Gerbert of Aurillac, later known as pope Silvester II, (or Sylvester II), (ca. 950 – May 12, 1003) was a prolific scholar of the 10th century. He introduced Arab knowledge of arithmetics and astronomy to Europe. He was the first French pope (see list), reigning from 999 until his death in 1003.
Gerbert was born in about 950 in the Auvergne region of France. Around 963, he entered the monastery of St. Gerald at Aurillac. In 967, Borrel II, count of Barcelona , visited the monastery, and the abbot asked the count to take Gerbert with him so that the lad could study mathematics in Spain. In the following years, Gerbert studied in the Christian-held city of Barcelona and possibly in the Islamic cities of Córdoba and Seville.
In 969, Count Borrel made a pilgrimage to Rome, taking Gerbert with him. Gerbert there met pope John XIII and the emperor Otto I. The pope persuaded Otto to employ Gerbert on as tutor for his young son, the future emperor Otto II. Some years later, Otto gave Gerbert leave to go to study at the cathedral school of Reims where he was soon appointed a teacher in the cathedral school by Archbishop Adalbero.
When Otto II became Holy Roman Emperor in 983, he appointed Gerbert the abbot of the monastery of Bobbio and also appointed him as count of the district, but the abbey had been ruined by previous abbots, and Gerbert soon returned to Reims.
After the death of Otto II in 984, Gerhard became involved in the politics of his time. In 985, with the support of his archbishop, he opposed Lothair of France's attempt to take the Lorraine from Otto III by supporting Hugh Capet. Capet became king of France, ending the Carolingian line of kings.
Adalbero died in 988. Gerhard was a natural candidate for his succession, but Hugh Capet appointed Arnulf, an illegitimate son of Lothair instead. Arnulf was deposed in 991 for alleged treason against the king, and Gerbert was elected his successor. There was so much opposition to Gerbert's elevation to the See of Reims, however, that John XV sent a legate to France who temporarily suspended Gerbert from his episcopal office. Gerbert sought to show that this decree was unlawful, but a further synod in 995 declared Arnulf's deposition invalid.
Gerbert now became the teacher of Otto III, and Pope Gregory V, Otto’s cousin, appointed him Archbishop of Ravenna in 998. The emperor elected him to succeed Gregory as pope in 999. Gerbert took the name Sylvester II (alluding to Sylvester I, the advisor of the Constantine the Great). Soon after he was elected pope, Gerbert confirmed the position of his former rival Arnulf as archbishop of Reims.
In 1001, the Roman populace revolted against the emperor, forcing Otto and Gerbert to flee to Ravenna. Otto led two unsuccessful expeditions to regain control of the city, and died on a third in 1002. Gerbert returned to Rome soon after Otto's death, although the rebellious nobility remained in power, and died a little later. He is buried in St. John Lateran.
Gerbert wrote a series of works dealing with matters of the quadrivium. He had learned the non-zero Arabic digits in Spain, and could do calculations in his head that were extremely difficult for people thinking in terms of the Roman numerals. In Reims, he constructed a hydraulic organ that excelled all previously known instruments, where the air had to be pumped manually. Gerbert reintroduced the abacus into Europe, and in a letter of 984, he asks Lupitus of Barcelona for a translation of an Arabic astronomical treatise. Gerbert may have been the author of a description of the astrolabe that was edited by Hermannus Contractus some 50 years later.
As pope, he took energetic measures against the widespread practices of simony and concubinage among the clergy, maintaining that only capable men of spotless lives should be allowed to become bishop. He wrote a dogmatic treatise, "De corpore et sanguine Domini".
Gerbert in legend
Gerbert as a scientist was far ahead of his times. He was reputed to have studied magical arts and astrology in Seville. This gave rise to legends that portray him as a sorcerer in league with the devil.
Gerbert was supposed to be in possession of a book of spells stolen from an Arab philosopher in Spain. Gerbert fled, pursued by the victim, who could trace the thief by the stars, but Gerbert was aware of the pursuit, and hid hanging from a wooden bridge, where, suspended between heaven and earth, he was invisible to the magician.
Gerbert was supposed to have built a bronze head, who would answer his questions with "yes" or "no". He was also reputed to have had a pact with a female demon called Meridiana, who had appeared after he had been rejected by his earthly love, and with whose help he managed to ascend to the papal throne (another legend tells that he won the papacy playing dice with the devil).
According to the legend, Meridiana (or the bronze head) told Gerbert that if he should ever read a mass in Jerusalem, the devil would come for him. Gerbert then cancelled a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but when he read mass in the church of Saint Mary of Jerusalem (also called "Jerusalem church") in Rome, he became sick soon afterwards and, dying, he asked his cardinals to cut up his body and scatter it across the city. In another version, he was even attacked by the devil while he was reading the mass, and the devil mutilated him and gave his gouged-out eyes to demons to play with in the church. Repenting, Silvester then cut off his hand and his tongue.
The inscription on Gerbert's tomb reads in part Iste locus Silvestris membra sepulti venturo domino conferet ad sonitum ("This place, at the advent of the lord, will yield to the sound [of the last trumpet] the buried members of Silvester", mis-read as "will make a sound") has given rise to the curious legend that his bones will rattle in that tomb just before the death of a Pope.
The legends about Gerbert as a sorcerer arose about a century after his death. There have been other popes that were suspected of sorcery, for example John XXI and Benedict XII. Gregory XII was questioned about magical practices in 1409 at the council of Pisa.
Gerbert's writings were printed in volume 139 of the Patrologia Latina.
- Mathematical writings
- Libellus de numerorum divisione
- De geometria
- Epistola ad Adelbodum
- De sphaerae constructione
- Libellus de rationali et ratione uti
- Ecclesiastical writings
- Sermo de informatione episcoporum
- De corpore et sanguine Domini
- Selecta e concil. Basol., Remens., Masom., etc.
- Epistolae ante summum pontificatum scriptae
- 218 letters, including letters to the emperor, the pope, and various bishops
- Epistolae et decreta pontificia
- 15 letters to various bishops, including Arnulf, and abbots, and one letter to Stephen I of Hungary
- one dubious letter to Otto III.
- five short poems
- Acta concilii Remensis ad S. Basolum
- Leonis legati epistola ad Hugonem et Robertum reges