A DEVILISHLY SMART POPE
One of the books I’m reading now is John D. Barrow’s ‘The Book of Nothing’. The subject is a look at the concept of ‘nothing’, the void, emptiness, zero, the vacuum and so on. There’s actually quite a bit to say about nothing, and book ranges from a history of the mathematical sign for zero, through the ‘philosophic concept’ of nothingness, to the idea of the vacuum in physics, its explanation by the ‘ether’ and the eventual overthrow of that concept. Temperatures (absolute zero) and the place of the vacuum in quantum mechanics, relativity and cosmology come on stage, and the book ends with a return to the philosophic concept itself. Yes, quite complex, and I’ve barely gotten to chapter 2. Nice to have a roadmap to a blank space. I’ll be reviewing the book when done.
But one of the matters that did come up was the story of Pope Sylvester II, one of the few admirable holders of the keys of Peter in the Middle Ages. This is a story appealing enough to shove its way to the front of the ‘Molly Line’. Sylvester II was born Gerbert de Aurillac (945 – 1003). He reigned as Pope from 999 to 1003. Yes the Pope in the Chair during the turn of the millennium. The world didn’t end, and Gerbert/Sylvester was definitely one of the more capable Popes of the age. A lot of his accomplishments were political and hardly bear mention here. Defending the property of the Church. Playing off one ruler against another though he was usually in alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor of the time. The politics of Italy at the time were particularly chaotic, and once both he and the Emperor had to flee Rome during one of the revolts. He even tried to reform the Church’s organization and reduce abuses such as simony, concubinage and nepotism. This was an Herculean task, and even with the assistance of St. Jude (the patron saint of the impossible) the Church remained just about as corrupt as always. He did, however, succeed in significantly increasing the Church’s title holdings. Maybe this goal was in direct contradiction to the idea of making the Church into a more ‘Holy’ outfit. He also played a major role in the Christianization of Eastern Europe, appointing Metropolitans for both Poland and Hungary, and in the later case naming that country as a ‘Kingdom’. Thus the Crown of Hungary became dependent on the Papacy.
His political accomplishments were minor compared to his intellectual contributions to European culture. He had early on spend considerable time as an envoy to the far more civilized Muslim states of southern Spain, and he turned his natural curiosity to good effect there, absorbing much of the culture of Andalucía. When he returned to France he was appointed head of education for the Archdiocese of Rheims, and from there he significantly elevated the clerical level of education throughout the French Kingdom.
When his patron died he was considered the natural successor, but the Capetan monarchy had other ideas, and a relative of the King was appointed in his stead even though Gerbert was a supporter of Hugh Capet whose reign marked the end of the Carolingian dynasty. Barrow has this matter somewhat confused as he lists this Episcopal position without mentioning that Gerbert’s appointment was overthrown. Consistent with the political level of the time the King’s appointee was later removed because of suspicion of treason to his sponsor. Gerbert who initially was himself accused of treason to the House of Capet was reappointed, but this was challenged and his appointment declared invalid. When he did finally become Pope he pretty well washed his hands of the matter by declaring his competitor as the legitimate Archbishop. Barrow also confuses another appointment of his, as Archbishop of Ravenna, supposing him to be the ‘Abbot’ of Ravenna. All this is quite forgivable as the politics of the time, clerical and lay, were by their very nature confusing.
Gerbert was lauded for his scholarly contributions in a number of fields. He became the tutor of both Emperors Otto II and his son Otto III, and, as mentioned above, he was elevated to the Papacy with the support of the latter. Gerbert was a true polymath. He was the accepted authority in the liberal arts in his day and a major influence on theology. He was also something of an engineer, designing a hydraulic organ that didn’t require air to continually be pumped in as it played. He is also credited with advances in the art of clock making due to one which he designed for the Cathedral of Magdeburg. Even this is confused. Some sources such as the ‘Catholic Encyclopedia’ say that he was the inventor of the pendulum clock. Others say that his clock was mechanical but weight driven rather than using a pendulum. Still others say that his clock was actually simply a sundial. It was, however, in the field of science and mathematics that he made his greatest contributions.
Gerbert was credited with a number of innovations. He introduced the abacus to Europe, and also the use of the Arabic/Indian number/decimal system. Both were necessary foundations for the later rise of commercial enterprises in the Renaissance. Hard to do proper accounting with Roman numerals. Not that they were always appreciated. In 1299 the decimal system was outlawed in Florence supposedly because it was more vulnerable to fraud. The worry about this matter delayed the adoption of decimal numbers in northern Europe until the sixteenth century. For Gerbert, however, they were a Godsend, and he was the foremost expert on mathematics, geometry and astronomy of his day. Much of this was based on what he had learned in southern Spain even though he was creative enough in his own right.
He is credited with the reintroduction of the ‘armillary sphere’ to western Europe. This is a 3D model of the heavens, and fitted with viewing tubes it was an early prototype of the telescope. It should be noted that such a sphere would imply that the Earth itself was a sphere. Not that the idea of a flat Earth was universal in Medieval times, but it was common enough even though the use of spheres such as this proliferated.
Barrow’s book corrected a misconception of my own, one that I had held for more than a few years. I knew that Sylvester II was a remarkably educated and knowledgeable man well ahead of his time. I also knew that one of the medieval Popes had been dug up from his grave and the corpse put on trail. I’d always assumed that the uncommunicative defendant was Sylvester. During his lifetime and after his death rumours circulated that he was in league with the Devil, that he had even constructed a bronze head that would answer questions posed to it. Sort of an early robot I guess. I assumed that this was the reason for the exhumation. Wrong I was. The corpse was that of one Pope Formosus, and the charges were much more mundane. After the guilty verdict was pronounced the hapless cadaver was chopped to pieces, burnt and the ashes thrown into the Tiber. That will teach him.
The accusations of witchcraft would certainly be a likely medieval explanation for Sylvester’s brilliance, but no – he stayed in the ground. Not that he rested easily though. The legends of his life followed him into the grave, and typically they are also confused. One legend says that when a Pope is due to die that Sylvester’s bones rattle in the tomb. Another says that the walls of the crypt weep on the sad occasion. I guess there’s no reason they can’t both be right.
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