Why No One Remembers History’s Scientist Pope

This article was originally written for and published in the Berkeley Science Review on April 13th, 2018. 

By Virginia Markham

CLEAR member since 2016 (read about her science journey here).


“[Emperor] Otto, inspired by the reverence without bound that he professed for Gerbert, on account of his incomparable scientific knowledge, has elevated him to the papacy.”

-Description of the appointment of Pope Sylvester II by Helgaud of Fleury Abbey, France, 1041

Young Gerbert d’Aurillac seems like the last person who would become a household name among the monarchies of Europe. Yet, for a time, this humble monk was renowned among intellectuals and sovereigns alike for his scholarship in math and astronomy. While the rise and fall of this man of science occurred centuries ago, it reveals an important facet of human nature. It is a shame that his story, which is starkly relevant in our current political climate, has fallen into obscurity.

Born in the mid-900s in the Cantal region of France, Gerbert was given over to the Church at an early age, presumably by a family who could not support him. He showed great intellectual promise and at 17 he was granted the opportunity to study in Al-Andalus, or Islamic Spain. During this time, Islamic nations were powerhouses of scientific research. For example, the library of Cordoba was the largest library in the world in the late 10th century with a purported 400,000 books. In contrast, one of the largest Christian libraries at that time, housed at the monastery in Bobbio, Italy, held just 690 books. For studious young Gerbert, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

After three years of studying mathematics and astronomy in Spain with Muslim experts, Gerbert made his way back to France with a fiery enthusiasm for sharing this knowledge. He remains the first Christian known to teach mathematics using our familiar Hindu-Arabic numerals (e.g. 1, 2, 3). He wrote a mathematics textbook that included the most sophisticated treatment of geometry yet to have been circulated in Christian Europe. With help from his students, he wrote one of the earliest Latin books on the astrolabe, a revolutionary device used by scholars and sailors to make astronomical measurements that were previously impossible. He also introduced Christian Europe to the abacus, a counting board that allowed for more complex arithmetical calculations than the standard “finger counting.” In fact, merchants became so fond of this board that they began carving it into tabletops; it’s been said that this is the origin of our word “counter” as a table to do business over.

Most of all, Gerbert was renowned for his prodigious book collection, which he made a point of sharing with the scholarly community throughout his life. By the time he became Pope Sylvester II he was an old man in poor health and, sadly, lived only another four years. In his lifetime, though, he had managed to invigorate Christian Europe with a new kind of fearless intellectual inquiry and collaborative spirit.

So why haven’t you heard of Gerbert d’Aurillac, the peasant-turned-scientist-turned-pope? I could propose many answers, the most obvious being that most people don’t know much at all about medieval popes. But there is another, more insidious explanation.

Shortly after his death, Gerbert’s reputation began to decline due to accusations of black magic. Some suggested that his appointment to the papacy in the year 999 was evidence of his sorcery. A 12th century historian spins a thrilling tale of an enchanted talking head that Gerbert consulted for political advice. Another intellectual wrotethat Gerbert was “the finest necromancer in France,” and that his knowledge of the astrolabe, the astronomical measurement device, was evidence of a pact with the devil, for clearly his demons had taught him how to use it.

The slander of Gerbert following his death can only be attributed to politics. In the decades leading up to his term, the papacy was the puppet of a wealthy and corrupt Roman family. Six popes—three before Gerbert and three following him—were members of this family and often took sides in political disputes. The pope who preceded Gerbert died under mysterious circumstances after the bloody suppression of a rival pope. The drama would only worsen in the following century, which included the abuse of indulgences (instances in which the faithful paid for reduced penance for sins), the split of Western and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the start of the first Crusade. Thus, Gerbert and his scholarly accomplishments were regarded by many people as alarming, even evil, simply because he stood for an increasingly unpopular institution.

Today, as in the Middle Ages, many aim to demonize science or scientists whose work is politically unpopular. Take for example the “Wastebook,” one conservative senator’s annual publication documenting what he considers wasteful research spending, including, “monkeys on treadmills, parties for hipsters, and sheep in microgravity.” This tradition is in spirit the successor to the Golden Fleece Award, a satirical award issued by Senator William Proxmire in the 1970s and 1980s to government programs for wasting public funds. Many respected research projects were regular recipients of this award and, in fact, one such awardee famously sued for libel.

Few scientific fields face as much harassment and derision today as climate change research, such as when Senator James Inhofe brought a snowball into the Capitol Building to discredit claims about global warming or when President Donald Trump asserted in multiple tweets that climate change is a “hoax.” Recently a former North Dakota state representative argued that Hurricane Harvey was exacerbated by climate change only “in the bizarro world of the climate change cultists.” Many climate scientists have spoken openly about the rampant censorship, lawsuits, and death threats that come with their job. On a talk show, one scientist recounted how he once found a dead rat on his doorstep.

Certainly there is biased, misleading, and even falsified science out there. But popular enmity toward the Vatican encouraged dismissal of Gerbert’s science as witchcraft. Are we making the same mistake today? As a Department of Energy (DoE) biofuels researcher, it certainly felt that way to me this past year. In a short time, a climate change skeptic was appointed to be Secretary of Energy, an overreaching gag order was placed on government scientists, and I received an email from my institute explaining how DoE had refused the nascent Trump administration’s request for the names of climate scientists like myself.

I recently found a blog article entitled “Five Reasons Why Ridicule Is the Proper Response to Global Warming Alarmists.” However, ridicule is never, ever the appropriate response to scientific work. Even if we know the authors of a study are biased, their science must be judged on its merits alone. We must ask if the authors’ assumptions are reasonable and if their evidence is sufficient to support their conclusions. If not, then the proper response is to reinvestigate that question with better assumptions and more rigorous experimentation. Perhaps it is human nature to look for a shortcut, a way to quickly support or refute a finding without having to scrutinize every detail of its methodology. This is exactly what demonizing the authors of politically inconvenient studies does for us, at great cost to our science, society, and cultural memory. Gerbert went down in history as the “Necromancer Pope,” yet his research survived thanks to a community of critical thinkers, not fearmongers. We all need to be scientists, not sensationalists. Because this time we may not have centuries to realize our mistake.

Note: Facts about Gerbert are taken from “The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages” by Nancy Marie Brown, a meticulously researched, definitive guide to the life and times of Gerbert d’Aurillac.

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