Heroes of Learning:Gerbert of Aurillac

It’s easy to be a bit learned these days, what with all the Universities, internets and libraries there seem to be about. But how clever would you have been in if you had lived in Europe in the year 1000 AD when there were no Universities? When 99% of the population were illiterate and spent their time either in farm labour or in killing people from horseback? In circumstances like those it takes real character and belief to kindle the flame of learning. Gerbert of Aurillac (c.940-1003), had such a character.

He came from a humble background, but was quickly talent-spotted by his local monastery because of his flair for mathematics. This was then the most practicable of the great sciences, as all you needed was a pencil and some parchment. Gerbert was taken up by a Spanish nobleman, who invited him to Barcelona. In Spain, he must have come into contact with Islamic scholars, who were then at the cutting edge of research in astronomy, mathematics and anything else that had a hint of knowledge about it. When he came back from Spain, he brought Arabic numerals and pioneered their use on the abacus, which was a bit like the computer of its day, except it was made of wood and metal.

Finally he hooked up with holy Roman Emperors like Otto 1 and his grandson Otto 111, who conspired to make Gerbert Pope Sylvester 11. He wasn’t a great success as Pontiff, being a little too scholarly and intelligent. But compared with the venial line who had proceeded him in the office ( historians call it “The Pornocracy“) he was at least honest, decent and hardworking.

He supported learning, such as it was at the time, in many fields. Though he and contemporaries had many facts wrong, their spirit of honest enquiry never faltered. Before Gerbert, learning spluttered, and often threatened to go out in Europe. After him, it never ceased to grow brighter, until the age of the great scholastics like Roger Bacon and St Thomas Aquinas arrived, from which we have never looked back. Whatever your system of beliefs, he was truly inspirational, and learned people everywhere owe him a debt of immeasurable proportion.

Links If you want a quick read up, try our wikipedia link below

Pope Sylvester II – Wikipedia

But if you want to try a learned but very readable book that points Gerbert in context, we cannot do better than to tip God’s Philosophers by James Hannam, Icon 2009.

#philosophy #knowledge #middleages #islam #papacy #holyromanempire

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