Gerbert of Aurillac (later pope Sylvester II) was the most prominent scholar in Western Europe during the 10th century. He was also an influential teacher especially in mathematics and astronomy. Gerbert is credited with introducing Arabic numerals and the abacus to Northern Europe which he learned while studying in Muslim Spain. His mastery of the quadrivium was so complete that it led some of his contemporaries to believe that his knowledge had possibly come from demonic sources. In 999, he was elected pope, and became the first Frenchman to hold the chair of Saint Peter. Gerbert died 4 years later in 1003.

Gerbert of Aurillac was born to poor parents between the years 940 and 945. He was educated at the Benedictine monastery of St. Geraud near Aurillac under the monk named Raymond. It is probable that Gerbert took monastic vows at Aurillac and may well have spent his life in that cloister in peaceful obscurity but for the arrival there in 967 of Borrel, count of Barcelona and duke of the Spanish March. Borrel had stopped at St. Geraud to pray to its sainted founder after his marriage to the daughter of the Count of Rouergue in Rodez in the year 967. The abbot of St. Geraud learned of the excellent schools in Spain from Borrel and asked if he would take young Gerbert back with him to complete his education. Borrel accepted Gerbert and they set out on the long road to Catalonia.

During the next three years Gerbert learned under bishop Hatto of Vich and other clergymen in Spain, becoming fully proficient in all branches of the quadrivium. Gerbert also studied in Cordova, a highly active intellectual area. It does not appear that Gerbert learned any Arabic during his time in Spain, but many of his teachers were no doubt fluent in it and had gained much of their mathematical knowledge from Arabic sources.

In 970, Borrel traveled to Rome to persuade the pope to elevate bishop Hatto to an archbishop, bringing Gerbert with him. The pope was impressed with Gerbert’s mathematical knowledge and introduced him to the emperor Otto I, who was in Italy at the time. This was the beginning of Gerbert’s association with the Saxon dynasty, an association that would last until his death and which would result in his election to the papacy. Otto I was interested in acquiring the talents of Gerbert for his imperial court, which included the next emperor, Otto II. After a year of teaching in the imperial court, Gerbert traveled to Rheims to study under the reputed philosopher Geran. Once he had mastered philosophy Gerbert had a grasp of all of the seven liberal arts, grammar learned from Raymond in Aurillac, mathematics from Hatto at Vich, and philosophy from Geran at Rheims.

Gerbert was appointed the scholasticus (teacher of the cathedral school) of Rheims, and he spent the next ten years building up the library and revolutionizing the curriculum of his school. He concentrated on the teaching of rhetoric and the dialectic, before teaching the quadrivium, the subject that was his specialty. He used the writings of Boethius as the basis for his scholastic method. His fame as a teacher spread throughout Europe, bringing many students to study at Rheims. Many of his students went on to do great things, including Robert the Pious, who later became the king of France. One of these students, Fulbert, later became a bishop in Chartres and quite an important scholar of his day.

In 983, Otto II (now emperor) appointed Gerbert abbot in the abbey of Bobbio where Gerbert continued his studies and book collecting. At the time it was going through a difficult phase and no one there appreciated Gerbert being sent to help sort out their problems. When Otto II died the next year, Gerbert no longer felt able to remain at Bobbio so he returned to teaching in Rheims. When the old archbishop of Rheims died in 989, the new archbishop was put into power by the king of France, Hugh Capet, though this archbishop was dismissed and Gerbert appointed in his place. Gerbert soon found himself at odds with both the king of France and the pope and turned to the Saxon dynasty that he was had been so close to throughout the years. During the 990s, Gerbert and the new emperor Otto III started a close correspondence. This continued for a few years until 997 when Otto III asked Gerbert to teach him all of subjects he had been lacking. Gerbert gladly agreed and the two men traveled south to Italy where Otto III finally regained control of Rome.

In a form of repayment for all Gerbert had done for him, Otto III appointed Gerbert as archbishop of Ravenna in 998, though Gerbert did not occupy this post for long. In February 999 the current pope, Gregory V, died suddenly and Otto III appointed Gerbert as the first French pope. Gerbert was renamed Sylvester II, in memory of the pope who had baptized the Emperor Constantine and been entrusted by him with the government of the west. The humble son of a peasant family in Aquitaine had become the heir of Saint Peter. During his four years as pope, Gerbert tried to organize with Otto III a universal monarchy ruled jointly by the pope and emperor. Unfortunately the Romans liked neither the German emperor nor the foreign pope. Early in 1001 both were expelled from Rome by an uprising and forced to wander Italy until Otto III took the city again in 1002. Gerbert died in 1003, shortly after the twenty-two year old Otto III, neither realizing their dreams of a universal monarchy.

Among other things, Gerbert is credited with introducing Arabic numbers, though not zero, to the West, making calculations easier than with Roman Numerals. Besides introducing Arabic numerals and algebraic notation to the west he is probably the first European to use an abacus. The abacus that Gerbert used is likely of Indian origin, handed on through the Arab world.

Richard C. Dales, The Intellectual Life of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, (Washington D.C.: University Press of America, 1980)

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