Pope Sylvester II, better known as Gerbert of Aurillac, has no feast day. He has never been beatified or canonized. Pope John Paul II gave a tribute to him on April 7, 1999, by a Message on the 1000th Anniversary of his Election to the Papacy. He was the pope of the year 1000, mentioned in several earlier articles on this blog. His importance to intellectual history draws me to post this biographical sketch now, while the era when he lived is under some blogosphere attack. (See this for the latest.) His influence on the blend of faith and reason in Christian philosophy also makes him important in connection with the recent feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas and the references to faith and reason made by Pope Benedict XVI.
Gerbert was born around the year 945 in Aquitaine, in an area now called southern France. He was a boy from a poor family, in an era when being well born often determined a person’s future. As a child, he entered the monastery of St. Gerald in Aurillac and received his early education there. He was exceptionally brilliant and absorbed learning as a rare genius.
In 967, the count of Barcelona visited the monastery and was impressed by Gerbert, who was by then in his twenties. The count arranged for Gerbert to obtain further education at a monastery in Spain. In 970, he accompanied the count to Rome, as the count expected Gerbert’s rhetoric to assist him in an appeal to Pope John XIII. The pope was so impressed that he kept Gerbert in Rome and later sent him to Emperor Otto I, expecting that the emperor would also enjoy Gerbert’s intellectual company.
In Otto’s court, Gerbert became the teacher of the 16-year old Otto II who would succeed his father as emperor. Gerbert thus attained the respect of both pope and emperor, and entered a life in which he would serve simultaneously as instructor of the quadrivium (mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music) and as statesman and abbot for 30 years. Translations of Boethius's work, combined with Arab influence, increased his interest in the study of science and mathematics. Music was both a science (a mathematical aspect of the quadrivium) and a practical art, with the line between the two not well defined. Gerbert constructed an instrument called the "monochord" to use to teach both music theory and chant. He had an abacus constructed -- a particular form of abacus that was his own invention -- to teach arithmetical functions. His students followed in writing texts on the use of the abacus. He developed an instrument to assist in determining the time during the night. A Benedictine, he may have seen the use of his inventions in liturgy and in the nighttime prayers of the Benedictine hours.
However, the era was one of grisly turmoil. Otto II replaced his father as emperor, a pious man but one with imperial ambitions who sought to control Italy as well as Germany and France. His son, Otto III, officially became the emperor at the age of three, prompting more power struggles. Church figures sided with one competing claim to power or another, sometimes assisting in political upheaval, and the political figures sometimes rewarded allies with Church positions. Gerbert may have seen the world in part through his admiration for the works of Boethius, whose work for Church unity involved work in both Church and State.
From 972 to 989, Gerbert was the abbot at the Abbey of St. Remi in Reims, France, and he also became abbot at the Italian monastery at Bobbio. While Bobbio had an extensive library, but the monastery itself was in disrepair, and the political situation pressed him to leave. Gerbert returned to Reims, and collected a library there, which was significant enough that he later complained of the inadequacy of his library in Rome. The initial impetus for his collection of manuscripts at Reims, he wrote in 985, was that he felt he must be prepared for diplomacy. “For speaking effectively to persuade and restraining the minds of angry persons from violence by smooth speech are both of the greatest usefulness.”. Adalbero, the Archbishop of Reims, took Gerbert as his secretary and protégé, while Gerbert also worked as secretary to King Hugh Capet, learning to lead Church and State.
While Gerbert was encouraged to believe that he would become archbishop upon the death of Adalbero, it was not easily to be. Conflict raged over the French crown. King Hugh Capet had come to power elected by the nobility, partly with the support of Archbishop Adalbero, but he faced threats from the Carolingians who were heirs to the throne. In the resulting political wrangling, the archbishop’s position was awarded to Arnulf, the 24-year old son of the Carolingian king, in exchange for Arnulf’s promise to support Hugh Capet’s claim to the throne. Archbishop Arnulf did not wait long before he betrayed the king. In 989, Arnulf gave the keys to the city gates to one of his priests and ordered the priest to open the gates for the Carolingian army. The Carolingians captured the abbot Gerbert and other supporters of Hugh Capet. They violated the Cathedral of Reims and plundered the city. Gerbert was then forced to take on civil and church administration of Reims, effectively as a prisoner, for 8 months until he gained his release.
A regional council of bishops then voted to imprison Arnulf and appointed Gerbert as archbishop. The council, however, had no papal authority to replace an archbishop and was eventually declared illegal. Gerbert was removed from his position as archbishop and, in 997, fled to Germany. While awaiting a final decision from Rome, he wrote, “Against all schisms I will defend the unity of the Church, even by my death, if so decreed.”
Gerbert then immersed himself in his intellectual interests, took on Otto III as a student and played pipe organ, taking a role of influence in Church music. Eventually, at Otto III’s urging, Pope Gregory V appointed Gerbert as Archbishop of Ravenna.
In 999 Pope Gregory V died. On April 9, 999, With Otto III’s support, Gerbert became the first French pope. He took the name of Pope Sylvester II. He held a high moral code, worked to correct financial and moral abuses, and gained the respect of those who knew him. He made peace with Arnulf, re-appointing him as Archbishop of Reims.
On May 3, 1003, Pope Sylvester II became ill while celebrating mass at the Church of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem (a church in Rome), and he died in Rome on May 12, 1003. A century after his death, legends sprang up accusing him of magic and other bizarre acts, none of which are supported by his writings or by other documents from those who knew him. Present day historians reject the legends, and some view them as an indication that the vast intellectual changes he brought about were far more important than we may ever fully understand.
Gerbert of Aurillac, Letters, with introduction and footnotes by Harriet Lattin
Montmorency, J.E.G., Thomas à Kempis: His Age and His Book
Riché, Pierre, Gerbert d'Aurillac: Le Pape de l'An Mil
Riché, Pierre, Les Grandeurs de l'An Mille
Photo: Statue of Gerbert in Aurillac, France, photo kindly taken and provided by a reader, Georg.