The Dark Ages were marked, if anything, by a lack of scientific inquiry and related societal advancement. But in the year 1,000, a scientific scholar rose to an unlikely position: Pope of the Catholic Church. Pope Sylvester II, born Gerbert d’Aurillac, was that man.
Sylvester II’s time as Pope was short-lived. His papacy began in April, 999, but in 1001, when the Roman rank and file rose up against the Emperor, the Pope (an ally of the Emperor) fled the Vatican. He’d return sometime in late 1002, but his time as Pope was short-lived; he passed away in 1003. His relatively short time in power is one of the likely reasons that his legacy lacks the imprint of others, but our general belief that the Dark Ages were a time of alchemy and pseudo-science are the main drivers. As Nancy Marie Brown, author of a recent biography on Sylvester II’s life notes:
The popular picture of the Dark Ages is wrong. The earth wasn’t flat. People weren’t terrified that the world would end at midnight on December 31, 999. Christians did not believe Muslims and Jews were the enemy. The Church wasn’t anti-science.In the Dark Ages, contrary to what most people think, science was central to the lives of monks, kings, emperors, and even popes. It was the mark of true nobility and the highest form of worship of God.
Indeed, Sylvester II’s education — which, per Brown, was part of the reason for his ascension to the papacy — was uniquely inquisitive. While most of the Holy Roman Empire relied on Roman numerals, Sylvester learned and advocated for Arabic numerals; in fact, he was taught by Arab teachers. And while the flat Earth canard was definitely part of culture (although not nearly to the degree as told in the common story about Christopher Columbus), Sylvester II is responsible for re-introducing the armillary sphere into Western culture.
However, not all found the Pope’s interest in science to be a net positive. Rather, some took this interest as evidence that the Pope was a dark socerer, a liege of the Devil. This rumor lasted for centuries, as evidenced by the illustration of him with the Devil (above), originally created in the late 1400s.
Bonus fact: In 1689 — well into the Enlightenment — a debtor of Kazimierz Lyszczynski, a Polish philosopher, stole a manuscript by Lyszczynski titled De non existentia Dei – “The Non-existence of God.” The debtor used this “evidence” to convinced the local bishops to try Lyszczynski on charges of blasphemy, specifically “atheism.” Lyszczynski was convicted. His sentence: The forceable removal of his tongue (for speaking such things), followed by the slow burning of his hands (for writing the treatise), and finally, beheading.
From the Archives: Mozart Versus the Pope: Censorship versus music, and music wins out.
Related: “The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages,” the above-mentioned biography of Sylvester II, by Nancy Marie Brown. 4.5 stars on 9 reviews.