Pope Sylvester II (c. 940–1003) was the first French prelate in church history. His four-year reign as Bishop of Rome, between 999 and 1003, coincided with the end of the millennium, when many in Western Europe believed the world might end at midnight.
Sylvester, born Gerbert of Aurillac, was a religious leader far ahead of his time, a man who introduced new ideas during one of the darker epochs of the medieval era. He was also a skilled political negotiator who worked to unite Christendom's ideological factions. "In his life and work, he heralded the ideals of an emerging European civilization," noted a U.S. News and World Report article about Sylvester and other important historical figures of the year 1000 C.E. "Combining classical and theological learning with practical and scientific aptitude, Gerbert became a new kind of intellectual, a 'universal man' anticipating the humanists and scientists of the Renaissance."
Entered Monastic Order
The future pope was born into a poor family around 940-950 in the region of Aquitaine, in present-day southwestern France. At the age of 12, he began studying at the Abbey of St. Geraud in Aurillac and entered its monastic order.
He was a promising student of Greek and classical philosophies, and traveled to Spain in the service of a Spanish count named Borrell. At the time, large parts of Spain were part of a large Islamic empire, and Sylvester studied geometry, astronomy, and music in both Barcelona and Vich. Mathematics and astronomy were two areas of learning that flourished in Moorish Spain, and he benefited from contact with the esteemed Arabic scholars there at the time. He is believed to have invented the pendulum clock, and later was instrumental in Western Europe's adoption of Arabic numerals.
Journeyed to Rome
In 970, Sylvester journeyed to Rome with Count Borrell, and met Pope John XIII. Impressed with Sylvester's brilliance, the pope engineered an introduction to the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I. The ambitious German ruler hoped to consolidate France, Germany, and the northern Italian peninsula under his crown, reviving the Roman Empire under a Christian flag. He hired Sylvester to serve as his court mathematician, and in 972 sent him to the cathedral city of Reims for further study. Sylvester eventually headed the school there, and found another prominent patron in the person of Reims' Archbishop Adalbero. Otto I died in 973 and was succeeded by his son, Otto II, who also favored Sylvester and did much to advance his career.
In 982, Otto II gave Sylvester his own abbey in Bobbio, in the present-day Emilia-Romagna area of the northern Italian peninsula. It was a poor abbey, however, and yielded little income, so Sylvester returned to Reims after Otto II's death the following year. He became involved in negotiations involving the heir to the throne, Otto III, an infant kidnapped by a Bavarian usurper to the throne. Sylvester assembled a coalition of emissaries that negotiated the infant's release and gave his mother and grandmother powers of regent. He then served as Otto III's tutor for the next several years.
Sylvester was elevated to the archbishopric of Reims under questionable circumstances in the 990s, and adherents of his unlawfully deposed predecessor eventually succeeded in ousting him as well. When Otto III became emperor in 996, Sylvester traveled to the Italian peninsula with his former student for the coronation. In 998, Sylvester was appointed Archbishop of Ravenna by Pope Gregory V, Otto's cousin. When Gregory died in February of 999, Otto succeeded in placing Sylvester on the papal throne. On April 9, 999, he took the name Sylvester II, after the first pope to preside over church during the Roman Empire's Christian era. He was the first French cleric to ever hold the post.
Forced to Flee Rome
Though sometimes disparaged in his time for being the emperor's close confidant and political ally, Sylvester left an exemplary record during his four years as Bishop of Rome. He proved a sober and responsible leader, and attempted to rein in some of the abuses of the clergy that were rampant at the time, such as concubinage and simony. He established ecclesiastical metropolitans in Poland and Hungary during the early Christian eras of both lands, wrote treatises on mathematics, the natural sciences, and the role of bishops in the church. He encountered opposition, however, because of his ties to the German emperor: when Otto III, who had lived in Rome since 998 in order to establish a firmer foothold there, attempted to build a palace in Rome, angry mobs forced both pope and emperor to flee the city for several months in 1001. Otto III died of smallpox the following year.
Sylvester was a learned man, but rumors spread among the more superstitious quarters of the Roman populace that he was actually a sorcerer. He built terrestrial globes and an abacus, and is also credited with the invention of the organ. He died on May 12, 1003.
Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV, Appleton, 1912.
Kelly, J. N. D., The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Observer (London, England), January 2, 2000.
U.S. News and World Report, August 16, 1999.