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Sylvester, Naturalist & Pope

Published Apr 28, 2010
Sylvester, Naturalist & Pope

A pope in league with the devil? That is what the common folk thought about the first Frenchman to become pope. What did Sylvester II do to earn this suspicion?

Gerbert of Aurillac had the most brilliant mind of the day. Trained first in a monastery school, he later studied in Spain where the Moors taught the works of Aristotle and the lore of their own scholars and naturalists. Gerbert was a good pupil, who excelled in every study, but especially in mathematics and naturalism. He also collected manuscripts, through which he increased his already impressive knowledge.

When Otto II needed a tutor, who should be selected to teach him but Gerbert? Since he was ambitious man, this imperial connection served him well.

When he later taught at Rheims, he attracted students from all over Europe, eager to learn from Christendom's best-educated and most inspiring teacher. Gerbert constructed novel teaching aids: globes, an abacus, observation tubes. If popular accounts are to be believed, he also invented the pendulum clock and introduced Arabic numerals to the West, replacing the clunky Roman numeral system. But to the superstitious people of that age, anyone as clever as Sylvester must have cut a deal with the devil, who they believed was lord of the material world! They did not trust Gerbert's learning.

This was a misunderstanding of scripture which teaches that all things were made through Christ. Many early scientists believed with the Apostle Paul that we have the mind of Christ. Given those two ideas, to study what Christ made is the next logical step.

In his early posts, Gerbert aroused opposition from monks unwilling to change their ways. But he helped engineer Hugh Capet's rise to the French throne. Eventually Gerbert was rewarded with church offices. His first high office was as Bishop of Rheims. However, Hugh Capet had to oust Arnulf in order to install Gerbert. Pope John XV rejected this. Arnulf (who had plotted against Hugh) was reinstated. A resentful Gerbert went back to the court.

Gerbert soon made peace with Rome. Otto III used his influence to have Gerbert made bishop of Ravenna. Later, when Pope Gregory V died, Gerbert succeeded him.

Sylvester (as he now called himself) was active and important in international affairs, but did not perform as well at home. Although vigilant for the purification of the church, he was unpopular. Rome drove out Sylvester and his good friend Otto III. Sylvester eventually returned to Rome as a spiritual leader, but died on this day, May 12, 1003, after an unhappy reign as pope.


  1. Brusher, Joseph Stanislaus. Popes through the Ages. Princeton, N. J.: Van Nostrand, 1959.
  2. Kirsch, J. P. Pope Sylvester II. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  3. Montor, Chevalier Artaud de. Lives and Times of the Popes. New York: Catholic Publication Society of America, 1909.
  4. "Sylvester II." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  5. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated May, 2007.


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