indeed apocalyptic plot, at the centre of which stood our chief villain. I did link many causes to many effects many times over, establishing a diabolical pattern that revealed the intricate order of evil intent that lay beneath the crimes that ultimately destroyed the monastery.

But, he laments, none of it was real! William waits for his words to sink in. There was no pattern, he explains, no plot, all of the events spun off on their own, “creating relations that did not stem from any plan”, and forming what was only an impression of a pattern. “Where is my wisdom then?” he asks. “I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe.”

Adso is dumbfounded at this shocking, indeed blasphemous, assertion. Surely, he protests, if there is no order to the universe then there is no place for God! And if so, is there also no place for scholars like William who purport to discern God’s plan?

William thinks about this, gazing intently at his young companion. Finally he replies: “How could a learned man go on … if he answered yes to your question?”

What did this mean, thinks Adso: that if there is no God or order in the universe then there is nothing for scholars to discover? Or must scholars pretend God and order exist in order to justify themselves?

Before William can explain, the tumult of the world intrudes: “There is too much confusion here,” he complains, remarking enigmatically: “Non in commotione non in commotione Dominus.” (Not in confusion, not in confusion, is the Lord.)

Amid that confusion, and with no further discussion, they wander off and William leaves the tale forever.

Suddenly, readers find themselves left alone in this confusion. Clearly, William of Baskerville is not, after all, the same sort of adroit amateur detective as Brother Cadfael: clear-headed, methodical, bringing justice and restoring order. But Cadfael enjoyed an entirely different world—it was not apocalyptic or riddled with mass hysteria; and the motivations of the guilty parties he dealt with were invariably mundane and concerned with greed, lust, anger, jealousy and so on. Cadfael solved mysteries through exemplary clear thinking, common sense, careful observation and attention to detail. And through his efforts justice was served, the guilty punished, the innocent vindicated, young lovers united, the torn social fabric repaired, and the reassuring order of his little community reasserted.

On the surface, such qualities initially seemed also to apply to William throughout almost all of The Name of the Rose, as the reader was carried along by the narrative. But then, right at the end, as we’ve seen, William reveals a deep disillusionment with such investigative methods—qualities common, of course, to all fictional detectives. He condemns himself for seeing complex patterns and intricate plots where none existed. It dawns on attentive readers of The Name of the Rose that they have been deliberately led astray, bamboozled, and drawn into an apparently fiendishly clever murder mystery plot that isn’t there!

What then is the 600-page novel all about? Is the author, Umberto Eco, just using the detective mystery format to make a philosophical point? It seems the answer lies in the name of his protagonist. He is William of Baskerville, and therefore many readers will see the allusion to Sherlock Holmes and his most famous mystery, The Hound of the Baskervilles. This leads them to think they are being invited into a traditional murder mystery. (This is how the makers of the film version of The Name of the Rose approached it, leaving out all the philosophy and almost all the theological disputations.)

But there is another William, also an Englishman, who was active at the time the story was set. This is William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), a Franciscan philosopher and theologian. This William was also a disputant of enormous power, and he set out to defend the Order’s radical view about ownership and poverty against the strictures of Pope John XXII. In 1323, John declared that the Franciscan’s convenient distinction between the ownership of things and the unrestricted right to use them was bogus. Not only that, it was simply not true that Jesus and the Disciples had never owned anything—an assertion that struck at the heart of Franciscan teachings. In response, William declared not only that the Pope was wrong; he was in fact a heretic! Unsurprisingly, this outraged the Pope; he excommunicated William and pursued him across Europe, even threatening to burn down the city of Tournay unless its citizens caught William and handed him over.

This William was made famous by the philosophical principle known as “Ockham’s Razor” (“Complexity must not be posited without necessity”). According to this principle, in seeking the solution to any problem, those explanations are to be preferred that are the simplest. It is to this rule that William of Baskerville alludes when he breaks down at the end and laments to Adso that he needlessly multiplied causes and effects, devised intricate patterns that were mere phantoms, and saw a dastardly plot where none in fact existed. As the tale reveals at the end, there was no pre-ordained apocalypse, no devilish plan, no logic to events, and no order—there was only madness, chaos and desperate men flailing about.

But William of Ockham made another major contribution to the mental world of Western Europe 700 years ago, one that has lived through to the present time. This is the philosophy of Nominalism, and it is to an extreme version of this philosophy that the fictional William gives expression in his final nihilistic lamentation. Nominalism drove a stake right through the heart of the confident Rationalism of St Thomas Aquinas and the other great Scholastics. They had been sure that Reason proved the existence of God, the Truth of the Christian religion, and the divinely ordered nature of the world. Ockham swept away that certainty; from then on, believers could rely only on Faith as the bedrock of their religion. And along with God, there also went the divinely ordered universe; suddenly, human beings were exposed to the chaos that underlies their world. It is this frightening realisation that William discloses to Adso at the end of the novel, as they watch the abbey and its great library burn, destroying forever the wisdom of ages.

Finally, let’s return to the White Ship and the world Brother Cadfael inhabited. It was, of course, the time of the Anarchy, when “Christ and his saints were asleep”, and God was absent from the world; order dissolved and chaos reigned—the type of world our two Williams believe lies threateningly just below the surface of everyday reality. But there was a deeper disorder, and it had its roots on the wharf at Barfleur in Normandy. It was at that point that King Henry I agreed to let his son and heir, William Adelin, and his other children set sail on the White Ship, with the chaotic consequences described above. The sea symbolises chaos in all mythologies, and chaos asserted its primacy that night.

And it was not only the Anarchy and Cadfael’s world that flowed from that tragedy; it was all the history that followed: the reign of Henry II, his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Angevin empire, the Plantagenets, Richard the Lionheart, the Third Crusade, the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc and many centuries of English and French history. Without that fateful decision on the wharf all that history would simply evaporate, as the plot did in The Name of the Rose. That seems to be the type of grim mystery Eco seeks to expose: the utter contingency and chaos of events, hidden beneath an illusion of order imposed by the innumerable narratives humanity constructs to keep this terrible realisation at bay.

Umberto Eco was fixated on this thought. One of the leading post-structuralist and postmodernist theorists of the past century, and heir to the nihilism introduced into Western civilisation by William of Ockham, he took delight in using these theories to construct enormously complex, engrossing, but ultimately self-consuming narratives like The Name of the Rose and his later novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. Dissolving themselves into nothing in the final act, such works are parables of nihilism that pretend to disclose the true nature of the human condition. They bask in their cleverness but really just betray the ultimate vacuity of a contemporary intellectual world that will leave nothing behind it but ashes to be picked over by some future Adso, as he seeks forensically to make sense of the mental cataclysm of our time.

Mervyn Bendle is the author of Anzac and its Enemies: The History War on Australia’s National Identity (Quadrant Books, 2015). He wrote a series of reflections on Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation on Quadrant Online in 2020

3 thoughts on “Medieval Monastic Mysteries

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    I enjoyed the original James Bond as William of Baskerville in “The Name of the Rose”. I also enjoyed Mervyn’s dissertation here. But more than that is the fabulous history that makes up our past and the equally fabulous people that inhabited it. Where are the Cleopatras and Julius Caesars of our time? We have world changing events in spades but the only Caesar type lately has been President Trump who took on the status quo and saw the beginning of the fight back by the powerless.

  • ChrisPer says:

    Thanks so much for this exposition. When I read the Name of the Rose all those years ago I had no idea what had been done to me; the despair of the protagonist was not felt as illuminating but more like Ecclesiastes, a ritual mea culpa for vanity.

  • bomber49 says:

    I also watched the tv series on Fox and it was entertaining like the the original movie, but I wish that both had the same ending as the book (which I have not read). Both movie and series were convoluted and confusing and you needed your wits about you to follow the story. Now I realize that the story was made deliberately convoluted so as to have the books ending; everything is BS.

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