A Spark Of Knowledge

by Emily Hudson

The “Dark Ages” of Europe were not as “dark” as they seem. Instead, they were a time of knowledge and research, especially to one remarkable individual: Gerbert of Aurillac. During Gerbert’s time, science was important to monks, emperors, and even popes. Religious figures studied science and mathematics to gain an understanding of the earth. According to Nancy Brown, author of The Abacus and the Cross, “Mathematics ranked among the highest forms of worship, for God had created the world, as scripture said, according to number, measure, and weight. To study science was to approach the mind of God”. The “leading mathematician and astronomer of his day” goes by the name of Pope Sylvester II, earlier referred to as Gerbert of Aurillac. Known as “The Scientist Pope” (Brown 2010, 3), Gerbert is an example of an intellectual light in the dark ages. Gerbert made an impact on the future study of math and science by bringing Muslim learning through a dynamic study of the quadrivium to Europe. Regardless of initial rejection due to Europe’s scholastic ways, the discoveries and knowledge Gerbert has contributed to Europe eventually made a lasting impact on math and science and universities as a whole throughout time and still today.

Born as a peasant boy, Gerbert came a long way to become the first French pope in the year 999. Gerbert d’Aurillac’s journey began with his early education. He was born in Belliac, France in the year 946 A.D. Born with a love of learning and intellectual perseverance, Gerbert attended the monastery of St. Gerald of Aurillac and was singled out of the other students for scholastic training as a teenager. A huge opportunity presented itself in 967 when Count Borrell II of Barcelona visited Gerbert’s monastery. Gerbert’s abbot convinced the visitor to support the brilliant student’s education and take him to Spain. Count Borrell agreed and Gerbert’s journey was off to a strong start. In 968, Gerbert visited Cordoba, which was considered a major milestone of his career, as will be discussed later. In Rome, Gerbert met Pope John XIII who introduced him to Emperor Otto I of the Holy Roman Empire, after which Gerbert began tutoring the Emperor’s son Otto II. When Otto II became Emperor, Gerbert was appointed abbot of the monastery of Bobbio. In 991, the Archbishop Arnulf of Rheims was removed on charges of treason and Gerbert took the position. However, four years later Arnulf was re-instated after his removal was claimed invalid. Gerbert took a break from public life and began tutoring Otto III. Otto III then became Emperor and Otto’s cousin became Pope Gregory V, who appointed Gerbert as Bishop of Ravenna. In 999, Pope Gregory V died and Gerbert became Pope Sylvester II (Didymus 2011).

When Gerbert visited Cordoba in 968, he was deeply inspired by the Arabs and their sophisticated knowledge. He then convinced his ward Atto to allow him to study under the Arab teachers (Didymus 2011). This was a great idea and a huge contribution to Europe because the Arab teachers had much to offer. According to John Didymus, “Arabic learning and culture was at its peak and, compared to the Arabs, the Europeans (Western Europeans especially) were unlearned and culturally backward” (Didymus 2011). This is one of the examples of how Gerbert brought light to a dark age. He was wise enough to bring back knowledge from the Arab Muslim Kingdom of Cordoba, “the greatest center of learning and culture in Europe“ and incorporate it into his teaching (Didymus 2011). The Islamic culture of the Arabs came from Greek influence, and the culture was very successful in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, physics, and the arts. (Didymus 2011). In The First Universities, Olaf Pederson states that in the medieval society following the first millennium there was a “rapid transformation within education” and “to a great extent this development can be attributed to the steadily increasing contact with ‘Arab’ culture” (Pederson 1997, 122). The fact that Gerbert brought knowledge from his Arab teachers and his trip to this foreign land reveals to today’s scholars something about knowledge. This proves that there is much to learn from other cultures that could greatly benefit education, just like Europe learned so much from the Arabs through Gerbert. Many of Gerbert’s contributions to Europe and to today’s universities derive from his understanding and studying of the advanced Arab knowledge.

Gerbert greatly contributed to Europe’s education during his time and even to today’s education through his teaching techniques. According to Nancy Brown, author of The Abacus and the Cross, “Gerbert was an orator, not a writer. He shared what he knew through speech and demonstrations, not texts” (Brown 2010, 69). This is a technique that many teachers and professors mimic to this day. It is a very successful teaching style because it proves the teacher is very familiar with the topic, which gives the students more confidence to ask questions. Also, when teachers use demonstrations often in their lessons students are able to witness what it is they are learning, not just read about it in a book. Just like he taught his students through experiments, Gerbert also obtained much of his knowledge through experimentation. For example, to determine the best way to calculate the area of an equilateral triangle he measured the triangle with cut out square inches of parchment (Brown 2011). Gerbert’s techniques also included that of encouragement. While teaching one of his students, Otto III who became emperor, Gerbert would address him as “ever august Ceasar”, “my glorious Lord Otto”, and “exalted Imperator of the Romans”, just to boost the Emperor’s morale. Otto was very insecure, and Gerbert’s encouraging words often kept him going (Erdoes 1988, 185). Whether or not teachers today took their teaching style straight from Gerbert, it is evident that his successful techniques were passed down through generations, eventually affecting today’s education system.

Gerbert had an interest in studying and teaching the trivium and quadrivium. These are the seven subjects of the liberal arts. The trivium is more basic and consists of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. After learning the trivium, a student is taught the quadrivium which includes arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy (Lattin 195, 57). When Gerbert would teach trivium he would start with Latin grammar by having his students study Cicero, the poets Virgil and Terence, the satirist Juvenal, and other classic Literature. He then led his students to rhetoric by having them practice the art of oratory. To teach dialectics, Gerbert read aloud from a series of books, mostly by Boethius, and gave his students his explanations (Brown 2010, 73). He taught the basic principle of Aristotelian logic. According to Olaf Peterson, “that Gerbert incorporated Aristotle’s other texts on logic into his teaching syllabus gave logic a new impetus, witnessing to the new philosophical interest” (Pederson 1997, 109). Many teachers of Gerbert’s time stopped with the trivium. There were very few people capable of teaching the complexity of the quadrivium. Gerbert was qualified to teach these subjects because he had obtained rare knowledge from the Arabs, especially in math and astronomy (Erdoes 1988, 25). However, since people of Gerbert’s time were very illiterate and inadequately educated, those who were smart enough to teach the quadrivium were accused of possessing magic, or studying the black arts. William of Malmesbury even stated that Gerbert “acquired the art of calling up spirits from hell” (William 1847, 173). This type of accusation made it tough for Gerbert’s teachings to be accepted. After becoming pope, Pope Sylvester II was still rumored to be a sorcerer (Didymus 2011). Clearly, people were so uneducated during the dark ages that they rejected new knowledge and those who possessed it. This reveals much about Pope Sylvester’s character because although many disliked him and accused him of terrible things, he still reached for all knowledge possible and brought it back to Europe through his students. When it came to teaching the difficult quadrivium, Gerbert was a “master of visual aids” (Brown 2010, 73). He was able to use small models of large things, such as Earth, to understand concepts such as astronomy (Brown 2010, 73). Regardless of accusations of sorcery, Gerbert still spread his knowledge of the quadrivium through his teaching and if he hadn’t we may not have all the knowledge of the quadrivium that we do today.

Gerbert’s students spread his knowledge in many ways, leaving Gerbert’s impact on the world. The school of Reims where Gerbert taught developed into a “proto-university” (Brown 2010, 68) and students from France, Germany, and even Italy came to his school. Gerbert taught many sons of noblemen so that they would be prepared for court life. In the 24 years he was teaching at Reims, Gerbert taught “thirteen future bishops or archbishops, six abbots of important monasteries, Emperor Otto III’s chancellor, the secretary to Emperor Henry II, the future Pope Gregory VI, and King Hugh Capet’s son Robert the Pious who would rule France from 996 to 1031” (Brown 2010, 68). All of these students came from different places in the world, taking back with them what Gerbert had taught. This is a chain reaction of knowledge, one that may have never occurred if Arab teachers hadn’t taught Gerbert when he was younger. Gerbert’s students spread throughout Europe the educational attainments of their teacher and the discoveries he was shedding light on. An example of something that flourished from Gerbert’s teachings is the cathedral school in Chartres. This school was founded by one of Gerbert’s students, Fulbert, who became the bishop of Cartres in 1007. Fulbert’s school was so successful because it was known in Europe as a center of liberal arts, which include the trivium and quadrivium of which Gerbert was such an expert on. Once again, this was significant because many Europeans rejected this higher knowledge, assuming it was related to the Devil and Sorcery. However, this school led to the twelfth-century Chartres becoming the home of “a series of thinkers more interested in problems of natural philosophy than was the case in cathedral schools elsewhere” (Pederson 1997, 129). Fulbert’s school is proof that his teachings led to the development of quadrivium-informed students who used Gerbert’s knowledge to excel Europe during the dark ages, which eventually affects Universities in modern time.

One of Gerbert’s colossal contributions to Europe and to Universities of today was his knowledge and advancements in mathematics, which is part of the quadrivium. Gerbert showed a great understanding of the abacus. An abacus is a device, discovered by the Chinese, which was used to calculate arithmetic long before Gerbert’s time (Lattin 1951, 59). Gerbert devised the abacus so that it used the nine Arabic numerals, instead of Roman numerals. He introduced the abacus to Europe, and was the first Christian to teach math using the nine Arabic numerals (Brown 2011). An actual copy of Gerbert’s Abacus board was discovered in 2001. Its counters were marked with nine different signs proving he introduced the Arabic numerals to France (Brown 2010, 79). However, Europeans did not adapt Arabic numerals right after Gerbert introduced them. According to Olaf Pederson, “they only became common in the thirteenth century” (Pederson 1997, 119). The numerals one through nine looked too much like what pagans used, so monks rejected them at first, in fear that they may have a connection to dark magic (Lattin 1951, 59). The number system would have been even less popular if it included zero, because people “rejected the infinitely large, the infinitely small, and the void” (Seife 2000, 77). However, this did not stop Gerbert from introducing the concept of these Arabic numerals. He was fascinated by the numerals and experimented with them until they made more sense. When he first discovered the numeral’s simplicity he was very excited. For example, instead of writing thirty-seven as “MXXXVII”, it could simply be written as “37” (Lattin 1951, 60). If Gerbert had never discovered the Arabic numerals and introduced them to Europe, we may still be using Roman numerals today. Despite many scholastic scholars being against the new system, these numerals and calculations involving them eventually spread, which has affected universities throughout time.

Gerbert was also educated in the field of astronomy. Astronomy is one of the more complicated subjects of the quadrivium (Lattin 1951, 57) and once again, his study of the subject led to people accusing Gerbert of sorcery. According to Didymus, “in Gerbert’s time, astrology and astronomy were extensions of a single body of knowledge and astrological thought involved in the old Babylonian ‘science’ of fortune telling and divination” (Didymus 2011). The skill he demonstrated in this area, one that was so foreign to everyone else, made it easy for him to be accused of learning the black arts. Gerbert, however, agreed with those who taught that “God himself had set His seal of approval upon astronomy when He made use of the stars in the heavens to mark the birth of His son” (Erdoes 1988, 39). He pursued his dynamic studies and eventually this led to the reintroduction of the armillary sphere in Europe. The armillary is a model of the earth and its relation to the “heavens”, used as a “visual aid for mathematical astronomical instruction and teaching” (Didymus 2011). Gerbert learned about this device and how to use it from his Arab teachers and eventually he was able to locate the north and south poles in their slanting rotation and distinguish the arctic polar circle, the equator, and the tropic of cancer (Brown 2011). He used the armillary as a small model of a very large concept to demonstrate to his students the paths of the planets and stars. He also made sighting tubes to observe stars and constructed globes recording their positions. Gerbert’s astronomical advances did not stop there. He also produced a sophisticated sundial, musical instruments, water clocks, and a steam-powered organ. (Erdoes 1988, 89). Gerbert is also credited for making an astrolabe and writing about its use. The astrolabe was invented in Greece, and once again, Gerbert used his foreign studies to bring to Europe new knowledge. The astrolabe was used to measure elevation, compute latitudes, and determine when the sun rises and sets. (Erdoes 1988, 39). Without Gerbert’s astronomical advances, astronomy may have stayed an “evil” subject, and we may have never known what we know of the subject in universities today.

Most of Gerbert’s greatest accomplishments occurred before he even became Pope Sylvester II. However, becoming Pope helped him to make an impact on how science and religion could exist with one another in the future. Being the “Scientist Pope” (Brown 2010, 3), Pope Sylvester was able to look past diversity in religion and culture to obtain knowledge of which Europeans were blind. During Gerbert’s time the phrase “scientist pope” seemed to be an extreme contradictory statement, for science and religion did not normally mix. Persevering through accusations and angry citizens, Gerbert was able to acquire an extreme amount of knowledge, passing it on through his successful students. Becoming Pope meant that this dynamic individual was now “the keeper to the keys of the kingdom, the living link between humanity and God” (Erdoes 1988, 187). The Pope had to stay true to his religion even through multiple accusations of sorcery, studying black magic, and being inspired by the Devil. When many people would avoid these accusations, Pope Sylvester II endured them and kept pursuing knowledge to better himself, his students, and his world. If Europeans of the Dark Age would have been more open to Pope Sylvester II’s dynamic ways, his teachings could have even led to European Enlightenment.

Gerbert was a spark of light in the dark ages. His Arab education (Didymus 2011), his knowledge of the quadrivium (Brown 2010, 73), his successful teaching methods (Brown 2010, 69), and his perseverance through accusations and rejection led to his discoveries and knowledge of math and astronomy. Gerbert’s accomplishments and contributions greatly affected Europe’s education, and even affected education in universities today. According to Nancy Brown, Pope Sylvester II projected a world in which “Muslims, Christians, and Jews could sit down together and translate works of science from Arabic and Greek into Latin; the world in which a peasant boy who had excelled in such science could end up as Pope” (Nienaber 2011). Gerbert may have not been the most liked Pope as is evident of his accusations of sorcery and black magic, but he still made a tremendous impact on education during the dark ages and the impact has lasted over a thousand years, affecting students eager for knowledge today.

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