Looking at concepts of truth and lies through fictional worlds. Umberto Eco’s novels "Baudolino" and "The Name of the Rose"

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

86 Pages, Grade: 1.5





Chapter One: Creating Textual Worlds – Historiographic Metafiction
Encyclopaedia of knowledge
Microcosm and heterocosm
Intertextuality and anachronism
Historical and fictional characters
Historical verisimilitude: chroniclers narrate
Mixing different planes of reality
Creating a place for Prester John
Vortex of interpretation versus dogmatic closure

Chapter Two: Political Power-Struggle over Truth-Claims – Cui bono ?
Rivalry between the state and the church
Secular and religious power based on forged letters
Suppression of dissidents
Subversive strategies: poverty debate, laughter and satire
Apocalypse: a new beginning or the end of everything?
What and where is paradise – How does one get there?

Chapter Three: Authority and Authenticity - Establishing and Controlling Truth-claims
The Library preserves and conceals knowledge
Heretics and Saints
The network of textual knowledge
Unicorns or rhinoceros?
Tradition has a social function
The force of persuasion
Suppressing alternative narratives

Chapter Four: Conceptual Making of Truth and Imagining Possibilities
Empiricism and science
Possibility and desire are part of the future
Feelings and inner truth
Idealism and archetypes
Relics and the importance of singularity
Symbolic ordering – signs and signifiers
The emptiness of language
The conflict between universals and individuals



Works Consulted


With The Name of the Rose and Baudolino, and their preoccupation with discursive enquiries into theories of truth, Umberto Eco continues the tradition of philosophical novels, a genre in which scientific concepts, logic and systems of knowledge form an essential part of the story. Going beyond mainstream historical fictions with more levels of meaning through intertextual references and correspondences between medieval and modern times, both books are ‘novels of ideas’, where Eco elucidates philosophical subjects by embedding them in a fictional narrative.

In both narrations, the eclectic combination of literary, historical and philosophical elements builds a complex textual structure; it can be compared to an arrangement similar to a musical score, where each part invites different readerships with different levels of possible reading – in this case, a ‘three-part harmony’.

At the first level, the novels are based on conventional narrative frameworks – an apparent detective mystery and an adventure story –a promise of drama and entertainment that is attractive to many readers. With the second level, Eco disturbs the expectations that these structures encourage by superimposing extended digressions that illuminate historical events of the medieval world. For most readers, this re-visitation to the knowledge from history books can induce an impression of déjà-lu as they encounter familiar names, places and events from the past. The third and highest level of reading is directed towards a sophisticated and educated readership: erudite readers, who can appreciate the nuances of the many intertextual references and rejoice in Eco’s allusions to philosophical themes as well as in their own ability to detect anachronisms, carefully planted within the dialogues. Storytelling within a decidedly postmodern structure is where Eco, in his own words, uses the “varied debris of the encyclopedia to make the music of ideas.”1

The two novels come together most closely in their recurrent concern with a number of philosophical and metaphysical topoi. Eco creates dialogues in which controversial argumentations, between the ones who seek after the truth and the ones who believe that they already possess the truth, can unfold. This authorial technique allows the author to deal implicitly with questions regarding the concept of truth: its definition, ambiguity, permanence, and how it can be distinguished from falsehood.

In order to explicate these questions – for which Eco never presents his own personal answer – both novels present and develop numerous approaches to finding or expressing truth, which can be subsumed under the categories of epistemology, which studies the origin, nature, and limits of knowledge and is concerned with the dissemination, accessibility, circulation and validity of same, and of ontology, the study of being, which is concerned with modes of experience, the categorical structure of reality and questions about the nature or essence of individuals and things.

Seen together, the two texts show the interplay between epistemological and ontological models of explanation and argumentation that surface in dialogues between characters that are solidly delineated by their narrative function of being representatives of ideas. In neither novel does the reader receive conclusive answers; Eco simply illuminates the different conceptualizations of knowledge and reality by investigating the grounds on which truth-claims were based. The novels differ in their use of the episteme, a term which denotes a system of understanding that provides a structure to thought and describes the “body of ideas which shape the perception of knowledge at a particular period.”2 Both novels deal with fundamentally important ontological issues, such as the essences of being, the potentiality and actuality of existence and the controversial philosophical argumentation for and against the existence of universals.

The starting point is an analysis of the author’s use of structural strategies and Chapter One explores how Eco’s mingling of historical knowledge with imagination in a dramatic plot and his use of fictional and fictionalized characters as well as contemporary chroniclers as narrators produces verisimilitude with the past: both texts are investigated for the production of truth-effects which, in turn, emphasises the truth-value of the narration for the reader. It will then be demonstrated how these carefully constructed historical worlds are deliberately destabilized, highlighting their special status as literary constructions.

In The Name of the Rose, the narration proper is distanced by encasing it in a frame-tale and by the use of mediators who, by claiming to have edited, translated and transcribed the text, weaken the solidity of the fictional world for the reader. Eco’s extensive use of intertextual and anachronistic references deliberately corrupts the authenticity of the projected medieval worlds in both novels, but, an additional feature in Baudolino is the borrowing of fictional characters from other fictional worlds which serves to violate the ontological boundaries within the novel.

A major subject in both novels, which will be demonstrated in Chapter Two, is the important role of truth for the two medieval political powers – the Church and the state – in promoting their struggle for supremacy of one over the other and in their use of knowledge to assist their respective truth-claims.

A discussion of the role of the poverty-debate in The Name of the Rose exposes the internal philosophical conflict that raged within the different factions of the Catholic Church, which acted to further exacerbate the external struggle between the Church and the state.

This political dimension of superiority in making truth-claims can be seen as paralleled in Baudolino, firstly by looking at the ingenious attempts made to enable the Emperor to break away from the Pope’s dominion and, secondly, by exploring the extraordinary power of forged documents to create convenient truths.

Finally, returning to The Name of the Rose, Eco’s use of laughter, satire and apocalyptic visions as political instruments to expose the hierarchical nature of truth are examined as a means whereby unauthorized truth-claims can subvert hegemony.

Chapter Three moves on to explore the power of medieval authority and traditions that both guaranteed truth and provided a system that was used to control social processes.

In The Name of the Rose, there is a demonstration of the control by ecclesiastical authorities of episteme: by restricting access to knowledge and impeding education that was in opposition to the truth of the Holy Scriptures, authorities impinged significantly on both ecclesiastical and secular sections of society. In the same vein, maintenance of the established medieval reliance on authority for interpretation is the reason expounded for the Church’s fluctuating use of categorization of its members as either heretics or saints.

A feature of medieval culture, the placing of indiscriminate value on traditional sources as well as on accumulated knowledge on top of established knowledge – truth comes into being with every retelling of encyclopaedic knowledge – is a major subject explored in Baudolino. In the novel, authority is supported by provenance, with the name of an author guaranteeing the veracity of the text. This induces the belief that books mirror reality, and that on this premise, it follows that everything that exists in books must also exist in reality. For the protagonist, the concepts of true and false do not apply when old knowledge can be recycled in new connections. Rather, truth and falsity are situated as relational within the frame, a closed system in which the need to construct meaning dominates interpretation. Paradoxical truth-effects are revealed as resulting from this: due to its persuasive powers, which coincide with the expectations of others, the imagination that precedes existence acts as the authority that brings into being that which did not exist before.

The final Chapter discusses the major influences for the production of, or the discovery of truth in the Middle Ages. Each novel explores various subjective, relative or absolute approaches which were characteristic for the struggle between conflicting philosophical and theological concepts: belief against knowledge; mysticism and symbolic interpretation against rationality – with its emphasis on observation, logic and scientific methodology.

In Baudolino, hope emerges as a creative power, when the imagination projects possibilities that can attain ontological truth. The example of relics, preserved objects of reverence, demonstrates that truth is willed into being by a paradoxical reversal of cause and effect. Here it functions, because it negates authenticity as a prerequisite to inspire belief. Instead of asking for verification whether an object is original or not, the assertion is that sensations caused by holy objects are more real than the objects themselves.

A close investigation of The Name of the Rose exposes conflicting medieval epistemes. The synthesis of faith and knowledge reveals that religious truth is based on a universe full of symbols, where signification takes the form of an ascending ladder with spiritual truth at its top, and where knowledge of universals, achieved by divine illumination, points to eternal truth.

Finally, in both novels, the concept of universals and their relation to reality, as it was discussed in the medieval philosophical controversy between the realists and nominalists, is considered. Philosophers and theologians debated whether universals could exist apart from the particular or only as part of individuals; and, if knowledge about universals might be useful in understanding similarities between individuals, or if universals are merely ideas and have no reality in themselves.

In order to establish the significance of the comparatively critically neglected novel Baudolino as an important part of Eco’s oeuvre, my investigation explores the similarities of, as well as the disparities between both novels regarding conceptual structuring of truth-claims.3 However, what distinguishes the two novels is Eco’s authorial shift of perspective in his investigations: Whereas The Name of the Rose (1998) is predominantly concerned with epistemological questions, Baudolino (2003) engages with ontological uncertainties.

It seems fair to say that Umberto Eco did not endorse any definite answer(s) regarding approaches to truth, but he made it clear, how and to which ends truth-claims were made in medieval times: whether they helped to establish authority or aided personal sentiments, Eco shows scepticism about all closed systems by pointing out the fallacies inherent in each model.

Chapter One: Creating Textual Worlds – Historiographic Metafiction

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Baudolino are structured as compound novels where the fictional plot concurs with historical elements to produce historical verisimilitude, a truth-effect, which in turn emphasizes the truth-value of the fiction. As such, both novels exemplify the hybrid genre “historiographic metafiction,”4 a phrase coined originally by Linda Hutcheon, where the boundary between history and fiction is effaced to such an extent that the interaction between historical and fictional characters constructs a frame of referentiality – one which Eco then uses for juxtaposing metaphysical and philosophical controversies.

Eco does not invent history but rewrites it, transferring some characters from history to his fiction, where they will act as variants of 'real' historical individuals, and inventing others, who will be inserted in the gaps between the historical data, where they reactivate parts of the historical encyclopaedia with the purpose of opening up new cognitive perspectives. Although the novels present models of the medieval and proceed according to their own fictional logic, each fictionalized world displays sufficient familiar traces of history to produce effects of verisimilitude in order to convince the reader of the authenticity of his portray of the medieval era. In both novels, the inescapable fictional nature inherent in all historical representations is exposed by Eco’s narration through contemporary chroniclers, invented characters, which enables him to play “upon the truth and lies of the historical record.”5

However, many attempts at a truthful representation of the past are then deliberately destabilized by Eco’s use of anachronistic references and intertextual play, which point to an ontological paradox, one inherent in all historical accounts, where the “access to a past that once was reality does no longer exist, except through narration.”6

Encyclopaedia of knowledge

Baudolino creates much of his reality with knowledge from books with his adventures taking place in this different realm of existence. This suggests that even the empirical world of the reader might be ontologically flawed by its dependency on the prevalent encyclopaedia of knowledge that constitutes reality. Eco makes it clear that the encyclopaedia is not a fixed entity; rather, it takes in new discoveries, discards obsolete knowledge, and is potentially infinite. Systems of open and closed interpretation provide a key element in the analysis of truth, which becomes evident in Eco’s exploration of maximum stances: a proliferation of interpretative possibilities is dangerous to truth, because it leaves the signifier at once empty as well as overflowing with meaning, which finally renders the signifier meaningless. At the other extreme, closed interpretation encourages a singular, fixed interpretation. Caught up in an endless cycle of repetition, truth congeals into dogma, which protects and preserves an exclusive and dangerously univocal truth.

In both novels, the mutable encyclopaedia is revealed to be a cultural construct of its historical time, in which truth is always contingent upon the ongoing renewal of the existing epistemological model at any one time. For example, the episteme in Baudolino changes according to the different worlds and different modes of existence, as when Zosimos advises Baudolino that “if you want to reach the land of Prester John you must use the map of the world that Prester John would use and not your own – mind you, even if your map is more correct than his” (B 216). Zosimos’ instruction seems puzzling at first, but he implicitly suggests that all maps are drawn from a certain viewpoint that one must understand and follow in order to arrive at the destination. All maps have an agenda; they make a proposal about what the world looks like from a particular perspective that gives a reductive reading by leaving out many features. Baudolino understands that he has to adapt to a framework that is skewed toward the things that Prester John deems most important.

The library in The Name of the Rose illustrates that knowledge was gathered over centuries in important medieval encyclopaedic works by various authors. Evaluated from today’s vantage point, these compendia contain much false information, but by including the outdated truths of past epistemes, which the reader may very well see as obsolete, Eco emphasises the truth-value of his narration, where characters believe only the truths that were held by the majority and could be followed back to their documented source. In the field of herbology, Severinus’s notions that onions, if eaten in small quantities, will enhance coitus and that garlic is good against poisons are examples of knowledge that was once believed to be true, but that is no longer considered part of botanical facts. However, Severinus’s knowledge about herbs that can “actually provoke evil visions” (NR 66-67), points to hallucinating drugs that could still be part of current medicinal knowledge.

Among the proliferation of historical falsehoods and fakes in Baudolino, Zosimos is the agent, used by Eco, who displays knowledge that was not available or commonly accepted in the twelfth century, but which is regarded as truth today. For example, he explains how silk is produced and his account, although false in details, is generally true in that silk is produced by a certain species of worms (B 217). When Baudolino reacts to his being told what he considers to be a lie by concluding that “there’s no trusting a man who wants to make you believe silk comes from worms” (B 217), Eco emphazises the irony for today’s readers in that Baudolino, who readily accepts so many falsehoods, cannot realize what is today known as scientifically proven.

Microcosm and heterocosm

Eco describes his first phase in writing each novel as being a ‘cosmogonical’ phase, during which he constructs the framework of temporal and spatial parameters that set the boundaries for his subsequent fictionalizing. He deliberately imposes restrictions on his writing process that provide him with an initial support structure and he benefits from the process of narrowing down the possibilities – which essentially consists of applying constraints and temporal rhythms – by eliminating facts that do not fit within the set borders (On Literature 322).

The setting of the central ecclesiastical dispute in The Name of the Rose is an unnamed and vaguely located North Italian monastery, a place where order is governed by fear and complicated by self-serving politics; a walled place complete with blind believers and polarity of powers and ideologies. The setting of the monastery serves as a microcosm of the medieval world; its location and the prudent timing of events that take place over seven days make the presence of historical personages possible for the plot. These choices help to project a fictional world that McHale describes as a “heterocosm, a universe apart,” which, although it conforms to accepted real-world norms in a mimetic relation, is just “one of similarity, not identity.” By distinguishing between similarity and identity he explains that there is a “difference between the original object and its reflection, between the real world and the fictional heterocosm.”7

An example of Eco’s strategies for the re-creation of the medieval is the narration time of The Name of the Rose, which comprises the events of seven days at the end of November 1327 – a time-frame which coincides with an actual important historical ecclesiastical debate about the interpretation of poverty. The number seven is also effectively used within the narrative framework as an ordering sign in the scheme of unfolding murders in the monastery; the crimes appear to follow the sequence of the seven trumpets of the apocalypse, a chronological and theological ordering which, for the monks, reflects the medieval belief in mundus senecit – the nearing of the end of the world. For William, the sequence of the apocalypse denotes the murderer’s deliberately applied pattern, which he has to follow in order to solve the crimes. Intentionality, a concept which suggests a “semblance of order,”8 therefore becomes the main objective for William in his search for the truth behind the murders. Eco further reinforces the formal structure of the novel by dividing each day into liturgical hourly sections that mirrors the medieval attitude regarding rhythm and time.

In contrast to the circumscribed schedule in The Name of the Rose, the narrative time in Baudolino is epic, covering a forty-nine-year period in the life of the eponymous hero. The plot includes long journeys, numerous locations and historically recognized events, culminating in the sack of Constantinople in 1204 – this being the year which Eco chose as the vantage point from which he allows his protagonist to narrate his own long and colourful story. The long time-span serves to enable Eco to construct a framework within which he can express the repeated postponement of Baudolino’s quest for the kingdom of Prester John – significant in order to demonstrate the growth of the desire that is nurtured from within Baudolino’s thoughts and actions. Eco reveals that “setting the story at a precise date” is not necessarily a restriction; on the contrary, it paradoxically liberates the author to explore possibilities and experiment within the framework, where he “can make some things happen then, but not others” (On Literature 322). For the reader, Eco’s rule of not contradicting accepted historical accounts emphasizes the truthfulness of his re-interpretation of historical events and furnishes an appropriate historical and cultural frame for the plot, which serves historical personages and fictionalized characters alike.

Intertextuality and anachronism

Set against the restrictive historical framework, Eco’s play with intertextuality problematizes the novel’s claim to historical veracity. In The Name of the Rose, William makes an obvious reference to intertextuality in general, when he says that “often books speak of other books” (NR 286) and, more specifically, Eco has hinted how his own novels refer to one another with his saying that “one can penetrate one book from within another” (On Literature 115). Anachronistic and intertextual connections between the two books as well as references to other texts abound. For example, when young Baudolino complains that “as the man said my thumb akes,”9 at the end of his adolescent chronicle, this phrase mirrors Adso’s penultimate sentence in The Name of the Rose: “It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches” (NR 502). The deliberate anachronistic irony of the author is easy to understand: although Baudolino (2000) was published twenty years later than The Name of the Rose (1980), and for that reason can refer back in time, the novel is set in the twelfth/thirteenth century and the historical narrative is therefore prior to the plot in The Name of the Rose, which takes place in the fourteenth century. These instances of anachronism, in both novels, raise a self-conscious awareness in the reader that Eco’s fictional worlds are not to be read as truthful reflections of the historical past.

The seemingly authentic historical framework is further destabilized by various allusions to personalities who belong to modern cultural encyclopaedia such as Borges, Wittgenstein and some modern French thinkers and by inserting sly references that point to novels of the future: the name ‘Baskerville’ is an allusion to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (published in 1902).10 The modern methodology of William’s systematic investigation of the murders alerts the reader to the composite nature of his character that combines “Holmesian detective methodology with the philosophical and theological methodologies of Bacon and Occam.”11 Even the proper name of his novice Adso, Adson de Melk, who narrates the story, has a phonetic resemblance with Sherlock Holmes’ friend and chronicler Dr John Watson.

Like William of Baskerville, a medieval Holmes wearing a Franciscan habit, Baudolino is a composite figure, who incorporates aspects from various sources. Eco invested him with traces from Saint Baudolino, who had performed a miracle of clairvoyance in the eighth century, similar to the one that the fictional Baudolino performs during his exile as a stylite. Baudolino’s characteristics are reminiscent of other heroes, this time in picaresque literature: his ability to quickly learn new languages during travels reminds the reader of Lemuel Gulliver; and the growth of his yearning for a different existence that stems from his youth makes him appear and act “like Don Quixote, Baudolino lives his first adventures as a reader.”12 Apart from being the protagonist of Eco’s novel, Baudolino is also the narrator of his own story, whereby he occupies the position of implied author for the reader, which is made obvious by Eco’s deliberately investing Baudolino with features that point to himself: Eco, the multi-lingual storyteller from Alessandria – the true author of the book.

References to well-known personages and modern concepts are scattered throughout The Name of the Rose. William’s answer to Adso’s question, as to whether dreams can contain truth, displays a mocking allusion to Freud’s work The Interpretation of Dreams (published in 1899): “We already have so many truths in our possession that if the day came when someone insisted on deriving a truth even from our dreams, then the day of the Antichrist would truly be at hand” (NR 438). A further instance is William’s metaphorical comparison of medieval men with the ancients as “dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of [...] giants” (NR 86), which, teasingly, is open to interpretation. It can be read either as an anachronistic reference to Isaac Newton – who used the expression most famously – or as a reference to Bernard of Chartres (died after 1124) to whom it was attributed by John of Salisbury in the middle of the 12th century. If the latter is taken as the truth, William’s reference does not constitute a temporal violation, but is an instance of intertextuality, in which he quotes a source known to him. But if Isaac Newton is taken as the point of reference, it produces an anachronistic instance, which destabilizes the truthful characterization of William as a fourteenth-century monk.

Historical and fictional characters

Against the bric-à-brac of quotations from literary and philosophical traditions, Eco’s depiction of the past achieves verisimilitude by including, in name at least, historical characters, who, although they exist only in fictionalized form in the narration, add to the correct representation of ‘medievalness’. The two novels are models of the medieval world and therefore proceed according to their own fictional logic. Nevertheless, they are populated with real-world historical figures: Bernardo Gui, Michael of Cesena, Frederick Barbarossa and Niketas Chroniates, are characters which have crossed over from the reality of their historical worlds into Eco’s projected fictional worlds, where they exist as “transworld identities”13, but they are still based on their essential properties as inquisitor, Franciscan monk, Holy Roman Emperor and important chronicler. As such, they exist as textually constructed personages in a fictional world: a world where they “are not reflected in fiction so much as incorporated,” which leads to the claim that “they constitute enclaves of ontological difference within the otherwise ontologically homogeneous fictional heterocosm” (McHale 28). The problem is whether any textual account, either fiction or history, can give an accurate representation of the past or simply an approximation, a re-imagining how things were.

Their fictionalized ontology is shared by other, purely fictional characters, which are invested with sufficient historical veracity to be representatives of their medieval world: Baudolino, Adso and William of Baskerville are the novels’ fictive protagonists or narrators, suitable to partake in epistemological questions of their period. Although the ontology of these fictional characters is not ‘historical,’ in the sense that they have never lived, nevertheless, they are sufficiently accurate representations to be emblematic of their historical period. Their actions in the novels are didactic for readers who will gain an improved understanding of the past itself – and Eco reveals that the past does not merely serve as a pretext for writing his fiction, but that he believes in the value of learning about the past. History, when set in narration, can enlighten and “make clearer to us contemporaries what happened then and how what happened then matters to us as well.”14

In both novels, Eco’s propositions about the real world emphasize the special logical status of fictionalized historical writing, which can be characterized as being an in-between, an amorphous condition. Consequently, it could be argued that it would be inappropriate to apply the concept of right or wrong to Eco’s fictions; both novels present possible worlds, which are “neither true nor false, [they are] suspended between belief and disbelief” (Delany in McHale 33). Readers, aware of this metanarrative artificiality, will perhaps also be ready to call into question the frontiers that separate the fields of their knowledge and experience from the proliferating possible worlds that, day after day, pervade their own actual encyclopaedia.

Historical verisimilitude: chroniclers narrate

The effect of historical verisimilitude is intensified by Eco’s use of contemporary chroniclers as narrators and remote language that is indicative of the medieval period. Historical truth can be based on, or at least greatly influenced by, a variety of factors: in both novels, Eco points out the important role of the chronicler in conveying that truth. Whereas, in The Name of the Rose, the serendipitous finding of a lost manuscript gives insight to the medieval world from a personal viewpoint, in Baudolino, Eco points to the suppression of the individual voice by the power of official chroniclers, as Niketas Chroniates and Bishop Otto select and decide what is to be included in their histories. In the course of retelling historical events, Adso’s and Baudolino’s distinctive voices provide the masks from behind which Eco narrates not only “about the Middle Ages,” but more importantly “in the Middle Ages” (Eco, Postscript 19).

In The Name of the Rose, Adso, as he nears the end of his life, is searching for meaning by recounting his experiences as a young man. Because all dialogues are reported by him, his recollections shape the reader’s historical perspective, making it obvious that “Adso imposes his own point of view on the whole narrative” (Eco, Postscript 32). His reflections appear authentic, because of their archaic mode of expression that reveals a remoteness in time, which is further emphasized by setting his voice at the beginning of a chain of textual mise-en-abyme, that sets Adso’s narration “on a fourth level of encasement, inside three other narratives: I am saying what Valet said that Mabillon said that Adso said” (Eco, Postscript 20). Eco constructs a textual ‘medievalness’ by incorporating an abundance of Latin phrases that convey the remoteness of the historical period, of a time when educated people spoke a different language, “the language of Rome and the monasteries” (NR 204). The use of Latin acts to corroborate and substantiate the authenticity of the narration, because even a modern reader, who has not studied Latin, still knows that “it was the language of the medieval ecclesiastical world and so catches a whiff of the Middle Ages.”15

Similarly, Baudolino begins with young Baudolino’s awkward attempts at chronicle-writing. His idiosyncratic mingling of Latin words with coarse expressions that lack proper grammar and spelling, are indicative of Baudolino’s peasant background, a disadvantage which he is about to overcome by education at Frederick’s court. Eco’s linguistic invention of a twelfth-century North Italian dialect again helps to establish convincing authenticity for the reader, but also points to the significance of the writing act for the documentation of history as it takes place. However, at the end of the novel, the court chronicler Niketas does not honour his promise to immortalize Baudolino by writing down his story, thereby denying Baudolino his wish to become for posterity what Eco calls “part of our collective memory” (On Literature 9-10) – at least, not for eight hundred years, until Eco commits Baudolino’s story to paper.

Thus, in both novels Eco draws attention to the fact that past reality is unverifiable, because it no longer exists and can therefore only be accessed through narration, but moreover, he shows that the surviving accounts of history were either products of chance, or became dominant as a result of the exclusion of other accounts.

Mixing different planes of reality

In addition to the problematic status of historical truth in both novels, Eco sets up a complex ontological system in Baudolino, where the world is structured in different planes of textual reality and populated with different kinds of beings, which problematizes the notion of reality for the reader.

Baudolino is not only a fictional character inside Eco’s fictional world, he is also a fictional character who, according to McHale, projects his own “possible-world-within-possible-worlds,” in which he creates a subworld within Eco’s novel (McHale 34). Baudolino’s narration to Niketas fuses the two levels of fictional reality: his account about his upbringing, education and life at the court of Frederick is full of serendipitous events, but is, on the whole, believable to the extent that the reader can accept the veracity of his past, because it is anchored in recognizable facts of historical knowledge. But Baudolino’s story about his fantastic journey to a fabled land stands as a utopian reality apart, similar to “the two parallel sets of worlds in Don Quixote, the ‘actual-in-the-novel world’ in which one Alonso Quijana suffers certain delusions, and the worlds of Quixote’s delusions” (McHale 33). As a character, Baudolino inhabits two narrated fictional worlds; he has ontological presence in Eco’s fiction as well as ontological presence in his own fiction, which is made up of fabulous texts. For example, Baudolino’s purported encounter with monsters, taken from Pliny’s book, produces a truth-effect where one fictional character backs up the story of another, what McHale describes as “a case of intertextual boundary-violation, transworld identity between characters belonging to different fictional worlds” (17).

Creating a place for Prester John

As a further instance, there is the metaphorical ‘forcing’ of Prester John to cross over from the epistemological world of Bishop Otto’s Chronica – where he only exists because he was mentioned by Bishop Hugh of Jabala – into the reality of Baudolino’s world. To enable this, Baudolino creates ontological presence for Prester John in India, by combining histories and mythologies he once read in old background books in the library of Saint Victoire, which also included the nebulous reports about India, a remote place aptly described “like no other country with a mixture of facts and fiction.”16

Letters that began to circulate in Western Europe soon after the middle of the twelfth century are factual reference: "The oldest extant manuscripts of Prester John's Epistola date from the second half of the twelfth century [...] addressed to Manuel Comnenus, the Byzantine Emperor, who reigned from 1143 to 1180." After introducing himself humbly as Presbyter Johannes, the writer boasts of his titles 'Lord of Lords' and 'supreme ruler of the Three Indies', with seventy-two provinces governed by kings who are his liegemen. Although the letters claim excessive wealth and wonders, only the more sceptical readers could have questioned its authenticity because the content agreed with and thereby reinforced the traditional picture of ‘The Indies’. All sounded only too familiar because "not one of the weird and exotic creatures mentioned in ancient geographic treatises and similar sources of the early Middle Ages was missing in Prester John's account."17 In the medieval mind, any representation of the world that came from a trustworthy source was assumed to be based on reality.

Manifold sources and methodologies of knowledge have a problematic relationship to reality and truth. But Eco cautions the reader against coming to the premature conclusion that “a criterion of truth does not exist.” Instead, he recommends the open concept of ‘encyclopaedia’ as an antidote against narrow concepts of truth – the encyclopaedia is frequently revised, but never finished. The problem is that knowledge, once it has been accepted as truth, remains part of the encyclopaedia until it is proven as false. Thus, viewed retrospectively, Eco concludes that: Our history was inspired by many tales we now recognize as false [and this] should make us alert, ready to call constantly into question the very tales we believe true, because the criterion of the wisdom of the community is based on constant awareness of the fallibility of our learning.18

In short, history is open to revision and when we gain new insights over time, some established truths are contested and often revealed as false.

Vortex of interpretation versus dogmatic closure

In both novels, Eco lays out for readers the dangers that are present in taking up extreme positions. Fallacies exist at both ends of the spectrum and a maximum of ‘closure’ and a maximum of ‘openness’ in interpretation are each detrimental to truth.

Baudolino and his friends discuss Rabbi Solomon’s proposal that a less precise term be used for the hypothetical grasal, one able to confer the sublimity of the object in order that, as with the Torah, “the devout reader must gradually guess what the Almighty, always may his holy name be blessed, wanted to be understood at the end of time” (B 139). Baudolino’s suggestion of referring to the grasal as ‘this true ark’ is unanimously accepted by his friends, because an obscure expression conceals and reveals at the same time, it is sublime and imprecise enough to open “the path to the vortex of interpretation” (B 139). Rabbi Solomon deliberately veils the object in secrecy so that it may surpass its literal sense of a vessel that once has contained Christ’s blood and instead, becomes open to a multiplicity of interpretation.

Uncertainty of interpretation is included in the very title of The Name of the Rose, where the ‘rose’ is used as a symbolic figure so rich in meaning that it stands for the proliferation of medieval interpretation within the novel. As a symbol, the rose is saturated with interpretive possibilities, no longer able to clearly signify: instead, it has become a meta-symbol, or, in semiotic terms, an “indefinite semiotic sign” (On Literature 130). The title was chosen deliberately by Eco to disorient curious readers who noticed that there is no significant mention of a rose in the story.19

The philosophy of extreme openness in interpretation is in opposition to the closed interpretation of Holy Scriptures by Jorge of Burgos.20 The blind old monk Jorge represents dogmatism and religious zeal; he insists on a monopoly regarding truth with an underlying assumption that a stable symbolic signifying system exists in the mind of God. He is the defender and the slave of a single, over-arching religious truth and therefore he is intolerant to any truth-claims outside the Holy Scriptures arguing that “the sole truth one should know [...] has already been said once and for all” (NR 132). Against William's modern scepticism, Jorge defends the fundamentalist truth and metaphysical order of the Catholic Church and condemns all ideas that stand outside its system. William, the open-minded Franciscan, accuses Jorge’s narrow interpretation as being obstinate, emblematic of the arrogance of the institution that Jorge personifies: “the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt.” William concludes, it “has the taste of death” because its main characteristic is the dead-end of repetition (NR 477).


1 Umberto Eco, On Literature (Orlando: Harcourt, 2002) 134.

2 Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989. Michel Foucault defines the episteme as "the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences and possibly formalized systems" (The Archeology of Knowledge, 191).

3 In 1988, Eco followed the success of The Name of the Rose with his second novel Foucault's Pendulum, set in the contemporary world of publishing, which could be described as a parody on the seductions of resemblance and hermetic mysticism invoking hermetic-deconstructive methods that are reminiscent of strategies in poststructuralist theory. An analysis and discussion would go beyond the scope of this essay and the novel is therefore excluded from further investigation, except for two references pertaining to Baudolino.

4 Leticia Reyes-Tatinclaux evaluates The Name of the Rose as “a cultural palimpsest that urges the critical reader to adopt a metatextual strategy. The semiotic reverberations in Eco's novel function both within and without the intellectual and tellurian framework that sustains the fictional world – medieval daily life, but also medieval art, history, sociology, philosophy, theology, theory of signs, literature.”

5 Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (London: Routledge, 1992) 114.

6 Elizabeth Klaver, “Possible worlds, mathematics, and John Mighton’s possible worlds,” Narrative 14.1 (2006): 45.

7 Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1987) 28.

8 Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (London: Vintage, 1998) 492. Abbreviation used in parenthetical references henceforth is NR.

9 Umberto Eco, Baudolino (London: Vintage, 2003) 10. Abbreviation used in parenthetical references henceforth is B.

10 Christine de Lailhacar writes about a semiotic connection: “As to the name Baskerville, it is a sign that stands for a sign, namely a letter type named after the eighteenth-century British typographer John Baskerville.”

11 Joan DelFattore, “Eco’s Conflation of Theology and Detection in The Name of the Rose” in Naming the Rose: Essays on Eco’s The Name of the Rose, ed. Thomas Inge (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1988) 77.

12 Cristina Farronato, Eco’s Chaosmos: From The Middle Ages to Postmodernity (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003) 102.

13 Umberto Eco, “Lector in Fabula: Pragmatic Strategy in a Metanarrative Text,” in The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984) 230.

14 Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose (Orlando: Harcourt, 1984) 36.

15 Erik Ketzan, “Borges and The Name of the Rose,” Porta Ludovica, n.p.

16 Rudolf Simek, Heaven and Earth in the Middle Ages: The Physical World before Columbus (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1996) 61.

17 Karl F. Helleiner, "Prester John's Letter: A Mediaeval Utopia."Phoenix 13.2 (1959): 47-57.

18 Umberto Eco, Serendipities: Language & Lunacy (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999) 19-20.

19 For the source of Adso’s last sentence “stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus” and the two possible translations/interpretations of the quotation, see David Lodge’s introduction to The Name of the Rose.

20 From the first appearance of Jorge of Burgos the reader is made aware that the presence of a ‘fictional Borges’ functions as is a parodic deformation of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, whose influence (especially in terms of intertextuality) can be found in Borges' short story "The Library of Babel."

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Looking at concepts of truth and lies through fictional worlds. Umberto Eco’s novels "Baudolino" and "The Name of the Rose"
James Cook University
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Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, Baudolino, epistemology, ontology, truth, lies, semiotics, signs and signifier, medieval authority, universals, realism, idealism, nominalism, historiographic metafiction
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Dr. Sabine Mercer (Author), 2010, Looking at concepts of truth and lies through fictional worlds. Umberto Eco’s novels "Baudolino" and "The Name of the Rose", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/996574


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