Pope Sylvester II
Pope Sylvester II
Gerbert entered the monastery of Saint-Gerard as a child. As a young man, he must have demonstrated a particular intelligence and ability, for in the late 960s he was brought to Catalonia by Count Borrell of Urguel to study under the guidance of Bishop Hatto of Vich. In Catalonia, at the library of Santa Maria de Ripoll, he had access to a great collection of classical Latin works and even some translations of Arabic works in astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic.
In 970, Gerbert accompanied Borrell and Hatto to Rome where he impressed first the pope and then Emperor Otto I with his knowledge of the quadrivium. When Borrell and Hatto returned home, they left Gerbert behind as the teacher of Otto's son, the future Emperor Otto II.
In the early 970s, at the invitation of Archbishop Adalbero of Reims, Gerbert moved north to study dialectic with Gerannus, archdeacon of the cathedral and master of its school. Over the next decade students flocked to study with Gerbert and Gerannus, and Reims flourished as one of the leading intellectual centers in Europe. Gerbert's innovative teaching of the liberal arts and exchanges with other thinkers distinguish him as perhaps the foremost intellectual of his day. As such, in 981 while accompanying Adalbero on a trip in Italy, he met Otric, master of the school of Magdeburg, in Ravenna where the two engaged in a great philosophical debate over the division of knowledge. Gerbert's former pupil, Otto II, had arranged this debate and, after Gerbert's impressive showing, retained him in his service. In 982, Otto made him abbot of Bobbio (northern Italy), but Gerbert quickly found himself in conflict with local nobles and, in June of 983, left the monastery for the imperial court in Pavia. Otto II died shortly thereafter. The widowed empress struggled to ensure the succession of her young son (Otto III) against the boy's kinsman (Henry the Quarrelsome) who sought the throne for himself. Gerbert worked to secure support for the young king from important churchmen east of the Rhine before he left for Reims to resume his teaching.
Back in Reims, early in 984, Gerbert returned to his students and his books - he was an avid collector - but as Adalbero's secretary, he would continue to be intimately involved in secular politics. Like Gerbert, Adalbero supported the Ottonians in their time of dynastic crisis, but his political imperatives and family's interests in Lotharingia brought him (and thus Gerbert) into conflict with the west Frankish king Lothar.
After the death of the king in 986 and, in the following year, of his son, they supported the election of Hugh Capet as king. Hugh's accession would come to mark the end of Carolingian rule in west Francia, but his election was challenged by Lothar's brother Charles, duke of Lotharingia, who claimed the throne for himself and, with growing support, was threatening to take Reims when Adalbero died in 989. Gerbert expected to succeed Adalbero - he claims to have been assured that he would - and was disappointed when Hugh made Charles' nephew Arnulf archbishop. Arnulf betrayed Hugh and joined his uncle's rebellion, but the conflict ended with the capture of the rebels two years later. When Arnulf was deposed at a synod held at Saint-Basle in 991, Hugh made Gerbert archbishop of Reims. During his episcopacy, 991–998, Gerbert was forced to defend (against papal challenges) the legitimacy of Arnulf's deposition at the synod and thus his own appointment. Ultimately he failed to do so and left Reims, as he had Bobbio, for the Ottonian court where he devoted himself principally to his studies. And in the spring of 998, at Otto III's behest, Pope Gregory V made Gerbert archbishop of Ravenna. But before Gerbert had much of a chance to settle into this important office, Gregory died and, in early April 999, Otto had his former secretary made pope.
Gerbert took the name Sylvester II. He established the first archiepiscopal see in Poland in 999; for Hungary, when he anointed King Stephen in 1001, he established two archbishoprics and eight episcopal sees; and he seems to have been in communication with recently baptized leaders of more still distant peoples. During his brief tenure as pope, Sylvester held several synods and also issued a number of privileges and decrees. Perhaps his most famous edict came in January 1001 when he renounced the so-called donation of constantine, an eighth-century forgery in which Constantine was supposed to have left to Sylvester I dominion over all lands of Italy and the west. While he would not support that fiction, he did administer papal lands in Italy for the four years of his papacy, which drew to a close with his death.
Gerbert's greatest achievement was to give new life to the skeleton of the ancient trivium and quadrivium. In rhetoric he restored the careful study of Terence and Vergil, the satirists Horace and Persius, Lucan, and the critics Seneca and Quintilian; in dialectic, which he reestablished as the goal of a literary education, he developed what was to become the classical syllabus of the Isagoge of Porphyry, the Categories and De Interpretatione of Aristotle, the Topics of Cicero, and the whole dialectical corpus of Boethius. He rescued the quadrivium from its bookish decadence and injected a real, practical orientation. In mathematics, his forte, Gerbert revived the ancient Greek tradition and replaced clumsy Roman numerals with the Indian numerals 1 through 9; he produced a simplified abacus, with instructions for its use; and he wrote at length on methods of multiplication and division. In astronomy he taught by means of a sphere showing the movements of the planets.
It is uncertain how much these innovations were the result of his early experiences in Spain and his contacts there with Arabic science and thought. Save for a short disputation on human reason, in which he showed an attraction toward the Platonic Ideas, he wrote no philosophical work. His only authentic scientific writings are mathematical.
After the death of Otto II in 983, Gerbert became involved in the politics of his time. In 985, with the support of his archbishop, he opposed Lothair of France's attempt to take the Lorraine from Emperor Otto III by supporting Hugh Capet. Hugh became King of France, ending the Carolingian line of Kings in 987.
According to the legend, Meridiana told Gerbert that if he should ever read a mass in Jerusalem, the Devil would come for him. Gerbert then canceled a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but when he read mass in the church Santa Croce in Gerusalemme ("Holy Cross of Jerusalem") in Rome, he became sick soon afterwards and, dying, he asked his cardinals to cut up his body and scatter it across the city.