Sylvester II – The Scientist Pope

He arose from humble beginnings as a monk to the papacy on account of his scientific knowledge, not in spite of it. In his day, the earth was not flat. People were not terrified that the world would end at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 999. Christians did not believe Muslims and Jews were the devil’s spawn.

The Church was not anti-science: just the reverse. Mathematics ranked among the highest forms of worship, for God has created the world, as Scripture said, according to numbers, measure and weight. To study science was to approach the mind of God. On the eve of the apocalypse, the archbishop of Ravenna and his friend Adalbold were discussing the best method for finding the area of a triangle.

They called him a man of “great genius and admirable eloquence,” possessing “incomparable scientific knowledge.” He “surpassed his contemporaries in his knowledge,” was “acutely intelligent,” and deeply learned in the study of the liberal arts.” He was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day. Like a modern scientist, Gerbert questioned authority.

He (or more likely his best student) wrote a book on the astrolabe, an instrument for telling time and making measurements by the sun or stars, you could even use it to calculate the circumference of the earth, which Pope Sylvester and his peers knew very well, was not flat like a disc but round as an apple. Gerbert made an armillary sphere – a primitive planetarium – to explore how the planets circled the globe of the earth; he even knew Mercury and Venus orbited the sun.

Born in the mountainous Cantal region of France in the mid-900s (circa 949, though no one knows exactly when or where), Gerbert entered a monastery to learn to read and write in Latin. It was the only way he could get an education. The Church ran the only schools.

All monasteries in Gerbert’s day were Benedictine, guided by the sixth-century rule of Saint Benedict. According to the Rule, a monk was to be content with the poorest and worst of everything. Yet to a peasant boy in tenth-century France, sleeping alone in a bed with a pillow, a candle burning all night, was luxurious.

He studied Cicero, Virgil, and other classics. He impressed his teachers with his skill in debating. He was a fine writer too, with a sophisticated style grace with rhetorical flourishes. To further his education, his abbot sent him south to the border of Islamic Spain, then an extraordinarily tolerant culture in which learning was prized.

In the library of the Caliph of Cordoba were at least 40.000 books (some said as many as 400.000), Gerbert’s French monastery owned fewer than 400. Many of the Caliph’s books came from Baghdad, known for its House of Wisdom, where for two centuries works of mathematics, astronomy, physics, and medicine had been translated from Greek, Persian and Hindu and further developed by Islamic scholars under their Caliph’s patronage.

During Gerbert’s lifetime, the first of these science books were being translated from Arabic into Latin through the combined efforts of Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars.

Many of those interested in the new sciences were churchmen, and some became Gerbert’s lifelong friends and correspondents. A professor at a Cathedral school for most of his career, Gerbert was the first Christian known to teach mat using the nine Arabic numerals and zero.

He devised an abacus or counting board that mimics the algorithms we use today for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. It has been called the first counting devise in Europe to function digitally, even the first computer, in a chronology of computer history, Gerbert’s abacus is one of only four innovations mentioned between 3000 B. C. and the invention of the slide rule in 1622.

For his royal patrons he built siege weapons and pipe organs, dabbled in poetry and astrology and organized scholarly debates. But most of all, as a sought-after teacher, he spread the science of Islamic Spain throughout Christian Europe. He taught future abbots, archbishops, kings, popes and emperors.

His progress was erratic, however. Twice he was accused of treason, each time to be rescued by the sudden, suspicious death of his king. Twice he was forced to flee for his life, once under sentence of excommunication.

From Spain he had gone first to Rome, where he impressed the pope and Emperor Otto the Great with his learning. He was assigned briefly to tutor the Emperor’s son Otto II.

Ten years later, Otto II, now Emperor, appointed him abbot of the monastery in Bobbio, Italy. When Otto II died three years later, Gerbert abandoned Bobbio and fled back to Reims, France.

When Hugh Capet raised to the French throne (ending the dynasty of Charlemagne) he made Gerbert archbishop of Reims, but the Pope refused to acknowledge him. Pope and king fought over him for seven years. Excommunicated by the Pope, Gerbert was abandoned by King Hugh’s son and successor.

He fled again, this time to Otto III’s court, where he dazzled the teenaged emperor with his scientific knowledge. Gerbert’s excommunication was reversed by a new Pope, Otto’s cousin, who made him archbishop of Ravenna.

When the Pope suddenly died, Otto III advanced Gerbert to the papacy itself. On April 9, 999 Otto’s army saw Gerbert installed as Pope Sylvester II.

The two, emperor and Pope, shared a dream. Gerbert encouraged Otto to see himself as a second Charlemagne, who could reunite Rome and Constantinople, expanding the Holy Roman Empire, then just parts of Germany and Italy, to recreate the vast unified realm of the Caesars.

They established the Polish Catholic Church and sent missionaries to the Prussians, Swedes and other pagan tribes. They strengthened the empire’s ties with Spain and made overtures to Constantinople.

But Otto died in 1002 – just twenty-two – and Gerbert a year later, some say of grief. Their plans for a Christian empire based on peace, tolerance, law and the love of learning died with them.

The Great Schism of 1054 permanently divided the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the First Crusade in 1096 redefined the relationship between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

Just before the crusade, Gerbert was branded as sorcerer and devil-worshipper for having taught the mathematics and science that had come to Christian Europe from Islamic Spain.

Instead of lovingly collecting, copying and translating the wisdom of Islam, the monks of Christendom began mutilating scientific manuscripts, erasing pages of what they now considered useless information and written over them. The interests of the Church had changed. Science had lost its central place. Much of what Pope Sylvester knew would be forgotten for hundreds of years.

But Gerbert’s teachings, and the books written by his pupils and peers, enabled scholars during the Renaissance to rediscover the math and science he knew so well. Given his tarnished reputation, they did not think to credit him or his sources. Consequently, most people have no idea that our modern technological civilization depends on the science of Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, brought to Spain by Muslim scholars and spread through the west by visionary Christians such as Gerbert of Aurillar, before the year 1000.

During his lifetime, science transcended faith and faith encompassed science. The Pope studied the stars and found God in numbers.

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Tags: Christianity, Islam, Popes, religion, science

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