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Speculum Amoris

From the book: The Name of the Rose; Chapter Name: After Compline

Umberto Eco, Written 1980

"Avicenna advised an infallible method already proposed by Galen for discovering whether someone is in love: grasp the wrist of the sufferer and utter many names of members of the opposite sex, until you discover which name makes the pulse accelerate."

Adso reads about how to diagnose the disease called love . . . 

             . . . I moved, in my curiosity, into the next room, realizing that the wisdom and the prudence of the library’s planning had assembled along one of its walls books that certainly could not be handed out to anyone to read, because they dealt in various ways with diseases of body and spirit and were almost always written by infidel scholars. And my eye fell on a book, not large but adorned with miniatures far removed (luckily!) from the subject: flowers, vines, animals in pairs, some medicinal herbs. The title was Speculum amoris, by Maximus of Bologna, and it included quotations from many other works, all on the malady of love. As the reader will understand, it did not require much once more to inflame my mind, which had been numb since morning, and to excite it again with the girl’s image.

            All that day I had driven myself to dispel my morning thoughts, repeating that they were not those of a sober, balanced novice, and moreover, since the day’s events had been sufficiently rich and intense to distract me, my appetites had been dormant, so that I thought I had freed myself by now from what had been but a passing restlessness. Instead, I had only to see that book and I was forced to say, “De te fabula narratur,” and I discovered I was more sick with love than I had believed. I learned later that, reading books of medicine, you are always convinced you feel the pains of which they speak. So it was that the mere reading of those pages, glanced at hastily in fear that William would enter the room and ask me what I was so diligently investigating, caused me to believe that I was suffering from that very disease, whose symptoms were so splendidly described that if, on the one hand, I was distressed to discover I was sick (and on the infallible evidence of so many auctoritates), on the other I rejoiced to see my own situation depicted so vividly, convincing myself that even if I was ill, my illness was, so to speak, normal, inasmuch as countless others had suffered in the same way, and the quoted authors might have taken me personally as the model for their descriptions.

            So I was moved by the pages of Ibn-Hazm, who defines love as a rebel illness whose treatment lies within itself, for the sick person does not want to be healed and he who is ill with it is reluctant to get well (and God knows this was true!). I realized why, that morning, I had been so stirred by everything I saw: it seems that love enters through the eyes, as Basil of Ancira also says, and - unmistakable symptom - he who is seized by such an illness displays an excessive gaiety, while he wishes at the same time to keep to himself and seeks solitude (as I had done that morning), while other phenomena affecting him are a violent restlessness and an awe that makes him speechless. . . . I was frightened to read that the sincere lover, when denied the sight of the beloved object, must fall into a wasting state that often reaches the point of confining him to bed, and sometimes the malady overpowers the brain, and the subject loses his mind and raves (obviously I had not yet reached that phase, because I had been quite alert in the exploration of the library). But I read with apprehension that if the illness worsens, death can ensue, and I asked myself whether the joy I derived from thinking of the girl was worth this supreme sacrifice of the body, apart from all due consideration of the soul’s health.

I learned, further, from some words of Saint Hildegard that the melancholy humor I had felt during the day, which I attributed to a sweet feeling of pain at the girl’s absence, was perilously close to the feeling experienced by one who strays from the harmonious and perfect state man experiences in paradise, and this “nigra et amara” melancholy is produced by the breath of the serpent and the influence of the Devil. An idea shared also by infidels of equal wisdom, for my eyes fell on the lines attributed to Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn-Zakariyya ar-Razi, who in a Liber con tin ens identifies amorous melancholy with lycanthropy, which drives its victim to behave like a wolf. His description clutched at my throat: first the lovers seem changed in the external appearance, their eyesight weakens, their eyes become hollow and without tears, their tongue slowly dries up and pustules appear on it, the whole body is parched and they suffer constant thirst; at this point they spend the day lying face down, and on the face and the tibias marks like dog bites appear, and finally the victims roam through the cemeteries at night like wolves.

            Finally, I had no more doubts as to the gravity of my situation when I read quotations from the great Avicenna, who defined love as an assiduous thought of a melancholy nature, born as a result of one’s thinking again and again of the features, gestures, or behavior of a person of the opposite sex (with what vivid fidelity had Avicenna described my case!): it does not originate as an illness but is transformed into illness when, remaining unsatisfied, it becomes obsessive thought (and why did I feel so obsessed, I who, God forgive me, had been well satisfied? Or was perhaps what had happened the previous night not satisfaction of love? But how is this illness satisfied, then?), and so there is an incessant flutter of the eyelids, irregular respiration; now the victim laughs, now weeps, and the pulse throbs (and indeed mine throbbed, and my breathing stopped as I read those lines!). Avicenna advised an infallible method already proposed by Galen for discovering whether someone is in love: grasp the wrist of the sufferer and utter many names of members of the opposite sex, until you discover which name makes the pulse accelerate. I was afraid my master would enter abruptly, seize my arm, and observe in the throbbing of my veins my secret, of which I would have been greatly ashamed.... Alas, as remedy Avicenna suggested uniting the two lovers in matrimony, which would cure the illness. Truly he was an infidel, though a shrewd one, because he did not consider the condition of the Benedictine novice, thus condemned never to recover - or, rather, consecrated, through his own choice or the wise choice of his relatives, never to fall ill. Luckily Avicenna, though not thinking of the Cluniac order, did consider the case of lovers who cannot be joined, and advised as radical treatment hot baths. (Was Berengar trying to be healed of his lovesickness for the dead Adelmo? But could one suffer lovesickness for a being of one’s own sex, or was that only bestial lust? And was the night I had spent perhaps not bestial and lustful? No, of course not, I told myself at once, it was most sweet - and then immediately added: No, you are wrong, Adso, it was an illusion of the Devil, it was most bestial, and if you sinned in being a beast you sin all the more now in refusing to acknowledge it!) But then I read, again in Avicenna, that there were also other remedies: for example, enlisting the help of old and expert women who would spend their time denigrating the beloved - and it seems that old women are more expert than men in this task. Perhaps this was the solution, but I could not find any old women at the abbey (or young ones, actually), and so I would have to ask some monk to speak ill to me of the girl, but who? And besides, could a monk know women as well as an old gossip would know them? The last solution suggested by the Saracen was truly immodest, for it required the unhappy lover to couple with many slave girls, a remedy quite unsuitable for a monk. And so, I asked myself finally, how can a young monk be healed of love? Is there truly no salvation for him? Should I perhaps turn to Severinus and his herbs? I did find a passage in Arnold of Villanova, an author I had heard William mention with great esteem, who had it that lovesickness was born from an excess of humors and pneuma, when the human organism finds itself in an excess of dampness and heat, because the blood (which produces the generative seed), increasing through excess, produces excess of seed, a “complexio venerea,” and an intense desire for union in man and woman. There is an estimative virtue situated in the dorsal part of the median ventricle of the encephalus (What is that? I wondered) whose purpose is to perceive the insensitive intentiones perceived by the senses, and when desire for the object perceived by the senses becomes too strong, the estimative faculty is upset, and it feeds only on the phantom of the beloved person; then there is an inflammation of the whole soul and body, as sadness alternates with joy, because heat (which in moments of despair descends into the deepest parts of the body and chills the skin) in moments of joy rises to the surface, inflaming the face. The treatment suggested by Arnold consisted in trying to lose the assurance and the hope of reaching the beloved object, so that the thought would go away.

            Why, in that case I am cured, or nearly cured, I said to myself, because I have little or no hope of seeing the object of my thoughts again, and if I saw it, no hope of gaining it, and if I gained it, none of possessing it again, and if I possessed it, of keeping it near me, because of both my monkish state and the duties imposed on me by my family’s station. . . . I am saved, I said to myself, and I closed the book and collected myself, just as William entered the room.


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