Today, I want to tell you about Pope Sylvester II. I don’t know when his birthday was, but he died on this day in the year 1003. If I tell you that Sylvester was an excellent mathematician, you might not be very interested. But if I tell you that people believed he was in league with the devil and that he possessed a magical talking head, I may have you’re attention. Happily, both those things are true.
Sylvester’s birth name was Gerbert and he was born in the year 946, somewhere in the Auvergne region of central France. He was a clever child and was lucky enough to be taken to study mathematics and astronomy in Spain. The thing that is important about this, is that Spain was, at that time, home to a lot of Islamic people, known as the Moors. Much of what had been learned about mathematics and astronomy by the Egyptians, the Persians and the Ancient Greeks had been lost and forgotten in the West. But in Islamic countries, they had retained that knowledge and built on it. They were also in contact, through trade, with India and China and they absorbed many of their ideas too. Their knowledge of these subjects was the most advanced in the world. Back then, the greatest Christian library held about a thousand books. But in the Moorish capital of Córdoba in southern Spain there was a library that contained four hundred thousand books. They had other libraries too, around seventy in Spain alone.
So Gerbert learned his skills from the Moors, spending three years at the monastery of Vic in Catalonia. He learned to study the movements of the stars and, as we know, astronomy and astrology were once pretty much the same thing. Trying to divine the future and find out what God had in store for us was very wrong. He also learned how to make calculations using Arabic numerals. The numbers we use today, 0-9, are based on this system and it was much easier to use them to do difficult calculations in your head than Roman numerals. Gerbert also re-introduced the abacus to Rome, which was an idea he had from the Moors. All this knowledge made Gerbert seem like some kind of magician. So that was what people decided he was.
There was also the fact that he rose through the ranks, from abbot of Bobbio in Italy in 983, to archbishop of Reims, then of Ravenna all the way to Pope in the year 999, despite not being liked very much. So maybe he had made a pact with the Devil. There is a great legend about him that he practised the Black Arts and once stole a book of spells from an Arabic sorcerer. He fled, and was pursued by the magician, who could divine his whereabouts by studying the heavens. But Gerbert climbed over the side of a wooden bridge and hung by his hands beneath it. Thus suspended, between heaven and earth, the sorcerer could not find him. Or perhaps he prayed to Satan for help and was wafted away by him. Then, the only way he could get back home was by promising the Devil his soul. In return for his promise, Satan would furnish him with greater power than the book of spells could ever provide, and that was how he became Pope.
The other weird story about him is that he built a brazen head which could speak and answer questions with the answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The idea of a talking head, either magical or mechanical, comes up quite a lot when I’m looking at people accused of sorcery. Thomas Browne, who wrote a myth-debunking book called ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’ in 1646, dismissed the idea as a misinterpretation of alchemical texts. Luckily for Gerbert, his head, unlike the statue built by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas that I mentioned back in March, would only speak when spoken to. He asked it if he would become Pope and it replied ‘yes’. He asked if he would die before he got to preach in Jerusalem and it replied ‘no’.
Gerbert was a clever sort of fellow and he knew just what to do. He would simple never go to Jerusalem. But you can’t cheat fate, and one day he had to read mass in one of the smaller churches in Rome, the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, which means, the Holy Cross of Jerusalem or as it was commonly known, just ‘Jerusalem’. In one story he was attacked by the Devil in the church. He gouged out the Pope’s eyes and gave them to his demons to play with. Another tale has Gerbert fall sick and die. He dies raving, insisting that his body be cut up and spread about the city. In cesspools and on rubbish dumps. Presumably to make the Satan’s job of collecting his debt as difficult as possible.
There have been many Popes who did really terrible things, but I rather suspect Gerbert has been unfairly dealt with. While he certainly gained seemingly magical knowledge from Moorish texts, it seems unlikely that he stole it. There is a, somewhat misplaced, belief that his bones will rattle in his tomb when the present Pope is about to die. Poor Gerbert, dead for more than a thousand years and still expected to predict the future.