Umberto Eco – Dead at 84

The Name of the Rose was my first glimpse into what it might look like to interrogate, depict, and perhaps even understand medieval culture. It started, of course, with Sean Connery and Christian Slater, in the movie, but I soon moved to the book.

It was beyond me. So much Latin. So much assumed knowledge. But I worked at it, and then worked some more.

People assume I became a historian because my parents are historians, which they are, but I went into my first medieval class with Eco (and fantasy books; but especially Eco) in my mind. I became a medievalist really studying intellectual culture in Oxford during my junior year, again thinking about the fictional William of Baskerville as much as the Grosseteste, Chaucer or Piers Plowman I was supposed to be studying (and Ockham, of course. Dear Ockham). Eco wasn’t the only influence, but as I actually began to learn things about medieval culture, I realized the depths that informed his fictional world.

His other books did less for me. Baudolino was fun, especially as he played with the fabrication of relics and set Nicetas Choniates, the Greek aristocrat, as the narrator. When it came out, I was in Venice, working on a dissertation on fictional (in the Latin sense of fingere, not the modern literary sense) narrative on relic theft, so again I felt Eco was my companion. It’s a flawed book, on literary grounds, but I relished knowing this giant was playing around in the same ideas and sources as in my scholarship. Noting the proliferation of heads of John the Baptist in my source material, I cited Eco’s protagonists who fund their trip back from Constantinople by selling fabricated heads.

Then I became a public writer; a journalist, of all things. Again, I thought about Eco, who spent so much of his year writing columns in an Italian newspaper, successfully merging his role as a distinguished scholar of medieval semiotics, a novelist, and a public intellectual. I thought – though I am nothing like him, he shows this transition is possible. I can be a medievalist in public, and perhaps something that I know might be useful.

Umberto Eco died today. In a young year already so filled with the deaths of cultural creators who matter, I find myself uncommonly moved, reflective, and sad. There are and will be many and better obituaries, but here, on this Friday night, are my feelings.

Rest in peace. And thank you.

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