Silvester II, Pope (d. 1003)

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Silvester II, Pope (d. 1003)

Silvester II (Gerbert), a distinguished scholar, statesman, and pope (999-1003 C.E.), was one of a number of popes from the tenth century on who were regarded as sorcerers. It was said that Silvester had evoked a demon who obtained for him the papacy, and who further promised him that he should die only after he had celebrated High Mass in Jerusalem.

One day while he was saying mass in a church in Rome, he felt suddenly ill, and, remembering that he was in a church called the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, suddenly knew that the demon had played him a trick. Before he died, he confessed to his cardinals his compact with the devil. However, as Silvester had been preceptor of two monarchs, and a friend of others, it is more likely that he owed his preference to one of these.

He was one of the most learned men of his day, proficient in mathematics, astronomy, and mechanics. He introduced clocks, and some writers credit him with the invention of arithmetic. It is not at all improbable that his scientific pursuits and the technical language involved might have appeared to the less educated to savor of magic. The brazen head that the chronicler William of Malmesbury stated as belonging to Silvester, which answered questions in an oracular manner, probably had its origin in a similar misinterpretation of scientific apparatus. It also recalls folk stories of the wonderful brazen head of Roger Bacon.

There is no lack of picturesque detail in some of the stories told of Silvester. He was said to have discovered buried treasure by the aid of sorcery and to have visited a marvelous underground palace, whose riches and splendor vanished at a touch. His tomb was believed to possess the powers of sorcery and to shed tears when one of the succeeding popes was about to die.