OTTO’S RENAISSANCE THE ABACUS AND THE CROSS: THE STORY OF THE POPE WHO BROUGHT THE LIGHT OF
SCIENCE TO THE DARK AGES
By Nancy Marie Brown (Basic Books 310pp £16.99)
THAT THE DARK Ages were not so dark as the historians of the Enlightenment and the nineteenth centur y believed is now a truism. As a result, the subtitle of Nancy Marie Brown’s biography of Gerbert, the tenthcentury Archbishop of Reims who became a close adviser of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, and then pope, taking the name Sylvester II, seems dubious. For years historians have been writing of the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’ of the eighth and ninth centuries, and it has long been recognised that there was a cultural and intellectual exchange between Muslim Spain and France, Germany, Italy, and even England.
The materials available to Brown are considerable, yet too meagre for a full biography. She tells us that Gerbert ‘left us over two hundred letters and a handful of scientific treatises’, and adds that ‘he is mentioned in the letters or chronicles of several men who lived during his lifetime’. So, while there is a fair amount of (sometimes unreliable) information available about him, Brown’s pages are scattered with ‘would haves’, ‘might haves’, ‘may haves’ and ‘must haves’; and Gerbert disappears from the narrative for quite long periods, while Brown finds a way through the tangled politics, wars and intellectual disputes of his time.
Gerbert was born in Aurillac in the Cantal sometime around 950, and was educated in a monastery where he studied the Latin classics and learned to write with elegance. His abbot sent him to Spain, which was then a multicultural country where Muslims, Jews and Christians cohabited (though not always as agreeably as Brown supposes), to continue his education. There, Arabic books were being translated into Latin. The Muslim civilisation, drawing on Greek, Persian and Hindu writings, was more culturally advanced than France and Gerbert was able to read widely in the sciences. According to Brown, as a result of his exposure to Islamic culture in Spain, Gerbert ‘was the first Christian known to teach math using the nine Arabic numerals and zero’.
Returning to France, Gerbert taught mathematics and natural sciences in Reims. He devised an abacus. He also taught geometry and astronomy, and wrote a book on the astrolabe, which was used to make measurements by the sun and the stars – even to calculate the circumference of the earth (Gerbert and those associated with him
‘knew very well that the earth was not flat like a disc but round as an apple’). In short, he was a polymath. Not unusually, Gerbert’s scientific interests aroused suspicion. He was accused of communicating with evil spirits and even the devil himself. But these were standard charges directed at men with such interests throughout the Middle Ages and after.
Like many churchmen and intellectuals of his time, Gerbert was drawn into politics, in which field he was, as Brown admits, less successful. He was often in dispute with ecclesiastical rivals; he was accused more than once of treason and excommunicated at least twice. Nevertheless he tutored kings and emperors, and helped form their minds. He also played a part in the deposition of the last heirs of Charlemagne and their replacement on the French throne by Hugh Capet, whose descendants would reign until the Revolution in 1789 (Louis XVI was put on trial as Louis Capet, and after his execution Marie Antoinette was known as ‘the widow Capet’).
It was over the idealistic half-Greek, half-Saxon young emperor Otto III, however, that Gerbert had most influence. Otto made Gerbert pope and dreamed of restoring the empire to its Roman glory. Brown suggests that, had the emperor lived and continued to work in harmony with Gerbert, the struggle between the papacy and the empire that marked the next three centuries might have been avoided. This is improbable.
She nevertheless paints a pleasant and agreeable picture of her hero, and for the most part it is convincing – but not always. His favourite student was one Constantine, later an abbot himself, who was ‘of aristocratic birth and said to be devastatingly beautiful’. Though Gerbert’s surviving letters to him are couched in loving language, Brown tells us we ‘should not be fooled into thinking the love Gerbert pined for was homoerotic’. It seems to me more likely that, as in so many master–pupil relationships, it was.
Brown’s book, the fruit of diligent research, is of great interest. It is however unfortunate – and absurd – that she appears to suppose that a darker age followed her hero’s. ‘Instead of lovingly collecting, copying, and translating the wisdom of Islam, the monks of Christendom began mutilating scientific manuscripts, erasing pages of what they now considered useless information and writing over them’, she writes. No doubt some did; but others pursued the studies laid open before them. ‘The interests of the Church had changed,’ she claims. ‘Science had lost its central place.’ Hasn’t she heard of ‘the twelfth-century Renaissance’; of Michael Scot, who translated Aristotle from Arabic manuscripts for the benefit of his pupil the Emperor Frederick II; or of Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus; or of the influence of the great Jewish scholar Maimonides on Western Europe? Nancy Marie Brown has done a service by shedding light on the work of Gerbert, but learning and scientific curiosity did not die with her hero. To order this book for £13.59, see LR bookshop on page 12
LITERARY REVIEW March 2011