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Gerbert d'Aurillac: Y1K's Science Guy.

The world didn't panic at the end of the first millennium. Instead a religious leader was instrumental in bringing enlightenment to the Dark Ages.

We often hear that 1,000 years ago Europe was in the throes of "millennial madness." In hysterical anticipation of the end of the world, so we are told, the dwellers of A.D. 999 fled to the mountains and gave all their worldly possessions to the church, in the hope of being spared the cataclysm that would surely befall them on New Year's Day, A.D. 1000.

The fact is, this commonly held notion is not supported by evidence. Records of the time are sketchy, and no surviving documents tell such a tale. However, even if this story isn't true, there was still reason to believe the end might have been near. The 10th century was a time of violent troubles. Murder and intrigue were rife among monarchs and clergy alike. Invading barbarian hordes had pillaged and plundered a beleaguered Europe for centuries -- most recently the Vikings from the north and the Hungarians from the east. To the west, the Christians in Spain suffered a humiliating jihad under the superior military power of the Islamic Moorish caliphate.

It was the worst of times for Europe, the darkest days of the Dark Ages. The glories of Rome were dust. The science of the Greeks was forgotten in the Latin West and neglected in the Byzantine East. In this dismal time, astronomy was all but forgotten, except perhaps for the simplest methods of timekeeping. Meanwhile, Arabic culture was at its zenith. Arab astronomers had picked up the torch of Greek science and developed a well-integrated celestial system, elements of which are still used by astronomers today.

However, there was a bright light that cut through the darkness: his name was Gerbert d'Aurillac, arguably one of the most important, yet forgotten, scholars of western civilization. Born about 945 in Rheims, France, Gerbert had an insatiable curiosity and appetite for knowledge from early youth. His teachers recognized and encouraged his scholarly talents. His mentors provided him with unique opportunities to study in the greatest learning centers of the time. Gerbert's career trajectory took him to Barcelona, which was then a cosmopolitan crossroads between Christian and Arab Spain. It was there that Gerbert learned the mysteries of Arabic science, including astronomy.

Gerbert's brilliance proved valuable to the kings and potentates of this period, which greatly increased his influence and reputation as a teacher. Gerbert is credited with bringing many aspects of Arabic science to medieval Europe. He taught his pupils the elements of Greek astronomy and instructed them in the use of unfamiliar astronomical instruments, such as the astrolabe and the armillary sphere. Gerbert simplified arithmetic by introducing the abacus and the so-called Hindu-Arabic numerals. These innovations astounded the learned scholars of the time, who struggled with even the simplest calculations (how much is LXXIV plus CXIX?).

Gerbert is not usually named with the great scientists of history. He made no original contribution to mathematics or astronomy. However, he served in the all-important role of popularizer, communicating the value and importance of science to the uninitiated public. With the inspiration of Gerbert, Europe began its slow crawl out of the Dark Ages.

This was the same period lampooned in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, an era of fear and superstition. Thus it should not be surprising that Gerbert was mistrusted by some, who regarded him as a sorcerer who practiced the "black arts" of the Arabs. Among other things, his detractors alleged that he possessed a "golden head" that would speak to him and predict the future through the work of evil spirits. Some may have regarded his waxing fortunes as further evidence that the end of the world was near. Gerbert had long been tutor to the family of Otto I (Otto the Great), the first Holy Roman Emperor. Through this patronage, Gerbert, changing his name to Sylvester II, became pope in A.D. 999, the threshold of the coming millennium. A sorcerer in the Vatican at this crucial juncture must surely have been a sign of God's imminent judgment!

It could be said that fear of science contributed to the "millennium bug" of Y1K. However, the wrath of God did not befall the world as dreaded in A.D. 1000. In fact, Europe's troubles began to recede. By 1000, the barbarian invasions had come to an end. The Viking and Hungarian tribes converted to Christianity and joined the family of European nations. In Spain, the caliphate was in decline, permitting expansion of the Christian monarchs into formerly Arab lands. The dawning of the new millennium represented not the end of the world but a new beginning for Europe.

Through the influence of Gerbert, light began to shine into the Dark Ages. His successors pursued his interest in Greek and Arab science. With the Spanish capture of the Arabic Library at Toledo in 1073, study of the Greek classics was revived in earnest. The classical tradition was further cultivated with the Aristotelian science of Thomas Aquinas and culminated in the Platonic science of the Renaissance. Thus, the tradition revived by Gerbert led finally to Nicholas Copernicus and the Scientific Revolution.

One could say that the now-passing millennium has been the Millennium of Gerbert -- the millennium of technology and scientific investigation. Gerbert's astrolabes and spheres have given way to space telescopes, and his abacus has given way to microcomputers. As Gerbert's millennium draws to a close, it's ironic that many people feared the failure of our scientific culture with the Y2K millennium bug. We can only wonder what will be the defining feature of the next millennium.

Astronomical cartoonist Jay Ryan drafts the monthly SkyWise for this magazine (see page 109) and is the author of Cycles: An Introduction to Astronomy and Time, available from Sky Publishing.

Right: A man of science in an age of ignorance, Gerbert d'Aurillac (circa 945-1003) trained himself in modern disciplines of the day as practiced by distant cultures and spread his knowledge to influential leaders in Europe. He became pope in 999 and adopted the name Sylvester II. Courtesy Mary Evans Picture Library.

Lower right: Although astrolabes originated more than 2,000 years ago, they were improved by Arabian astronomers toward the end of the first millennium A.D. The instruments were among the scientific innovations that Gerbert promoted to influential Europeans. This example dates from about A.D. 990. Courtesy Florence History of Science Museum.
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Article Details
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Author:Ryan, Jay
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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