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Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 938–1003)

(c. 9381003)

Gerbert of Aurillac, an educational reformer and pope (Silvester II) of the eleventh century, was born in Auvergne about 938, became a monk of St. Gérard d'Aurillac, and was educated there and in Catalonia. He later visited Rome, where Pope John XIII (965972) introduced him to Emperor Otto I. Gerbert shortly left Otto's court to study at Rheims, where he later became master of the schools. His fame led Otto II to make him abbot of Bobbio about 980, but in 983 Gerbert returned to Rheims, where he engaged in political and antipapal controversies. In 991 he became archbishop, and after many vicissitudes he was transferred to Ravenna in 998. His old friend and patron Otto III secured his election as Pope Silvester II in 999; as pope he established the church in Hungary and strongly asserted papal claims. He died in 1003.

Despite the intrigues and restlessness of his later public life, Gerbert wasand was recognized asthe most learned, versatile, and influential master of his age. Rheims during his first stay (c. 966980) became a principal center of the educational revival that was beginning to inspire the cathedral schools of France and that from them passed to the universities. Fulbert, founder of the school of Chartres, was Gerbert's pupil.

Gerbert's greatest achievement was to give new life to the skeleton of the ancient trivium and quadrivium. In rhetoric he restored the careful study of Terence and Vergil, the satirists Horace and Persius, Lucan, and the critics Seneca and Quintilian; in dialectic, which he reestablished as the goal of a literary education, he developed what was to become the classical syllabus of the Isagoge of Porphyry, the Categories and De Interpretatione of Aristotle, the Topics of Cicero, and the whole dialectical corpus of Boethius. He rescued the quadrivium from its bookish decadence and injected a real, practical orientation. In mathematics, his forte, Gerbert revived the ancient Greek tradition and replaced clumsy Roman numerals with the Indian numerals 1 through 9; he produced a simplified abacus, with instructions for its use; and he wrote at length on methods of multiplication and division. In astronomy he taught by means of a sphere showing the movements of the planets.

It is uncertain how much these innovations were the result of his early experiences in Spain and his contacts there with Arabic science and thought. Save for a short disputation on human reason, in which he showed an attraction toward the Platonic Ideas, he wrote no philosophical work. His only authentic scientific writings are mathematical. His letters, some of which contain discussions of mathematics, illustrate his political activity and the events of his age. In his later life he had little influence on the intellectual and spiritual life of his age. His earlier work as a teacher, however, marked an epoch.

See also Aristotle; Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus; Mathematics, Foundations of; Philosophy of Education, History of; Porphyry; Seneca, Lucius Annaeus.


works by gerbert

"Opera." Edited by A. Duchesne. In Patrologia Latina, edited by J. P. Migne, Vol. 139, pp. 201264. There is a more recent version edited by A. Olleris. Clermont-Ferrand, 1867.

Gerberti Opera Mathematica. Edited by N. Bubnov. Berlin, 1889.

Lettres de Gerbert. Edited by J. V. Havet. Paris: A. Picard, 1889. The best Latin text. Translated by H. P. Lattin as The Letters of Gerbert with His Papal Privileges as Sylvester II. Records of Civilization. Sources and Studies, Vol. 60. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

works on gerbert

Amann, E. "Silvestre II." In Dictionnaire de théologie catholique. Paris, 1939. Vol. XIV, cols. 20752083.

Leflon, J. Gerbert: Humanisme et chrétienté au Xe siècle. Paris: Editions de Fontenelle, 1946.

Picavet, F. Gerbert, un pape philosophe. Paris: E. Leroux, 1897.

Uhlirz, Mathilde. Untersuchungen über Inhalt und Datierung der Briefe Gerberts von Aurillac. Schriftenreihe der historischer Kommission bei dem bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaft, Vol. II. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1957.

David Knowles (1967)

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