Opinion – Marcelo Viana: Silvestre II, the mathematician who became pope


Around 972, Gerbert d’Aurillac is already considered the greatest intellectual in Europe. Tutor of the future Roman emperor Otto II, he also became director of the Reims cathedral school, one of the most advanced educational institutions on the continent, which, under his leadership, would reach the height of glory as a center of knowledge.

Among Gerbert’s great contributions is the introduction into Europe of decimal numbering, the Hindu-Arabic numbering system we still use today. At the time, calculations were done using Roman numerals, which is very impractical for that. Gerbert taught how to do the four operations of arithmetic much faster using abacuses.

Unfortunately, his teachings were opposed by the powerful clerical class, which monopolized knowledge of numbers and distrusted teachings coming from the Islamic world. Therefore, the abacus and decimal notation would only become popular in Europe much later, from the publication of “Liber Abaci”, by the Italian Leonardo Fibonacci, in 1202.

Astronomy was another domain in which Gerbert excelled. We especially owe him the introduction in the West of the astrolabe, an instrument of observation and extremely precise calculation that would play a fundamental role in the Age of Discovery.

Gerbert also left an important written work in music. One of his papers explains how to calculate the length of an organ’s pipes in order to cover a two-octave band, which involves interesting mathematical problems.

In geometry, his lecture notes for the Reims pupils were the most advanced work on the subject in Europe for two centuries, only to be supplanted by the Latin translation of “Euclid’s Elements” (from Arabic, as the Greek original is lost).

Alongside his work as a scholar and academic, Gerbert was also a major player in the major political issues of his time. He was instrumental in the accession of Hugh Capet to the throne of France in 987. Four years later he was rewarded with an appointment as Archbishop of Reims, but his opposition to Rome saw him excommunicated and deposed.

He had the protection and friendship of the new Roman Emperor, Otto III, of whom he was also tutor. Otto named him Archbishop of Ravenna in 998, and the following year had him elected pope.

Symbolically, he chose to be called Sylvester II, in honor of Pope Sylvester I, who had been a close associate of another Roman emperor, Constantine the Great.

Gerbert died in 1003 without having shaken off the suspicion of having made a satanic pact to advance his fabulous career. To such an extent that in 1648 his tomb was even opened to prove that it did not harbor a demon.

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