“INTRIGUING. ... Mr. Eco’s elaborate tale works so well. Imagination carries the day.”
“It is enough for the librarian to know them by heart and know when each book came here. As for the other monks, they can rely on his memory.” He spoke as if discussing someone other than himself, and I realized he was speaking of the office that at that moment he unworthily held, but which had been held by a hun-dred others, now deceased, who had handed down their knowledge from one to the other.
“I understand,” William said. “If I were then to seek something, not knowing what, on the pentagon of Solomon, you would be able to tell me that there exists the book whose title I have just read, and you could identify its location on the floor above.”
“If you really had to learn something about the pentagon of Solomon,” Malachi said. “But before giv-ing you that book, I would prefer to ask the abbot’s advice.” Page 50
“I have been told that one of your best illuminators died recently,” William said then. “The abbot has spok-en to me a great deal of his art. Could I see the codices he was illuminating?”
“Because of his youth, Adelmo of Otranto,” Malachi said, looking at William suspiciously, “worked only on marginalia. He had a very lively imagination and from known things he was able to compose unknown and surprising things, as one might join a human body to an equine neck. His books are over there.
Nobody has yet touched his desk.”
We approached what had been Adelmo’s working place, where the pages of a richly illuminated psalter still lay. They were folios of the finest vellum—that queen among parchments—and the last was still fixed to the desk. Just scraped with pumice stone and softened with chalk, it had been smoothed with the plane, and, from the tiny holes made on the sides with a fine stylus, all the lines that were to have guided the artist’s hand had been traced. The first half had’ already been cov-ered with writing, and the monk had begun to sketch the illustrations in the margins. The other pages, on the contrary, were already finished, and as we looked at them, neither I nor William could suppress a cry of wonder. This was a psalter in whose margins was delin-eated a world reversed with respect to the one to which our senses have accustomed us. As if at the border of a discourse that is by definition the discourse of truth, there proceeded, closely linked to it, through wondrous allusions in aenigmate, a discourse of falsehood on a topsy-turvy universe, in which dogs flee before the hare, and deer hunt the lion. Little bird-feet heads,, animals with human hands on their back, hirsute pates from which feet sprout, zebra-striped dragons, quadru-peds with serpentine necks twisted in a thousand inex-tricable knots, monkeys with stags’ horns, sirens in the form of fowl with membranous wins, armless men with other human bodies emerging from their backs like humps, and figures with tooth-filled mouths on the belly, humans with horses’ heads, and horses with hu-man legs, fish with birds’ wings and birds with fishtails, monsters with single bodies and double heads or single heads and double bodies, cows with cocks’ tails and butterfly wings, women with heads scaly as a fish’s back, two-headed chimeras interlaced with dragonflies with lizard snouts, centaurs, dragons, elephants, manticores stretched out on tree branches, gryphons whose tails turned into an archer in battle array, diabolical crea-tures with endless necks, sequences of anthropomor-phic animals and zoomorphic dwarfs joined, sometimes on the same page, with scenes of rustic life in which you saw, depicted with such impressive vivacity that the figures seemed alive, all the life of the fields, plowmen, fruit gatherers, harvesters, spinning-women, sowers along-side foxes, and martens armed with crossbows who were scaling the walls of a towered city defended by monkeys. Here an initial letter, bent into an ll , in the lower part generated a dragon; there a great V , which began the word “verba,” produced as a natural shoot from its trunk a serpent with a thousand coils, which in turn begot other serpents as leaves and clusters.
Next to the psalter there was, apparently finished only a short time before, an exquisite book of hours, so incredibly small that it would fit into the palm of the hand. The writing was tiny; the marginal illuminations, barely visible at first sight, demanded that the eye examine them closely to reveal all their beauty (and you asked yourself with what superhuman instrument the artist had drawn them to achieve such vivid effects in a space so reduced). The entire margins of the book were invaded by minuscule forms that generated one another, as if by natural expansion, from the terminal scrolls of the splendidly drawn letters: sea sirens, stags in flight, chimeras, armless human torsos that emerged like slugs from the very body of the verses. At one point, as if to continue the triple “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” repeat-ed on three different lines, you saw three ferocious figures with human heads, two of which were bent, one downward and one upward, to join in a kiss you would not have hesitated to call immodest if you were not persuaded that a profound, even if not evident, spiritu-all meaning must surely have justified that illustration at that point.
As I followed those pages I was torn between silent admiration and laughter, because the illustrations Page 51
natu-rally inspired merriment, though they were commenting on holy pages. And Brother William examined them smiling and remarked, “Babewyn: so they are called in my islands.”
“Babouins: that is what they call them in Gaul,” Malachi said. “Adelmo learned his art in your country, although he studied also in France. Baboons, that is to say: monkeys from Africa. Figures of an inverted world, were houses stand on the tip of a steeple and the earth is above the sky.” I recalled some verses I had heard in the vernacular of my country, and I could not refrain from repeating them:
Aller wunder si geswigen,
das erde himel hât überstigen,
daz sult ir vür ein wunder wigen
And Malachi continued, quoting from the same text:
Erd ob un himel unter,
das sult ir hân besunder
vür aller wonder ein rounder.
“Good for you, Adso,” the librarian continued. “In fact, these images tell of that country where you arrive mounted on a blue goose, where hawks are found that catch fish in a stream, bears that pursue falcons in the sky, lobsters that fly with the doves, and three giants are caught in a trap and bitten by a cock.”
And a pale smile brightened his lips. Then the other monks, who had followed the conversation a bit shyly, laughed heartily, as if they had been awaiting the librarian’s consent. He frowned as the others continued laughing, praising the skill of poor Adelmo and pointing out to one another the more fantastic figures. And it was while all were still laughing that we heard, at our backs, a solemn and stern voice.
“Verba vana aut risui apta non loqui.”
We turned. The speaker was a monk bent under the weight of his years, an old man white as snow, not only his skin, but also his face and his pupils. I saw he was blind. The voice was still majestic and the limbs powerful, even if the body was withered by age. He stared at us as if he could see us, and always thereafter I saw him move and speak as if he still possessed the gift of sight. But the tone of his voice was that of one possessing only the gift of prophecy.
“The man whom you see, venerable in age and wisdom,” Malachi said to William, pointing out the Page 52
newcomer, “is Jorge of Burgos. Older than anyone else living in the monastery save Alinardo of Grottaferrata, he is the one to whom many monks here confide the burden of their sins in the secret of confession.” Then, turning to the old man, he said, “The man standing before you is Brother William of Baskerville, our guest.”
“I hope my words did not anger you,” the old man said in a curt tone. “I heard persons laughing at laugh-able things and I reminded them of one of the princi-ples of our Rule. And as the psalmist says, if the monk must refrain from good speech because of his vow of silence, all the more reason why he should avoid bad speech. And as there is bad speech there are also bad images. And they are those that lie about the form of cre-ation and show the world as the opposite of what it should be, has always been, and always will be through-out the centuries until the end of time. But you come from another order, where I am told that merriment, even the most inopportune sort, is viewed with in-dulgence.” He was repeating what the Benedictines said about the eccentricities of Saint Francis of Assisi, and perhaps also the bizarre whims attributed to those friars and Spirituals of every kind who were the most re-cent and embarrassing offshoots of the Franciscan order. But William gave no sign of understanding the insinuation.
“Marginal images often provoke smiles, but to edify-ing ends,” he replied. ‘As in sermons, to touch the imagination of devout throngs it is necessary to intro-duce exempla, not infrequently jocular, so also the discourse of images must indulge in these trivia. For every virtue and for every sin there is an example drawn from bestiaries, and animals exemplify the hu-man world.”
“Ah, yes,” the old man said mockingly, but without smiling, “any image is good for inspiring virtue, provid-ed the masterpiece of creation, turned with his head down, becomes the subject of laughter. And so the word of God is illustrated by the ass playing a lyre, the owll plowing with a shield, oxen yoking themselves to the plow, rivers flowing upstream, the sea catching flue, the wolf turning hermit! Go hunting for hares with oxen, have owls teach you grammar, have dogs bite fleas, the one-eyed guard the dumb, and the dumb ask for bread, the ant give birth to a calf, roast chickens fly, cakes grow on rooftops, parrots hold rhetoric lessons, hens fertilize cocks, make the cart go before the oxen, the dog sleep in a bed, and all walk with their heads on the ground! What is the aim of this nonsense? A world that is the reverse and the opposite of that established by God, under the pretext of teaching divine precepts!”
“But as the Areopagite teaches,” William said humbly, “God can be named only through the most distorted things. And Hugh of St. Victor reminded us that the more the simile becomes dissimilar, the more the truth is revealed to us under the guise of horrible and indecorous figures, the less the imagination is sated in carnal enjoyment, and is thus obliged to perceive the mysteries hidden under the turpitude of the images. …”
“I know that line of reasoning! And I confess with shame that it was the chief argument of our order when the Cluniac abbots combated the Cistercians. But Saint Bernard was right: little by little the man who depicts monsters and portents of nature to reveal the things of God per speculum et in aenigmate, comes to enjoy the very nature of the monstrosities he creates and to delight in them, and as a result he no longer sees except through them. You have only to look, you who still have your sight, at the capitals of your cloister.” And he motioned with his hand beyond the window, toward the church. “Before the eyes of monks intent on meditation, what is the meaning of those ridiculous grotesques, those monstrous shapes and shapely mon-sters? Those sordid apes? Those lions, those centaurs, those half-human creatures, with mouths in their bellies, with single feet, ears like sails? Those spotted tigers, those fighting warriors, those hunters blowing their horns, and those many bodies with single heads and many heads with single bodies? Quadrupeds with serpents’ tails, and fish with quadrupeds’ faces, and here an animal who seems a horse in front and a ram behind, and there a horse with horns, and so on; by now it is more pleasurable for a monk to read marble than manuscript, and to admire the works of man than to meditate Page 53
on the law of God. Shame! For the desire of your eyes and for your smiles!” The old man stopped, out of breath. And I admired the vivid memory thanks to which, blind perhaps for many years, he could still recall the images whose wickedness he decried. I was led to suspect they had greatly seduced him when he had seen them, since he could yet describe them with such passion. But it has often happened that I have found the most seductive depictions of sin in the pages of those -very men of incorruptible virtue who condemned their spell and their effects. A sign that these men are impelled by such eagerness to bear witness to the truth that they do not hesitate, out of love of God, to confer on evil all the seductions in which it cloaks itself; thus the writers inform men better of the ways through which the Evil One enchants them. And, in fact, Jorge’s words filled me with a great desire to see the tigers and monkeys of the cloister, which I had not yet admired. But Jorge interrupted the flow of my thoughts because he re-sumed speaking, in a much calmer tone.
“Our Lord did not have to employ such foolish things to point out the strait and narrow path to us.
Nothing in his parables arouses laughter, or fear. Adelmo, on the contrary, whose death you now mourn, took such pleasure in the monsters he painted that he lost sight of the ultimate things which they were to illustrate. And he followed all, I say all”—his voice became solemn and ominous—“the paths of monstrosity. Which God knows how to punish.”
A heavy silence fell. Venantius of Salvemec dared break it.
“Venerable Jorge,” he said, “your virtue makes you unjust. Two days before Adelmo died, you, were present at a learned debate right here in the scriptorium. Adelmo took care that his art, indulging in bizarre and fantastic images, was directed nevertheless to the glory of God, as an instrument of the knowledge of celestial things. Brother William mentioned just now the Areo-pagite, who spoke of learning through distortion. And Adelmo that day quoted another lofty authority, the doctor of Aquino, when he said that divine things should be expounded more properly in figures of vile bodies than of noble bodies. First because the human spirit is more easily freed from error; it is obvious, in fact, that certain properties cannot be attributed to divine things, and become uncertain if portrayed by noble corporeal things. In the second place because this humbler depiction is more suited to the knowledge that we have of God on this earth: He shows Himself here more in that which is not than in that which is, and therefore the similitudes of those things furthest from God lead us to a more exact notion of Him, for thus we know that He is above what we say and think. And in the third place because in this way the things of God are better hidden from unworthy persons. In other words, that day we were discussing the question of understanding how the truth can be revealed through surprising expressions, both shrewd and enigmatic.
And I reminded him that in the work of the great Aristotle I had found very clear words on this score.
“I do not remember,” Jorge interrupted sharply, “I am very old. I do not remember. I may have been excessively severe. Now it is late, I must go.”
“It is strange you should not remember,” Venantius insisted; “it was a very learned and fine discussion, in which Benno and Berengar also took part. The question, in fact, was whether metaphors and puns and riddles, which also seem conceived by poets for sheer pleasure, do not lead us to speculate on things in a new and surprising way, and I said that this is also a virtue demanded of the wise man. ... And Malachi was also there. …”
“If the venerable Jorge does not remember, respect his age and the weariness of his mind ... otherwise always so lively,” one of the monks following the discus-sion said. The sentence was uttered in an agitated tone—at least at the beginning, because the speaker, once realizing that in urging respect for the old man he was actually calling attention to a weakness, had slowed the pace of his own interjection, Page 54
ending almost in a whisper of apology. It was Berengar of Arundel who had spoken, the assistant librarian. He was a pale-faced young man, and, observing him, I remembered Ubertino’s description of Adelmo: his eyes seemed those of a lascivious woman. Made shy, for everyone was now looking at him, he held the fingers of both hands enlaced like one wishing to suppress an internal tension.
Venantius’s reaction was unusual. He gave Berengar a look that made him lower his eyes. “Very well, Brother,” he said, “if memory is a gift of God, then the ability to forget can also be good, and must be respected. I respect it in the elderly brother to whom I was speaking. But from you I expected a sharper recollection of the things that happened when we were here with a dear friend of yours. …” I could not say whether Venantius underlined with his tone the word “dear.” The fact is that I sensed an embarrassment among those present. Each looked in a different direction, and no one looked at Berengar, who had blushed violently. Malachi promptly spoke up, with authority: “Come, Brother William,” he said, “I will show you other interesting books.” The group dispersed. I saw Berengar give Venantius a look charged with animosity, and Venantius return the look, silent and defiant. Seeing that old Jorge was leaving, I was moved by a feeling of respectful reverence, and bowed to kiss his hand. The old man received the kiss, put his hand on my head, and asked who I was. When I told him my name, his face brightened.
“You bear a great and very beautiful name,” he said. “Do you know who Adso of Montier-en-Der was?” he asked. I did not know, I confess. So Jorge added, “He was the author of a great and awful book, the Libellus de Antichristo , in which he foresaw things that were to happen; but he was not sufficiently heeded.”
“The book was written before the millennium,” William said, “and those things did not come to pass. …”
“For those who lack eyes to see,” the blind man said. “The ways of the Antichrist are slow and tortuous.
He arrives when we do not expect him: not because the calculation suggested by the apostle was mistaken, but because we have not learned the art.” Then he cried, in a very loud voice, his face turned toward the hall, making the ceiling of the scriptorium re-echo: “He is coming! Do not waste your last days laughing at little monsters with spotted skins and twisted tails! Do not squander the last seven days!” VESPERS
In which the rest of the abbey is visited, William comes to some conclusions about Adelmo’s death, there is a conversation with the brother glazier about glasses for reading and about phantoms for those who seek to read too much.
At that point the bell rang for vespers and the monks prepared to leave their desks. Malachi made it clear to us that we, too, should leave. He would remain with his assistant, Berengar, to put things back in order (those were his words) and arrange the library for the night. William asked him whether he would be locking the doors.
“There are no doors that forbid access to the scripto-rium from the kitchen and the refectory, or to the library from the scriptorium. Stronger than any door must be the abbot’s prohibition. And the monks need both the kitchen and the refectory until compline. At that point, to prevent entry into the Aedificium by outsiders or animals, for whom the interdiction is not valid, I myself lock the outside doors, which Page 55
open into the kitchen and the refectory, and from that hour on the Aedificium remains isolated.” We went down. As the monks headed toward the choir, my master decided the Lord would forgive us if we did not attend holy office (the Lord had a great deal to forgive us in the days that followed!), and he suggested I walk a bit with him over the grounds, so that we might familiarize ourselves with the place.
The weather was turning bad. A cold wind had risen and the sky was becoming foggy. The sun could be sensed, setting beyond the vegetable gardens; and to-ward the east it was already growing dark as we proceeded in that direction, flanking the choir of the church and reaching the rear part of the grounds.
There, almost against the outside wall, where it joined the east tower of the Aedificium, were the stables; the swineherds were covering the jar containing the pigs’ blood. We noticed that behind the stables the outside wall was lower, so that one could look over it. Beyond the sheer drop of the walls, the terrain that sloped dizzyingly down was covered with loose dirt that the snow could not completely hide. I realized this was the pile of old straw, which was thrown over the wall at that point and extended down to the curve where the path taken by the fugitive Brunellus began.
In the stalls nearby, the grooms were leading the animals to the manger. We followed the path along which, toward the wall, the various stalls were located; to the right, against the choir, were the dormitory of the monks and the latrines. Then, as the east wall turned northward, at the angle of the stone girdle, was the smithy. The last smiths were putting down their tools and extinguishing the fires, about to head for the holy office. William moved with curiosity toward one part of the smithy, almost separated from the rest of the workshop, where one monk was putting away his things. On his table was a very beautiful collection of multicol-ored pieces of glass, of tiny dimensions, but larger panes were set against the wall.
In front of him there was a still-unfinished reliquary of which only the silver skeleton existed, but on it he had obviously been setting bits of glass and stones, which his instruments had reduced to the dimensions of gems.
Thus we met Nicholas of Morimondo, master glazier of the abbey. He explained to us that in the rear part of the forge they also blew glass, whereas in this front part, where the smiths worked, the glass was fixed to the leads, to make windows. But, he added, the great works of stained glass that adorned the church and the Aedificium had been completed at least two centuries before. Now he and the others confined themselves to minor tasks, and to repairing the damage of time.
“And with great difficulty,” he added, “because it’s impossible now to find the colors of the old days, especially the remarkable blue you can still see in the choir, so limpid that, when the sun is high, it pours a light of paradise into the nave. The glass on the west side of the nave, restored not long ago, is not of the same quality, and you can tell, on summer days. It’s hopeless,” he went on. “We no longer have the learning of the ancients, the age of giants is past!”
“We are dwarfs,” William admitted, “but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of those giants, and small though we are, we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they.”
“Tell me what we can do better than they were able to do,” Nicholas exclaimed. “If you go down to the crypt of the church, where the abbey’s treasure is kept, you will find reliquaries of such exquisite craftsmanship that the little monstrosity I am now cobbling up”—he nodded toward his own work on the table—“will seem a mockery of those!”
“It is not written that master glaziers must go on making windows, and goldsmiths reliquaries, since the masters of the past were able to produce such beautiful ones, destined to last over the centuries.
Otherwise, the earth would become filled with reliquaries in a time when saints from whom to take relics are so rare,” William jested. “Nor will windows have to be soldered forever. But in various countries I Page 56
have seen new works made of glass which suggest a future world where glass will serve not only for holy purposes but also as a help for man’s weakness. I want to show you a creation of our own times, of which I am honored to own a very useful example.” He dug inside his habit and drew out the lenses, which dumbfounded our interlocutor.
With great interest, Nicholas took the forked instru-ment William held out to him. “Oculi de vitro cum capsula!” he cried. “I had heard tell of them from a Brother Jordan I met in Pisa! He said it was less than twenty years since they had been invented. But I spoke with him more than twenty years ago.”
“I believe they were invented much earlier,” William said, “but they are difficult to make, and require highly expert master glaziers. They cost time and labor. Ten years ago a pair of these glasses ab oculis ad legendum were sold for six Bolognese crowns. I was given a pair of them by a great master, Salvinus of the Armati, more than ten years ago, and I have jealously preserved them all this time, as if they were—as they now are—a part of my very body.”
“I hope you will allow me to examine them one of these days; I would be happy to produce some similar ones,” Nicholas said, with emotion.
“Of course,” William agreed, “but mind you, the thickness of the glass must vary according to the eye it is to serve, and you must test many of these lenses, trying them on the person until the suitable thickness is found.”
“What a wonder!” Nicholas continued. “And yet many would speak of witchcraft and diabolical machination. …”
“You can certainly speak of magic in this device,” William allowed. “But there are two forms of magic.
There is a magic that is the work of the Devil and which aims at man’s downfall through artifices of which it is not licit to speak. But there is a magic that is divine, where God’s knowledge is made manifest through the knowledge of man, and it serves to transform nature, and one of its ends is to prolong man’s very life. And this is holy magic, to which the learned must devote themselves more and more, not only to discover new things but also to rediscover many secrets of nature that divine wisdom had revealed to the Hebrews, the Greeks, to other ancient peoples, and even, today, to the infidels (and I cannot tell you all the wonderful things on optics and the science of vision to be read in the books of the infidels!). And of all this learning Christian knowledge must regain possession, taking it from the pagans and the infidels tamquam ab iniustis possessoribus”
“But why don’t those who possess this learning com-municate it to all the people of God?”
“Because not all the people of God are ready to accept so many secrets, and it has often happened that the possessors of this learning have been mistaken for necromancers in league with the Devil, and they have paid with their lives for their wish to share with others their store of knowledge. I myself, during trials in which someone was suspected of dealings with the Devil, have had to take care not to use these lenses, resorting to eager secretaries who would read to me the writings I required. Otherwise, in a moment when the Devil’s presence was so widespread, and everyone could smell, so to speak, the odor of sulphur, I myself would have been considered a friend of the accused. And finally, as the great Roger Bacon warned, the secrets of science must not always pass into the hands of all, for some could use them to evil ends. Often the learned man must make seem magic certain books that are not magic, but simply good science, in order to protect them from indiscreet eyes.”
“You fear the simple can make evil use of these secrets, then?” Nicholas asked.
“As far as simple people are concerned, my only fear is that they may be terrified by them, confusing them with those works of the Devil of which their preachers speak too often. You see, I have happened to know very skilled physicians who had distilled medicines capable of curing a disease immediately. But when they gave their unguent or their infusion to the simple, they accompanied it with holy words and chanted phrases that sounded like prayers: not because these prayers had the power to heal, but because, believing that the cure came from the prayers, the simple would swallow the infusion or cover themselves with the unguent, and so they would be cured, while paying little attention to the effective power of the medicine. Also, the spirit, aroused by faith in the pious formula, would be better prepared for the corporal action of the medication. But often the treasures of learning must be defended, not against the simple but, rather, against other learned men. Wondrous machines are now made, of which I shall speak to you one day, with which the course of nature can truly be predicted. But woe if they should fall into the hands of men who would use them to extend their earthly power and satisfy their craving for possession. I am told that in Cathay a sage has com-pounded a powder that, on contact with fire, can pro-duce a great rumble and a great flame, destroying everything for many yards around. A wondrous device, if it were used to shift the beds of streams or shatter rock when ground is being broken for cultivation. But if someone were to use it to bring harm to his personal enemies?”
“Perhaps it would be good, if they were enemies of the people of God,” Nicholas said piously.
“Perhaps,” William admitted. “But who today is the enemy of the people of God? Louis the Emperor or John the Pope?”
“Oh, my Lord!” Nicholas said, quite frightened. “I really wouldn’t like to decide such a painful question!”
“You see?” William said. “Sometimes it is better for certain secrets to remain veiled by arcane words.
The secrets of nature are not transmitted on skins of goat or sheep. Aristotle says in the book of secrets that communicating too many arcana of nature and art breaks a celestial seal and many evils can ensue.
Which does not mean that secrets must not be revealed, but that the learned must decide when and how.”
“Wherefore it is best that in places like this,” Nicholas said, “not all books be within the reach of all.”
“This is another question,” William said. “Excess of loquacity can be a sin, and so can excess of reticence. I didn’t mean that it is necessary to conceal the sources of knowledge. On the contrary, this seems to me a great evil. I meant that, since these are arcana from which both good and evil can derive, the learned man has the right and the duty to use an obscure language, compre-hensible only to his fellows. The life of learning is difficult, and it is difficult to distinguish good from evil. And often the learned men of our time are only dwarfs on the shoulders of dwarfs.” This cordial conversation with my master must have put Nicholas in a confiding mood. For he winked at William (as if to say: You and I understand each other because we speak of the same things) and he hinted: “But over there”—he nodded toward the Aedificium—“the secrets of learning are well defended by works of magic. …”
“Really?” William said, with a show of indifference. “Barred doors, stern prohibitions, threats, I suppose.”
“Oh, no. More than that …”
“What, for example?”
“Well, I don’t know exactly; I am concerned with glass, not books: But in the abbey there are rumors ...
strange rumors. …”
“Of what sort?”
“Strange. Let us say, rumors about a monk who decided to venture into the library during the night, to look for something Malachi had refuse to give him, and he saw serpents, headless men, and men with two heads. He was nearly crazy when he emerged from the labyrinth. ...”
“Why do you speak of magic rather than diabolical apparitions?”
“Because even if I am only a poor master glazier I am not so ignorant. The Devil (God save us!) does not tempt a monk with serpents and two-headed men. If anything, with lascivious visions, as he tempted the fathers in the desert. And besides, if it is evil to handle certain books, why would the Devil distract a monk from committing evil?”
“That seems to me a good enthymeme,” my master admitted.
“And finally, when I was repairing the windows of the infirmary, I amused myself by leafing through some of Severinus’s books. There was a book of secrets written, I believe, by Albertus Magnus; I was attracted by some curious illustrations, and I read some pages about how you can grease the wick of an oill lamp, and the fumes produced then provoke visions. You must have noticed-—or, rather, you cannot have noticed yet, because you have not yet spent a night in the abbey—that during the hours of darkness the upper floor of the Aedificium is illuminated. At certain points there is a dim glow from the windows.
Many have wondered what it is, and there has been talk of will-o’-the-wisps, or souls of dead librarians who return to visit their realm. Many here believe these tales. I think those are lamps prepared for visions. You know, if you take the wax from a dog’s ear and grease a wick, anyone breathing the smoke of that lamp will believe he has a dog’s head, and if he is with someone else, the other will see a dog’s head. And there is another unguent that makes those near the lamp feel big as elephants. And with the eyes of a bat and of two fish whose names I cannot recall, and the venom of a wolf, you make a wick that, as it burns, will cause you to see the animals whose fat you have taken. And with a lizard’s tail you make everything around you seem of silver, and with the fat of a black snake and a scrap of a shroud, the room will appear filled with serpents. I know this. Someone in the library is very clever. …”
“But couldn’t it be the souls of the dead librarians who perform these feats of magic?” Nicholas remained puzzled and uneasy. “I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps. God protect us. It’s late.
Vespers have already begun. Farewell.” And he headed for the church.
We continued along the south side: to our right the hospice for pilgrims and the chapter house with its gardens, to the left the olive presses, the mill, the granaries, the cellars, the novices’ house. And everyone was hurrying toward the church.
“What do you think of what Nicholas said?” I asked.
“I don’t know. There is something in the library, and I don’t believe it is the souls of dead librarians. …”
“Because I imagine they were so virtuous that today they remain in the kingdom of heaven to Page 59
contemplate the divine countenance, if this answer will satisfy you. As for the lamps, we shall see if they are there. And as for the unguents our glazier spoke of, there are easier ways to provoke visions, and Severinus knows them very well, as you realized today. What is certain is that in the abbey they want no one to enter the library at night and that many, on the contrary, have tried or are trying to do so.”
“And what does our crime have to do with this business?”
“Crime. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Adelmo killed himself.”
“Why is that?”
“You remember this morning when I remarked the heap of dirty straw? As we were climbing up the curve beneath the east tower I had noticed at that point the traces left by a landslide: or, rather, a part of the terrain had given way below the tower, more or less there where the waste collects, and had slipped.
And that is why this evening, when we looked down from above, the straw seemed to have little snow covering it; it was covered only by the latest fall, yesterday’s snow, and not by that of the past few days.
As for Adelmo’s corpse, the abbot told us that it had been lacerated by the rocks, and beneath the east tower, where the build-ing joins a sheer drop, there are pines growing. The rocks, however, are directly under the point where the wall ends, forming a kind of step, and afterward the straw dump begins.”
“And so, think whether it is not less—how shall I say it?—less costly for our minds to believe that Adelmo, for reasons yet to be ascertained, threw himself of his own will from the parapet of the wall, struck the rocks, and, dead or wounded as he may have been, sank into the straw. Then the landslide, caused by the storm that night, carried the straw and part of the terrain and the poor young man’s body down below the east tower.”
“Why do you say this solution is less costly for our minds?”
“Dear Adso, one should not multiply explanations and causes unless it is strictly necessary. If Adelmo fell from the east tower, he must have got into the library, someone must have first struck him so he would offer no resistance, and then this person must have found a way of climbing up to the window with a lifeless body on his back, opening it, and pitching the hapless monk down. But with my hypothesis we need only Adelmo, his decision, and a shift of some land. Everything is explained, using a smaller number of causes.”
“But why would he have killed himself.”
“But why would anyone have killed him? In either case reasons have to be found. And it seems to me beyond doubt that they existed. In the Aedificium there is an atmosphere of reticence; they are all keep-ing something quiet. Meanwhile, we have already collected a few insinuations—quite vague, to be sure—-about some strange relationship between Adelmo and Berengar. That means we will keep an eye on the assistant librarian.”
While we were talking in this fashion, the office of vespers ended. The servants were going back to their tasks before retiring for supper, the monks were head-ing for the refectory. The sky was now dark and it was beginning to snow. A light snow, in soft little flakes, which must have continued, I believe, for most of the night, because the next morning all the grounds were covered with a white blanket, as I shall tell.
I was hungry and welcomed with relief the idea of going to table.
In which William and Adso enjoy the jolly hospitality of the abbot and the angry conver-sation of Jorge.
The refectory was illuminated by great torches. The monks sat at a row of tables dominated by the abbot’s table, set perpendicularly to theirs on a broad dais. On the opposite side there was a pulpit, where the monk who would read during supper had already taken his place. The abbot was waiting for us next to a little fountain, with a white cloth to wipe our hands after the lavabo, following the ancient counsels of Saint Pachomius.
The abbot invited William to his table and said that for this evening, since I was also a new guest, I would enjoy the same privilege, even though I was a Benedic-tine novice. In the following days, he said to me paternally, I could sit at table with the monks, or, if I were employed in some task for my master, I could stop in the kitchen before or after meals, and there the cooks would take care of me.
The monks were now standing at the tables, motionless, their cowls lowered over their faces, their hands under their scapulars. The abbot approached his table and pronounced the “Benedicite.” From the pulpit the pre-centor intoned the “Edent paupers.” The abbot imparted his benediction and everyone sat down.
Our founder’s Rule prescribes a frugal meal but allows the abbot to determine how much food the monks actually need. In our abbeys now, however, there is greater indulgence in the pleasures of the table. I will not speak of those that, unfortunately, have been transformed into dens of gluttony; but even those that follow standards of penance and virtue provide the monks, almost always engaged in taxing intellectual labors, with a nourishment not effete but substantial. On the other hand, the abbot’s table is always favored, not least because honored guests frequently sit there, and the abbeys take pride in the produce of their lands and their barns, and in the skill of their cooks.
The monks’ meal proceeded in silence, as is customary; they communicated among themselves with the usual alphabet of fingers. The novices and younger monks were served first, immediately after the dishes meant for all had been passed at the abbot’s table.
With us at the abbot’s table sat Malachi, the cellarer, and the two oldest monks, Jorge of Burgos, the venera-ble blind man I had met in the scriptorium, and Alinardo of Grottaferrata: ancient, almost a centenarian, lame, and fragile-looking, and—it seemed to me—addled. The abbot told us that, having come to the abbey as a novice, Alinardo had lived there always and recalled almost eighty years of its events. The abbot told us these things in a whisper at the beginning, because afterward he observed the custom of our order and followed the reading in silence. But, as I said, certain liberties were taken at the abbot’s table, and we praised the dishes we were offered as the abbot extolled the quality of his olive oil, or of his wine. Indeed, once, as he poured some for us, he recalled for us that passage in the Rule where the holy founder observed that wine, to be sure, is not proper for monks, but since the monks of our time cannot be persuaded not to drink, they should at least not drink their fill, because wine induces even the wise to apostasy, as Ecclesiastes re-minds us. Benedict said “of our time” referring to his own day, now very remote: you can imagine the time in which we were supping at the abbey, after such deca-dence of behavior (and I will not speak of my time, in which I write, except to say that here at Melk there is greater indulgence in beer!): in short, we drank with-out excess but not without enjoyment.
We ate meat cooked on the spit, freshly slaughtered pigs, and I realized that in cooking other foods they Page 61
did not use animal fats or rape oill but good olive oil, which came from lands the abbey owned at the foot of the mountain toward the sea. The abbot made us taste (reserved for his table) the chicken I had seen being prepared in the kitchen. I saw that he also possessed a metal fork, a great rarity, whose form reminded me of my master’s glasses. A man of noble extraction, our host did not want to soil his hands with food, and indeed offered us his implement, at least to take the meat from the large plate and put it in our bowls. I refused, but I saw that William accepted gladly and made nonchalant use of that instrument of great gentlemen, perhaps to show the abbot that not all Franciscans were men of scant education or humble birth.
In my enthusiasm for all these fine foods (after several days of travel in which we had eaten what we could find), I had been distracted from the reading, which meanwhile continued devoutly. I was reminded of it by a vigorous grunt of assent from Jorge, and I realized we had reached the point at which a chapter of the Rule is always read. I understood why Jorge was so content, since I had listened to him that afternoon. The reader was saying, “Let us imitate the example of the prophet, who says: I have decided, I shall watch over my way so as not to sin with my tongue, I have put a curb upon my mouth, I have fallen dumb, humbling myself, I have refrained from speaking even of honest things. And if in this passage the prophet teaches us that sometimes our love of silence should cause us to refrain from speaking even of licit things, how much more should we refrain from illicit talk, to avoid the chastisement of this sin!” And then he continued: “But vulgarities, nonsense, and jests we condemn to perpetu-all imprisonment, in every place, and we do not allow the disciple to open his mouth for speech of this sort.”
“And this goes for the marginalia we were discussing today,” Jorge could not keep from commenting in a low voice. “John Chrysostom said that Christ never laughed.”
“Nothing in his human nature forbade it,” William remarked, “because laughter, as the theologians teach, is proper to man.”
“The son of man could laugh, but it is not written that he did so,” Jorge said sharply, quoting Petrus Cantor.
“Manduca, iam coctum est,” William murmured. “Eat, for it is well done.”
“What?” asked Jorge, thinking he referred to some dish that was being brought to him.
“Those are the words that, according to Ambrose, were uttered by Saint Lawrence on the gridiron, when he invited his executioners to turn him over, as Prudentius also recalls in the Peristephanon ,” William said with a saintly air. “Saint Lawrence therefore knew how to laugh and say ridiculous things, even if it was to humili-ate his enemies.”
“Which proves that laughter is something very close to death and to the corruption of the body,” Jorge replied with a snarl; and I must admit that he spoke like a good logician.
At this point the abbot good-naturedly invited us to be silent. The meal was ending, in any case. The abbot stood up and introduced William to the monks. He praised his wisdom, expounded his fame, and informed them that the visitor had been asked to investigate Adelmo’s death; and the abbot also urged the monks to answer any questions and to instruct their underlings, throughout the abbey, to do the same.
Supper over, the monks prepared to go off to the choir for the office of compline. They again lowered their cowls over their faces and formed a line at the door. Then they moved in a long file, crossing the cemetery and entering the choir through the north doorway.
We went off with the abbot. “Is this the hour when the doors of the Aedificium are locked?” William asked.
“As soon as the servants have finished cleaning the refectory and the kitchens, the librarian will personally close all the doors, barring them on the inside.”
“On the inside? And where does he come out?”
The abbot glared at William for a moment. “Obviously he does not sleep in the kitchen,” he said brusquely. And he began to walk faster.
“Very well,” William whispered to me, “so another door does exist, but we are not to know about it.” I smiled, proud of his deduction, and he scolded me: “And don’t laugh. As you have seen, within these wallâ laughter doesn’t enjoy a good reputation.”
We entered the choir. A single lamp was burning on a heavy bronze tripod, tall as two men. The monks silently took their places is the stalls.
Then the abbot gave a signal, and the precentor intoned, “Tu autem Domine miserere nobis.” The abbot replied, “Adiutorium nostrum in nomine Domnni”; and all continued, in chorus, with “Qui fecit coelum et terram.” Then the chanting of the psalms began: “When I call Thee answer me O God of my justice”; “I shall thank Thee Lord with all my heart”; “Come bless the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord.” We had not sat in the stalls, but had withdrawn into the main nave. From there, we suddenly glimpsed Malachi emerging from the darkness of a side chapel.
“Keep your eye on that spot,” William said to me. “There could be a passage leading to the Aedificium.”
“Under the cemetery?”
“And why not? In fact, now that I think about it, there must be an ossarium somewhere; they can’t possi-bly have buried all their monks for centuries in that patch of ground.”
“But do you really want to enter the library at night?” I asked, terrified.
“Where there are dead monks and serpents and mysterious lights, my good Adso? No, my boy. I was thinking about it today, and not from curiosity but because I was pondering the question of how Adelmo died. Now, as I told you, I tend toward a more logical explanation, and, all things considered, I would prefer to respect the customs of this place.”
“Then why do you want to know?”
“Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.”
In which a few hours of mystic happiness are interrupted by a most bloody occurrence.
Symbol sometimes of the Devil, sometimes of the Risen Christ, no animal is more untrustworthy than the cock. Our order knew some slothful ones who never crowed at sunrise. On the other hand, especially in winter, the office of matins takes place when night is still total and all nature is asleep, for the monk must rise in darkness and pray at length in darkness, waiting for day and illuminating the shadows with the flame of devotion. Therefore, custom wisely provided for some wakers, who were not to go to bed when their brothers did, but would spend the night reciting in cadence the exact number of psalms that would allow them to measure the time passed, so that, at the conclusion of the hours of sleep granted the others, they would give the signal to wake.
So that night we were waked by those who moved through the dormitory and the pilgrims’ house ringing a bell, as one monk went from cell to cell shouting, “Benedicamus Domino,” to which each answered,
William and I followed the Benedictine custom: in less than half an hour we prepared to greet the new day, then we went down into the choir, where the monks, prostrate on the floor, reciting the first fifteen psalms, were waiting until the novices entered led by their master. Then each sat in his regular stall and the choir chanted, “Domine labia mea aperies et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.” The cry rose toward the vaulted ceiling of the church like a child’s plea. Two monks climbed to the pulpit and intoned the ninety-fourth psalm, “Venite exultemus,” which was followed by the others prescribed. And I felt the warmth of re-newed faith.
The monks were in the stalls, sixty figures made indistinguishable by their habits and cowls, sixty shad-ows barely illuminated by the fire from the great tripod, sixty voices joined in praise of the Almighty.
And, hearing this moving harmony, vestibule of the delights of paradise, I asked myself whether the abbey were truly a place of concealed mysteries, of illicit attempts to reveal them, and of grim threats.
Because it now seemed to me, on the contrary, the dwelling of sainted men, cenacle of virtue, vessel of learning, ark of prudence, tower of wisdom, domain of meekness, bastion of strength, thurible of sanctity.
After six psalms, the reading of Holy Scripture began. Some monks were nodding with sleepiness, and one of the night wakers wandered among the stalls with a little lamp to wake any who had dozed off again. If a monk succumbed to drowsiness, as penance he would take the lamp and continue the round.
The chanting of another six psalms continued. Then the abbot gave his benedic-tion, the hebdomadary said the prayers, all bowed toward the altar in a moment of meditation whose sweetness no-one can comprehend who has not experi-enced those hours of mystic ardor and intense inner peace. Finally, cowls again over their faces, all sat and solemnly intoned the “Te Deum.” I, too, praised the Lord because He had released me from my doubts and freed me from the feeling of uneasiness with which my first day at the abbey had filled me. We are fragile creatures, I said to myself; even among these learned and devout monks the Evil One spreads petty envies, foments subtle hostilities, but all these are as smoke then dispersed by the strong wind of faith, the moment all gather in the name of the Father, and Christ de-scends into their midst.
Between matins and lauds the monk does not return to his cell, even if the night is still dark. The novices followed their master into the chapter house to study the psalms; some of the monks remained in church to tend to the church ornaments, but the majority strolled in the cloister in silent meditation, as did William and I. The servants were asleep and they went on sleeping when, the sky still dark, we returned to the Page 64
choir for lauds.
The chanting of the psalms resumed, and one in particular, among those prescribed for Mondays, plunged me again into my earlier fears: “The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart, that there is no fear of God before his eyes. The words of his mouth are iniquity.” It seemed to me an ill omen that the Rule should have set for that very day such a terrible admonition. Nor were my pangs of uneasiness eased, after the psalms of praise, by the usual reading of the Apocalypse; the figures of the doorway returned to my mind, the carvings that had so overwhelmed my heart and eyes the day before. But after the responsory, the hymn, and the versicle, as the chanting of the Gospel began, I glimpsed just above the altar, beyond the windows of the choir, a pale glow that was already making the panes shine in their various colors, sub-dued till then by the darkness. It was not yet dawn, which would triumph during Prime, just as we would be singing “Deus qui est sanctorum splendor mirabilis” and “Iam lucis orto sidere.” It was barely the first faint herald of a winter daybreak, but it was enough, and the dim penumbra now replacing the night’s darkness in the nave was enough to relieve my heart.
We sang the words of the divine book and, as we were bearing witness to the Word come to enlighten all peoples, it was as if the daystar in all its splendor were invading the temple. The light, still absent, seemed to me to shine in the words of the canticle, mystic, scented lily that opened among the arches of the vaults. “I thank Thee, O Lord, for this moment of ineffable joy,” I prayed silently, and said to my heart, “Foolish heart, what do you fear?”
Suddenly some noises were heard from the direction of the north door. I wondered why the servants, prepar-ing for their work, disturbed the sacred functions in this way. At that moment three swineherds came in, terror on their faces; they went to the abbot and whispered something to him. The abbot first calmed them with a gesture, as if he did not want to interrupt the office; but other servants entered, and the shouts became louder. “A man! A dead man!” some were saying. And others: “A monk. You saw the sandals?”
Prayers stopped, and the abbot rushed out, motioning the cellarer to follow him. William went after them, but by now the other monks were also leaving heir stalls and hurrying outside.
The sky was now light, and the snow on the round made the compound even more luminous. Behind the choir, in front of the pens, where the day before had stood the great jar with the pigs’ blood, a strange object, almost cruciform, protruded above the edge of the vessel, as if two stakes had been driven into the ground, to be covered with rags for scaring off birds.
But they were human legs, the legs of a man thrust head down into the vessel of blood.
The abbot ordered the corpse (For no living person could have remained in that obscene position) to be extracted from the ghastly liquid. The hesitant swine-herds approached the edge and, staining themselves with blood, drew out the poor, bloody thing. As had been explained to me, the blood, having been property stirred immediately after it was shed, and then left out in the cold, had not clotted, but the layer covering the corpse was now beginning to solidify; it soaked the habit, made the face unrecognizable. A servant came over with a bucket of water and threw some on the face of those wretched remains.
Another bent down with a cloth to wipe the features. And before our eyes appeared the white face of Venantius of Salvemec, the Greek scholar with whom we had talked that afternoon by Adelmo’s codices.
The abbot came over. “Brother William, as you see, something is afoot in this abbey, something that de-mands all your wisdom. But I beseech you: act quickly!” Page 65
“Was he present in choir during the office?” William asked, pointing to the corpse.
“No,” the abbot said. “I saw his stall was empty.”
“No one else was absent?”
“It did not seem so. I noticed nothing.”
William hesitated before asking the next question, and he did so in a whisper, taking care that the others could not hear: “Berengar was in his stall?”
The abbot looked at him with uneasy amazement, as if to signify that he was struck to see my master harbor a suspicion that he himself had briefly harbored, for more comprehensible reasons. He said then rapidly, “He was there. He sits in the first row, almost at my right hand.”
“Naturally,” William said, “all this means nothing. I don’t believe anyone entering the choir passed behind the apse, and therefore the corpse could have been here for several hours, at least since the time when everyone had gone to bed.”
“To be sure, the first servants rise at dawn, and that is why they discovered him only now.” William bent over the corpse, as if he were used to dealing with dead bodies. He dipped the cloth lying nearby into the water of the bucket and further cleanse Venantius’s face. Meanwhile, the other monks crowded around, frightened, forming a talkative circle on which the abbot imposed silence. Among the others, now making his way forward, came Severinus, who saw to matters of physical health in the abbey; and he bent down next to my master. To hear their dialogue, and to help William, who needed a new clean cloth soaked in the water, I joined them, overcoming my terror and my revulsion.
“Have you ever seen a drowned man?” William asked.
“Many times,” Severinus said. “And if I guess what you imply, they do not have this face: the features are swollen.”
“Then the man was already dead when someone threw the body into the jar.”
“Why would he have done that?”
“Why would he have killed him? We are dealing with the work of a twisted mind. But now we must see whether there are wounds or bruises on the body. I suggest it be carried to the balneary, stripped, washed, and examined. I will join you there at once.” And while Severinus, receiving permission from the abbot, was having the body carried away by the swineherds, my master asked that the monks be told to return to the choir by the path they had taken before, and that the servants retire in the same way, so the ground would remain deserted. Thus we remained alone, beside the vessel, from which blood had spilled during the macabre operation of the body’s recovery. The snow all around was red, melting in several pud-dles where the water had been thrown; and there was a great dark stain where the corpse had been stretched out.
“A fine mess,” William said, nodding toward the complex pattern of footprints left all around by the monks and the servants. “Snow, dear Adso, is an admi-rable parchment on which men’s bodies leave very legible writing. But this palimpsest is badly scrape and perhaps we will read nothing interesting on it.
Between here and the church there has been a great bustle of monks, between here and the barn and the stables the servants have moved in droves. The only intact space is between the barns and the Aedificium. Let us see if we can find something of interest.”
“What do you expect to find?” I asked.
“If he didn’t throw himself into the vessel on his own, someone carried him there, already dead, I imagine. And a man carrying another man’s body leaves deep tracks in snow. So look and see if you find around here some prints that seem different to you from the prints of those noisy monks who have ruined our parchment for us.”
And we did. And I will say immediately that I was the one, God preserve me from all vanity, who discovered something between the jar and the Aedificium. They were human footprints, fairly deep, in a zone where no one had yet passed, and, as my master remarked at once, fainter than those left by the monks and the servants, a sign that more snow had fallen and thus they had been made some time before. But what seemed to us most noteworthy was that among those prints there was a more continuous trail, as of something dragged by the one leaving the prints. In short, a spoor that went from the jar to the door of the refectory, on the side of the Aedificium between the south tower and the east tower.
“Refectory, scriptorium, library,” William said. “Once again, the library. Venantius died in the Aedificium, and most probably in the library.”
“And why in the library exactly?”
“I am trying to put myself in the murderer’s place. If Venantius had died, been killed, in the refectory, in the kitchen, or in the scriptorium, why not leave him there? But if he died in the library, then he had to be carried elsewhere, both because in the library the body would never have been discovered (and perhaps the murderer was particularly interested in its being discovered) and because the murderer probably does not want attention to be concentrated on the library.”
“And why should the murderer be interested in the body’s being discovered?”
“I don’t know. I can suggest some hypotheses. How do we know that the murderer killed Venantius because he hated Venantius? He could have killed him, rather than another, to leave a sign, to signify something else.”
“Omnis mundi creatura, quasi fiber et scriptura ...”I murmured. “But what would that sign be?”
“This is what I do not know. But let us not forget that there are also signs that seem such and are instead without meaning, like blitiri or bu-ba-baff. …”
“It would be atrocious,” I said, “to kill a man in order to say bu-ba-baff!”
“It would be atrocious,” William remarked, “to kill a man even to say ‘Credo in unum Deum.’ ...” At that moment Severinus joined us. The corpse had been washed and examined carefully. No wound, no bruise on the head.
“Do you have poisons in your laboratory?” William asked, as we headed for the infirmary.
“Among the other things. But that depends on what you mean by poison. There are substances that in small doses are healthful and in excessive doses cause death. Like every good herbalist I keep them, and I use them with discretion. In my garden I grow, for example, valerian. A few drops in an infusion of other herbs calms the heart if it is beating irregularly. An exaggerat-ed dose brings on drowsiness and death.”
“And you noticed no signs of any particular poison on the corpse?”
“None. But many poisons leave no trace.”
We had reached the infirmary. Venantius’s body, washed in the balneary, had been brought there and was lying on the great table in Severinus’s laboratory; alembics and other instruments of glass and earthenware made me think of an alchemist’s shop (though I knew of such things only by indirect accounts). On some long shelves against the wall by the door was arrayed a vast series of cruets, ampoules, jugs, pots, filled with substances of different colors.
“A fine collection of simples,” William said. “All prod-ucts of your garden?”
“No,” Severinus said, “many substances, rare, or im-possible to grow in this climate, have been brought to me over the years by monks arriving from every part of the world. I have many precious things that cannot be found readily, along with substances easily obtained from the local flora. You see ... aghalingho pesto comes from Cathay: I received it from a learned Arab. Indian aloe, excellent cicatricizant. Live arient revives the dead, or, rather, wakes those who have lost their senses. Arsenacho: very dangerous, a mortal poison for anyone who swallows it. Borage, a plant good for ailing lungs. Betony, good for fractures of the head. Mastic: calms pulmonary fluxions and troublesome catarrhs. Myrrh …”
“The gift of the Magi?” I asked.
The same. But now used to prevent miscarriage, gathered from a tree called Balsamodendron myrra.
And this is mumia, very rare, produced by the decom-position of mummified cadavers; it is used in the prepa-ration of many almost miraculous medicines. Mandrag-ora officinalis, good for sleep ...”
“And to stir desires of the flesh,” my master remarked.
“So they say, but here it is not used for that purpose, as you can imagine.” Severinus smiled. “And look at this,” he said, taking down an ampoule. “Tutty, miracu-lous for the eyes.”
“And what is this?” William asked in a bright voice, touching a stone lying on a shelf.
“That? It was given to me some time ago. It apparent-ly has therapeutic virtues, but I have not yet discovered what they are. Do you know it?”
“Yes,” William said, “but not as a medicine.” He took from his habit a little knife and slowly held it toward the stone. As the knife, moved by his hand with ex-treme delicacy, came close to the stone, I saw that the blade made an abrupt movement, as if William had shifted his wrist, which was, however, absolutely still. And the blade stuck to the stone, making a faint metallic sound.
“You see,” William said to me, “it attracts iron.”
“And what is its use?” I asked.
“It has various uses, of which I will tell you. But for the present I would like to know, Severinus, if there is anything here that could kill a man.”
Severinus reflected a moment—too long, I would have said, considering the clarity of his answer: “Many things. As I said, the line between poison and medicine is very fine; the Greeks used the word
‘pharmacon’ for both.”
“And there is nothing that has been removed recently?” Severinus reflected again, then, as if weighing his words: “Nothing recently.”
“And in the past?”
“Who knows? I don’t recall. I have been in this abbey thirty years, and twenty-five in the infirmary.”
“Too long for a human memory,” William admitted. Then, abruptly, he said, “We were speaking yesterday of plants that can induce visions. Which ones are they?”-
Severinus’s actions and the expression on his face indicated an intense desire to avoid that subject. “I would have to think, you know. I have so many miracu-lous substances here. But let us speak, rather, of Venantius’s death. What do you say about it?”
“I would have to think,” William answered.
In which Benno of Uppsala confides certain things, others are confided by Berengar of Arundel, and Adso learns the meaning o true penitence.
The horrible event had upset the life of the community. The confusion caused by the discovery of the corpse had interrupted the holy office. The abbot promptly sent the monks back to the choir, to pray for the soul of their brother.
The monks’ voices were broken. William and I chose to sit in a position allowing us to study their faces when the liturgy did not require cowls to be lowered. Immedi-ately we saw Berengar’s face. Pale, drawn, glistening with sweat.
Next to him we noticed Malachi. Dark, frowning, impassive. Beside Malachi, equally impassive, was the face of the blind Jorge. We observe, on the other hand, the nervous movements of Benno of Uppsala, the rhetoric scholar we had men the previous day in the scriptorium; and we caught his rapid glance at Malachi. “Benno is nervous, Berengar is frightened,” William remarked. “They must be questioned right away.”
“Why?” I asked ingenuously.
“Ours is a hard task,” William said. “A hard task, that of the inquisitor, who must strike the weakest, and at their moment of greatest weakness.”
In fact, as soon as the office was over, we caught up with Benno, who was heading for the library. The young man seemed vexed at hearing William call him, and he muttered some faint pretext about work to be done. He seemed in a hurry to get to the scriptorium. But my master reminded him that he was carrying out an inquiry at the abbot’s behest, and led Benno into the cloister. We sat on the inner wall, between two columns. Looking from time to time toward the Aedificium, Benno waited for William to speak.
“Well, then,” William asked, “what was said that day when you were discussing Adelmo’s marginalia with Berengar, Venantius, Malachi, and Jorge?”
“You heard it yesterday. Jorge was saying that it is not licit to use ridiculous images to decorate books that contain the truth. And Venantius observed that Aristot-le himself had spoken of witticisms and plays on words as instruments better to reveal the truth, and hence laughter could not be such a bad thing if it could become a vehicle of the truth. Jorge said that, as far as he could recall, Aristotle had spoken of these things in his Poetics , when discussing metaphor. And these were in themselves two disturbing circumstances, first be-cause the book of the Poetics , unknown to the Christian world for such a long time, which was perhaps by divine decree, had come to us through the infidel Moors. …”
“But it was translated into Latin by a friend of the angelic doctor of Aquino,” William said.
“That’s what I said to him,” Benno replied, immedi-ately heartened. “I read Greek badly and I could study that great book only, in fact, through the translation of William of Moerbeke. Yes, that’s what I said. But Jorge added that the second cause for uneasiness is that in the book the Stagirite was speaking of poetry, which is infima doctrina and which exists on figments. And Venantius said that the psalms, too, are works of poetry and use metaphors; and Jorge became enraged because he said the psalms are works of divine inspiration and use metaphors to convey the truth, while the works of the pagan poets use metaphors to convey falsehood and for purposes of mere pleasure, a remark that greatly offended me. …”
“Because I am a student of rhetoric, and I read many pagan poets, and I know ... or I believe that their words have conveyed also truths naturaliter Christian. … In short, at that point, if I recall correctly, Venantius spoke of other books and Jorge became very angry.”
Benno hesitated. “I don’t remember. What does it matter which books were spoken of?”
“It matters a great deal, because here we are trying to understand what has happened among men who live among books, with books, from books, and so their words on books are also important.”
“It’s true,” Benno said, smiling for the first time, his face growing almost radiant. “We live for books. A sweet mission m this world dominated by disorder and decay. Perhaps, then, you will understand what happened on that occasion. Venantius, who knows ... who knew Greek very well, said that Aristotle had dedicated the second book of the Poetics specifically to laughter, and that if a philosopher of such greatness had devoted a whole book to laughter, then laughter must be important. Jorge said that many fathers had devoted entire books to sin, which is an important thing, but evil; and Venantius said that as far as he knew, Aristotle had spoken of laughter as something good and an instru-ment of truth; and then Jorge asked him contemptuous-ly whether by any chance he had read this book of Aristotle; and Venantius said that no one could have read it, because it has never been found and is perhaps lost Page 70
forever. And, in fact, William of Moerbeke never had it in his hands. Then Jorge said that if it had not been found, this was because it had never been written, because Providence did not want futile things glorified. I wanted to calm everyone’s spirit, because Jorge is easily angered and Venantius was speaking deliberately to provoke him, and so I said that in the part of the Poetics that we do know, and in the Rhetoric , there are to be found many wise observations on witty riddles, and Venantius agreed with me.
Now, with us was Pacificus of Tivoli, who knows the pagan poets very well, and he said that when it comes to these witty riddles, no one surpasses the African poets. He quoted, in fact, the riddle of the fish, of Symphosius:
Est domus in terris, clara quae voce resultat.
Ipsa domus resonat, tacitus sed non sonat hospes.
Ambo tamen currunt, hospes simul et domus una.
“At this point Jorge said that Jesus had urged our speech to be yes or no, for anything further came from the Evil One; and that to mention fish it was enough to say ‘fish,’ without concealing the notion under lying sounds. And he added that it did not seem to him wise to take the Africans as models. ... And then
“Then something happened that I didn’t understand. Berengar began to laugh. Jorge reproached him, and he said he was laughing because it had occurred to him that if one sought carefully among the Africans, quite different riddles would be found, and not so easy as the one about the fish. Malachi, who was present, came furious, took Berengar by the cowl, and sent him off to his tasks. ... Berengar, you know, is his assistant. ...”
“And after that?”
“After that, Jorge put an end to the argument by going away. We all went off to our occupations, but as I was working, I saw first Venantius, then Adelmo ap-proach Berengar and ask him something. From the distance I saw he was parrying their questions, but in the course of the day both went back to him. And then that evening I saw Berengar and Adelmo confabulating in the cloister before entering the refectory.
There, that’s all I know.”
“You know, in fact, that the two persons who have recently died in mysterious circumstances had asked something of Berengar,” William said.
Benno answered uncomfortably, “I didn’t say that! I told you what happened that day, because you asked me. ...” He reflected a moment, then hastily added, “But if you want to know my opinion, Berengar spoke to them of something in the library, and that is where you should search.”
“Why do you think of the library? What did Berengar mean about seeking among the Africans? Didn’t he mean that the African poets should be more widely read?”
“Perhaps. So it seemed. But then why should Malachi have become furious? After all, he’s the one who Page 71
de-cides whether or not a volume of African poets is given out to be read. But I know one thing: anyone leafing through the catalogue of books will often find, among the collocations that only the librarian understands, one that says ‘Africa,’ and I have even found one that said ‘finis Africae,’ the end of Africa.
Once I asked for a book that bore that indication, I can’t recall which book, though the title had aroused my curiosity; and Malachi told me the books with that indication had been lost. This is what I know. And this is why I say you’re right, check on Berengar, and check when he goes up into the library. You never can tell.”
“You never can tell,” William concluded, dismissing him. Then he began strolling with me in the cloister and remarked that, first of all, Berengar had once again been the subject of his brothers’ murmuring; second, Benno seemed eager to direct us to the library. I observed that perhaps he wanted us to discover there things he, too, wanted to know; and William said this was probably the case, but it was also possible that in directing us toward the library he wanted to keep us away from some other place.
Which? I asked. And William said he did not know, perhaps the scriptorium, perhaps the kitchen, or the choir, or the dormitory, or the infirmary. I remarked that the previous day it was he, William, who had been fascinated by the library, and his answer was that he wanted to be fascinated by the things he chose and not as others advised him. But the library should be kept under observation, he went on, and at this point it would not be a bad idea to try to get into it somehow. Circumstances now authorized his curiosity, within the bounds of politeness and respect for the customs and laws of the abbey.
We left the cloister. Servants and novices were com-ing from the church after Mass. And as we walked along the west side of the church, we glimpsed Berengar coming out of the transept door and crossing the cemetery toward the Aedificium. William called him, he stopped, and we overtook him. He was even more distraught than when we had seen him in choir, and William obviously decided to exploit, as he had with Benno, this state of his spirit.
“So it seems that you were the last to see Adelmo alive,” he said.
Berengar staggered, as if he were about to fall in a faint. “I?” he asked in a weak voice. William had dropped his question as if by chance, perhaps because Benno had told him of seeing the two conferring in the cloister after vespers. But it must have struck home, and clearly Berengar was thinking of another, really final meeting, because he began to speak in a halting voice.
“How can you say that? I saw him before going off to bed, like everyone else!” Then William decided it might be worthwhile to press him without respite. “No, you saw him again, and you know more things than you wish to admit. But there are two deaths involved here, and you can no longer be silent. You know very well there are many ways to make a :person speak!” William had often said to me that, even when he had been an inquisitor, he had always avoided torture; but Berengar misunderstood him (or William wanted to be misunderstood). In any case, the move was effective.
“Yes, yes,” Berengar said, bursting into a flood of tears, “I saw Adelmo that evening, but I saw him already dead!”
“How?” William asked. “At the foot of the hill?”
“No, no, I saw him here in the cemetery, he was moving among the graves, a ghost among ghosts. I met him and realized at once that I did not have a living man before me: his face was a corpse’s, his eyes already beheld the eternal punishment. Naturally, it was only the next morning, when I learned of his Page 72
death, that I understood I had encountered his ghost, but even at that moment I realized I was having a vision and that there was a damned soul before me, one of the lemures. ... Oh, Lord, what a gravelike voice he had as he spoke to me!”
“And what did he say?”
“ ‘I am damned!’ That is what he said to me. ‘As you see me here, you see one returned from hell, and to hell I must go back.’ So he said to me. And I cried to him, ‘Adelmo, have you really come from hell?
What are the pains of hell like?’ And I was trembling, because I had just left the office of compline where I had heard read the terrible pages on the wrath of the Lord. And he said to me, ‘The pains of hell are infinitely greater than our tongue can say. You see,’ he said, ‘this cape of sophisms in which I have been dressed till today? It oppresses me and weighs on me as if I had the highest tower of Paris or the mountain of the world on my back, and nevermore shall I be able to set it down. And this pain was given me by divine justice for my vainglory, for having believed my body a place of pleasures, and for having thought to know more than others, and for having enjoyed monstrous things, which, cherished in my imagination, have produced far more monstrous things within my soul—and now I must live with them in eternity. You see the lining of this cloak? It is as if it were all coals and ardent fire, and it is the fire that burns my body, and this punishment is given me for the dishonest sin of the flesh, whose vice I knew and cultivated, and this fire now unceasingly blazes and burns me! Give me your hand, my beautiful master,’
he said to me further, ‘that my meeting with you may be a useful lesson, in exchange for many of the lessons you gave me. Your hand, my beautiful master!’ And he shook the finger of his burning hand, and on my hand there fell a little drop of his sweat and it seemed to pierce my hand. For many days I bore the sign, only I hid it from all. Then he disappeared among the graves, and the next morning I learned that his body, which had so terrified me, was now dead at the foot of the cliff.” Berengar was breathless, weeping. William asked him, “And why did he call you his beautiful master?
You were the same age. Had you perhaps taught him something?” Berengar hid his head, pulling his cowl over his face, and sank to his knees, embracing William’s legs. “I don’t know why he addressed me like that. I never taught him anything!” And he burst into sobs. “I am afraid, Father. I want to confess myself to you, Have mercy, a devil is devouring my bowels!” William thrust him away and held out a hand to draw him to his feet. “No, Berengar,” he said to him, “do not ask me to confess you. Do not seal my lips by opening yours. What I want to know from you, you will tell me in another way. And if you will not tell me, I will discover it on my own. Ask me for mercy, if you like, but do not ask silence of me. Too many are silent in this abbey. Tell me, rather, how you saw his pale face if it was darkest night, how he could burn your hand if it was a night of rain and hail and snow, and what you were doing in the cemetery. Come”—and he shook him brutally by the shoulders—“tell me this at least!”
Berengar was trembling in every limb. “I don’t know what I was doing in the cemetery, I don’t remember, I don’t know how I saw his face, perhaps I had a light, no ... he had a light, he was carrying a light, perhaps I saw his face in the light of the flame. ...”
“How could he carry a light if it was raining and snowing?”
“It was after compline, immediately after compline, it was not snowing yet, the snow began later. ... I remem-ber that the first flurries began as I was fleeing. toward the dormitory. I was fleeing toward the dormitory as the ghost went in the opposite direction. ... And after that I know nothing more; please, question me no further, if you will not confess me.”
“Very well,” William said, “go now, &o into the choir, go to speak with the Lord, since you will not speak with men, or go and find a monk who will hear your confession, because if you have not confessed your sins since then, you have approached the sacraments sacri-legiously. Go. We shall see each other again.”
Berengar ran off and vanished. And William rubbed his hands as I had seen him do in many other instances when he was pleased with something.
“Good,” he said. “Now many things become clear.”
“Clear, master?” I asked him. “Clear now that we also have Adelmo’s ghost?”
“My dear Adso,” William said, “that ghost does not seem very ghostly to me, and in any case he was reciting a page I have already read in some book conceived for the use of preachers. These monks read perhaps too much, and when they are excited they relive visions they learned from books. I don’t know whether Adelmo really said those things or whether Berengar simply heard them because he needed to hear them. The fact remains that this story confirms a series of my suppositions. For example: Adelmo died a suicide, and Berengar’s story tells us that, before dying, he went around in the grip of a great agitation, and in remorse for some act he had committed. He was agitat-ed and frightened about his sin because someone had frightened him, and perhaps had told him the very episode of the infernal apparition that he recited to Berengar with such hallucinated mastery. And he was going through the cemetery because he was leaving the choir, where he had confided (or confessed) to some-one who had filled him with terror and remorse. And from the cemetery he was heading, as Berengar in-formed us, in the opposite direction from the dormitory. Toward the Aedificium, then, but also (it is possible) toward the outside wall behind the stables, from where I have deduced he must have thrown himself into the chasm. And he threw himself down before the storm came, he died at the foot of the wall, and only later did the landslide carry his corpse between the north tower and the eastern one.”
“But what about the drop of burning sweat?”
“It was already part of the story he heard and repeated, or that Berengar imagined, in his agitation and his remorse. Because there is, as antistrophe to Adelmo’s remorse, a remorse of Berengar’s: you heard it. And if Adelmo came from the choir, he was perhaps carrying a taper, and the drop on his friend’s hand was only a drop of wax. But Berengar felt it burn much deeper because Adelmo surely called him his master. A sign, then, that Adelmo was reproaching him for having taught him something that now caused him to despair unto death. And Berengar knows it, he suffers because he knows he drove Adelmo to death by making him do something he should not have done. And it is not difficult to imagine what, my poor Adso, after what we have heard about our assistant librarian.”
“I believe I understand what happened between the two,” I said, embarrassed by my own wisdom, “but don’t all of us believe in a God of mercy? Adelmo, you say, had probably confessed; why did he seek to punish his first sin with a sin surely greater still, or at least of equal gravity?”
“Because someone said words of desperation to him. As I said, a page of a modern preacher must have prompted someone to repeat the words that frightened Adelmo and with which Adelmo frightened Berengar. In these last few years, as never before, to stimulate piety and terror and fervor in the populace, and obedi-ence to human and divine law, preachers have used distressing words, macabre threats. Never before, as in our days, amid processions of flagellants, were sacred lauds heard inspired by the sorrows of Christ and of the Virgin, never has there been such insistence as there is today on strengthening the faith of the simple through the depiction of infernal torments.” Page 74
“Perhaps it is the need for penitence,” I said.
“Adso, I have never heard so many calls to penitence as today, in a period when, by now, neither preachers nor bishops nor even my brothers the Spirituals are any longer capable of inspiring true repentance. ...”
“But the third age, the Angelic Pope, the chapter of Perugia …” I said, bewildered.
“Nostalgia. The great age of penitence is over, and for this reason even the general chapter of the order can speak of penitence. There was, one hundred, two hundred years ago, a great wind of renewal. There was a time when those who spoke of it were burned, saint or heretic as they may have been. Now all speak of it. In a certain sense even the Pope discusses it. Don’t trust renewals of the human race when curias and courts speak of them.”
“But Fra Dolcino,” I ventured, curious to know more about that name I had heard uttered several times the day before.
“He died, and died dreadfully, as he lived, because he also came too late. And, anyway, what do you know of him?”
“Nothing. That is why I ask you. ...”
“I would prefer never to speak of him. I have had to deal with some of the so-called Apostles, and I have observed them closely. A sad story. It would upset you. In any case, it upset me, and you would be all the more upset by my inability to judge. It’s the story of a man who did insane things because he put into practice what many saints had preached. At a certain point I could no longer understand whose fault it was, I was as if ... as if dazed by an air of kinship that wafted over the two opposing camps, of saints who preached peni-tence and sinners who put it into practice, often at the expense of others. … But I was speaking of something else. Or perhaps not. I was speaking really of this: when the epoch of penitence was over, for penitents the need for penance became a need for death. And they who killed the crazed penitents, repaying death with death, to defeat true penitence, which produced death, replaced the penitence of the soul with a peni-tence of the imagination, a summons to supernatural visions of suffering and blood, calling them the ‘mirror’ of true penitence. A mirror that brings to life, for the imagination of the simple and sometimes even of the learned, the torments of hell. So that—it is said—no one shall sin. They hope to keep souls from sin through fear, and trust to replace rebellion with fear.”
“But won’t they truly sin then?” I asked anxiously.
“It depends on what you mean by sinning, Adso,” my master said. “I would not like to be unjust toward the people of this country where I have been living for some years, but it seems to me typical of the scant virtue of the Italian peoples to abstain from sin out of their fear of some idol, though they may give it the name of a saint. They are more afraid of Saint Sebastian or Saint Anthony than of Christ. If you wish to keep a place clean here, to prevent anyone from pissing on it, which the Italians do as freely as dogs do, you paint on it an image of Saint Anthony with a wooden tip, and this will drive away those about to piss.
So the Italians, thanks to their preachers, risk returning to the ancient superstitions; and they no longer believe in the resur-rection of the flesh, but have only a great fear of bodily injuries and misfortunes, and therefore they are more afraid of Saint Anthony than of Christ.”
“But Berengar isn’t Italian,” I pointed out.
“It makes no difference. I am speaking of the atmo-sphere that the church and the preaching orders have Page 75
spread over this peninsula, and which from here spreads everywhere. And it reaches even a venerable abbey of learned monks, like these.”
“But if only they didn’t sin,” I insisted, because I was prepared to be satisfied with this alone.
“If this abbey were a speculum mundi, you would already have the answer.”
“But is it?” I asked.
“In order for there to be a mirror of the world, it is necessary that the world have a form,” concluded William, who was too much of a philosopher for my adolescent mind.
In which the visitors witness a brawl among vulgar persons, Aymaro of Alessandria makes some allusions, and Adso meditates on saintliness and on the dung of the Devil. Subsequently William and Adso go back to the scriptorium, William sees something interesting, has a third conversation on the licitness of laughter, but in the end is unable to look where he wishes.
Before climbing up to the scriptorium, we stopped by the kitchen to refresh ourselves, for we had partaken of nothing since rising. I drank a bowl of warm milk and was heartened at once. The great south fireplace was already blazing like a forge while the day’s bread baked in the oven. Two herdsmen were setting down the body of a freshly slaughtered sheep. Among the cooks I saw Salvatore, who smiled at me with his wolf’s mouth. And I saw that he was taking from a table a scrap of chicken left over from the night before and stealthily passing it to the herdsmen, who hid the food in their sheepskin jerkins with pleased grins. But the chief cook noticed and scolded Salvatore. “Cellarer, cellarer,” he said, “u must look after the goods of the abbey, not squander them!”
“Filii Dei they are,” said Salvatore, “Jesus has said that you do for him what you do for one of these pueri!”
“Filthy Fraticello, fart of a Minorite!” the cook shouted at him. “You’re not among those louse-bitten friars of yours any morel The abbot’s charity will see to the feeding of the children of God!” Salvatore’s face turned grim and he swung around, in a rage: “I am not a Minorite friar! I am a monk Sancti Benedicti! Merdre à toy, Bogomil de merdre!”
“Call Bogomil that whore you screw at night, with your heretic cock, you pig!” the cook cried.
Salvatore thrust the herdsmen through the door and, passing close to us, looked at us, worried.
“Brother,” he said to William, “you defend the order that is not mine; tell him the filii de Francesco non sunt hereticos!” Then he whispered into an ear, “Ille menteur, puah!” and he spat on the ground.
The cook came over and roughly pushed him out, shutting the door after him. “Brother,” he said to William with respect, “I was not speaking ill of your order or of the most holy men who belong to it. I was speaking to that false Minorite and false Benedictine who is neither flesh nor fowl.”
“I know where he came from,” William said, concili-atory. “But now he is a monk as you are and you Page 76
owe him fraternal respect.”
“But he sticks his nose in where he has no business only because he is under the cellarer’s protection and believes himself the cellarer. He uses the abbey as if it belonged to him, day and night.”
“How at night?” William asked. The cook made a gesture as if to say he was unwilling to speak of things that were not virtuous. William questioned him no further and finished drinking his milk.
My curiosity was becoming more and more aroused. The meeting with Ubertino, the muttering about the past of Salvatore and his cellarer, the more and more frequent references to the Fraticelli and the heretic Minorites I had heard in those days, my master’s reluc-tance to speak to me about Fra Dolcino ... A series of images began to return to my mind. For example, in the course of our journey we had at least twice come upon a procession of flagellants. Once the local popu-lace was looking at them as if they were saints; the other time there was murmuring that these were heretics. And yet they were the same people. They walked in procession two by two, through the streets of the city, only their pudenda covered, as they had gone beyond any sense of shame. Each carried a leather lash in his hand and hit himself on the shoulders till blood came; and they were shedding abundant tears as if they saw with their own eyes the Passion of the Saviour; in a mournful chant they implored the Lord’s mercy and the intercession of the Mother of God. Not only during the day but also at night, with lighted tapers, in the harsh winter, they went in a great throng from church to church, prostrating themselves humbly before the altars, preceded by priests with candles and banners, and they were not only men and women of the populace, but also noble ladies and merchants. ... And then great acts of penance were to be seen: those who had stolen gave back their loot, others confessed their crimes. ...
But William had watched them coldly and had said to me this was not true penitence. He spoke then much as he had only a short while ago, this very morning: the period of the great penitential cleansing was finished, and these were the ways preachers now organized the devotion of the mobs, precisely so that they would not succumb to a desire for penance that—in this case—really was heretical and frightened all. But I was unable to understand the difference, if there actually was any. It seemed to me that the difference did not lie in the actions of the one or the other, but in the church’s attitude when she judged this act or that.
I remembered the discussion with Ubertino. William had undoubtedly been insinuating, had tried to say to him, that there was little difference between his mystic (and orthodox) faith and the distorted faith of the heretics. Ubertino had taken offense, as one who saw the difference clearly. My own impression was that he was different precisely because he was the one who could see the difference. William had renounced the duties of inquisitor because he could no longer see it. For this reason he was unable to speak to me of that mysterious Fra Dolcino. But then, obviously (I said to myself), William has lost the assistance of the Lord, who not only teaches how to see the difference, but also invests his elect with this capacity for discrimination. Ubertino and Clare of Montefalco (who was, however, surrounded by sinners) had remained saints precisely because they knew how to discriminate. This and only this is sanctity.
But why did William not know how to discriminate? He was such an acute man, and as far as the facts of nature went, he could perceive the slightest discrepancy or the slightest kinship between things. ...
I was immersed in these thoughts, and William was finishing his milk, when we heard someone greet us.
It was Aymaro of Alessandria, whom we had met in the scriptorium, and who had struck me by the expression of his face, a perpetual sneer, as if he could never reconcile himself to the fatuousness of all human beings and yet did not attach great importance to this cosmic tragedy. “Well, Brother William, have you already be-come accustomed to this den of madmen?” Page 77
“It seems to me a place of men admirable in sanctity and learning,” William said cautiously.
“It was. When abbots acted as abbots and librarians as librarians. Now you have seen, up there”—and he nodded toward the floor above—“that half-dead Ger-man with a blind man’s eyes, listening devoutly to the ravings of that blind Spaniard with a dead man’s eyes; it would seem as though the Antichrist were to arrive every morning. They scrape their parchments, but few new books come in. ... We are up here, and down below in the city they act. Once our abbeys ruled the world. Today you see the situation: the Emperor uses us, sending his friends here to meet his enemies (I know something of your mission, monks talk and talk, they have nothing else to do); but if he wants to control the affairs of this country, he remains in the city. We are busy gathering grain and raising fowl, and down there they trade lengths of silk for pieces of linen, and pieces of linen for sacks of spices, and all of them for good money. We guard our treasure, but down there they pile up treasures. And also books. More beautiful than ours, too.”
“In the world many new things are happening, to be sure. But why do you think the abbot is to blame?”
“Because he has handed the library over to foreign-ers and directs the abbey like a citadel erected to defend the library. A Benedictine abbey in this Italian region should be a place where Italians decide Italian questions. What are the Italians doing today, when they no longer have even a pope? They are trafficking, and manufacturing, and they are richer than the King of France. So, then, let us do the same; since we know how to make beautiful books, we should make them for the universities and concern ourselves with what is happen-ing down in the valley—I do not mean with the Emperor, with all due respect for your mission, Brother William, but with what the Bolognese or the Florentines are doing.
From here we could control the route of pil-grims and merchants who go from Italy to Provence and vice versa. We should open the library to texts in the vernacular, and those who no longer write in Latin will also come up here. But instead we are controlled by a group of foreigners who continue to manage the library as if the good Odo of Cluny were still abbot. ...”
“But your abbot is Italian,” William said.
“The abbot here counts for nothing,” Aymaro said, still sneering. “In the place of his head he has a bookcase. Wormeaten. To spite the Pope he allows the abbey to be invaded by Fraticelli. … I mean the hereti-call ones, Brother, those who have abandoned your most holy order ... and to please the Emperor he in-vites monks from all the monasteries of the North, as if we did not have fine copyists and men who know Greek and Arabic in our country, and as if in Florence or Pisa there were not sons of merchants, rich and generous, who would gladly enter the order, if the order offered the possibility of enhancing their fathers’ prestige and power. But here indulgence in secular matters is recog-nized only when the Germans are allowed to ... O good Lord, strike my tongue, for I am about to say improper things!”
“Do improper things take place in the abbey?” William asked absently, pouring himself a bit more milk.
“A monk is also human,” Aymaro declared. Then he added, “But here they are less human than elsewhere. And what I have said: remember that I did not say it.”
“Very interesting,” William said. “And are these your personal opinions, or are there many who think as you do?”
“Many, many. Many who now mourn the loss of poor Adelmo, but if another had fallen into the abyss, some-one who moves about the library more than he should, they would not have been displeased.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have talked too much. Here we talk too much, as you must have noticed already. Here, on the one hand, nobody respects silence any more. On the other, it is respected too much. Here, instead of talking or remaining silent, we should act. In the golden age of our order, if an abbot did not have the temper of an abbot, a nice goblet of poisoned wine would make way for a successor. I have said these things to you, Brother William, obvi-ously not to gossip about the abbot or other brothers. God save me, fortunately I do not have the nasty habit of gossiping. But I would be displeased if the abbot had asked you to investigate me or some others like Pacificus of Tivoli or Peter of Sant’Albano. We have no say in the affairs of the library. But we would like to have a bit of say. So uncover this nest of serpents, you who have burned so many heretics.”
“I have never burned anyone,” William replied sharply.
“It was just a figure of speech,” Aymaro confessed with a broad smile. “Good hunting, Brother William, but be careful at night.”
“Why not during! the day?”
“Because during the day here the body is tended with good herbs, but at night the mind falls ill with bad herbs. Do not believe that Adelmo was pushed into the abyss by someone’s hands or that someone’s hands put Venantius in the blood. Here someone does not want the monks to decide for themselves where to go, what to do, and what to read. And the powers of hell are employed, or the powers of the necromancers, friends of hell, to derange the minds of the curious. ...”
“Are you speaking of the father herbalist?”
“Severinus of Sankt Wendel is a good person. Of course, he is also a German, as Malachi is a German.
...” And, having shown once again his aversion to gossip, Aymaro went up to work.
“What did he want to tell us?” I asked.
“Everything and nothing. An abbey is always a place where monks are in conflict among themselves to gain control of the community. At Melk, too, but perhaps as a novice you were not able to realize it. But in your country, gaining control of an abbey means winning a position in which you deal directly with the Emperor. In this country, on the other hand, the situation is different; the Emperor is far away, even when he comes all the way down to Rome. There is no court, not even the papal court now. There are the cities, as you will have seen.”
“Certainly, and I was impressed by them. A city in Italy is something different from one in my land. ... It is not only a place to live, it is also a place to decide, the people are always in the square, the city magistrates count far more than the Emperor or the Pope. The cities are like ... so many kingdoms. ...”
“And the kings are the merchants. And their weapon is money. Money, in Italy, has a different function from what it has in your country, or in mine. Money circu-lates everywhere, but much of life elsewhere is still dominated and regulated by the bartering of goods, chickens or sheaves of wheat, or a scythe, or a wagon, and money serves only to procure these goods. In the Italian city, on the contrary, you must have noticed that goods serve to procure money. And even priests, bishops, even religious orders have to take money into account. This is why, naturally, rebellion against power takes the form of a call to poverty.
The rebels against power are those denied any connection with money, and so every call to poverty provokes great tension and argument, and the whole city, from bishop to magistrate, considers a personal enemy the one who preaches poverty too much. The inquisitors smell the stink of the Devil where Page 79
someone has reacted to the stink of the Devil’s dung. And now you can understand also what Aymaro is thinking about. A Benedictine abbey, in the golden period of the order, was the place from which shep-herds controlled the flock of the faithful. Aymaro wants a return to the tradition. Only the life of the flock has changed, and the abbey can return to the tradition (to its glory, to its former power) only if it accepts the new ways of the flock, becoming different itself. And since today the flock here is dominated, not with weapons or the splendor of ritual, but with the control of money, Aymaro wants the whole fabric of the abbey, and the library itself, to become a workshop, a factory for making money.”
“And what does this have to do with the crimes, or the crime?”
“I don’t know yet. But now I would like to go upstairs. Come.” The monks were already at work. Silence reigned in the scriptorium, but it was not the silence that comes from the industrious peace of all hearts. Berengar, who had preceded us by only a short time, received us with embarrassment. The other monks looked up from their work. They knew we were there to discover something about Venantius, and the very direction of their gaze drew our attention to a vacant desk, under a window that opened onto the interior, the central octagon.
Although it was a very cold day, the temperature in the scriptorium was rather mild. It was not by chance that it had been situated above the kitchen, whence came adequate heat, especially because the flues of the two ovens below passed inside the columns supporting the two circular staircases in the west and south towers. As for the north tower, on the opposite side of the great room, it had no stair, but a big fireplace that burned and spread a happy warmth. Moreover, the floor had been covered with straw, which muffled our footsteps. In other words, the least-heated corner was that of the east tower, and in fact I noticed that, although there were few places left vacant, given the number of monks at work, all of the monks tended to avoid the desks located in that part. When I later realized that the circular staircase of the east tower was the only one that led, not only down to the refectory, but also up to the library, I asked myself whether a shrewd calculation had not regulated the heating of the room so that the monks would be discouraged from investigating that area and the librarian could more easily control the access to the library.
Poor Venantius’s desk had its back to the great fireplace, and it was probably one of the most desired.
At that time I had passed very little of my life in a scriptorium, but I spent a great deal of it subsequently and I know what torment it is for the scribe, the rubricator, the scholar to spend the long winter hours at his desk, his fingers numb around the stylus (when even in a normal temperature, after six hours of writing, the fingers are seized by the terrible monk’s cramp and the thumb aches as if it had been trodden on). And this explains why we often find in the margins of a manuscript phrases left by the scribe as testimony to his suffering (and his impatience), such as “Thank God it will soon be dark,” or “Oh, if I had a good glass of wine,” or also “Today it is cold, the light is dim, this vellum is hairy, something is wrong.” As an ancient proverb says, three fingers hold the pen, but the whole body works. And aches.
But I was telling about Venantius’s desk. It was rather small, like the others set around the octagonal courtyard, since they were meant for scholars, whereas the larger ones under the windows of the outer walls were meant for illuminators and copyists. Venantius also worked with a lectern, because he probably consulted manuscripts on loan to the abbey, of which he made a copy. Under the desk was a low set of shelves piled with unbound sheets, and since they were all in Latin, I deduced they were his most recent translations. They were written hastily and did not represent the pages of a book, for they had yet to be entrusted to a copyist and an illuminator. For this reason they were difficult to read. Among the pages were a few books, in Greek. Another Greek book was open on the lectern, the work on which Venantius had been exercising his skill as translator in the past days. At that time I knew no Greek, but my master read the title and said this was by a certain Lucian and was the story of a man turned into Page 80
an ass. I recalled then a similar fable by Apuleius, which, as a rule, novices were strongly advised against reading.
“Why was Venantius making this translation?” William asked Berengar, who was at our side.
“The abbey was asked to do it by the lord of Milan, and the abbey will gain from it a preferential right to the wine production of some farms to the east of here.” Berengar pointed with his hand toward the distance. But he promptly added, “Not that the abbey performs venal tasks for laymen. But the lord who has given us this commission went to great pains to have this precious Greek manuscript lent us by the Doge of Venice, who received it from the Emperor of Byzantium, and when Venantius had finished his work, we would have made two copies, one for the lord of Milan and one for our library.”
“Which therefore does not disdain to add pagan fables to its collection,” William said.
“The library is testimony to truth and to error,” a voice then said behind us. It was Jorge. Once again I was amazed (but I was to be amazed often in the days that followed) by the old man’s way of suddenly, unexpectedly appearing, as if we did not see him and he did see us. I wondered also why on earth a blind man was in the scriptorium, but I realized later that Jorge was omnipresent in all corners of the abbey.
And often he was in the scriptorium, seated on a stool by the fireplace, and he seemed to follow everything going on in the room. Once I heard him ask from his place, in a loud voice, “Who is going upstairs?” and he turned to Malachi, who was going toward the library, his steps silenced by the straw.
The monks all held him in high esteem and often had recourse to him, reading him passages difficult to understand, consulting him for a gloss, or asking counsel on how to depict an animal or a saint. And he would look into the void with his spent eyes, as if staring at pages vivid in his memory, and he would answer that false prophets are dressed like bish-ops and frogs come from their mouths, or would say what stones were to adorn the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem, or that the Arimaspi should be depicted on maps near the land of Prester John—urging that their monstrosity not be made excessively seductive, for it sufficed to portray them as emblems, recognizable, but not desirable, or repellent to the point of laughter.
Once I heard him advise a scholiast on how to interpret the recapitulatio in the texts of Tyconius ac-cording to the thought of Saint Augustine, so that the Donatist heresy could be avoided. Another time I heard him give advice on how, in making commentary, to distinguish heretics from schismatics. Or again, he told a puzzled scholar what book to seek in the library catalogue, and more or less on what page he would find it listed, assuring him that the librarian would certainly give it to him because it was a work inspired by God. Finally, on another occasion I heard him say that such-and-such a book should not be sought because, though it did indeed exist in the catalogue, it had been ruined by mice fifty years earlier, and by now it would crumble to powder in the fingers of anyone who touched it. He was, in other words, the library’s memory and the soul of the scriptorium. At times he admonished monks he heard chatting among themselves: “Hurry, and leave testimony to the truth, for the time is at hand!” He was referring to the coming of the Anti-christ.
“The library is testimony to truth and to error,” Jorge said.
“Undoubtedly Apuleius and Lucian were reputed to be magicians,” William said. “But this fable, beneath the veil of its fictions, contains also a good moral, for it teaches how we pay for our errors, and, furthermore, I believe that the story of the man transformed into an ass refers to the metamorphosis of the soul that falls into sin.”
“That may be,” Jorge said.
“But now I understand why, during that conversation of which I was told yesterday, Venantius was so interest-ed in the problems of comedy; in fact, fables of this sort can also be considered kin to the comedies of the ancients. Both tell not of men who really existed, as tragedies do; on the contrary, as Isidore says, they are fictions: ‘fabulas poetae a fando nominaverunt, quia non sunt res factae sed tantum loquendo fictae . …’ ”
At first I could not understand why William had embarked on this learned discussion, and with a man who seemed to dislike such subjects, but Jorge’s reply told me how subtle my master had been.
“That day we were not discussing comedies, but only the licitness of laughter,” Jorge said grimly. I remem-bered very well that when Venantius had referred to that discussion, only the day before, Jorge had claimed not to remember it.
“Ah,” William said casually, “I thought you had spok-en of poets’ lies and shrewd riddles. ...”
“We talked about laughter,” Jorge said sharply. “The comedies were written by the pagans to move spectators to laughter, and they acted wrongly. Our Lord Jesus never told comedies or fables, but only clear parables which allegorically instruct us on how to win paradise, and so be it.”
“I wonder,” William said, “why you are so opposed to the idea that Jesus may have laughed. I believe laughter is a good medicine, like baths, to treat humors and the other afflictions of the body, melancholy in particular.”
“Baths are a good thing,” Jorge said, “and Aquinas himself advises them for dispelling sadness, which can be a bad passion when it is not addressed to an evil that can be dispelled through boldness. Baths restore the balance of the humors. Laughter shakes the body, dis-torts the features of the face, makes man similar to the monkey.”
“Monkeys do not laugh; laughter is proper to man, it is a sign of his rationality,” William said.
“Speech is also a sign of human rationality, and with speech a man can blaspheme against God. Not every-thing that is proper to man is necessarily good. He who laughs does not believe in what he laughs at, but neither does he hate it. Therefore, laughing at evil means not preparing oneself to combat it, and laughing at good means denying the power through which good is self-propagating. This is why the Rule says, ‘The tenth degree of humility is not to be quick to laughter, as it is written: stultus in risu exaltat vocem suam.’ ”
“Quintilian,” my master interrupted, “says that laugh-ter is to be repressed in the panegyric, for the sake of dignity, but it is to be encouraged in many other cases. Pliny the Younger wrote, ‘Sometimes I laugh, I jest, I play, because I am a man.’ ”
“They were pagans,” Jorge replied. “The Rule for-bids with stern words these trivialities: ‘Scurrilitates vero vell verba otiosa et risum moventia aeterna clausura in omnibus locis damnamus, et ad talia eloquia discipulum aperire os non permittimus.’ ”
“But once the word of Christ had triumphed on the earth, Synesius of Cyrene said that the divinity could harmoniously combine comic and tragic, and Aelius Spartianus said of the Emperor Hadrian, man of lofty behavior and of naturaliter Christian spirit, that he could mingle moments of gaiety with moments of gravity. And finally Ausonius recommended moderate use of the serious and the jocose.”
“But Paulinus of Nola and Clement of Alexandria put us on guard against such foolishness, and Sulpicius Page 82
Severus said that no one ever saw Saint Martin in the grip of wrath or in the grip of hilarity.”
“But he recalled some replies of the saint spiritualiter salsa,” William said.
“They were prompt and wise, not ridiculous. Saint Ephraim wrote an exhortation against the laughter of monks, and in the De habitu et conversatione monachorum there is a strong warning to avoid obscenity and witti-cisms as if they were asp venom!”
“But Hildebertus said, ‘Admittenda tibi ioca sunt post seria quaedam, sed tamen et dignis ipsa gerenda modis.’ And John of Salisbury authorized a discreet hilarity. And finally Ecclesiastes, whom you quoted in the pas-sage to which your Rule refers, where it says that laughter is proper to the fool, permits at least silent laughter, in the serene spirit.”
The spirit is serene only when it contemplates the truth and takes delight in good achieved, and truth and good are not to be laughed at. This is why Christ did not laugh. Laughter foments doubt.”
“But sometimes it is right to doubt.”
“I cannot see any reason. When you are in doubt, you must turn to an authority, to the words of a father or of a doctor; then all reason for doubt ceases. You seem to me steeped in debatable doctrines, like those of the logicians of Paris. But Saint Bernard knew well how to intervene against the castrate Abelard, who wanted to submit all problems to the cold, lifeless scrutiny of reason not enlightened by Scripture, pronouncing his It-is-so and It-is-not-so. Certainly one who accepts dan-gerous ideas can also appreciate the jesting of the ignorant man who laughs at the sole truth one should know, which has already been said once and for all. With his laughter the fool says in his heart, ‘Deus non est.’ ”
“Venerable Jorge, you seem to me unjust when you call Abelard a castrate, because you know that he in-curred that sad condition through the wickedness of others. ...”
“For his sins. For the pride of his faith in man’s reason. So the faith of the simple was mocked, the mysteries of God were eviscerated (or at least this was tried, fools they who tried), questions concerning the loftiest things were treated recklessly, the fathers were mocked because they had considered that such ques-tions should have been subdued, rather than raised.”
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