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.
The first day of my PhD program, my advisor said, “You know there are no jobs, right?” I knew, but I didn’t care. I wanted to write about South Asia and history for a broader audience than the other five people interested in my dissertation topic. I wanted to write for history buffs and nerdy kids and the intelligent general reader.
When I finished my degree, I started writing for magazines aimed at history buffs, nerdy kids and –you get the idea. My first, and second, and third sales came straight from my dissertation research. Then I got an e-mail from an editor that said: “I know this isn’t what you normally do, but….” Suddenly the words “not my field” no longer applied. The fence of academic boundaries that had been both bulwark and prison was gone.
These days I write about a wide range of historical topics, from ancient Peru (Not just the Incas. Who knew?) to World War II. At least half the time I’m writing outside of “my field”. And at the end of every day I have a great story that didn’t quite fit in the piece at hand, a dangling idea that I want to play with, a connection I want to explore, or a book that I can’t wait to share with someone else.
I hope that someone will be you. Read along. Make a comment. Suggest a topic. Enjoy the ride.