Sylvester II, Pope
SYLVESTER II, POPE
Pontificate: April 4, 999 to May 12, 1003. Thanks in no small part to his surviving correspondence from both before and after he assumed the pontificate, Sylvester II represents one of the most accessible and interesting figures of the tenth century.
Gerbert was born in the early 940s near Aurillac (southern France) and probably entered the monastery of Saint-Gerard as a child. As a young man he must have demonstrated a particular intelligence and ability, for in the late 960s he was brought to Catalonia by Count Borrell of Urguel to study under the guidance of Bishop Hatto of Vich. In Catalonia, at the library of Santa Maria de Ripoll, he would have had access to a great collection of classical Latin works and perhaps even some translations of Arabic works in astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic. Three years later, in 970, he accompanied Borrell and Hatto to Rome where he impressed first the pope and then Emperor otto i with his knowledge of the quadrivium. When Borrell and Hatto returned home, they left Gerbert behind as the teacher of Otto's son, the future Emperor otto ii.
In the early 970s, at the invitation of Archbishop Adalbero of Reims, Gerbert moved north to study dialectic with Gerannus, archdeacon of the cathedral and master of its school. Over the next decade students flocked to study with Gerbert and Gerannus, and Reims flourished as one of the leading intellectual centers in Europe. Gerbert's innovative teaching of the liberal arts and exchanges with other thinkers distinguish him as perhaps the foremost intellectual of his day. As such, in 981 while accompanying Adalbero on a trip in Italy, he met Otric, master of the school of Magdeburg, in Ravenna where the two engaged in a great philosophical debate over the division of knowledge. Gerbert's former pupil, Otto II, had arranged this debate and, after Gerbert's impressive showing, retained him in his service. In 982, Otto made him abbot of Bobbio (northern Italy), but Gerbert quickly found himself in conflict with local nobles and, in June of 983, left the monastery for the imperial court in Pavia. Otto II died shortly thereafter. The widowed empress struggled to ensure the succession of her young son (Otto III) against the boy's kinsman (Henry the Quarrelsome) who sought the throne for himself. Gerbert worked to secure support for the young king from important churchmen east of the Rhine before he left for Reims to resume his teaching.
Back in Reims, early in 984, Gerbert returned to his students and his books—he was an avid collector—but as Adalbero's secretary, he would continue to be intimately involved in secular politics. Like Gerbert, Adalbero supported the Ottonians in their time of dynastic crisis, but his political imperatives and family's interests in Lotharingia brought him (and thus Gerbert) into conflict with the west Frankish king Lothar. After the death
of the king in 986 and, in the following year, of his son, they supported the election of Hugh Capet as king. Hugh's accession would come to mark the end of Carolingian rule in west Francia, but his election was challenged by Lothar's brother Charles, duke of Lotharingia, who claimed the throne for himself and, with growing support, was threatening to take Reims when Adalbero died in 989. Gerbert expected to succeed Adalbero—he claims to have been assured that he would—and was disappointed when Hugh made Charles' nephew Arnulf archbishop. Arnulf betrayed Hugh and joined his uncle's rebellion, but the conflict ended with the capture of the rebels two years later. When Arnulf was deposed at a synod held at Saint-Basle in 991, Hugh made Gerbert archbishop of Reims. During his episcopacy (991–998), Gerbert was forced to defend (against papal challenges) the legitimacy of Arnulf's deposition at the synod and thus his own appointment. Ultimately he failed to do so and left Reims, as he had Bobbio, for the Ottonian court where he devoted himself principally to his studies. And in the spring of 998, at otto iii's behest, Pope Gregory V made Gerbert archbishop of Ravenna. But before Gerbert had much of a chance to settle into this important office, Gregory died and, in early April 999, Otto had his former secretary made pope.
Gerbert took the name Sylvester II. He established the first archiepiscopal see in Poland in 999; for Hungary, when he anointed King Stephen in 1001, he established two archbishoprics and eight episcopal sees; and he seems to have been in communication with recently baptized leaders of more still distant peoples (Prince Vladimir of Kiev and King Olaf Trygvvesön of Norway). During his brief tenure as pope, Sylvester held several synods and also issued a number of privileges and decrees. Perhaps his most famous edict came in January 1001 when he renounced the so-called donation of constantine, an eighth-century forgery in which Constantine was supposed to have left to Sylvester I (and thus the papacy) dominion over all lands of Italy and the west. While he would not support that fiction, he did administer papal lands in Italy for the four years of his papacy, which drew to a close with his death on the 12th day of May 1003.
Bibliography: Gerbert's letters have been edited on several occasions, most recently (together with a French translation) by p. richÉ and j. p. callu as Gerbert d'Aurillac, Correspondance, 2 v. (Paris 1993); they have also been translated into English by h. p. lattin as The Letters of Gerbert with His Papal Privileges as Sylvester II (New York 1961). For his mathematical works, see Gerbert, Opera Mathematica, ed. by n. bubnov (Berlin 1899). And for his accounts of the synods held concerning the deposition of Arnulf of Reims, see Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 3: 655–693. Most of our information about Gerbert's teaching comes from the work of richer of reims, Histoire de France, ed. and French tr. by r. latouche, 2 v. (Paris 1930, 1937), newly edited by h. hoffmann as Richer von Saint-Remi, Historiae (Hannover 2000). And for a selection of relevant documents and scholarly commentary on them, see o. guyot jeannin and e. poulle, eds., Autour de Gerbert d'Aurillac: le pape de l'an mil (Paris 1996). For more detailed studies and bibliographic orientation, see also p. richÉ, Gerbert d'Aurillac, le pape de l'an mil (Paris 1987); "Gerberto scienza, storia e mito. Atti del Gerberti Symposium (Bobbio 25–27 iuglio 1983)" (Bobbio 1985); and u. lingreden, Gerbert von Aurillac und das Quadrivium (Weisbaden 1976).