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History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073.
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§ 179. Gerbert (Sylvester II.).


I. Silvester II. Papa (Gerbertus): Opera, in Migne, Tom. CXXXIX. col. 57–350. Contains also the biographical and literary notices of Natalis Alexander, Fabricius, and the Bened. Hist. Lit. de la France. OEuvres de Gerbert par A. Olleris. Clermont, 1867. Pertz: Monum. Germ. Tom. V. Script. III. contains Gerberti archiep. Remensis Acta Concilii Remensis, and the Libri IV. Historiarum of Richerus monachus S. Remigii. Richer was a pupil of Gerbert, and his history of France was first edited by Pertz.

II. Abr. Bzovius: Sylvester vindicatus. Rom., 1629. Hist. Lit. de la France, VI., 559–614. C. F. Hock: Gerbert oder Papst Sylvester und sein Jahrh. Wien, 1837. Max Büdinger: Ueber Gerberts wissenschaftl. und polit. Stellung. Marburg, 1851. Gfrörer: Allgem. Kirchengeschichte, Bd. III. Abth. 3. Wilmanns: Jahrbücher des deutschen Reichs unter Otto III. Berlin, 1840. Giesebrecht: Geschichte der deutschen Kaiserzeit, Bd. I. 613–616; 712–715: 842 (3d ed. 1865). Hefele: Conciliengesch. Bd. IV. 637 and passim. (2d ed. 1879). A. Olleris: Vie de Gerbert. Clermont-Ferrand, 1867. Eduard Barthelémy: Gerbert, étude sur sa vie et ses ouvrages, suivie de la traduction de ses lettres. Paris, 1868. Loupot: Gerbert, sa vie et ses écrits. Lille, 1869. Karl Werner: Gerbert von Aurillac. Wien, 1878. Hauck: Silvester II., in Herzog, XIV. 233–240. Comp. also Ceillier, XII. 901–9II. Neander: III. 371–374, and Reuter: Aufklärung in Mittelalter, I. 78–84.


Gerbert, the scholar and philosopher in the Fisherman’s chair, and the brightest light in the darkness of the tenth century was born before 950, of low parentage, in or near Aurilac in Auvergne, and educated as a monk in the Benedictine convent of that place. He accompanied Count Borel of Barcelona to Spain and acquired there some knowledge of Arabic learning, but probably only through Latin translations. He also visited Rome (968) in company of his patron Borel, and attracted the attention of Pope John XIII., who recommended him to Emperor Otho the Great. He afterwards became the tutor and friend of the youthful Otho III., and inspired him with the romantic and abortive scheme of re-establishing the Graeco-Roman empire of Constantine the Great in the city of Rome. He was ambitious and fond of basking in the sunshine of imperial and royal favor.

Gerbert became master of the cathedral school of Rheims and acquired great fame as a scholar and teacher. He collected rare and valuable books on every subject. He was intensely interested in every branch of knowledge, divine and human, especially in mathematics, astronomy, physics, and music; he first introduced the Arabic numerals and the decimal notation into France, and showed his scientific and mechanical genius by the construction of astronomical instruments and an organ blown by steam. At the same time he was a man of affairs, a statesman and politician.14921492    Giesebrecht (I. 615) says of Gerbert: ”Er gehörte zu den seltenen Gelehrten, die in den weltlichen Dingen gleich heimisch sind, wie in dem Reich der Ideen, die von unbegrenzter Empfänglichkeit sich jeden Stoff aneignen, leicht alle Verhältnisse durchschauen und bemeistern, denen die Hülfsmittel des Geistes nie versiegen, und deren Kräfte auch die zerstreuteste Thätigkeit kaum erschöpft.”

In 972 he obtained through imperial favor the abbey, of Bobbio, but was involved in contentions with the neighboring nobles and left in disgust, though retaining his dignity. “All Italy,” he wrote to a friend, “appears to me a Rome, and the morals of the Romans are the horror of the world.” He returned to his position at Rheims, attracted pupils from near and far and raised the cathedral school to the height of prosperity. He was the secretary of the council held in the basilica of St. Basolus near Rheims in 991, and gave shape to the flaming speech of the learned bishop Arnulf of Orleans against the assumptions and corruptions of the papacy.14931493    See above, p. 290 sqq. Baronius declares this synod a fiction of Gerbert, and makes him responsible for the sentiments, the Benedictine editors of the Hist. Lit. only for the style, of the acts, “qui est beaucoup au-dussus de celuis de quantité d’ autres écrits du mème temps.” The acts were first published in the Magdeburg Centuries, and then by Mansi and Pertz. See Hefele, IV. 647 sq. No Gallican could have spoken more boldly. By the same synod Arnulf, archbishop of Rheims, an illegitimate son of one of the last Carolingian kings, was deposed on the charge of treason against Hugh Capet, and Gerbert was chosen in his place, at the desire of the king. But his election was disputed, and he assumed an almost schismatical attitude towards Rome. He was deposed, and his rival Arnulf, with the aid of the pope, reinstated by a Council of Senlis or Rheims (996).14941494    Richer says Senlis (in the province of Rheims); Aimons, his continuator says Rheims. The acts of that synod are lost. See Hefele, IV. 646. He now left France and accepted an invitation of his pupil Otho III. to Magdeburg, followed him to Italy (996), was by imperial favor made archbishop of Ravenna (998), and a year afterwards raised to the papal throne as Sylvester II. He was the first French pope. The three R’s (Rheims, Ravenna, Rome) mark his highest dignities, as expressed in the line ascribed to him:


“Scandit ab R. Gerbertus in R., fit postea papa vigens R.”


As Gerbert of Rheims he had advocated liberal views and boldly attacked the Roman Antichrists who at that time were seated in the temple of God; but as Sylvester II. he disowned his Gallican antecedents and supported the claims of the papacy.14951495    Hefele (IV. 654) assumes a gradual change in his views on the papal power in consequence of deeper reflection and bitter experience, and applies to him the words of Pius II.: ”Aeneam rejicite, Pium recipite.” Reuter says (I. 84): ”Der Heros der Aufklärung wurde, der Repräsentant der auf übernatürlichem Fundament basirten Autorität.” But Gerbert was a strong supernaturalist before that time, as his book on the Lord’s Supper proves. His controversy with the papacy had nothing to do with doctrine any more than the controversy between Gallicanism and Ultramontanism. It was simply a question as to the extent of papal jurisdiction. He did, however, nothing remarkable during his short and troublesome pontificate (between 999–1003), except crown King Stephen of Hungary and give the first impulse, though prematurely, to the crusades at a time when hundreds of pilgrims flocked to the Holy Land in expectation of the end of the world after the lapse of the first Christian millennium.14961496    See above, p. 295 sq.

His character has been very differently judged. The papal biographers of the later middle ages malignantly represent him as a magician in league with the devil, and his life and pontificate as a series of monstrous crimes.14971497    Döllinger, in his Papstfabeln des Mittelalters (English transl. ed. by Henry B. Smith, pp. 267-272), devotes several pages to this fable, and tram it to Rome and to Cardinal Benno, the calumnious enemy of Gregory VII., who was likewise accused of black arts. According to Benno, Satan promised his pupil Gerbert that he should not die till he had said mass in Jerusalem. Gerbert thought himself safe till he should get to Palestine; but when he read mass in the Jerusalem church (Santa Croce in Jersalemme) at Rome, he was summoned to die, and caused his tongue and hand to be cut off by way of expiation. The Dominicans adopted the myth, and believed that Gerbert early sold himself to Satan, was raised by him to the papal throne, and had daily intercourse with him, but confessed at last his enormous crimes, and showed his repentance by hacking off one limb after another. Since that time the rattling of his bones in the tomb gives notice of the approaching death of the pope. This story arose partly from his uncommon learning and supposed contact with Mohammedanism, partly from his former antagonistic position to Rome. Some modern historians make him an ambitious intriguer.14981498    So especially Gfrörer, partly also Hauck. But Hock, Büdinger and Damberger defend his character and orthodoxy. Neander, Hefele, Giesebrecht deal justly with him.

His literary labors are chiefly mathematical.14991499   502Lesavoir dominant de Gerbert était la science des mathematiques.” (Hist. Lit. de la France.) He wrote De numerorum divisione; De geometria; De spherae constructione; De Rationali et Ratione uti, etc. See Migne, l.c. 125 sqq. His theological works are few and unimportant, and do not rise above the superstition of his age. His short treatise, “De Corpore et Sanguine Domini,” is a defense of the doctrine of transubstantiation as taught by Paschasius Radbertus, with the additional notion that the consecrated elements are not digested like other food (as the Stercorianists held), but are imperishable spiritual nourishment for the inner man, and constitute the germ of the future resurrection body.15001500    In Migne, col. 179-188. Comp. above, p. 552. Where words give out there is the more room for faith.15011501    De Corp. et Sang. D. c. 7 (col. 185): ”Ecce quantum fides proficit, ubi sermo deficit.”

In his sermon De informatione episcoporum, if genuine,15021502    Olleris and Giesebrecht doubt the genuineness. he presents the high theocratic view of the middle ages, raises the episcopate far above royalty,15031503    L.c. col. 170: ”Sublimitas episcopalis nullis poterit comparationibus aequari. Si regum compares infulas et principum diademata, longe erit inferius, quasi plumbi metallum ad auri fulgorem compares.’’ and attacks the common traffic in ecclesiastical dignities (simony), but maintains also that all bishops share with Peter the care of Christ’s flock.15041504    L.c. col. 171, in explaining ”Pasce oves meas “ (John 21: 15 sqq.), he says: ”Quas oves non solum tunc beatus suscepit apostolus, sed et nobiscum eas accepit, et cum illo eas suscipimus omnes.” This indicates that the tract was written before his elevation to the papacy, and that he did not hold the ultramontane or Vatican doctrine of papal absolutism.

His Epistles to popes, emperors, kings, queens, archbishops and other dignitaries., shed light on the history of the times, and show his high connections, and his genius for politics and intrigue.15051505    Migne, col. 201-286. They are mostly short, and include also some letters of Otho III. The longest and most interesting is addressed to Queen Adelaide, wife of Hugo Capet, and the suffragans of the diocese of Rheims,15061506    “Dominae et gloriosae Adelaidi reginae semper Augustae Gerbertus, gratia Domini Remorum episcopus, et omnibus suis confratribus et coëpiscopis Remorum dioeceseos, bene valere in Christo.” Migne, 242-244. in defense of his ordination as archbishop of Rheims in opposition to his rival Arnulf, whom he afterwards reinstated in his see as soon as he became pope.15071507    Mansi, XIX. 242; Hefele, IV. 654.



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