THE ABACUS AND THE CROSS: THE STORY OF THE POPE WHO BROUGHT THE LIGHT OF SCIENCE TO THE DARK AGES
By Nancy Marie Brown
Basic Books, $27.95, 310 pages
This is the story (but much more than the story) of Gerbert of Aurillac (France) who, as a schoolmaster, abbot and Pope Sylvester II, is credited with bringing “the light of science to the Dark Ages,” in the words of the subtitle. Born in or about A.D. 950, he was a brilliant young scholar-monk at the monastery of St. Gerald in France. A visit there by Count Borrell, an enlightened aristocrat of Barcelona, led to Gerbert’s three-year stint as a teacher under Bishop Ato, the spiritual and temporal ruler of Catalonia.
This brought about Gerbert’s employ in 971 by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (the Great) to tutor his son, later Otto II. Gerbert became schoolmaster at the abbey at Reims and taught mathematics using the abacus, the Arab instrument with which he became familiar in Catalonia and introduced more broadly in Europe. Gerbert also created instruments for use in astronomy.
Gerbert’s pupil, Otto II, made Gerbert abbot of the rich and important abbey of Bobbio, where he was temporal, as well as spiritual, leader. But he proved unable to exert his authority over the local Italian nobles, to collect from them the rents owing to the abbey or to raise sufficient troops from them to meet the needs of Otto II. The nobles revolted against his authority. Gerbert fled from Bobbio, and through his connections with Otto came under the protection of Hugh Capet, a contender (later successful contender) for the throne of France. From then on, Gerbert was more involved in politics than education.
When the archbishop of Reims died in 989, Gerbert sought the position, but lost out to a protege of Pope John XV. However, with the patronage of Otto III, Gerbert was appointed archbishop of Ravenna and shortly thereafter was appointed pope by Otto, succeeding Gregory V and taking the title Sylvester II.
Curiously, in the author’s view, the “scientist pope” accomplished nothing specifically scientific during his papacy. His work was chiefly settling quarrels and seeking to unite the Western and Eastern churches. But conditions in Rome were turning against the German emperor and the beneficiaries of his patronage, and the German bishops did not recognize the pope’s authority. Both Otto and Gerbert were forced by rebels to take refuge in Ravenna. Gerbert died in 1003, a year after the death of his patron, Emperor Otto III.
This reviewer found the book difficult to read. Broad swaths of history around the turn of the millennium are explored in extensive detail, and over huge areas of Europe, in flashbacks and flash-forwards (often without dates) that bear only marginally on the life and work of Gerbert of Aurillac. One comes away with the impression that Ms. Brown performed so much collateral research that she hated to waste it. Though some of it is interesting, the reader is bogged down in too much faintly relevant material and must flip pages back and forth to tie in the significance and chronology.
The larger themes of that period reduce Gerbert to a minor figure, greatly overshadowed by the struggle for the throne of France and the difficulty of the German holy Roman emperors in exerting their authority in France and Italy. The author appears to have been undecided whether to concentrate on the larger themes or on the life of Gerbert, and attempts to do both.
Ms. Brown makes an interesting point: By the millennium, Arab science, mathematics and astronomy had penetrated Europe pretty thoroughly. Notions of a flat earth and fears of science as the enemy of religion had been rejected by educated people and in Catholic doctrine centuries before the Renaissance. Gerbert was both a product and an agent of this intellectual environment. But the author points out that a later reaction of superstition and misunderstanding of astronomy set in, even characterizing the abacus as a tool of the devil and the “scientist pope” as a practitioner of the black arts.
David C. Acheson is a former president of the Atlantic Council of the United States, a nonprofit Washington foreign-policy center.