A mathematician who became Pope.

A standard question amongst historians of art and historians of science is Renaissance or renaissances? Was there just one large event in European history, The Renaissance, during which the whole of the lost knowledge of antiquity was recovered or were there a series of such periods throughout the Middle Ages in which this knowledge gradually trickled back into European culture bit by bit? The first version is the myth created by the scholars in the fifteenth century who first coined the terms Renaissance and Middle Ages. The second is much closer to what really happened in history.

One of these renaissances is the so-called first scientific or mathematical renaissance beginning in the twelfth century in which the so-called translators travelled to Spain and Sicily to translate both classical and Islamic scientific manuscripts from Arabic into Latin, reintroducing such classics as Euclid’s Elements or Ptolemaeus’ Syntaxis Mathematiké into Europe. However there had already been a steady trickle of Islamic scientific knowledge into Europe through Spain since the ninth century conveyed by individual scholars who had studied in Spain and then taught others in Northern Europe their freshly acquired treasures. One of the most well known of these was the French monk Gerbert d’Aurillac who died 12th May 1003.


Statue of Pope Sylvester II in Aurillac, Auvergne, France Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gerbert, a peasant, was born about 945 and as a youth entered the Monastery of Aurillac as a menial but his intelligence was recognised and instead of being assigned kitchen duties he was given an education. From 967 to 970 he studied under Bishop Atto of Vich in Catalonia in the Spanish March, i.e. that part of Spain not under the rule of the Islamic Empire. In these three years Gerbert absorbed as much of the Islamic science and mathematics as he could. From Spain he went to Rome where he was introduced to the Pope and the German Emperor, Otto I, who was so impressed with the young scholar that he sent him to Rheims to complete his education.  He also served as tutor to Otto’s son the future Otto II. Under Otto II patronage he was appointed Abbott of Bobbio. He later succeeded to the Archbishopric of Rheims. After the death of Otto II he became tutor to the teenage Otto III and his cousin Pope Gregory V who appointed him Archbishop of Ravenna in 998. After Gregory’s death in 999 Gerbert was elevated to Pope with the support of Otto III, taking the name Sylvester II, although he only held the office for less than four years until his death in 1003.

Throughout his career at court and in the Church Gerbert was a passionate teacher of the mathematical sciences that he had learnt in his time in Spain. He wrote books on arithmetic, geometry and astronomy and was particularly interested in the astronomical methods of measuring time. He corresponded widely on mathematical topics and avidly collected manuscripts to extend his knowledge. He introduced the armillary sphere from Spain into Northern Europe and almost certainly played a roll in the introduction of the astrolabe. He might also have played a role in introducing the Hindu-Arabic numbers into Northern Europe.


12th century copy of Gerbert’s De geometria. Source: Wikimedia Commons

His achievements cannot be compared to some of the twelfth century translators such as Gerard of Cremona or Adelard of Bath but he was almost certainly the leading European scholar of the mathematical sciences outside of Muslim Spain in the tenth century and he and his student did much to make the Islamic knowledge of mathematics and astronomy known to a wider audience.

Next time a Gnu atheist tries to tell you that the Catholic Church was irreconcilably opposed to science in the Middle Ages tell them about Gerbert the mathematician who became Pope.


Filed under History of science, Mediaeval Science

12 responses to “A mathematician who became Pope.

  1. Pingback: A mathematician who became Pope. | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Great post! Gerbert is one of my favourite persons in history (and a recurring character in some of the stories I wrote http://baerista.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=aurillac)

  3. Will Thomas

    Great as usual, Thony. Sometime you’re going to have to give us an annotated bibliography on the best sources and scholars on different periods in the history of mathematics and astronomy.

  4. Jeb

    Nice. One of the most interesting questions in early medieval history I think. Not a description of the texts, or outline of transmission, its not enough to demonstrate a text sat in a scriptorium’s library collection. But the social cultural context and the influence they exerted at particular times and places (or as interestingly did not). Shadowy wider world of translation schools.

    The difficult and vexing bit of it all.

  5. I just read David Lindberg’s Beginnings of Western Science so I found out about Sylvester II just a couple of days before this post. Neat figure. Did he do anything of import regarding philosophy, math, science, etc. in his short tenure as Pope? Would he have done much more of it had he lived longer?

    Also, I agree with Will!

    • thonyc

      I’m not really an expert on Gerbert as Pope but he wasn’t a particularly good Arch-Bishop and I think he spent most of his time as Pope avoiding people who wanted to kill him.

  6. Hmm, the first paragraph makes me wonder if popular history was carved out of the ediface of the past using Ockham’s razor.

  7. Pingback: The Giant’s Shoulders Blog Carnival Is Here! | Medical Heritage Library

  8. Pingback: Gerbert d’Aurillac: The Mathematical Pope, Sylvester II – science meets faith

  9. Pingback: CATHOLIC SCIENTIST: POPE SYLVESTER II (946-1003) – A Leading Mathematician-Astronomer of his Time - THE SPLENDOR OF THE CHURCH

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