Aristotle's Poetics, Book II, on Comedy

The Name of the Rose
Second Day: Prime (pp. 110-20)


William deduces that the murders have something to do with a copy of Aristotle's Poetics, Book II, on Comedy.

The preceding study page was Second Day: Matins (pp. 101-9).
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Debate about the source of medieval European knowledge of Aristotle's Poetics (p. 111): Jorge of Burgos has condemned this book because knowledge of it came through the "infidel Moors." William, and also Benno of Uppsala, knew that Aristotle's Poetics was translated directly from Greek into Latin by William of Moerbeke (in 1278).

Bibliographic sources: The problem of medieval Latin translations of Aristotles's Poetics is considered by David Margoliouth, The Poetics of Aristotle Translated from Greek into English and from Arabic into Latin (London, 1911), and E. Lobel, "The Medieval Latin Poetics," Proceedings of the British Academy 17 (1934): 304-34. Another helpful source is A. P. McMahon, "Seven Questions on Aristotelian Definitions of Tragedy and Comedy," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 11 (1929): 97-198, who shows that there is remarkable continuity in definitions of "tragedy" and "comedy" from late classical times through the Middle Ages.

William of Moerbeke (ca. 1215-1286) was a Belgian, and a Dominican friar who became bishop of Corinth. He was a translator of works from Greek into Latin, and he was good at his craft. Modern scholars acknowledge that his translation of Aristotle's Poetics is very accurate. But it was ignored during the Middle Ages, in favor of the Arabic version. Consequentlyh, the debate about the translation-history of Aristotle's Poetics is problematic in The Name of the Rose and deserves close attention.

According to Margoliouth's reconstruction of events, a Greek manuscript of the 7th century or earlier was translated into Syriac, and this was translated into Arabic in the 10th century. Vocabulary differences between Aristotle's Greek, and the 10th-century Arabic version (filtered through Syriac) were such that the Arabic verson obscures Aristotle's ideas and emphases almost entirely. Thus, in the Arabic text, "tragedy" is not "mimesis" or "imitation of an action," but, rather, is a "strategy" that differentiates poetry from other methods of inquiry. The Spanish-Arabic scholar Ibn Rushd Averroes of Cordova [1126-1198] was the most influential student of the Arabic version of the Poetics. In his Middle Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle, Averroes presents a "close reading," in which he quotes passages from the Arabic "Aristotle," then comments on their meaning, often relating the comment drawn from Poetics to passages from medieval Arabic poems that are felt to illustrate the critical concept under consideration.

In 1253, Hermannus Alemannus of Toledo, a monk, prepared a Latin translation of the Arabic Poetics. This translation had a wide distribution in the Middle Ages, and William of Moerbeke's translation direct from Greek, made in 1278, was ignored. Apparently it was not realized until modern times that William of Moerbeke had provided an accurate translation of Aristotle, while the Alemannus translation had practically nothing to do with the real Aristotle.

So it is possible to agree with Jorge of Burgos that knowledge of Aristotle's Poetics came to the West from the "infidel Moors," while, at the same time, William and Benno are certainly right in protesting that Aristotle's Poetics could be known direct from Greek without the filter of an Arabic intermediary. Perhaps we are meant to see that William and Benno exemplify a higher standard of learning, compared to the mediocre performance that was first imposed on the library by the usurper, Jorge, and then continued by his lackey, Malachi.

[Holly Spuckler comments] Venantius refers to Aristotle's arguments concerning the licitness of laughter. Aristotle's view is given to us only through occasional references since his specific treatment of the question is lost. However, the subject of laughter is mentioned in Aristotle's Poetics, Rhetoric, and Nicomachean Ethics. Part of the problem that Jorge has with the subject of laughter is that there are many different motives for laughter, for we laugh at what is witty and graceful, but also at what is ludicrous or stupid. яицазимитпо лъгуг Although Jorge condemns the works of Aristotle (because Aristotle was a pagan), it is still worthwhile to examine his argument, for Aristotle's theory insists upon a distinction between comedy proper and invective or injurious personal satire. It is interesting to note that Aristotle argues that those who would not say anything funnny themselves, and who are annoyed at those who do, seem to be savage and austere (Aristotle's Poetics, vol.v, p.1. trans. Butcher). These are two good adjectives that describe Jorge quite well.

Aristotle's comments on comedy in Book I of his Poetics and in his Rhetoric (p. 112) have, in modern times, been used to reconstruct Aristotle's theory of comedy; most recently by Leon Golden, "Aristotle on Comedy," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 42 (1984):283-90. In Seventh Day: Night, William's hypothesis about the role of a Poetics manuscript is confirmed, and Jorge allows him to see the book, whose pages, however, are covered with a poison that is fatal to touch.

Africans as models....finis Africae" (p. 113): When William and Adso visit the library later at night, they discover a locked room called "Finis Africae" that contains the library's "forbidden" books.

"Day of wrath" (p. 115): The allusion is to the liturgical hymn, Dies irae, which is especially important in "Sixth Day: Terce" (pp. 426-35), when Adso falls asleep during the Dies irae at Malachi's funeral.

Berenger's story about seeing Adelmo's ghost in the cemetery (pp. 115-16): Berenger's story about seeing Adelmo's ghost in the cemetery is one of the places where Eco, as author, is playing a game of intertextualities with the reader. Although Berenger's account makes an impression on young Adso, William of Baskerville discounts the story as just Berenger's recetation of "a page I have already read in some book conceived for the use of preachers. These monks read perhaps too much. . . ."(p. 117). The implicit challenge to the reader is to identify the source.

There are many early medieval Christian legends about a person visiting hell in a vision, or dying, going to hell and then returning in the form of a ghost, or coming back to life, in order to warn others about the torments of hell. Several of these are collected by Eileen Gardiner in Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante (New York: Ithaca Press, 1989). The earliest such text is the Apocalypse of St. Peter (2nd cent. A.D.), in which Peter is represented as reporting a variety of punishments, mostly fiery torments, as appropriate for different categories of sinnters. The Apocalypse of St. Paul (late 4th century) has a chapter on the Pit of Hell. The Dialogues of Gregory the Great, IV.37 (written in 593-594) includes three visions of hell.

The image of a proud man punished in hell by being made to wear clothes that catch on fire appears in Thurkill's Vision; but this is not Eco's source. H. L. D. Ward, ed., "The Vision of Thurkill, Probably by Ralph of Coggeshall, Printed from a MS. in the British Museum," Journal of the British Archeological Association 31 (1875): 420-59.

The next study page is "Second Day: Terce" (pp. 121-35).



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