William of Baskerville

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William of Baskerville
First appearanceThe Name of the Rose
Created byUmberto Eco
Portrayed bySean Connery (film)
John Turturro (miniseries)
OccupationFranciscan Friar, Former Inquisitor

William of Baskerville (Italian: Guglielmo da Baskerville) is a fictional Franciscan friar from the 1980 historical mystery novel Il nome della rosa by Umberto Eco, which is itself a recounting of events as experienced by Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice (a Franciscan one in the film adaptation) with whom William travels. Years earlier, as an inquisitor, Brother William presided at some trials in England and Italy, where he distinguished himself by his perspicacity along with great humility.
Following the events of The Name of the Rose, Adso and William part ways, with Adso relating the tale before his death. We are informed near the end of the book that William had earlier died during a Plague in Europe.

In numerous cases Willam decided the accused was innocent. In one of his most consequential cases, William refused to condemn a man on charges of heresy, despite the demands of the inquisitor Bernardo Gui. The accusations of heresy stemmed from the man's translation of a Greek book that contradicted the scriptures. Despite his appeals to the Pope, William was imprisoned and tortured until he recanted, in turn leading to the translator's death by burning at the stake. Though he departed from his role as an inquisitor, his torture and the death of the accused remain fresh in his mind. In the 1986 movie The Name of the Rose, Sean Connery played the role of Brother William of Baskerville.

Name and allusion[edit]

The fictional friar, William of Baskerville, alludes both to the fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes and to William of Ockham. The name itself is derived from William of Ockham and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Hound of the Baskervilles. Another view is that Eco has created Brother William as a combination of Roger Bacon, William of Ockham and Sherlock Holmes.[1] (William himself notes that Bacon was a mentor of his and cites his ideas several times in the course of the book.)

William of Ockham, who lived during the time of the novel, 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), which William applies in a manner analogous to that in which Sherlock Holmes applies his familiar (and arguably related) dictum that when one has eliminated the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.


In the book, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco's description of Brother William of Baskerville has some similarities to Arthur Conan Doyle's of Sherlock Holmes. "His height surpassed that of a normal man and he was so thin that he seemed still taller. His eyes were sharp and penetrating; his thin and slightly beaky nose gave his countenance the expression of man on the lookout, save in certain moments of sluggishness of which I shall speak. His chin also denoted a firm will, though the long face covered with freckles ... could occasionally express hesitation and puzzlement."[2]

Conan Doyle's description of Sherlock Holmes: "In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination". However, William has blond eyebrows and yellowish hair clumps growing from his ears.

William of Baskerville also displays behavioral characteristics similar to Sherlock Holmes'. William's novice, Adso of Melk, describes William thusly: "His energy seemed inexhaustible when a burst of activity overwhelmed him. But from time to time [...] he moved backwards in moments of inertia, and I watched him lie for hours on my pallet in my cell, uttering barely a few monosyllables, without contracting a single muscle of his face. On those occasions a vacant, absent expression appeared in his eyes, and I would have suspected he was in the power of some vegetal substance capable of producing visions if the obvious temperance of his life had not led me to reject the thought".

Dr. Watson characterizes Sherlock Holmes' behavior by saying "Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night. On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion".

Sherlock Holmes' use of cocaine is also similar to Brother William's use of a mysterious herb. The book explains that Brother William used to collect some herb that has a mentally stimulating effect, but it does not seem narcotic. "He sometimes stopped at the edge of a meadow, at the entrance to a forest, to gather some herb [...] and he would then chew it with an absorbed look. He kept some of it with him, and ate it in the moments of great tension".


  • "Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry."[2]:356 (Used as an epigram by Richard Janko in his reconstruction of Aristotle's Poetics II, Aristotle on Comedy.)
  • "...learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do."[1]:97
  • "...sometimes it is right to doubt."[1]:132
  • "Have you found any places where God would have felt at home?" (Answering to Adso's comment "Then we are living in a place abandoned by God.")[1]:155
  • "Elementary" (To the question if one of his theories could be really true by Adso.)


  1. ^ a b c d Haft, Adele J.; White, Jane G.; White, Robert J. (1999). The Key to "The Name of the Rose". The University of Michigan Press. p. 194. ISBN 9780472086214.
  2. ^ a b Umberto, Eco (1983). Weaver, William, ed. Il nome della rosa [The Name of the Rose] (in Italian). Harcourt (published 1980). p. 512. ISBN 0-15-144647-4. OCLC 8954772.