To other works
The historical novel with medieval time setting was re-discovered in Italy a short time before by Italo Alighiero Chiusano, with his L'ordalia. The similarities between the two novels (time setting, the fact that both are bildungsroman [coming-of-age novels], the novice main character, and the older monk mentor), and the notoriety that L′ordalia had in 1979, of which an expert on literature such as Umberto Eco was definitely aware, making L'ordalia likely one of the first sources of inspiration of The Name of the Rose.
The name of the central character, William of Baskerville, alludes both to the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes (compare The Hound of the Baskervilles – also, Adso's description of William in the beginning of the book resembles, almost word for word, Dr. Watson's description of Sherlock Holmes when he first makes his acquaintance in A Study in Scarlet) and to William of Ockham (see the next section).
The name of the narrator, his apprentice Adso of Melk is among other things a pun on Simplicio from Galileo Galilei's Dialogue; Adso = ad Simplicio ("to Simplicio"). Adso's putative place of origin, Melk, is the site of a famous medieval library, at Melk Abbey.
The blind librarian Jorge from Burgos is a nod to Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, a major influence on Eco. Borges was blind during his later years and was also director of Argentina's national library; his short story "The Library of Babel" is a clear inspiration for the secret library in Eco's book: "The Library is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite, number of hexagonal galleries, with enormous ventilation shafts in the middle, encircled by very low railings." Another of Borges's stories, "The Secret Miracle", features a blind librarian. In addition, a number of other themes drawn from various of Borges's works are used throughout The Name of the Rose: labyrinths, mirrors, sects and obscure manuscripts and books.
The ending also owes a debt to Borges' short story "Death and the Compass", in which a detective proposes a theory for the behavior of a murderer. The murderer learns of the theory and uses it to trap the detective. In The Name of the Rose, the librarian Jorge uses William's belief that the murders are based on the Revelation of John to misdirect William, though in Eco's tale, the detective succeeds in solving the crime.
The "poisoned page" motif may have been inspired by Alexandre Dumas' novel La Reine Margot (1845). It was also used in the film Il giovedì (1963) by Italian director Dino Risi.
Eco seems also to have been aware of Rudyard Kipling's short story "The Eye of Allah", which touches on many of the same themes – optics, manuscript-illumination, music, medicine, priestly authority and the Church's attitude to scientific discovery and independent thought – and which includes a character named John of Burgos.
Eco spent some time at the University of Toronto while writing the book. Throughout the book, there are Latin quotes, authentic and apocryphal. There are also discussions of the philosophy of Aristotle and of a variety of millenarist heresies, especially those associated with the fraticelli. Numerous other philosophers are referenced throughout the book, often anachronistically, including Wittgenstein.
To actual history and geography
William of Ockham, who lived during the time at which the novel is set, first put forward the principle known as "Ockham's Razor": often summarised as the dictum that one should always accept as most-likely the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts (a method used by William of Baskerville in the novel).
The book describes monastic life in the 14th century. The action takes place at a Benedictine abbey during the controversy surrounding the Apostolic poverty between branches of Franciscans and Dominicans; (see Renewed controversy on the question of poverty). The setting was inspired by monumental Saint Michael's Abbey in Susa Valley, Piedmont and visited by Umberto Eco. The Spirituals abhor wealth, bordering on the Apostolics or Dulcinian heresy. The book highlights this tension that existed within Christianity during the medieval era: the Spirituals, one faction within the Franciscan order, demanded that the Church should abandon all wealth, and some heretical sects began killing the well-to-do, while the majority of the Franciscans and the clergy took to a broader interpretation of the gospel.
A number of the characters, such as the Inquisitor Bernard Gui, Ubertino of Casale and the Minorite Michael of Cesena, are historical figures, though the novel's characterization of them is not always historically accurate. Dante Alighieri and his Comedy are mentioned once in passing. However, Eco notes in a companion book that he had to site the monastery in mountains so it would experience early frosts, in order for that action to take place at a time when Bernard Gui could have been in the area. For the purposes of the plot, he needed a quantity of pig blood, but at that time pigs were not usually slaughtered until a frost had arrived. Later in the year Gui was known to have been away from Italy and could not have participated in the events at the monastery.
Part of the dialogue in the inquisition scene of the novel is lifted bodily from the historical Bernard's own Manual for Inquisitors, the Practica Inquisitionis Heretice Pravitatis, for example the dialogue: "What do you believe?" "What do you believe, my Lord?" "I believe in all that the Creed teaches." "So I believe, My Lord"; whereupon Bernard points out that what Remigius the cellarer is saying is not that he (Remigius himself) believes in the Creed, but that he believes that Bernard believes in the Creed. This is itself an example given by Bernard in his book to warn inquisitors against the slipperiness and manipulation of words by heretics. This usage of Bernard's own book by Eco is self-consciously of a piece with his perspective that "books always speak of other books"; in this case, the author makes his character Bernard speak the historical Bernard's own words literally as the latter's text becomes part of the drama played out in the novel.
Adso's description of the portal of the monastery is recognisably that of the portal of the church at Moissac, France. There is also a quick reference to a famous "Umberto of Bologna" – Umberto Eco himself.