1902 Encyclopedia > Pope Silvester II

Pope Silvester II
(also known as: Sylvester II; Gerbert of Aurillac)
(Pope from 999 till 1003

SILVESTER II., pope from 999 till 1003, and previously famous, under his Christian name of Gerbert, first as a teacher and afterwards as archbishop successively of Rheims and Ravenna, was an Aquitanian by birth, and was educated from his boyhood at the abbey of St Gerold in Aurillac. Here he seems to have had Gerald for his abbot and Raymond for his instructor, both of whom were among the most trusted correspondents of his later life. From Aurillac, while yet a young man (adolescens), he was carried off to the Spanish march by "Borrell, duke of Hither Spain " for the sake of prosecuting his studies in a district where learning, at that time, flourished more luxuriantly than in Aquitania. Borrell entrusted his young protege to the care of a certain Bishop Hatto, under whose instruction Gerbert made great progress in mathematics. In this duke we may certainly recognize Borel, who, according to the Spanish chroniclers, was count of Barcelona from 967 to 993, while the bishop may probably be identified with Hatto, bishop of Vich or Ausona from c. 960 to 971 or 972. In company with his two patrons Gerbert visited Rome, where the pope, hearing of the young student's proficiency in music and astronomy, induced him to remain in Italy, and before long introduced him to the emperor Otto I. A papal diploma, still extant, shows that Count Borel and Bishop Octo or Otho of Ausona were at Rome in January 971, and, as all the other indications point to a corresponding year, enables us to fix the chronology of Gerbert's later life.

When brought before the emperor, Gerbert admitted his skill in all branches of the quadrivium, but lamented his comparative ignorance of logic. Eager to supply this deficiency he seized the opportunity of following Lothaire's ambassador Garamnus, archdeacon of Rheims, to this city, for the sake of studying under so famous a dialectician in the episcopal schools which were then (c. 9721) rising into reputation under the care of Archbishop Adalbero (969-989). So promising a scholar soon attracted the attention of Adalbero himself, and Gerbert was speedily invited to exchange his position of learner for that of teacher. At Rheims he seems to have studied and lectured for many years, having amongst his pupils, now or at a later time, Hugh Capet's son Robert, afterwards king of France, and Richer, to whose history we owe almost every detail of his master's early life. According to this writer Gerbert's fame began to spread over western Europe, throughout Gaul, Germany, and Italy, till it roused the envy of a rival teacher, Otric of Saxony, in whom we may doubtless recognize Octricus of Magde-burg, the favourite scholar of Otto I., and, in earlier days, the instructor of St Adalbert, the apostle of the Bohemians. Otric, suspecting that Gerbert erred in his classification of the sciences, sent one of his own pupils to Rheims to take notes of his lectures, and, finding his suspicions correct, accused him of his error before Otto II. The emperor, to whom Gerbert was well known, appointed a time for the two philosophers to argue before him; and Richer has left a long account of this dialectical tournament at Ravenna, which lasted out a whole day and was only terminated towards evening at the imperial bidding. The date of this controversy seems to have been about Christmas 980, and it was probably followed almost immediately by Otric's death, October 1, 981.

It must have been about this time (c. 982) that Gerbert received the great abbey of Bobbio from the emperor. That it was Otto II., and not, as formerly supposed, Otto I., who gave him this benefice, seems evident from a diploma quoted by Mabillon (Annales, iv. 121). Bicher, however, makes no mention of this event; and it is only from allusions in Gerbert's letters that we learn how the new abbot's attempts to enforce his dues waked a spirit of discontent which at last drove him in November 983 to take refuge with his old patron Adalbero. It was to no purpose that he appealed to the emperor and empress for restitution or redress; and it was perhaps the hope of extorting his reappointment to Bobbio, as a reward for his services to the imperial cause, that changed the studious scholar of Rheims into the wily secretary of Adalbero. It was a time of great moment in the history of Western Europe. Otto II. died in December 983, leaving the empire to his infant heir Otto III. Lothaire claimed the guardianship, and attempted to make use of his position to serve his own purposes in Lorraine, which would in all probability have been lost to the empire had it not been for the indefatigable efforts of Adalbero and Gerbert. Into the obscure details of the succeeding years, as they have to be pieced together from the letters of Gerbert and the hints of Richer or the later annalists, there is no need to enter here. Gerbert's policy is to be identified with that of his metropolitan, and was strongly influenced by gratitude for the benefits that he had received from both the elder Ottos.

According to M. Olleris's arrangement of the letters, Gerbert was at Mantua and Rome in 985. Then followed the death of Lothaire (2d March 986) and of Louis V., the last Carolingian king, in May 987. Later on in the same year Adalbero crowned Hugh Capet (1st June) and his son Robert (25th December). Such was the power of Adalbero and Gerbert in those days that it was said their influence alone sufficed to make and unmake kings. The archbishop died 23d January 989, having, according to his secretary's account, designated Gerbert his successor before his decease. Notwithstanding this, the influence of the empress Theophania secured the appointment for Arnulf, a bastard son of Lothaire. The new prelate took the oath of fealty to Hugh Capet and persuaded Gerbert to remain with him. When Charles of Lorraine, Arnulf's uncle, and the illegitimate son of Louis D'Outremer, sur-prised Rheims in the autumn of the same year, Gerbert fell into his hands and for a time continued to serve Arnulf, who had now gone over to his uncle's side. He had, however, returned to his allegiance to the house of Capet before the fall of Laon placed both Arnulf and Charles at the mercy of the French king (c. 30th March 991). Then followed the council of St Basle, near Rheims, at which Arnulf confessed his treason and was degraded from his office (17th June 991). In return for his services Gerbert was elected to succeed the deposed bishop.

The episcopate of the new metropolitan was marked by a vigour and activity that were felt not merely in his own diocese but as far as Tours, Orleans, and Paris. Mean-while the friends of Arnulf appealed to Rome, and a papal legate was sent to investigate the question. As yet Hugh Capet maintained the cause of his nominee and forbade the prelates of his kingdom to be present at the council of Mouzon, near Sedan (June 2, 995). Notwithstanding this prohibition Gerbert appeared in his own behalf. The events of the next few years are somewhat obscure. Council seems to have followed council, but with uncertain results. At last Hugh Capet died in 996, and, shortly after, his son Robert married Bertha, the widow of Odo, count of Blois. The pope condemned this marriage as adulterous ; and Abbo of Fleury, who visited Rome shortly after Gregory V.'s accession, is said to have procured the restoration of Arnulf at the new pontiff's demand. We may surmise that Gerbert left France towards the end of 995, as he was present at Otto III.'s coronation, May 21, 996. Somewhat later he became Otto's instructor in arithmetic, and had been appointed archbishop of Bavenna before May 998. Early in the next year he was elected pope (April 999), and took the title of Silvester II. In this capacity Gerbert showed the same energy that had characterized his former life. He is generally credited with having fostered the splendid vision of a restored empire that now began to fill the imagination of the young emperor who is said to have confirmed the papal claims to eight counties in the Ancona march. Writing in the name of the desolate church at Jerusalem he called upon the warriors of Christendom to arm themselves in defence of the Holy City, once "the light of the world," but now fallen so low. Thus he sounds the first trumpet-call of the crusades, though almost a century was to pass away before his note was repeated by Peter the Hermit and Urban II.

Nor did Silvester II. confine himself to plans on a large scale. He is also found confirming his old rival Arnulf in the see of Bheims; summoning Adalbero or Azelmus of Laon to Rome to answer for his crimes; judging between the archbishop of Mainz and the bishop of Hildesheim; besieging the revolted town of Cesena; flinging the count of Angouleme into prison for an offence against a bishop; confirming the privileges of Fulda abbey; granting charters to bishoprics far away on the Spanish mark; and, on the eastern borders of the empire, erecting Prague as the seat of an archbishopric for the Slavs. More remarkable than all his other acts is his letter to St Stephen, king of Hun-gary, to whom he sent a golden crown, and whose kingdom he accepted as a fief of the Holy See. It must, however, be remarked that the genuineness of this letter, in which Gerbert to some extent foreshadows the temporal claims of Hildebrand and Innocent III., has been hotly contested, and that the original document has long been lost. All Gerbert's dreams for the advancement of church and empire were cut short by the death of Otto III., 4th February 1002; and this event was followed a year later by the death of the pope himself, which took place 12th May 1003. His body was buried in the church of St John Lateran, where his tomb and inscription are yet to be seen.

A few words must be devoted to Silvester II. as regards his attitude to the Church of Rome and the learning of his age. He has left us two detailed accounts of the proceedings of the council of St Basle; and, despite his reticence, it is impossible to doubt that he was the moving spirit in Arnulf's deposition. On the whole it may be said that his position in this question as to the rights of the papal see over foreign metropolitans resembled that of his great predecessor Hincmar, to whose authority he constantly appeals. But it is useless to seek in his writings for any definition of the relationship of these powers laid down with logical precision. He is rather the practised debater who will admit his opponent's principles for the moment when he sees his way to moulding them to his own purposes, than the philosophical statesman who has formulated a theory from whose terms he will not move. Roughly sketched, his argument is as follows. Rome is indeed to be honoured as the mother of the churches ; nor would Gerbert oppose her judgments except in two cases—(1) where she enjoins something that is contrary to the decrees of a universal council, such as that of Nice, or (2) where, after having been once appealed to in a matter of ecclesiastical discipline and having refused to give a plain and speedy decision, she should, at a later date, attempt to call in question the provisions of the metropolitan synod called to remedy the effects of her negligence. The decisions of a Gregory or a Leo the Great, of a Gelasius or an Innocent, prelates of holy life and unequalled wisdom, are accepted by the universal church ; for, coming from such men, they cannot but be good. But who could recognize in the cruel and lustful popes of later days,—in John XII. or Boniface VII., "monsters, as they were, of more than human iniquity,"—anything else than "Anti-christ sitting in the temple of God and showing himself as God? " Gerbert proceeds to argue that the church councils admitted the right of metropolitan synods to depose unworthy bishops, but contends that, even if an appeal to Rome were necessary, that appeal had been made a year before without effect. This last clause prepares us to find him shifting his position still further at the council of Causey, where he advances the proposition that John XVI. was represented at St Basle by his legate Seguin, archbishop of Sens, and that, owing to this, the decrees of the latter council had received the papal sanction. Far firmer is the tone of his later letter to the same archbishop, where he contends from his-torical evidence that the papal judgment is not infallible, and encourages his brother prelate not to fear excommunication in a righteous cause, for it is not in the power even of the successor of Peter "to separate an innocent priest from the love of Christ."

Besides being the most distinguished statesman Gerbert was also the most accomplished scholar of his age. But in this aspect he is rather to be regarded as the diligent expositor of other men's views than as an original thinker. Except as regards philosophical and religious speculation, his writings show a range of interest and knowdedge quite unparalleled in that generation. His pupil Richer has left us a detailed account of his system of teaching at Rheims. So far as the trivium is concerned, his text-books were Victorinus's translation of Porphyry's Isagoge, Aristotle's Categories, and Cicero's Topics with Manlius's Commentaries. From dialectics he urged his pupils to the study of rhetoric; but, recognizing the necessity of a large vocabulary, he accustomed them to read the Latin poets with care. Virgil, Statius, Terence, Juvenal, Horace, Persius, and Lucan are specially named as entering into a course of training which was rendered more stimulating by a free use of open discussion. More remarkable still were his methods of teaching the quadrivium. To assist his lectures on astronomy he constructed elaborate globes of the terrestrial and celestial spheres, on which the course of the planets was marked; for facilitating arithmetical and perhaps geometrical processes he constructed an abacus with twenty-seven divisions and a thousand counters of horn. A younger contemporary speaks of his having made a wonderful clock or sun-dial at Magdeburg; and we know from his letters that Gerbert was accustomed to exchange his globes for MSS. of those classical authors that his own library did not contain. More extraordinary still was his knowledge of music—an accomplishment which seems to have been his earliest recommendation to Otto I. Probably he was beyond his age in this science, for we read of Garamnus, his first tutor at Rheims, whom he attempted to ground in this subject: "Artis difficultate victus, a musica rejectus est." Gerbert's letters contain more than one allusion to organs which he seems to have constructed, and William of Malmesbury has preserved an account of a wonderful musical instrument still to be seen in his days at Rheims, which, so far as the English chronicler's words can be made out, seems to refer to an organ worked by steam. The same historian tells us that Gerbert borrowed from the Arabs (Saraceni) the abacus with ciphers (but see NUMERALS, vol. xvii. p. 627). Perhaps Gerbert's chief claim to the remembrance of posterity is to be found in the care and expense with which he gathered together MSS. of the classical writers. His love for literature was a passion. In the turmoil of his later life he looked back with regret to his student days; and "for all his troubles philosophy was his only cure." Everywhere —at Rome, at Treves, at Moutier-en-Der, at Gerona in Spain, at Barcelona—he had friends or agents to procure him copies of the great Latin writers for Bobbio or Rheims. To the abbot of Tours he writes that he is "labouring assiduously to form a library," and " throughout Italy, Germany, and Lorraine (Belgica) is spend-ing vast sums of money in the acquisition of MSS." It is note-worthy, however, that Gerbert never writes for a copy of one of the Christian fathers, his aim being, seemingly, to preserve the fragments of a fast-perishing secular Latin literature. It is equally remarkable that, despite his residence on the Spanish mark, he shows no token of a knowledge of Arabic, a fact which is perhaps sufficient to overthrow the statement of his younger contemporary Adhemar as to his having studied at Cordova. There is hardly a trace to be found in his writings of any acquaintance with Greek.

So remarkable a character as that of Gerbert left its mark on the age, and fables soon began to cluster round his name. Towards the end of the 11th century Cardinal Benno, the opponent of Hildebrand, is said to have made him the first of a long line of magician popes. Orderic Vitalis improves this legend by details of an interview with the devil, who prophesied Gerbert's threefold elevation in the famous line that Gerbert's contemporaries attributed to the pope himself:

Transit in R. Gerbertus in R. post papa vigens R.

A few years later William of Malmesbury adds a love adventure at Cordova, a compact with the devil, the story of a speaking statue that foretold Gerbert's deatli at Jerusalem—a prophecy fulfilled, somewhat as in the case of Henry IV. of England, by his dying in the Jerusalem church of Rome,—and that imaginative story of the statue with the legend "Strike here," which, after having found its way into the Gesta Romanorunh has of late been revived in the Earthly Paradise.

Gerbert's extant works may be divided into five classes, (a) A collection of letters, some 230 in number. These are to be found for the most part in an 11th- century MS. at Leyden. Other important MSS. are those of the Barberini Library at Rome (late lGth century), of Middlehill (17th century), and of St Peter's abbey, Salzburg. "With the letters may be grouped the papal decrees of Gerbert when Silvester II. (b) The Acta Concilii Remensis ad Sanctum Basolum, a detailed account of the proceedings and discourses at the great council of St Basle; a shorter account of his apologetic speeches at the councils of Mouzon and Causey; and drafts of the decrees of two or three other councils or imperial constitutions promulgated when he was archbishop of Ravenna or pope. The important works on the three above-mentioned councils are to be found in the 11th-century Leyden MS. just alluded to. (c) Gerbert's theological works com- prise a Sermo de Informatione Episcoporum and a treatise entitled De Corpore et Sanguine Domini, both of very doubtful authenticity, id) Of his philosophical works we only have one, Libettus de Rationali et Ratione uti, written at the request of Otto HI. and preserved in an 11th-century MS. at Paris, (e) His mathematical works consist of &Rcgula de Abaca Computi, of which a 12th-century MS. is to be found at the Vatican; and a Libettus de Numerorum Divisione (11th and 12th century MSS. at Rome, Montpellier, and Paris), dedicated to his friend and correspondent Constantine of Floury. A long treatise on geometry, attributed to Gerbert, is of somewhat doubtful authenticity. To these may be added a very short disquisition on the same subject addressed to Adalbold, and a similar one, on one of his own spheres, addressed to Constantine, abbot of Miey. All the writings of Gerbert are collected in the edition of M. Olleris. (T. A. A.)

The above article was written by: T. A. Archer.

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