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Born Gerbert of Aurillac, Pope Sylvester II was a Renaissance man hundreds of years before the time, having been born in 946, and dying in 1003.
Gerbert d’Aurillac’s intellectual achievements
He was a humanist scholar before that was even a term, being well-read in classic literature, and having been an early advocate for the use of the Hindu-Arabic numerals that we use today, in a Europe that had no mathematical writing system.1
Amongst his many scholarly accomplishments, he is known for having reintroduced the abacus – an ancient calculating tool used before written numerals – to Europe, and is even noted for having constructed a hydraulic-powered brass organ which was hailed as having surpassed all previously built musical instruments. 2
It was for this and other accomplishments that Gerbert was hailed as one of the pre-eminent scientists of his day. Alongside his fame as a scholar, however was a belief that he was a sorcerer. It was whispered that he had acquired such occult knowledge during his time spent in the Iberian-Islamic kingdom of al-Andalus.
Gerbert’s education in al-Andalus
In the tenth and eleventh century, the kingdom of al-Andalus was the most enlightened and prosperous kingdom in continental Europe, containing knowledge from across the vast contemporary Islamic world and of the Ancient philosophers. To the Christian powers in the rest of Europe, this Arabic kingdom was not only an exotic place, but also a dangerous one. Yet, even then, some Europeans, regardless of their religion, recognised al-Andalus as the only place to acquire a true education.
Such was this recognition, that in the cathedral school in Vic, Catalonia, there were many works imported from the enlightened kingdom. It was there, in Vic, that Gerbert acquired his first taste of Arabic culture. From here he would embark on his travels, journeying through the Muslim lands so as to gain the knowledge that would make him famous.
The power to subdue the devil
Many tales of Gerbert’s genius circulated during and after his lifetime.
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In the twelfth century, the English monk-historian William of Malmesbury wrote that during his time in al-Andalus, Gerbert acquired a book of spells from an Arabic philosopher. Contained within this book, it was said, was the knowledge to subdue the devil. According to Malmesbury, the philosopher refused to part with his beloved grimoire. He would sleep with it under his pillow so as to protect it. Gerbert, however, was determined to possess the great tome, so he seduced the man’s daughter and learned its whereabouts. It was then just a simple matter of getting the philosopher drunk and stealing the book. Yet, the man was cunning and had the knowledge to track all things on earth or water. Gerbert, however, was wiser still, and was able to trick the man and escape by hanging off a wooden bridge, and thereby touching neither earth nor water. 3
With the book of magic now in his possession, it is said that Gerbert was able to contact demons and sell his soul to the devil. This is how, at least according to legend, Gerbert gained the papal throne. 4
According to the tale, there was a caveat to Gerbert’s deal with the devil: should he ever hear mass in Jerusalem then the devil would come to claim him. With this knowledge, Gerbert, now Pope Sylvester II, was easily able to reject any offers of pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. With that potentially problematic scenario avoided, he was able to dedicate himself to the luxuries and indulgences afforded to him by his office. Yet, a man of Sylvester’s wisdom should have known that a deal with the devil is never so simple to negotiate. One day, upon hearing mass in a church in Rome that he learned too late was called the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, he knew that he was doomed, and soon after fell mortally ill. 5
In another version of the legend, the devil came for Sylvester in person, accompanied by a horde of demons. The wayward Pope met a grisly end in front of the whole congregation, with Satan’s minions given his gouged out eyeballs to play with. In both variants of the legend, the devil’s price was paid.
According to the lore, to this day Pope Sylvester’s very bones are cursed, and are said to rattle in his tomb whenever a pope is about to die. 6
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