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, conciliatory. “But now he is a monk as you are and you 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 reluctance 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 populace 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 become accustomed to this den of madmen?”
“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 German 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 foreigners 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 happening 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 pilgrims 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 heretical ones, Brother, those who have abandoned your most holy order ... and to please the Emperor he invites 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 recognized 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, someone 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, obviously 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 circulates 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 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 shepherds 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 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 bishops 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 according 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 Antichrist.
“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 interested 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 remembered 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 spoken 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, distorts 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 everything 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 laughter 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 forbids with stern words these trivialities: ‘Scurrilitates vero vel 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 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 witticisms 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 passage 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 dangerous 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 incurred 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 questions should have been subdued, rather than raised.”
“I do not agree, venerable Jorge. Of us God demands that we apply our reason to many obscure things about which Scripture has left us free to decide. And when someone suggests you believe in a proposition, you must first examine it to see whether it is acceptable, because our reason was created by God, and whatever pleases our reason can but please divine reason, of which, for that matter, we know only what we infer from the processes of our own reason by analogy and often by negation. Thus, you see, to undermine the false authority of an absurd proposition that offends reason, laughter can sometimes also be a suitable instrument. And laughter serves to confound the wicked and to make their foolishness evident. It is told of Saint Maurus that when the pagans put him in boiling water, he complained that the bath was too cold; the pagan governor foolishly put his hand in the water to test it, and burned himself. A fine action of that sainted martyr who ridiculed the enemies of the faith.”
Jorge sneered. “Even in the episodes the preachers tell, there are many old wives’ tales. A saint immersed in boiling water suffers for Christ and restrains his cries, he does not play childish tricks on the pagans!”
“You see?” William said. “This story seems to you offensive to reason and you accuse it of being ridiculous! Though you are controlling your lips, you are tacitly laughing at something, nor do you wish me to take it seriously. You are laughing at laughter, but you are laughing.”
Jorge made a gesture of irritation. “Jesting about laughter, you draw me into idle debate. But you know that Christ did not laugh.”
“I am not sure of that. When he invites the Pharisees to cast the first stone, when he asks whose image is ob the coin to be paid in tribute, when he plays on words and says ‘Tu es petrus,’ I believe he was making witticisms to confound sinners, to keep up the spirits of his disciples. He speaks with wit also when he says to Caiaphas, ‘Thou hast said it.’ And you well know that in the most heated moment of the conflict between Cluniacs and Cistercians, the former accused the latter, to make them look ridiculous, of not wearing trousers. And in the Speculum stultorum it is narrated of the ass Brunellus that he wonders what would happen if at night the wind lifted the blankets and the monks saw their own pudenda. ...”
The monks gathered around. laughed, and Jorge became infuriated: “You are drawing these brothers of mine into a feast of fools. I know that among the Franciscans it is the custom to curry the crowd’s favor with nonsense of this kind, but of such tricks I will say to you what is said in a verse I heard from one of your preachers: Tum podex carmen extulit horridulum.”
The reprimand was a bit too strong. William had been impertinent, but now Jorge was accusing him of breaking wind through the mouth. I wondered if this stern reply did not signify, on the part of the elderly monk, an invitation to leave the scriptorium. But I saw William, so mettlesome a moment earlier, now become meek.
“I beg your pardon, venerable Jorge,” he said. “My mouth has betrayed my thoughts. I did not want to show you a lack of respect. Perhaps what you say is correct, and I was mistaken.”
Jorge, faced by this act of exquisite humility, emitted a grunt that could express either satisfaction or forgiveness; and he could only go back to his seat, while the monks who had gradually collected during the argument scattered to their places. William knelt again at Venantius’s desk and resumed searching through the paper. With his humble reply, William had gained a few seconds of quiet. And what he saw in those few seconds inspired his investigation during the night that was to come.
But they were really only a few seconds. Benno came over at once, pretending he had forgotten his stylus on the desk when he had approached to hear the conversation with Jorge; and he whispered to William that he had to speak with him urgently, fixing a meeting place behind the balneary. He told William to leave first, and he would join him in a short while.
William hesitated a few moments, then called Malachi, who, from his librarian’s desk near the catalogue, had followed everything that had happened. William begged him, in view of the injunction received from the abbot (and he heavily emphasized this privilege), to have someone guard Venantius’s desk, because William considered it important to his inquiry that no one approach it throughout the day, until he himself could come back. He said this in a loud voice, and so not only committed Malachi to keep watch over the monks, but also set the monks themselves to keep watch over Malachi. The librarian could only consent, and William and I took our leave.
As we were crossing the garden and approaching the balneary, which was next to the infirmary building, William observed, “Many seem to be afraid I might find something that is on or under Venantius’s desk.”
“What can that be?”
“I have the impression that even those who are afraid do not know.”
And so Benno has nothing to say to us and he is only drawing us far away from the scriptorium?”
“We will soon find out,” William said. In fact, a short while later Benno joined us.
In which Benno tells a strange tale from which unedifying things about the life of the abbey are learned.
What Benno told us was quite confused. It really seemed that he had drawn us down there only to lure us away from the scriptorium, but it also seemed that, incapable of inventing a plausible pretext, he was telling us fragments of a truth of vaster dimensions than he knew.
He admitted he had been reticent that morning, but now, on sober consideration, he felt William should know the whole truth. During the famous conversation about laughter, Berengar had referred to the “finis Africae.” What was it? The library was full of secrets, and especially of books that had never been given to the monks to read. Benno had been struck by William’s words on the rational scrutiny of propositions. He considered that a monk-scholar had a right to know everything the library contained, he uttered words of fire against the Council of Soissons, which had condemned Abelard, and while he spoke we realized that this monk was still young, that he delighted in rhetoric, was stirred by yearnings toward freedom, and was having a hard time accepting the limitations the discipline of the abbey set on his intellectual curiosity. I have earned always to distrust such curiosity, but I know well this attitude did not displease my master, and I saw he was sympathizing with Benno and giving him credence. In short, Benno told us he did not know what secrets Adelmo, Venantius, and Berengar had discussed, but he would not be sorry if as a result of this sad story a bit more light were to be cast on the running of the library, and he hoped that my master, however he might unravel the tangle of the inquiry, would have reason to urge the abbot to relax the intellectual discipline that oppressed the monks—some from far places, like himself, he added, who had come for the express purpose of nourishing the mind on the marvels hidden in the vast womb of the library.
I believe Benno was sincere in expecting of the inquiry what he said. Probably, however, as William had foreseen, he wanted at the same time to retain for himself the possibility of rummaging in Venantius’s desk first, devoured as he was by curiosity, and in order to keep us away from that desk, he was prepared to give us information in exchange. And here is what it was.
Berengar was consumed, as many of the monks now knew, by an insane passion for Adelmo, the same passion whose evils divine wrath had castigated in Sodom and Gomorrah. So Benno expressed himself, perhaps out of regard for my tender years. But anyone who has spent his adolescence in a monastery, even if he has kept himself chaste, often hears talk of such passions, and at times he has to protect himself from the snares of those enslaved by them. Little novice that I was, had I not already received from an aged monk, at Melk, scrolls with verses that as a rule a layman devotes to a woman? The monkish vows keep us far from that sink of vice that is the female body, but often they bring us close to other errors. Can I finally hide from myself the fact that even today my old age is still stirred by the noonday demon when my eyes, in choir, happen to linger on the beardless face of a novice, pure and fresh as a maiden’s?
I say these things not to cast doubt on the choice I made to devote myself to monastic life, but to justify the error of many to whom this holy burden proves heavy. Perhaps to justify Berengar’s horrible crime. But, according to Benno, this monk apparently pursued his vice in a yet more ignoble fashion, using the weapon of extortion to obtain from others what virtue and decorum should have advised them against giving.
So for some time the monks had been making sarcastic observations on the tender looks Berengar cast at Adelmo, who, it seems, was of great comeliness. Whereas Adelmo, enamored only of his work, from which he seemed to derive his sole pleasure, paid little attention to Berengar’s passion. But perhaps—who knows?—he was unaware that his spirit, secretly, tended toward the same ignominy. The fact is, Benno said, he had overheard a dialogue between Adelmo and Berengar in which Berengar, referring to a secret Adelmo was asking him to reveal, proposed a vile barter, which even the most innocent reader can imagine. And it seems that from Adelmo’s lips Benno heard words of consent, spoken as if with relief. As if, Benno ventured, Adelmo at heart desired nothing else, and it sufficed for him to find some excuse other than carnal desire in order to agree. A sign, Benno argued, that Berengar’s secret must have concerned arcana of learning, so that Adelmo could harbor the illusion of submitting to a sin of the flesh to satisfy a desire of the intellect. And, Benno added with a smile, how many times had he himself not been stirred by desires of the intellect so violent that to satisfy them he would have consented to complying with others’ carnal desires, even against his own inclination.
“Are there not moments,” he asked William, “when you would also do shameful things to get your hands on a book you have been seeking for years?”
“The wise and most virtuous Sylvester II, centuries ago, gave as a gift a most precious armillary sphere in exchange for a manuscript, I believe, of Statius or Lucan,” William said. He added then, prudently, “But it was an armillary sphere, not his virtue.”
Benno admitted that his enthusiasm had carried him away, and he resumed his story. The night before Adelmo’s death, Benno followed the pair, driven by curiosity, and he saw them, after compline, go off together to the dormitory. He waited a long time, holding ajar the door of his cell, not far from theirs, and when silence had fallen over the sleep of the monks, he clearly saw Adelmo slip into Berengar’s cell. Benno remained awake, unable to fall asleep, until he heard Berengar’s door open again and Adelmo flee, almost running, as his friend tried to hold him back. Berengar followed Adelmo down to the floor below. Cautiously Benno went after them, and at the mouth of the lower corridor he saw Berengar, trembling, huddled in a corner, staring at the door of Jorge’s cell. Benno guessed that Adelmo had flung himself at the feet of the venerable brother to confess his sin. And Berengar was trembling, knowing his secret was being revealed, even if under the seal of the sacrament.
Then Adelmo came out, his face pale, thrust away Berengar, who was trying to speak to him, and rushed out of the dormitory, moving behind the apse of the church and entering the choir from the north door (which at night remains open). Probably he wanted to pray. Berengar followed him but did not enter the church; he wandered among the graves in the cemetery, wringing his hands.
Benno was wondering what to do when he realized that a fourth person was moving about the vicinity. This person, too, had followed the pair and certainly had not noticed the presence of Benno, who flattened himself against the trunk of an oak growing at the edge of the cemetery. The fourth man was Venantius. At the sight of him Berengar crouched among the graves, as Venantius also went into the choir. At this point, fearing he would be discovered, Benno returned to the dormitory. The next morning Adelmo’s corpse was found at the foot of the cliff. And more than that, Benno did not know.
Dinner hour was now approaching. Benno left us, and my master asked him noting further. We remained for a little while behind the balneary, then strolled briefly in the garden, meditating on those singular revelations.
“Frangula,” William said suddenly, bending over to observe a plant that, on that winter day, he recognized from the bare bush. “A good infusion is made from the bark, for hemorrhoids. And that is arctium lappa; a good cataplasm of fresh roots cicatrizes skin eczemas.”
“You are cleverer than Severinus,” I said to him, “but now tell me what you think of what we have heard!”
“Dear Adso, you should learn to think with your own head. Benno probably told us the truth. His story fits with what Berengar told us early this morning, for all its hallucinations. Berengar and Adelmo do something very evil together: we had already guessed that. And Berengar must reveal to Adelmo that secret that remains, alas, a secret. Adelmo, after committing his crime against chastity and the law of nature, thinks only of confiding in someone who can absolve him, and he rushes to Jorge. Whose character is very stern, as we know from experience, and he surely attacks Adelmo with distressing reprimands. Perhaps he refuses absolution, perhaps he imposes an impossible penance: we don’t know, nor would Jorge ever tell us. The fact remains that Adelmo rushes into church and prostrates himself before the altar, but doesn’t quell his remorse. At this point, he is approached by Venantius. We don’t know what they say to each other. Perhaps Adelmo confides in Venantius the secret received as a gift (or as payment) from Berengar, which no longer matters to him, since he now has a far more terrible and burning secret. What happens to Venantius? Perhaps, overcome by the same ardent curiosity that today also seized our friend Benno, satisfied with what he has learned, he leaves Adelmo to his remorse. Adelmo sees himself abandoned, determines to kill himself, comes in despair to the cemetery, and there encounters Berengar. He says terrible words to him, flings his responsibilities at him, calls him his master in turpitude. I believe, actually, that Berengar’s story, stripped of all hallucination, was exact. Adelmo repeats to him the same words of desperation he must have heard from Jorge. And now Berengar, overcome, goes off in one direction, and Adelmo goes in the other, to kill himself. Then comes the rest, of which we were almost witnesses. All believe Adelmo was murdered, so Venantius has the impression that the secret of the library is more important than he had believed, and he continues the search on his own. Until someone stops him, either before or after he has discovered what he wanted.”
“Who killed him? Berengar?”
“Perhaps. Or Malachi, who must guard the Aedificium. Or someone else. Berengar is suspect because he is frightened, and he knew that by then Venantius possessed his secret. Malachi is suspect: guardian of the inviolability of the library, he discovers someone has violated it, and he kills. Jorge knows everything about everyone, possesses Adelmo’s secret, does not want me to discover what Venantius may have found. ... Many facts would point to him. But tell me how a blind man can kill another man in the fullness of his strength? And how can an old man, even if strong, carry the body to the jar? But finally, why couldn’t the murderer be Benno himself? He could have lied to us, impelled by reasons that cannot be confessed. And why limit our suspicions only to those who took part in the discussion of laughter? Perhaps the crime had other motives, which have nothing to do with the library. In any case, we need two things: to know how to get into the library at night, and a lamp. You provide the lamp. Linger in the kitchen at dinner hour, take one. ...”
“A loan, to the greater glory of the Lord.”
“If that is so, then count on me.”
“Good. As for getting into the Aedificium, we saw where Malachi came from last night. Today I will visit the church, and that chapel in particular. In an hour we go to table. Afterward we have a meeting with the abbot. You will be admitted, because I have asked to bring a secretary to make a note of what we say.”
In which the abbot declares his pride in the wealth of his abbey and his fear of heretics, and eventually Adso wonders whether he has made a mistake in going forth into the world.
We found the abbot in church, at the main altar. He was following the work of some novices who had brought forth from a secret place a number of sacred vessels, chalices, patens, and monstrances, and a crucifix I had not seen during the morning function. I could not repress a cry of wonder at the dazzling beauty of those holy objects. It was noon and the light came in bursts through the choir windows, and even more through those of the façade, creating white cascades that, like mystic streams of divine substance, intersected at various points of the church, engulfing the altar itself.
The vases, the chalices, each piece revealed its precious materials: amid the yellow of the gold, the immaculate white of the ivory, and the transparency of the crystal, I saw gleaming gems of every color and dimension, and I recognized jacinth, topaz, ruby, sapphire, emerald, chrysolite, onyx, carbuncle, and jasper and agate. And at the same time I realized how, that morning, first transported by prayer and then overcome with terror, I had failed to notice many things: the altar frontal and three other panels that flanked it were entirely of gold, and eventually the whole altar seemed of gold, from whatever direction I looked at it.
The abbot smiled at my amazement. “These riches you see,” he said, addressing me and my master, “and others you will see later, are the heritage of centuries of piety and devotion, testimony to the power and holiness of this abbey. Princes and potentates of the earth, archbishops and bishops have sacrificed to this altar and to the objects destined for it the rings of their investiture, the gold and precious stones that were the emblem of their greatness, to have them melted down here to the greater glory of the Lord and of this His place. Though today the abbey is distressed by another, sad event, we must not forget, reminded of our fragility, the strength and power of the Almighty. The celebration of the Holy Nativity is approaching, and we are beginning to polish the sacred vessels, so that the Saviour’s birth may be celebrated with all the pomp and magnificence it deserves and demands. Everything must appear in its full splendor,” he added, looking hard at William, and afterward I understood why he insisted so proudly on justifying his action, “because we believe it useful and fitting not to hide, but on the contrary to proclaim divine generosity.”
“Certainly,” William said politely, “if Your Sublimity feels that the Lord must be so glorified, your abbey has achieved the greatest excellence in this meed of praise.”
“And so it must be,” the abbot said. “If it was the custom that amphoras and phials of gold and little gold mortars served, by the will of God or order of the prophets, to collect the blood of goats or calves or of the heifer in the temple of Solomon, then there is all the more reason why vases of gold and precious stones, and the most valuable things created, should be used with constant reverence and complete devotion to receive the blood of Christ! If in a second creation our substance were to be the same as that of the cherubim and the seraphim, the service it could perform for such an ineffable victim would still be unworthy. ...”
“Amen,” I said.
“Many protest that a devoutly inspired mind, a pure heart, a will led by faith should suffice for this sacred function. We are the first to declare explicitly and resolutely that these are the essential things; but we are convinced that homage must also be paid through the exterior ornament of the sacred vessel, because it is profoundly right and fitting that we serve our Saviour in all things, totally. He who has not refused to provide for us, totally and without reservation.”
“This has always been the opinion of the great men of your order,” William agreed, “and I recall beautiful things written on the ornaments of churches by the very great and venerable abbot Suger.”
“True,” the abbot said. “You see this crucifix. It is not yet complete. …” He took it in his hand with infinite love, gazed at it, his face radiant with bliss. “Some pearls are still missing here, for I have found none the right size. Once Saint Andrew addressed the cross of Golgotha, saying it was adorned with the limbs of Christ as with pearls. And pearls must adorn this humble simulacrum of that great wonder. Still, I have found it proper to set, here, over the very head of the Saviour, the most beautiful diamond you will ever see.” His devout hands, his long white fingers, stroked the most precious parts of the sacred wood, or, rather, the. sacred ivory, for this noble material had served to form the arms of the cross.
“As I take pleasure in all the beauties of this house of God, when the spell of the many-colored stones has torn me from outside concerns and a worthy meditation has led me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues, then I seem to find myself, so to speak, in a strange region of the universe, no longer completely enclosed in the mire of the earth or completely free in the purity of heaven. And it seems to me that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this lower world to that higher world by anagoge. …”
As he spoke, he turned his face to the nave. A shaft of light from above was illuminating his countenance, through a special benevolence of the daystar, and his hands, which he had extended in the form of a cross, caught up as he was in his fervor. “Every creature,” he said, “visible or invisible, is a light, brought into being by the father of lights. This ivory, this onyx, but also the stone that surrounds us, are a light, because I perceive that they are good and beautiful, that they exist according to their own rules of proportion, that they differ in genus and species from all other genera and species, that they are defined by their own number, that they are true to their order, that they seek their specific place according to their weight. And the more these things are revealed to me, the more the matter I gaze on is by its nature precious, and the better illuminated is the divine power of creation, for if I must strive to rasp the sublimity of the cause, inaccessible in its fullness, through the sublimity of the effect, how much better am I told of the divine causality by an effect as wondrous as gold and diamond, if even dung or an insect can speak to me of it! And then, when I perceive in these stones such superior things, the soul weeps, moved to joy, and not through terrestrial vanity or love of riches, but through the purest love of the prime, uncaused cause.”
“Truly this is the sweetest of theologies,” William said, with perfect humility, and I thought he was using that insidious figure of speech that rhetors call irony, which must always be prefaced by the pronunciatio, representing its signal and its justification—something William never did. For which reason the abbot, more inclined to the use of figures of speech, took William literally and added, still in the power of his mystical transport, “It is the most immediate of the paths that put us in touch with the Almighty: theophanic matter.”
William coughed politely. “Er … hm …” he said. This is what he did when he wanted to introduce a new subject. He managed to do it gracefully because it was his habit—and I believe this is typical of the men of his country—to begin every remark with long preliminary moans, as if starting the exposition of a completed thought cost him a great mental effort. Whereas, I am now convinced, the more groans he uttered before his declaration, the surer he was of the soundness of the proposition he was expressing.
“Eh ... oh ...” William continued. “We should talk of the meeting and the debate on poverty.”
“Poverty …” the abbot said, still lost in thought, as if having a hard time coming down from that beautiful region of the universe to which his gems had transported him. “Ah, yes, the meeting ...”
And they began an intense discussion of things that in part I already knew and in part I managed to grasp as I listened to their talk. As I said at the beginning of this faithful chronicle, it concerned the double quarrel that had set, on the one hand, the Emperor against the Pope, and, on the other, the Pope against the Franciscans, who in the Perugia chapter, though only after many years, had espoused the Spirituals’ theories about the poverty of Christ; and it concerned the jumble that had been created as the Franciscans sided with the empire, a triangle of oppositions and alliances that had now been transformed into a square, thanks to the intervention, to me still very obscure, of the abbots of the order of Saint Benedict.
I never clearly grasped the reason why the Benedictine abbots had given refuge and protection to the Spiritual Franciscans, some time before their own order came to share their opinions to a certain extent. Because if the Spirituals preached the renunciation of all worldly goods, the abbots of my order—I had seen that very day the radiant confirmation—followed a path no less virtuous, though exactly the opposite. But I believe the abbots felt that excessive power for the Pope meant excessive power for the bishops and the cities, whereas my order had retained its power intact through the centuries precisely by opposing the secular clergy and the city merchants, setting itself as direct mediator between earth and heaven, and as adviser of sovereigns.
I had often heard repeated the motto according to which the people of God were divided into shepherds (namely, the clerics), dogs (that is, warriors), and sheep (the populace). But I later learned that this sentence can be rephrased in several ways. The Benedictines had often spoken, not of three orders, but of two great divisions, one involving the administration of earthly things and the other the administration of heavenly things. As far as earthly things went, there was a valid division into clergy, lay lords, and populace, but this tripartite division was dominated by the presence of the ordo monachorum, direct link between God’s people and heaven, and the monks had no connection with those secular shepherds, the priests and bishops, ignorant and corrupt, now supine before the interests of the cities, where the sheep were no longer the good and faithful peasants but, rather, the merchants and artisans. The Benedictine order was not sorry that the governing of the simple should be entrusted to the secular clerics, provided it was the monks who established the definitive regulation of this government, the monks being in direct contact with the source of all earthly power, the empire, just as they were with the source of all heavenly power. This, I believe, is why many Benedictine abbots, to restore dignity to the empire against the government of the cities (bishops and merchants united), agreed to protect the Spiritual Franciscans, whose ideas they did not share but whose presence was useful to them, since it offered the empire good syllogisms against the overweening power of the Pope.
These were the reasons, I then deduced, why Abo was now preparing to collaborate with William, the Emperor’s envoy, and to act as mediator between the Franciscan order and the papal throne. In fact, even in the violence of the dispute that so endangered the unity of the church, Michael of Cesena, several times called to Avignon by Pope John, was ultimately prepared to accept the invitation, because he did not want his order to place itself in irrevocable conflict with the Pontiff. As general of the Franciscans, he wanted at once to see their positions triumph and to obtain papal assent, not least because he surmised that without the Pope’s agreement he would not be able to remain for long at the head of the order.
But many had assured him the Pope would be awaiting him in France to ensnare him, charge him with heresy, and bring him to trial. Therefore, they advised that Michael’s appearance at Avignon should be preceded by negotiations. Marsilius had had a better idea: to send with Michael an imperial envoy who would present to the Pope the point of view of the Emperor’s supporters. Not so much to convince old Cahors but to strengthen the position of Michael, who, as part of an imperial legation, would not then be such easy prey to papal vengeance.
This idea, however, had numerous disadvantages and, could not be carried out immediately. Hence the idea of a preliminary meeting between the imperial legation and some envoys of the Pope, to essay their respective positions and to draw up the agreement for a further encounter at which the safety of the Italian visitors would be guaranteed. To organize this first meeting, William of Baskerville had been appointed. Later, he would present the imperial theologians’ point of view at Avignon, if he deemed the journey possible without danger. A far-from-simple enterprise, because it was supposed that the Pope, who wanted Michael alone in order to be able to reduce him more readily to obedience, would send to Italy a mission with instructions to make the planned journey of the imperial envoys to his court a failure, as far as possible. William had acted till now with great ability. After long consultations with various Benedictine abbots (this was the reason for the many stops along our journey), he had chosen the abbey where we now were, precisely because the abbot was known to be devoted to the empire and yet, through his great diplomatic skill, not disliked by the papal court. Neutral territory, therefore, this abbey where the two groups could meet.
But the Pope’s resistance was not exhausted. He knew that, once his legation was on the abbey’s terrain, it would be subject to the abbot’s jurisdiction; and since some of his envoys belonged to the secular clergy, he would not accept this control, claiming fears of an imperial plot. He had therefore made the condition that his envoys’ safety be entrusted to a company of archers of the King of France, under the command of a person in the Pope’s trust. I had vaguely listened as William discussed this with an ambassador of the Pope at Bobbio: it was a matter of defining the formula to prescribe the duties of this company—or, rather, defining what was meant by the guaranteeing of the safety of the papal legates. A formula proposed by the Avignonese had finally been accepted, for it seemed reasonable: the armed men and their officers would have jurisdiction “over all those who in any way made an attempt on the life of members of the papal delegation or tried to influence their behavior or judgment by acts of violence.” Then the pact had seemed inspired by purely formal preoccupations. Now, after the recent events at the abbey, the abbot was uneasy, and he revealed his doubts to William. If the legation arrived at the abbey while the author of the two crimes was still unknown (and the following day the abbot’s worries were to increase, because the crimes would increase to three), they would have to confess that within those walls someone in circulation was capable of influencing the judgment and behavior of the papal envoys with acts of violence.
Trying to conceal the crimes committed would be of no avail, because if anything further were to happen, the papal envoys would suspect a plot against them. And so there were only two solutions. Either William discovered the murderer before the arrival of the legation (and here the abbot stared hard at him as if silently reproaching him for not having resolved the matter yet) or else the Pope’s envoy had to be informed frankly and his collaboration sought, to place the abbey under close surveillance during the course of the discussions. The abbot did not like this second solution, because it meant renouncing: part of his sovereignty and submitting his own monks to French control. But he could run no risks. William and the abbot were both vexed by the turn things were taking; however, they had few choices. They proposed, therefore, to come to a final decision during the next day. Meanwhile, they could only entrust themselves to divine mercy and to William’s sagacity.
“I will do everything possible, Your Sublimity,” William said. “But, on the other hand, I fail to see how the matter can really compromise the meeting. Even the papal envoy will understand that there is a difference between the act of a madman or a sanguinary, or perhaps only of a lost soul, and the grave proems that upright men will meet to discuss.”
“You think so?” the abbot asked, looking hard at William. “Remember: the Avignonese know they are to meet Minorites, and therefore very dangerous persons, close to the Fraticelli and others even more demented than the Fraticelli, dangerous heretics who are stained with crimes”—here the abbot lowered his voice—“compared with which the events that have taken place here, horrible as they are, pale like mist in the sun.”
“It is not the same thing!” William cried sharply. “You cannot put the Minorites of the Perugia chapter on the same level as some bands of heretics who have misunderstood the message of the Gospel, transforming the struggle against riches into a series of private vendettas or bloodthirsty follies. ...”
“It is not many years since, not many miles from here, one of those bands, as you call them, put to fire and the sword the estates of the Bishop of Vercelli and the mountains beyond Novara,” the abbot said curtly.
“You speak of Fra Dolcino and the Apostles. ...”
“The Pseudo Apostles,” the abbot corrected him. And once more I heard Fra Dolcino and the Pseudo Apostles mentioned, and once more in a circumspect tone, with almost a hint of terror.
“The Pseudo Apostles,” William readily agreed. “But they had no connection with the Minorites. ...”
“… with whom they shared the same professed reverence for Joachim of Calabria,” the abbot persisted, “and you can ask your brother Ubertino.”
“I must point out to Your Sublimity that now he is a brother of your own order,” William said, with a smile and a kind of bow, as if to compliment the abbot on the gain his order had made by receiving a man of such renown.
“I know, I know.” The abbot smiled. “And you know with what fraternal care our order welcomed the Spirituals when they incurred the Pope’s wrath. I am not speaking only of Ubertino, but also of many other, more humble brothers, of whom little is known, and of whom perhaps we should know more. Because it has happened that we accepted fugitives who presented themselves garbed in the habit of the Minorites, and afterward I learned that the various vicissitudes of their life had brought them, for a time, quite close to the Dolcinians. …”
“Here, too?” William asked.
“Here, too. I am revealing to you something about which, to tell the truth, I know very little, and in any case not enough to pronounce accusations. But inasmuch as you are investigating the life of this abbey, it is best for you to know these things also. I will tell you, further, that on the basis of things I have heard or surmised, I suspect—mind you, only suspect—that there was a very dark moment to the life of our cellarer, who arrived here, in fact, two years ago, following the exodus of the Minorites.”
“The cellarer? Remigio of Varagine a Dolcinian? He seems to me the mildest of creatures, and, for that matter, the least interested in Sister Poverty that I have ever seen …” William said.
“I can say nothing against him, and I make use of his good services, for which the whole community is also grateful to him. But I mention this to make you understand how easy it is to find connections between a friar of ours and a Fraticello.”
“Once again your magnanimity is misplaced, if I may say so,” William interjected. “We were talking about Dolcinians, not Fraticelli. And much can be said about the Dolcinians without anyone’s really knowing who is being discussed, because there are many kinds. Still, they cannot be called sanguinary. At most they can be reproached for putting into practice without much consideration things that the Spirituals preached with greater temperance, animated by true love of God, and here I agree the borderline between one group and the other is very fine. …”
“But the Fraticelli are heretics!” the abbot interrupted sharply. “They do not confine themselves to sustaining the poverty of Christ and the apostles, a doctrine that—though I cannot bring myself to share it—can be usefully opposed to the haughtiness of Avignon. The Fraticelli derive from that doctrine a practical syllogism: they infer a right to revolution, to looting, to the perversion of behavior.”
“But which Fraticelli?”
“All, in general. You know they are stained with unmentionable crimes, they do not recognize matrimony, they deny hell, they commit sodomy, they embrace the Bogomil heresy of the ordo Bulgariae and the ordo Drygonthie. …”
“Please,” William said, “do not mix things that are separate! You speak as if the Fraticelli, Patarines, Waldensians, Catharists, and within these the Bogomils of Bulgaria and the heretics of Dragovitsa, were all the same thing!”
“They are,” the abbot said sharply, “they are because they are heretics, and they are because they jeopardize the very order of the civilized world, as well as the order of the empire you seem to me to favor. A hundred or more years ago the followers of Arnold of Brescia set fire to the houses of the nobles and the cardinals, and these were the fruits of the Lombard heresy of the Patarines.”
“Abo,” William said, “you live in the isolation of this splendid and holy abbey, far from the wickedness of the world. Life in the cities is far more complex than you believe, and there are degrees, you know, also in error and in evil. Lot was much less a sinner than his fellow citizens who conceived foul thoughts also about the angels sent by God, and the betrayal of Peter was nothing compared with the betrayal of Judas: one, indeed, was forgiven, the other not. You cannot consider Patarines and Catharists the same thing. The Patarines were a movement to reform behavior within the laws of Holy Mother Church. They wanted always to improve the ecclesiastics’ behavior.”
“Maintaining that the sacraments should not be received from impure priests ...”
“And they were mistaken, but it was their only error of doctrine. They never proposed to alter the law of God. …”
“But the Patarine preaching of Arnold of Brescia, in Rome, more than two hundred years ago, drove the mob of rustics to burn the houses of the nobles and the cardinals.”
“Arnold tried to draw the magistrates of the city into his reform movement. They did not follow him, and he found support among the crowds of the poor and the outcast. He was not responsible for the violence and the anger with which they responded to his appeals for a less corrupt city.”
“The city is always corrupt.”
“The city is the place where today live the people of God, of whom you, we, are the shepherds. It is the place of scandal in which the rich prelates preach virtue to poor and hungry people. The Patarine disorders were born of this situation. They are sad, but not incomprehensible. The Catharists are something else. That is an Oriental heresy, outside the doctrine of the church. I don’t know whether they really commit or have committed the crimes attributed to them. I know they reject matrimony, they deny hell. I wonder whether many acts they have not committed have been attributed to them only because of the ideas (surely unspeakable) they have upheld.”
“And you tell me that the Catharists have not mingled with the Patarines, and that both are not simply two of the faces, the countless faces, of the same demoniacal phenomenon?”
“I say that many of these heresies, independently of the doctrines they assert, encounter success among the simple because they suggest to such people the possibility of a different life. I say that very often the simple do not know much about doctrine. I say that often hordes of simple people have confused Catharist preaching with that of the Patarines, and these together with that of the Spirituals. The life of the simple, Abo, is not illuminated by learning and by the lively sense of distinctions that makes us wise. And it is haunted by illness and poverty, tongue-tied by ignorance. Joining a heretical group, for many of them, is often only another way of shouting their own despair. You may burn a cardinal’s house because you want to perfect the life of the clergy, but also because you believe that the hell he preaches does not exist. It is always done because on earth there does exist a hell, where lives the flock whose shepherds we no longer are. But you know very well that, just as they do not distinguish between the Bulgarian church and the followers of the priest Liprando, so often the imperial authorities and their supporters did not distinguish between Spirituals and heretics. Not infrequently, imperial forces, to combat their adversaries, encouraged Catharist tendencies among the populace. In my opinion they acted wrongly. But what I now know is that the same forces often, to rid themselves of these restless and dangerous and too ‘simple’ adversaries, attributed to one group the heresies of the others, and flung them all on the pyre. I have seen—I swear to you, Abo, I have seen with my own eyes—men of virtuous life, sincere followers of poverty and chastity, but enemies of the bishops, whom the bishops thrust into the hands of the secular arm, whether it was in the service of the empire or of the free cities, accusing these men of sexual promiscuity, sodomy, unspeakable practices—of which others, perhaps, but not they, had been guilty. The simple are meat for slaughter, to be used when they are useful in causing trouble for the opposing power, and to be sacrificed when they are no longer of use.”
“Therefore,” the abbot said, with obvious maliciousness, “were Fra Dolcino and his madmen, and Gherardo Segarelli and those evil murderers, wicked Catharists or virtuous Fraticelli, sodomite Bogomils or Patarine reformers? Will you tell me, William, you who know so much about heretics that you seem one of them, where the truth lies?”
“Nowhere, at times,” William said, sadly.
“You see? You yourself can no longer distinguish between one heretic and another. I at least have a rule. I know that heretics are those who endanger the order that sustains the people of God. And I defend the empire because it guarantees this order for me. I combat the Pope because he is handing the spiritual power over to the bishops of the cities, who are allied with the merchants and the corporations and will not be able to maintain this order. We have maintained it for centuries. And as for the heretics, I also have a rule, and it is summed up in the reply that Arnald Amalaricus, Bishop of Citeaux, gave to those who asked him what to do with the citizens of Béziers: Kill them all, God will recognize His own.”
William lowered his eyes and remained silent for a while. Then he said, “The city of Béziers was captured and our forces had no regard for dignity of sex or age, and almost twenty thousand people were put to the sword. When the massacre was complete, the city was sacked and burned.”
“A holy war is nevertheless a war.”
“For this reason perhaps there should not be holy wars. But what am I saying? I am here to defend the rights of Louis, who is also putting Italy to the sword. I, too, find myself caught in a game of strange alliances. Strange the alliance between Spirituals and the empire, and strange that of the empire with Marsilius, who seeks sovereignty for the people. And strange the alliance between the two of us, so different in our ideas and traditions. But we have two tasks in common: the success of the meeting and the discovery of a murderer. Let us try to proceed in peace.”
The abbot held out his arms. “Give me the kiss of peace, Brother William. With a man of your knowledge I could argue endlessly about fine points of theology and morals. We must not give way, however, to the pleasure of disputation, as the masters of Paris do. You are right: we have an important task ahead of us, and we must proceed in agreement. But I have spoken of these things because I believe there is a connection. Do you understand? A possible connection—or, rather, a connection others can make—between the crimes that have occurred here and the theses. of your brothers. This is why I have warned you, and this is why we must ward off every suspicion or insinuation on the part of the Avignonese.”
“Am I not also to suppose Your Sublimity has suggested to me a line for my inquiry? Do you believe that the source of the recent events can be found in some obscure story dating back to the heretical past of one of the monks?”
The abbot was silent for a few moments, looking at William but allowing no expression to be read on his face. Then he said: “In this sad affair you are the inquisitor. It is your task to be suspicious, even to risk unjust suspicion. Here I am only the general father. And, I will add, if I knew that the past of one of my monks lent itself to well-founded suspicion, I would myself already have taken care to uproot the unhealthy plant. What I know, you know. What I do not know should properly be brought to light by your wisdom.” He nodded to us and left the church.
“The story is becoming more complicated, dear Adso,” William said, frowning. We pursue a manuscript, we become interested in the” diatribes of some overcurious monks and in the actions of other, overlustful ones, and now, more and more insistently, an entirely different trail emerges. The cellarer, then ... And with the cellarer that strange animal Salvatore also arrived here. ... But now we must go and rest, because we plan to stay awake during the night.”
“Then you still mean to enter the library tonight? You are not going to abandon that first trail?”
“Not at all. Anyway, who says the two trails are separate? And finally, this business of the cellarer could merely be a suspicion of the abbot’s.”
He started toward the pilgrims’ hospice. On reaching the threshold, he stopped and spoke, as if continuing his earlier remarks.
“After all, the abbot asked me to investigate Adelmo’s death when he thought that something unhealthy was going on among his young monks. But now that the death of Venantius arouses other suspicions, perhaps the abbot has sensed that the key to the mystery lies in the library, and there he does not wish any investigating. So he offers me the suggestion of the cellarer, to distract my attention from the Aedificium. ...”
“But why would he not want—”
“Don’t ask too many questions. The abbot told me at the beginning that the library was not to be touched. He must have his own good reasons. It could be that he is involved in some matter he thought unrelated to Adelmo’s death, and now he realizes the scandal is spreading and could also touch him. And he doesn’t want the truth to be discovered, or at least he doesn’t want me to be the one who discovers it. ...”
“Then we are living in a place abandoned by God,” I said, disheartened.
“Have you found any places where God would have felt at home?” William asked me, looking down from his great height.
Then he sent me to rest. As I lay on my pallet, I concluded that my father should not have sent me out into the world, which was more complicated than I had thought. I was learning too many things.
“Salva me ab ore leonis,” I prayed as I fell asleep.
In which, though the chapter is short, old Alinardo says very interesting things about the labyrinth and about the way to enter it.
I woke when it was almost tolling the hour for the evening meal. I felt dull and somnolent, for daytime sleep is like the sin of the flesh: the more you have the more you want, and yet you feel unhappy,. sated and unsated at the same time. William was not to his cell; obviously he had risen much earlier. I found him, after a brief search, coming out of the Aedificium. He told me he had been in the scriptorium, leafing through the catalogue and observing the monks at work, while trying to approach Venantius’s desk and resume his inspection. But for one reason or another, each monk seemed bent on keeping him from searching among those papers. First Malachi had come over to him, to show him some precious illuminations. Then Benno had kept him busy on trifling pretexts. Still later, when he had bent over to resume his examination, Berengar had begun hovering around him, offering his collaboration.
Finally, seeing that my master appeared seriously determined to look into Venantius’s things, Malachi told him outright that, before rummaging among the dead man’s papers, he ought perhaps to obtain the abbot’s authorization; that he himself, even though he was the librarian, had refrained, out of respect and discipline, from looking; and that in any case, as William had requested, no one had approached that desk, and no one would approach it until the abbot gave instructions. William realized it was not worth engaging in a test of strength with Malachi, though all that stir and those fears about Venantius’s papers had of course increased his desire to become acquainted with them. But he was so determined to get back in there that night, though he still did not know how, that he decided not to create incidents. He was harboring, however, thoughts of retaliation, which, if they had not been inspired as they were by a thirst for truth, would have seemed very stubborn and perhaps reprehensible.
Before entering the refectory, we took another little walk in the cloister, to dispel the mists of sleep in the cold evening air. Some monks were still walking there in meditation. In the garden opening off the cloister we glimpsed old Alinardo of Grottaferrata, who, by now feeble of body, spent a great part of his day among the trees, when he was not in church praying; He seemed not to feel the cold, and he was sitting in the outer porch.
William spoke a few words of greeting to him, and the old man seemed happy that someone should spend time with him.
“A peaceful day,” William said.
“By the grace of God,” the old man answered.
“Peaceful in the heavens, but grim on earth. Did you know Venantius well?”
“Venantius who?” the old man said. Then a light flashed in his eyes. “Ah, the dead boy. The beast is roaming about the abbey. ...”
“The great beast that comes from the sea ... Seven heads and ten horns and upon his horns ten crowns and upon his heads three names of blasphemy. The beast like unto a leopard, with the feet of a bear, and the mouth of a lion ... I have seen him.”
“Where have you seen him? In the library?”
“Library? Why there? I have not gone to the scriptorium for years and I have never seen the library. No one goes to the library. I knew those who did go up to the library. ...”
“Who? Malachi? Berengar?”
“Oh, no ...” the old man said, chuckling. “Before. The librarian who came before Malachi, many years ago ...”
“Who was that?”
“I do not remember; he died when Malachi was still young. And the one who came before Malachi’s master, and was a young assistant librarian when I was young ... But I never set foot in the library. Labyrinth ...”
“The library is a labyrinth?”
“Hunc mundum tipice labyrinthus denotat ille,” the old man recited, absently. “Intranti largus, redeunti sed nimis artus. The library is a great labyrinth, sign of the labyrinth of the world. You enter and you do not know whether you will come out. You must not transgress the pillars of Hercules. ...”
“So you don’t know how one enters the library when the Aedificium doors are closed?”
“Oh, yes.” The old man laughed. “Many know. You go by way of the ossarium. You can go through the ossarium, but you do not want to go through the ossarium. The dead monks keep watch.”
“Those dead monks who keep watch—they are not those who move at night through the library with a lamp?”
“With a lamp?” The old man seemed amazed. “I have never heard this story. The dead monks stay in the ossarium, the bones drop gradually from the cemetery and collect there, to guard the passage. Have you never seen the altar of the chapel that leads to the ossarium?”
“It is the third on the left, after the transept, is it not?”
The third? Perhaps. It is the one whose altar stone is carved with a thousand skeletons. The fourth skull on the right: press the eyes ... and you are in the ossarium. But do not go there; I have never gone. The abbot does not wish it.”
“And the beast? Where did you see the beast?”
“The beast? Ah, the Antichrist ... He is about to come, the millennium is past; we await him. ...”
“But the millennium was three hundred years ago, and he did not come then. ...”
“The Antichrist does not come after a thousand ears have passed. When the thousand years have passed, the reign of the just begins; then comes the Antichrist, to confound the just, and then there will be the final battle. …”
“But the just will reign for a thousand years,” William said. “Or else they reigned from the death of Christ to the end of the first millennium, and so the Antichrist should have come then; or else the just have not yet reigned, and the Antichrist is still far off.”
“The millennium is not calculated from the death of Christ but from the donation of Constantine, three centuries later. Now it is a thousand years. ...”
“So the rein of the just is ending?”
“I do not know. ... I do not know any more. I am tired. The calculation is difficult. Beatus of Liébana made it; ask Jorge, he is young, he remembers well. ... But the time is ripe. Did you not hear the seven trumpets?”
“Why the seven trumpets?”
“Did you not hear how the other boy died, the illuminator? The first angel sounded the first trumpet, and hail and fire fell mingled with blood. And the second angel sounded the second trumpet, and the third part of the sea became blood. ... Did the second boy not die in the sea of blood? Watch out for the third trumpet! The third part of the creatures in the sea will die. God punishes us. The world all around the abbey is rank with heresy; they tell me that on the throne of Rome there is a perverse pope who uses hosts for practices of necromancy, and feeds them to his morays. ... And in our midst someone has violated the ban, has broken the seals of the labyrinth. ...”
“Who told you that?”
“I heard it. All were whispering that sin has entered the abbey. Do you have any chickpeas?”
The question, addressed to me, surprised me. “No, I have no chickpeas,” I said, confused.
“Next time, bring me some chickpeas. I hold them in my mouth—you see my poor toothless mouth?—until they are soft. They stimulate saliva, aqua fons vitae. Will you bring me some chickpeas tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow I will bring you some chickpeas,” I said to him. But he had dozed off. We left him and went to the refectory.
In which the Aedificium is entered, a mysterious visitor is discovered, a secret message with necromantic signs is found, and also a book is found, but then promptly vanishes, to be sought through many subsequent chapters; nor is the theft of William’s precious lenses the last of the vicissitudes.
The supper was joyless and silent. It had been just over twelve ours since the discovery of Venantius’s co r se. All the others stole glimpses at his empty place at table. When it was the hour for compline, the procession that marched into the choir seemed a funeral cortège. We followed the office standing in the nave and keeping an eye on the third chapel. The light was scant, and when we saw Malachi emerge from the darkness to reach his stall, we could not tell exactly where he had come from. We moved into the shadows, hiding in the side nave, so that no one would see us stay behind when the office was over. Under my scapular I had the lamp I had purloined in the kitchen during supper. We would light it later at the great bronze tripod that burned all night. I had procured a new wick and ample oil. We would have light for a long time.
I was too excited about our imminent venture to pay attention to the service, which ended almost without my noticing. The monks lowered their cowls over their faces and slowly filed out, to go to their cells. The church remained deserted, illuminated by the glow of the tripod.
“Now,” William said, “to work.”
We approached the third chapel. The base of the altar was really like an ossarium, a series of skulls with deep hollow eyesockets, which filled those who looked at them with terror, set on a pile of what, in the admirable relief, appeared to be tibias. William repeated in a low voice the words he had heard from Alinardo (fourth skull on the right, press the eyes). He stuck his fingers into the sockets of that fleshless face, and at once we heard a kind of hoarse creak. The altar moved, turning on a hidden pivot, allowing a glimpse of a dark aperture. As I shed light on it with my raised lamp, we made out some damp steps. We decided to go down them, after debating whether to close off the passage again behind us. Better not, William said; we did not know whether we would be able to reopen it afterward. And as for the risk of being discovered, if anyone came at that hour to operate the same mechanism, that meant he knew how to enter, and a closed passage would not deter him.
We descended perhaps a dozen steps and came into a corridor on whose sides there were some horizontal niches, such as I was later to see in many catacombs. But now I was entering an ossarium for the first time, and I was very much afraid. The monks’ bones had been collected there over the centuries, dug from the earth and piled in the niches with no attempt to recompose the forms of their bodies. Some niches had only tiny bones, others only skulls, neatly arranged in a kind of pyramid, so that one would not roll over another; and it was a truly terrifying sight, especially in the play of shadows the lamp created as we walked on. In one niche I saw only hands, many hands, now irrevocably interlaced in a tangle of dead fingers. I let out a cry in that place of the dead, for a moment sensing some presence above, a squeaking, a rapid movement in the dark.
“Mice,” William said, to reassure me.
“What are mice doing here?”
“Passing through, like us: because the ossarium leads to the Aedificium, and then to the kitchen. And to the tasty books of the library. And now you understand why Malachi’s face is so austere. His duties oblige him to come through here twice daily, morning and evening. Truly he has nothing to laugh about.”
“But why doesn’t the Gospel ever say that Christ laughed?” I asked, for no good reason. “Is Jorge right?”
“Legions of scholars have wondered whether Christ laughed. The question doesn’t interest me much. I believe he never laughed, because, omniscient as the son of God had to be, he knew how we Christians would behave. But here we are.”
And, in fact, the corridor was ending, thank God; new steps began. After climbing them, we would have only to push an ironclad wooden door and we would find ourselves behind the fireplace of the kitchen, just below the circular staircase leading to the scriptorium. As we went up, we thought we heard a noise above us.
We remained a moment in silence; then I said, “It’s impossible. No one came in before us. ...”
“Assuming this is the only way into the Aedificium. In centuries past this was a fortress, and it must have more secret entrances than we know of. We’ll go up slowly. But we have little choice. If we put out the light we can’t see where we are going; if we leave it burning we. give anyone upstairs the alarm. Our only hope is that if someone really is there, he will be afraid of us.”
We reached the scriptorium, emerging from the south tower. Venantius’s desk was directly opposite. The room was so vast that, as we moved, we illuminated only a few yards of wall at a time. We hoped no one was in the court, to see the light through the windows. The desk appeared to be in order, but William bent at once to examine the pages on the shelf below, and he cried out in dismay.
“Is something missing?” I asked.
“Today I saw two books here, one of them in Greek. And that’s the one missing. Somebody has taken it, and in great haste, because one page fell on the floor here.”
“But the desk was watched. …”
“Of course. Perhaps somebody grabbed it just a short while ago. Perhaps he’s still here.” He turned toward the shadows and his voice echoed among the columns. “If you are here, beware!” It seemed to me a good idea as William had said before, it is always better when the person who frightens us is also afraid of us.
William set down the page he had found under the desk and bent his face toward it. He asked me for more light. I held the lamp closer and saw a page, the first half of it blank, the second covered with tiny characters whose origin I recognized with some difficulty.
“Is it Greek?” I asked.
“Yes, but I don’t understand clearly.” He took his lenses from his habit and set them firmly astride his nose, then bent his head again.
“It’s Greek, written in a very fine hand, and yet in a disorderly way. Even with my lenses I have trouble reading it. I need still more light. Come closer. ...”
He had picked up the sheet of parchment, holding it to his face; and instead of stepping behind him and holding the lamp high over his head, I foolishly stood directly in front of him. He asked me to move aside, and as I did, I grazed the back of the page with the flame. William pushed me away, asking me whether I wanted to burn the manuscript for him. Then he cried out. I saw clearly that some vague signs, in a yellow-brown color, had appeared on the upper part of the page. William made me give him the lamp and moved it behind the page, holding the flame fairly close to the surface of the parchment, which he heated without setting it afire. Slowly, as if an invisible hand were writing “Mane, Tekel, Peres,” I saw some marks emerge one by one on the white side of the sheet as William moved the lamp, and as the smoke that rose from the top of the flame blackened the recto; the marks did not resemble those of any alphabet, except that of necromancers.
“Fantastic!” William said. “More and more interesting!” He looked around. “But it would be better not to expose this discovery to the tricks of our mysterious companion, if he is still here. ...” He took off his lenses, set them on the desk, then carefully rolled up the parchment and hid it inside his habit. Still amazed by this sequence of events, which were nothing if not miraculous, I was about to ask further explanations when all of a sudden a sharp sound distracted us. It came from the foot of the east stairway, leading to the library.
“Our man is there! After him!” William shouted, and we flung ourselves in that direction, he moving faster, I more slowly, for I was carrying the lamp. I heard the clatter of someone stumbling and falling. I ran, and found William at the foot of the steps, observing a heavy volume, its binding reinforced with metal studs. At that same moment we heard another noise, in the direction from which we had come. “Fool that I am!” William cried. “Hurry! To Venantius’s desk!”
I understood: somebody, from the shadows behind us, had thrown the volume to send us far away.
Once again William was faster than I and reached the desk first. Following him, I glimpsed among the columns a fleeing shadow, taking the stairway of the west tower.
Seized with warlike ardor, I thrust the lamp into William’s hand and dashed blindly off toward the stairs where the fugitive had descended. At that moment I felt like a soldier of Christ fighting all the legions of hell, and I burned with the desire to lay my hands on the stranger, to turn him over to my master. I tumbled down almost the whole stairway, tripping over the hem of my habit (that was the only moment of my life, I swear, when I regretted having entered a monastic order!); but at that same instant—and it was the thought of an instant—I consoled myself with the idea that my adversary was suffering the same impediment. And, further, if he had taken the book, he would have his hands full. From behind the bread oven I almost dived into the kitchen, and in the starry light that faintly illuminated the vast entrance, I saw the shadow I was pursuing as it slipped past the refectory door, then pulled this shut. I rushed toward the door, I labored a few seconds opening it, entered, looked around, and saw no one. The outside door was still barred. I turned. Shadows and silence. I noticed a glow advancing from the kitchen and I flattened myself against a wall. On the threshold of the passage between the two rooms a figure appeared, illuminated by a lamp. I cried out. It was William.
“Nobody around? I foresaw that. He didn’t go out through a door? He didn’t take the passage through the ossarium?”
“No, he went out through here, but I don’t know where!”
“I told you: there are other passages, and it’s useless for us to look for them. Perhaps our man is emerging at some distant spot. And with him my lenses.”
“Yes. Our friend could not take the page away from me, but with great presence of mind, as he rushed past, he snatched my glasses from the desk.”
“Because he is no fool. He heard me speak of these notes, he realized they were important, he assumed that without my lenses I would be unable to decipher them, and he knows for sure that I would not entrust them to anyone else. In fact, now it’s as if I didn’t have them.”
“But how did he know about your lenses?”
“Come, come. Apart from the fact that we spoke about them yesterday with the master glazier, this morning in the scriptorium I put them on to search among Venantius’s papers. So there are many people who could know how valuable those objects are to me. Actually, I could read a normal manuscript, but not this one.” And he was again unrolling the mysterious parchment. “The part in Greek is written too fine and the upper part is too hazy. …”
He showed me the mysterious signs that had appeared as if by magic in the heat of the flame. “Venantius wanted to conceal an important secret, and he used one of those inks that leave no trace when written but reappear when warmed. Or else he used lemon juice. But since I don’t know what substance he used and the signs could disappear again: quickly, you who have good eyes, copy them at once as faithfully as you can, perhaps enlarging them a bit.” And so I did, without knowing what I was copying. It was a series of four or five lines, really necromantic, and I will reproduce only the very first signs, to give the reader an idea of the puzzle I had before my eyes:
When I had finished copying, William looked, unfortunately without lenses, holding my tablet at some distance from his nose. “It is unquestionably a secret alphabet that will have to be deciphered,” he said. “The signs are badly drawn, and perhaps you copied them worse, but it is certainly a zodiacal alphabet. You see? In the first line we have”—he held the page away from him again and narrowed his eyes with an effort of concentration—“Sagittarius, Sun, Mercury, Scorpio. …”
“And what do they mean?”
“If Venantius had been ingenuous he would have used the most common zodiacal alphabet: A equals Sun, B equals Jupiter. … The first line would then read ... Try transcribing this: RACQASVL. …” He broke off. “No, it means nothing, and Venantius was not ingenuous. He reformulated the alphabet according to another key. I shall have to discover it.”
“Is it possible?” I asked, awed.
“Yes, if you know a bit of the learning of the Arabs. The best treatises on cryptography are the work of infidel scholars, and at Oxford I was able to have some read to me. Bacon was right in saying that the conquest of learning is achieved through the knowledge of languages. Abu Bakr Ahmad ben Ali ben Washiyya an-Nabati wrote centuries ago a Book of the Frenzied Desire of the Devout to Learn the Riddles of Ancient Writings, and he expounded many rules for composing and deciphering mysterious alphabets, useful for magic practices but also for the correspondence between armies, or between a king and his envoys. I have seen other Arab books that list a series of quite ingenious devices. For example, you can substitute one letter for another, you can write a word backward, you can put the letters to reverse order, using only every other one; and then starting over again, you can, as in this case, replace letters with zodiacal signs, but attributing to the hidden letters their numerical value, and then, according to another alphabet, convert the numbers into other letters. …”
“And which of these systems can Venantius have used?”
“We would have to test them all, and others besides. But the first rule in deciphering a message is to guess what it means.”
“But then it’s unnecessary to decipher it!” I laughed.
“Not exactly. Some hypotheses can be formed on the possible first words of the message, and then you see whether the rule you infer from them can apply to the rest of the text. For example, here Venantius has certainly noted down the key for penetrating the finis Africae. If I try thinking that the message is about this, then I am suddenly enlightened by a rhythm. ... Try looking at the first three words, not considering the letters, but the number of the signs ... IIIIIIII IIIII IIIIIII. ... Now try dividing them into syllables of at least two signs each, and recite aloud: ta-ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta-ta. ... Doesn’t anything come to your mind?”
“To mine, yes. ‘Secretum finis Africae’ … But if this were correct, then the last word should have the same first and sixth letter, and so it does, in fact: the symbol of the Earth is there twice. And the first letter of the first word, the S, should be the same as the last of the second: and, sure enough, the sign of the Virgin is repeated. Perhaps this is the right track. But it could also be just a series of coincidences. A rule of correspondence has to be found. ...”
“In our heads. Invent it. And then see whether it is the right one. But with one test and another, the game could cost me a whole day. No more than that because—remember this—there is no secret writing that cannot be deciphered with a bit of patience. But now we risk losing time, and we want to visit the library. Especially since, without lenses, I will never be able to read the second part of the message, and you cannot help me because these signs, to your eyes ...”
“Graecum est, non legitur,” I finished his sentence, humiliated. “It is Greek to me.”
“Exactly; and you see that Bacon was right. Study! But we must not lose heart. We’ll put away the parchment and your notes, and we’ll go up to the library. Because tonight not even ten infernal legions will succeed in keeping us out.”
I blessed myself. “But who can he have been, the man who was here ahead of us? Benno?”
“Benno was burning with the desire to know what there was among Venantius’s papers, but I can’t see him as one with the courage to enter the Aedificium at night.”
“Berengar, then? Or Malachi?”
“Berengar seems to me to have the courage to do such things. And, after all, he shares responsibility for the library. He is consumed by remorse at having betrayed some secret of it; he thought Venantius had taken that book, and perhaps he wanted to return it to the place from which it comes. He wasn’t able to go upstairs, and now he is hiding the volume somewhere.”
“But it could also be Malachi, for the same motives.”
“I would say no. Malachi had all the time he wanted to search Venantius’s desk when he remained alone to shut up the Aedificium. I knew that very well, but there was no way to avoid it. Now we know he didn’t do it. And if you think carefully, we have no reason to think Malachi knows Venantius had entered the library and removed something. Berengar and Benno know this, and you and I know it. After Adelmo’s confession, Jorge may know it, but he was surely not the man who was rushing so furiously down the circular staircase. …”
“Then either Berengar or Benno ...”
“And why not Pacificus of Tivoli or another of the monks we saw here today? Or Nicholas the glazier, who knows about my glasses? Or that odd character Salvatore, who they have told us roams around at night on God knows what errands? We must take care not to restrict the field of suspects just because Benno’s revelations have oriented us in a single direction; perhaps Benno wanted to mislead us.”
“But he seemed sincere to you.”
“Certainly. But remember that the first duty of a good inquisitor is to suspect especially those who seem sincere to him.”
“A nasty job, being an inquisitor.”
“That’s why I gave it up. And as you say, I am forced to resume it. But come now: to the library.”
In which the labyrinth is finally broached, and the intruders have strange visions and, as happens in labyrinths, lose their way.
We climbed back up to the scriptorium, this time by the east staircase, which rose also to the forbidden floor. Holding the light high before us, I thought of Alinardo’s words about the labyrinth, and I expected frightful things.
I was surprised, as we emerged into the place we should not have entered, at finding myself in a not very large room with seven sides, windowless, where there reigned—as, for that matter, throughout the whole floor—a strong odor of stagnation or mold. Nothing terrifying.
The room, as I said, had seven walls, but only four of them had an opening, a passage flanked by two little columns set in the wall; the opening was fairly wide, surmounted by a round-headed arch. Against the blind walls stood huge cases, laden with books neatly arranged. Each case bore a scroll with a number, and so did each individual shelf; obviously the same numbers we had seen in the catalogue. In the midst of the room was a table, also covered with books. On all the volumes lay a fairly light coat of dust, sign that the books were cleaned with some frequency. Nor was there dirt of any kind on the floor. Above one of the archways, a big scroll, painted on the wall, bore the words “Apocalypsis Iesu Christi.” It did not seem faded, even though the lettering was ancient. We noticed afterward, also in the other rooms, that these scrolls were actually carved in the stone, cut fairly deeply, and the depressions had subsequently been filled with color, as painters do in frescoing churches.
We passed through one of the openings. We found ourselves in another room, where there was a window that, in place of glass panes, had slabs of alabaster, with two blind walls and one aperture, like the one we had just come through. It opened into another room, which also had two blind walls, another with a window, and another passage that opened opposite us. In these two rooms, the two scrolls were similar in form to the first we had seen, but with different words. The scroll in the first room said “Super thronos viginti quatuor,” and the one in the second room, “Nomen illi mors.” For the rest, even though the two. rooms were smaller than the one by which we had entered the library (actually, that one was heptagonal, these two rectangular), the furnishing was the same.
We entered the third room. It was bare of books and had no scroll. Under the window, a stone altar. There were three doors: the one by which we had entered; another, leading to the heptagonal room already visited; and a third, which led to a new room, no different from the others except for the scroll, which said “Obscuratus est sol et aer,” announcing the growing darkness of sun and air. From here you went into a new room, whose scroll said “Facta est grando et ignis,” threatening turmoil and fire. This room was without other apertures: once you reached it, you could proceed no farther and had to turn back.
“Let us think about this,” William said. “Five quadrangular or vaguely trapezoidal rooms, each with one window, arranged around a windowless heptagonal room to which the stairway leads. It seems elementary to me. We are in the east tower. From the outside each tower shows five windows and five sides. It works out. The empty room is the one facing east, the same direction as the choir of the church; the dawn sun illuminates the altar, which I find right and pious. The only clever idea, it seems to me, is the use of alabaster slabs. In the daytime they admit a fine light, and at night not even the moon’s rays can penetrate. Now let’s see where the other two doors of the heptagonal room lead.”
My master was mistaken, and the builders of the library had been shrewder than we thought. I cannot explain clearly what happened, but as we left the tower room, the order of the rooms became more confused. Some had two doorways, others three. All had one window each, even those we entered from a windowed room, thinking we were heading toward the interior of the Aedificium. Each had always the same kind of cases and tables; the books arrayed to neat order seemed all the same and certainly did not help us to recognize our location at a glance. We tried to orient ourselves by the scrolls. Once we crossed a room in which was written “In diebus illis,” “In those days,” and after some roaming we thought we had come back to it. But we remembered that the door opposite the window led into a room whose scroll said “Primogenitus mortuorum,” “The firstborn of the dead,” whereas now we came upon another that again said “Apocalypsis Iesu Christi,” though it was not the heptagonal room from which we had set out. This fact convinced us that sometimes the scrolls repeated the same words in different rooms. We found two rooms with “Apocalypsis” one after the other, and, immediately following them, one with “Cecidit de coelo stella magna,” “A great star fell from the heavens.”
The source of the phrases on the scrolls was obvious—they were verses from the Apocalypse of John—but it was not at all clear why they were painted on the walls or what logic was behind their arrangement. To increase our confusion, we discovered that some scrolls, not many, were colored red instead of black.
At a certain point we found ourselves again in the original heptagonal room (easily identified because the stairwell began there), and we resumed moving toward our right, trying to go straight from room to room. We went through three rooms and then found ourselves facing a blank wall. The only opening led into a new room that had only one other aperture, which we went through, and then, after another four rooms, we found ourselves again facing a wall. We returned to the previous room, which had two exits, took the one we had not tried before, went into a new room, and then found ourselves back in the heptagonal room of the outset.
“What was the name of the last room, the one where we began retracing our steps?” William asked.
I strained my memory and, I had a vision of a white horse: “Equus albus.”
“Good. Let’s find it again.” And it was easy. From there, if we did not want to turn back as we had before, we could only pass through the room called “Gratia vobis et pax,” and from there, on the right, we thought we found a new passage, which did not take us back. Actually we again came upon “In diebus illis” and “Primogenitus mortuorum” (were they the rooms of a few moments earlier?); then finally we came to a room that we did not seem to have visited before: “Tertia pars terrae combusta est.” But even when we had learned that a third of the earth had been burned up, we still did not know what our position was with respect to the east tower.
Holding the lamp in front of me, I ventured into the next rooms. A giant of threatening dimensions, a swaying and fluttering form came toward me, like a ghost.
“A devil!” I cried and almost dropped the lamp as I wheeled around and took refuge in William’s arms. He seized the lamp from my hands and, thrusting me aside, stepped forward with a decisiveness that to me seemed sublime. He also saw something, because he brusquely stepped back. Then he leaned forward again and raised the lamp. He burst out laughing.
“Really ingenious. A mirror!”
“Yes, my bold warrior. You flung yourself so courageously on a real enemy a short while ago in the scriptorium, and now you are frightened by your own image. A mirror that reflects your image, enlarged and distorted.”
He took me by the hand and led me up to the wall facing the entrance to the room. On a corrugated sheet of glass, now that the light illuminated it more closely, I saw our two images, grotesquely misshapen, changing form and height as we moved closer or stepped back.
“You must read some treatise on optics,” William said, amused, “as the creators of the library surely did. The best ones- are by the Arabs. Alhazen wrote a treatise, De aspectibus, in which, with precise geometrical demonstrations, he spoke of the power of mirrors, some of which, depending on how their surface is gauged, can enlarge the tiniest things (what else are my lenses?), while others make images appear upside down, or oblique, or show two objects in the place of one, and four in place of two. Still others, like this one, turn a dwarf into a giant or a giant into a dwarf.”
“Lord Jesus!” I exclaimed. “Are these, then, the visions some say they have had in the library?”
“Perhaps. A really clever idea.” He read the scroll on the wall, over the mirror: “Super thronos viginti quatuor.” “ ‘The twenty-four elders upon their seats.’ We have seen this inscription before, but it was a room without any mirror. This one, moreover, has no windows, and yet it is not heptagonal. Where are we?” He looked around and went over to a case. “Adso, without those wondrous oculi ad legendum I cannot figure out what is written on these books. Read me some titles.”
I picked out a book at random. “Master, it is not written!”
“What do you mean? I can see it is written. What do you read?”
“I am not reading. These are not letters of the alphabet, and it is not Greek. I would recognize it. They look like worms, snakes, fly dung. ...”
“Ah, it’s Arabic. Are there others like it?”
“Yes, several. But here is one in Latin, thank God. Al ... Al-Kuwarizmi, Tabulae.”
“The astronomical tables of Al-Kuwarizmi, translated by Adelard of Bath! A very rare work! Continue.”
“Isa ibn-Ali, De oculis; Alkindi, De radiis slellatis ...”
“Now look on the table.”
I opened a great volume lying on the table, a De bestiis. I happened on a delicately illuminated page where a very beautiful unicorn was depicted.
“Beautifully made,” William commented, able to see the illustrations well. “And that?”
I read: “Liter monstrorum de diversis generibus. This also has beautiful images, but they seem older to me.”
William bent his face to the text. “Illuminated by Irish monks, at least five centuries ago. The unicorn book, on the other hand, is much more recent; it seems to me made in the French fashion.” Once again I admired my master’s erudition. We entered the next room and crossed the four rooms after it, all with windows, and all filled with volumes in unknown languages, in addition to some texts of occult sciences. Then we came to a wall, which forced us to turn back, because the last five rooms opened one into the other, with no other egress possible.
“To judge by the angles of the walls, I would say we are in the pentagon of another tower,” William said, “but there is no central heptagonal room. Perhaps we are mistaken.”
“But what about the windows?” I asked. “How can there be so many windows? It is impossible for all the rooms to overlook the outside.”
“You’re forgetting the central well. Many of the windows we have seen overlook the octagon, the well. If it were day, the difference in light would tell us which are external windows and which internal, and perhaps would even reveal to us a room’s position with respect to the sun. But after dusk no difference is perceptible. Let’s go back.”
We returned to the room with the mirror and headed for the third doorway, which we thought we had not gone through previously. We saw before us a sequence of three or four rooms, and toward the last we noticed a glow.
“Someone’s there!” I exclaimed in a stifled voice.
“If so, he has already seen our light,” William said, nevertheless shielding the flame with his hand. We hesitated a moment or two. The glow continued to flicker slightly, but without growing stronger or weaker.
“Perhaps it is only a lamp,” William said, “set here to convince the monks that the library is inhabited by the souls of the dead. But we must find out. You stay here, and keep covering the light. I’ll go ahead cautiously.”
Still ashamed at the sorry figure I had cut before the mirror, I wanted to redeem myself in William’s eyes. “No, I’ll go,” I said. “You stay here. I’ll proceed cautiously. I am smaller and lighter. As soon as I’ve made sure there is no risk, I’ll call you.”
And so I did. I proceeded through three rooms, sticking close to the walls, light as a cat (or as a novice descending into the kitchen to steal cheese from the larder: an enterprise in which I excelled at Melk). I came to the threshold of the room from which the glow, quite faint, was coming. I slipped along the wall to a column that served as the right jamb, and I peered into the room. No one was there. A kind of lamp was set on the table, lighted, and it was smoking, flickering. It was not a lamp like ours: it seemed, rather, an uncovered thurible. It had no flame, but a light ash smoldered, burning something. I plucked up my courage and entered. On the table beside the thurible, a brightly colored book was lying open. I approached and saw four strips of different colors on the page: yellow, cinnabar, turquoise, and burnt sienna. A beast was set there, horrible to see, a great dragon with ten heads, dragging after him the stars of the sky and with his tail making them fall to earth. And suddenly I saw the dragon multiply, and the scales of his hide become a kind of forest of glittering shards that came off the page and took to circling around my head. I flung my head back and I saw the ceiling, of the room bend and press down toward me, then I heard something like the hiss of a thousand, serpents, but not frightening, almost seductive, and a woman appeared, bathed in light, and put her face to mine, breathing on me. I thrust her away with outstretched hands, and my hands seemed to touch the books in the case opposite, or to grow out of all proportion. I no longer realized where I was, where the earth was, and where the sky. In the center of the room I saw Berengar staring, at me with a hateful smile, oozing lust. I covered my face with my hands and my hands seemed the claws of a toad, slimy and webbed. I cried out, I believe; there was an acid taste in my mouth; I plunged into infinite darkness, which seemed to yawn wider and wider beneath me; and then I knew nothing further.
I woke again after a time I thought was centuries, hearing some blows pounding in my head. I was stretched out on the floor and William was slapping me on the cheeks. I was no longer in that room, and before my eyes was a scroll that said “Requiescant a laboribus suis,” “May they rest from their labors.”
“Come, come, Adso,” William was whispering to me. “There’s nothing. ...”
“Everything ...” I said, still delirious. “Over there, the beast ...”
“No beast. I found you raving underneath a table with a beautiful Mozarabic apocalypse on it, opened to the page of the mulier amicta sole confronting the dragon. But I realized from the odor that you had inhaled something dangerous and I carried you away immediately. My head also aches.”
“But what did I see?”
“You saw nothing. The fact is that some substances capable of inducing visions were burning there. I recognized the smell: it is an Arab stuff, perhaps the same that the Old Man of the Mountain gave his assassins to breathe before sending them off on their missions. And so we have explained the mystery of the visions. Someone puts magic herbs there during the night to convince importunate visitors that the library is guarded by diabolical presences. What did you experience, by the way?”
In confusion, as best I could recall, I told him of my vision, and William laughed: “For half of it you were developing what you had glimpsed in the book, and for the other half you let your desires and your fears speak out. This is the operation certain herbs set in action. Tomorrow we must talk about it with Severinus; I believe he knows more than he wants us to believe. They are herbs, only herbs, requiring none of those necromantic preparations the glazier talked to us about. Herbs, mirrors ... This place of forbidden knowledge is guarded by many and most cunning devices. Knowledge is used to conceal, rather than to enlighten. I don’t like it. A perverse mind presides over the holy defense of the library. But this has been a toilsome night; we must leave here for the present. You’re distraught and you need water and fresh air. It’s useless to try to open these windows: too high, and perhaps closed for decades. How could they think Adelmo had thrown himself down from here?”
Leave, William had said. As if it were easy. We knew the library could be reached only from one tower, the eastern one. But where were we at that moment? We had completely lost our orientation. We wandered, fearing never to emerge from that place again; I, still stumbling, seized with fits of vomiting; and William, somewhat worried about me and irritated by the inadequacy of his learning; but this wandering gave us, or gave him, an idea for the following day. We would come back to the library, assuming we ever got out of it, with a charred firebrand, or some other substance capable of leaving signs on the walls.
“To find the way out of a labyrinth,” William recited, “there is only one means. At every new junction, never seen before, the path we have taken will be marked with three signs. If, because of previous signs on some of the paths of the junction, you see that the junction has already been visited, you will make only one mark on the path you have taken. If all the apertures have already been marked, then you must retrace your steps. But if one or two apertures of the junction are still without signs, you will choose any one, making two signs on it. Proceeding through an aperture that bears only one sign, you will make two more, so that now the aperture bears three. All the parts of the labyrinth must have been visited if, arriving at a junction, you never take a passage with three signs, unless none of the other passages is now without signs.”
“How do you know that? Are you an expert on labyrinths?”
“No, I am citing an ancient text I once read.”
“And by observing this rule you get out?”
“Almost never, as far as I know. But we will try it, all the same. And besides, within the next day or so I will have lenses and time to devote myself more to the books. It may be that where the succession of scrolls confuses us, the arrangement of the books will give us a rule.”
“You’ll have your lenses? How will you find them again?”
“I said I’ll have lenses. I’ll have new ones made. I believe the glazier is eager for an opportunity of this kind, to try something new. As long as he has the right tools for grinding the bits of glass. When it comes to bits of glass, he has plenty in his workshop.”
As we roamed, seeking the way, suddenly, in the center of one room, I felt an invisible hand stroke my cheek, while a groan, not human and not animal, echoed in both that room and the next, as if a ghost were wandering from one to the other. I should have been prepared for the library’s surprises, but once again I was terrified and leaped backward. William must have had an experience similar to mine, because he was touching his cheek as he held up the light and looked around.
He raised one hand, examined the flame, which now seemed brighter, then moistened a finger and held it straight in front of him.
“It’s clear,” he said then, and showed me two points, on opposite walls, at a man’s height. Two narrow slits opened there, and if you put your hand to them you could feel the cold air coming from outside. Putting your ear to them, you could hear a rustling sound, as of a wind blowing outside.
“The library must, of course, have a ventilation system,” William said. “Otherwise the atmosphere would be stifling, especially in the summer. Moreover, those slits provide the right amount of humidity, so the parchments will not dry out. But the cleverness of the founders did not stop there. Placing the slits at certain angles, they made sure that on windy nights the gusts penetrating from these openings would encounter other gusts, and swirl inside the sequence of rooms, producing the sounds we have heard. Which, along with the mirrors and the herbs, increase the fear of the foolhardy who come in here, as we have, without knowing the place well. And we ourselves for a moment thought ghosts were breathing on our faces. We’ve realized it only now because the wind has sprung up only now. So this mystery, too, is solved. But we still don’t know how to get out!”
As we spoke, we wandered aimlessly, now bewildered, not bothering to read the scrolls, which seemed all alike. We came into a new heptagonal room, we went through the nearby rooms, we found no exit. We retraced our steps and walked for almost an hour, making no effort to discover where we were. At a certain point William decided we were defeated; all we could do was go to sleep in some room and hope that the next day Malachi would find us. As we bemoaned the miserable end of our bold adventure, we suddenly found again the room from which the stairway descended. We fervently thanked heaven and went down in high spirits.
Once we were in the kitchen, we rushed to the fireplace and entered the corridor of the ossarium, and I swear that the deathly grin of those fleshless heads looked to me like the smiles of dear friends. We reentered the church and came out through the north door, finally sitting down happily on the tombstones. The beautiful night air seemed a divine balm. The stars shone around us and I felt the visions of the library were far away.
“How beautiful the world is, and how ugly labyrinths are,” I said, relieved.
“How beautiful the world would be if there were a procedure for moving through labyrinths,” my master replied.
We walked along the left side of the church, passed the great door (I looked away, to avoid seeing the elders of the Apocalypse: “Super thronos viginti quatuor”!), and crossed the cloister to reach the pilgrims’ hospice.
At the door of the building stood the abbot, staring at us sternly.. “I have been looking for you all night,” he said to William. “I did not find you in your cell, I did not find you in church. ...”
“We were pursuing a trail ...” William said vaguely, with visible embarrassment. The abbot gave him a long look, then said in a slow and severe voice, “I looked for you immediately after compline. Berengar was not in choir.”
“What are you telling me?” William said, with a cheerful expression. In fact, it was now clear to him who had been in ambush in the scriptorium.
“He was not in choir at compline,” the abbot repeated, and has not come back to his cell. Matins are about to ring, and we will now see if he reappears. Otherwise I fear some new calamity.”
At matins Berengar was absent.
FROM LAUDS TO PRIME
In which a bloodstained cloth is found in the cell of Berengar, who has disappeared; and that is all.
In setting down these words, I feel weary, as I felt that night—or, rather, that morning. What can be said? After matins the abbot sent most of the monks, now in a state of alarm, to seek everywhere; but without any result.
Toward lauds, searching Berengar’s cell, a monk found under the pallet a white cloth stained with blood. He showed it to the abbot, who drew the direst omens from it. Jorge was present, and as soon as he was informed, he said, “Blood?” as if the thing seemed improbable to him. They told Alinardo, who shook his head and said, “No, no, at the third trumpet death comes by water. ...”
William examined the cloth, then said, “Now everything is clear.”
“Where is Berengar?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he answered. Aymaro heard him and raised his eyes to heaven, murmuring to Peter of Sant’Albano, “Typically English.”
Toward prime, when the sun was already up, servants were sent to explore the toot of the cliff, all around the walls. They came back at terce, having found nothing.
William told me that we could not have done any better. We had to await events. And he went to the forges, to engage in a deep conversation with Nicholas, the master glazier.
I sat in church, near the central door, as the Masses were said. And so I fell devoutly asleep and slept a long time, because young people seem to need sleep more than the old, who have already slept so much and are preparing to sleep for all eternity.