Gerbert of Aurilac (ca. 940-1003), later Pope Sylvester II, has been tracking me down for months.
I first met up with the “scientist-pope” when I was working on Islamic Spain’s influence on medieval Europe. Gerbert was one of the first of the European scholars who traveled to Spain to study the lost quadrivium of the liberal arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. His efforts to introduce Arabic numbers and the new art of algebra to Europe met with limited success; in fact, he was accused of practicing “dangerous Saracen magic”.
Once Gerbert was in my head I stumbled over him everywhere. ( Admittedly, I was spending a lot of time reading about medieval Europe and the Islamic Golden Age.) After a while he began to feel like an old friend.
Imagine my surprise when I ran across Gerbert in the character of an ancient, powerful, and malevolent vampire in Deborah Harkness’s wonderful novel, A Discovery of Witches . After the (delighted) shock wore off, I decided the idea of casting Gerbert as a vampire was brilliant. The accusations of black magic did not end with his death. Twelfth century historian William of Malmesbury claimed that Gerbert owed his election to the papacy to a pact with the devil. A thirteen century manuscript denounced Gerbert as “the best necromancer in France, whom the demons of the air readily obeyed in all that he required of them by day and night because of the great sacrifices he offered them.” From necromancer to vampire didn’t seem like much of a leap.
Gerbert wasn’t done with me yet. When I read a review for Nancy Marie Brown’s new biography of Gerbert, The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages, I decided the time had come for me to learn a bit more about the “scientist-pope”. Brown creates a portrait of a scholar forced into politics at a time when political failure was actively dangerous. In the process, she introduces the reader to the state of learning in medieval Europe, the political skirmishing that brought down Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire, the nature of the medieval papacy, and the legend of the last emperor. Brown’s writing style is clear, accessible, and intelligent. The Abacus and the Cross is a good introduction to the tangled relationships between religion, science and politics in the medieval world. if you want vampires, you’re out of luck.