As early as 972, Gerbert d’Aurillac was considered the greatest intellectual in Europe. As tutor to the later Roman Emperor Otto II, he also became director of the Reims Cathedral School, one of the most progressive educational institutions on the continent, which under his leadership would achieve great fame as a center of knowledge.
Among Gerbert’s great contributions is the introduction of decimal numbers in Europe, the HinduArabic numeral system we still use today. At that time, calculations were made with Roman numerals, which is very impractical for this. Gerbert taught how to do the four operations of arithmetic much faster with abacus.
Unfortunately, his teachings were rejected by the powerful clergy class, who monopolized numerical knowledge and distrusted the teachings of the Islamic world. Therefore, the abacus and decimal notation only became popular in Europe much later, since the publication of “Liber Abaci” by the Italian Leonardo Fibonacci in 1202.
Astronomy was another area where Gerbert excelled. In particular, we owe him the introduction to the West of the astrolabe, an instrument of observation and extremely precise calculation that would play a fundamental role in the Age of Discovery.
Gerbert also left behind an important written work in music. One of his works explains how to calculate the length of an organ’s pipes to cover a twooctave band, which poses interesting mathematical problems.
In geometry, his lecture notes for the students of Reims were the most advanced work on the subject in Europe for two centuries, only to be superseded by the Latin translation of “Euclid’s Elements” (from the Arabic, the Greek original having been lost).
In addition to his academic work, Gerbert was also significantly involved in the major political issues of his time. He was instrumental in bringing Hugh Capet to the throne of France in 987. Four years later he was rewarded with appointment as Archbishop of Reims, but his opposition to Rome resulted in his being excommunicated and deposed.
He had the protection and friendship of the new Roman Emperor Otto III, whose tutor he was. Otto appointed him archbishop of Ravenna in 998 and had him elected pope the following year.
Symbolically, he chose the name Sylvester II in honor of Pope Sylvester I, who had been a close associate of another Roman emperor, Constantine the Great.
Gerbert died in 1003 without having shaken off the suspicion that he had made a satanic pact to further his fabulous career. So much so that his tomb was even opened in 1648 to prove it didn’t house a demon.
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