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Sylvester II: Scientist, Pope, Wizard, –Vampire?

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.

 

9 Comments

  1. Siiri on February 4, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    I like unofficial history so much more than the textbook stuff. So dry. Try bringing up pennydreadfuls in a college class on 19th century British literature. Hey — the teacher had JUST SAID there were no pulp novels then! What else could I do?

    • James Barclay on July 17, 2017 at 8:35 pm

      I once, just for fun, wrote a paper on the “Unofficial History of the Punic Wars.” My professor laughed as he handed it back and suggested I submit it to my Creative Writing professor. He added an F. I still made an A for the course. But I knew the difference and loved good research. Pope Sylvester is my favorite pope and I have done much research from many sources, angles and in several languages. Novels are entertaining and many are great reading, but they don’t replace fact. If you are that interested in this remarkable individual I suggest studying about him as much as you can. He will become alive and it may seem as though he is speaking to you himself.

  2. Erika Garnett on July 26, 2016 at 5:36 am

    What killed Pope Sylvester II? I see his death date, but no cause of death.

    • pamela on July 26, 2016 at 1:11 pm

      None of my sources say. Only that he fell ill and died.

    • James Barclay on July 17, 2017 at 8:21 pm

      Times were tough. People did not live very long lives (avg. ~35yrs . in those times.) due to poor nutrition, filth, disease, infections, exposure, unhealthful living, bad diet and the like. Those who were exiled to monasteries did no better. When there was mention of someone who died of “ill health” it meant that the utter brutality of life in those times had done them in. It was unusual for chroniclers to bother with such details even if they themselves were present at the final event. End of story.

  3. Michael on October 11, 2016 at 4:30 pm

    Reading ‘Ars Magica’ by Judith Tarr (Sept. 1989) allowed me the privilege of looking up said Pope. I do not know the actual history of Gerbert, but the novel itself is a wonderful reading of the pursuit of knowledge in a small mind as well as a small world filled with prejudice.

    • pamela on October 11, 2016 at 5:18 pm

      Thanks, Michael. Going to have to check that one out.

  4. Ronald Green on July 22, 2018 at 6:56 am

    You’ll find Gerbert (and William of Malmesbury, plus a lot of other characters) in my book “Nothing Matters: a book about nothing” (iff Books, 2011), which puts him within a broad tapestry of nothing and all its wonders and so-called dangers.

    • pamela on July 22, 2018 at 1:48 pm

      Cool!

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