Over the weekend, we have repeatedly read how the world of culture is in mourn for the death of Umberto Eco, the Italian professor who many find difficult to define: philosopher, philologist, novelist, semiotician, intellectual, literary critic. I believe the term that better defined Eco was thinker, because thinking, and thinking differently, was what he always did. If the loss for the world of culture and the Humanities in general is great, for a specialist in medieval literature it is almost dramatic.
Umberto Eco is, together with Marc Bloch, Mikhail Bakhtin, Georges Duby and few others, one of the key thinkers in the area of Medieval Studies of the twentieth century. If Bloch redefined the history of mentalities, Bakhtin showed the power of laughter and carnival to better grasp social relations and Duby gave us an invaluable insight into private life, Eco taught us how to see and understand medieval evidence as if we were there. That is what semiology and semiotics –almost the same thing- is all about: being able to understand culture according to the mental structures and values of the people who created it. In Semiotics, the truth, as the beauty, is not in the eye of the beholder. It is like an immense act of love in refusing to impose a contemporary and personal point of view in order to let the culture of the past speak for itself by providing only the keys for such understanding. Only someone who had dedicated time and intelligence to study the Middle Ages with loving generosity could create a character as the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville.
In medieval studies, as in almost all areas of Humanities, advances are not made by ground-breaking discoveries, but by slow advancements in already known evidence. That is one of the reasons why Humanities are not in the news, and sometimes seem an anachronism in a world that tweeters and re-tweeters itself constantly. From time to time, someone dares to re-examine existing evidence with new eyes, trying a new approach or a new methodology, and Humanities, as a discipline, advances, moves a little step forward. Except in extraordinary cases, in the study of Humanities we don’t discover, we just re-discover. And sometimes there are strange cases in which originality in insight is combined with encyclopedic knowledge, and instead of a little step, a great leap is made. This is what Umberto Eco has done in the area of medieval studies, showing us how to look differently in order to better understand. As Casaubon says at the end of Foucault’s Pendulum “I should be at peace. I have understood”. There could hardly be a better epitaph for a semiotician.