Saturday, June 25, 2016

Locus Focus

The Scriptorium of the Abbey
The Name of the Rose

by Umberto Eco

The abundance of windows meant that the great room was cheered by a constant diffused light, even on a winter afternoon. The panes were not colored like church windows, and the lead-framed squares of clear glass allowed the light to enter in the purest possible fashion.... I have seen at other times and in other places many scriptoria, but none where there shone so luminously, in the outpouring of physical light which made the room glow, the spiritual principle that light incarnates, radiance, source of all beauty and learning, inseparable attribute of that proportion the room embodied.

The obvious feature of the Abbey in Eco's The Name of the Rose is the library, but the scriptorium is its heart. The library, as we discover through the book, is really a sort of tomb of books, but it is in the scriptorium that books are alive. It is there that monks read the books of the library -- when they are allowed them -- and it is there that monks copy books that come into the Abbey, increasing the library and the Abbey's wealth. It is also in the scriptorium that the books themselves come alive, changing from mere words on the page to works of delightful art, full of color and picture and even, whatever some might wish, laughter.

Our first experience of this scriptorium is of light. Medieval scriptoria were quite diverse, as Adso implies, with the only constants being that they needed to be situated so as not to disturb prayer, the main purpose of the monastery, and that they be suitable for writing. The designers of this scriptorium have built theirs so that monks work above all in an abundance of clear sunlight, despite being indoors.

Thomas Aquinas says that light is what makes something manifest for a cognitive power, and Adso certainly agrees with this: the physical light is a symbol of intellectual light, each making it possible to see, and thus making it possible for us to experience the beautiful, which is what pleases on being seen. And the response of the mind to beauty, Adso notes, is peace.

But first impressions are sometimes misleading. The scriptorium, so filled with light, is, like everything else in the Abbey, a place of secrets, because it is linked to the library. And we see something of this in another visit to the scriptorium.

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 the 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.

It is in the scriptorium that the catalog of books in the library is kept, and the death of Venantius, on the trail of a book, gives the scriptorium a different, and more sinister, complexion. The scriptorium is not just a place of life and light; it is where the conspiratorial secrets of the library spill out into the world, and those secrets can bring darkness and death....

And that, of course, makes it fit with the Conspiratorial Corners theme Enbrethiliel is finishing up.

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