Wednesday, September 5, 2012

In Search of the Scientist Pope

The Abacus and the Cross, my biography of the Scientist Pope, Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II), will be out in paperback this fall. To celebrate, here’s a little essay about my quest to discover the pope of the year 1000:

I thought I spoke French, but the young man’s bright sentences blurred and vanished. My redheaded friend, still flirtatious at fifty, was getting through to him a lot faster in smiles and shrugs and a little Spanish, draping her lime-green scarf across his papers, leaning in.

He was not a monk, though this was a monastery.

We had driven the scalloped edge of Catalonia north: mile upon mile of terraced vineyards, white cliffs sheer to the sea. We had not stopped at the castle with its feet in the tide, or at the winery. I was on a quest.

A forgotten French monk had passed this way a thousand years ago, when most of Spain was Islamic al-Andalus, and Arabic was the language of science. His name was Gerbert of Aurillac. He was the first person in the Christian West to teach math using the nine Arabic numerals and zero. In the year 999, he became pope.

We tracked him through Barcelona, Girona, and Vic. We climbed steep stone stairs to hilltop church-fortresses, surrounded by the tinkling of goat bells—at least we climbed halfway up. We both suffer a fear of heights. We were en route to a clutch of churches high in the Pyrenees when I checked my email. I’d asked a Swiss historian for an interview and told him where I was.

Go to Elne cathedral, he said, où il y a une inscription dans la pierre ... Elle est de Gerbert, distribuée sur une croix… An inscription on a stone. About Gerbert. On a cross.

We found the cathedral, a golden-stone pile on its dusty hill. All the streets in town converged on it, staunch and square, its broad doors barred, its windows higher than a stone could be thrown. A gate in the wall opened into a cemetery—a good place for carved crosses, I thought, but found nothing. My friend tried a door. I followed her giggle and found her, tête-à-tête with handsome Romain.

Elne’s cloister was famous for stone carvings—devils and dragons and laughing sprites. Romain unfolded a brochure to pony us through his French. Peut-être this stone? She is très fameux.

C’est une croix, I said.

He shook his head. There were no famous crosses.

Show him your notebook, Ginger hissed.

Indeed! I had copied out the email.

O! C’est votre professeur? Romain pointed to the name, amazed. He had just mailed the Swiss historian photos of names carved in a stone—O!

In the 1960s they had moved the main altar. Lifting the marble top, they spied names carved on the platform beneath. One was cut in the shape of a cross.

Can I see it?

Désolé. Mass is in session. Then we close. Come back tomorrow? Non? I will send you the photos.

But a photo of this stone was not enough.

In 2005, I volunteered on an archaeological dig in Iceland. We excavated a house built just after the year 1000. Medieval books say a woman named Gudrid explored the New World around the year 1000; she sailed back to Iceland and built a house here, on the very farm where we worked. So I called the dig “Gudrid’s house.” The scientists were annoyed. You cannot say that. That’s a story. You have no proof. Not unless you find a stone by the doorstep that reads Gudrid was here.

Of course, we found no such stone.

The story of the Scientist Pope seems equally improbable. Wasn’t the Church anti-science in the Dark Ages? Yet medieval books say Gerbert was sent by his monastery to the border of Islamic Spain in 967 to learn math. That he started a famous science school at Reims cathedral. That he tutored the Holy Roman Emperor and the king of France.

We understand the Dark Ages about as well as I speak French.

Two months later, I returned to Elne. Thanks to my redheaded friend, Romain remembered me. He dug out a flashlight and led me deep into the darkness of the church. Hung flat on a wall was a large gray stone—like a radiator, exactly—a row of wooden chairs brushing up against it. I stood on a chair to get a better view; he aimed the light. Carved on the uptilted edge of the stone, in the shape of a cross, was the name “Gerbertus.”

I traced the letters with my thumb: Gerbert was here.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in the medieval world.

1 comment:

  1. Dawson, South Dakota, USASeptember 5, 2012 at 11:41 PM

    I can imagine how exciting that was. When I get a coin that connects to a specific person or place holding it "takes me there." Thanks for the essay.