Nancy Marie Brown’s The Abacus and the Cross The Story of the Pope who brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages (2010)

It’s always good to come across a book aimed at a wide readership that presents an important topic that has been undeservedly neglected, especially one that is written in a lively style. Nancy Marie Brown examines the career of Gerbert of Aurillac, a mathematician who became pope (Silvester II, 999-1003). In doing so she rescues the middle ages from charges of anti-scientific obscurantism, effectively demolishing the position taken by such influential authors as Washington Irvine, and along the way there are any number of acute judgments: it’s good to read that being a canon at a cathedral was more like being a member of a gentlemen’s club than a monastery. She presents the results of recent findings, among them an abacus board, only discovered in 2001, that was a copy of one used by Gerbert himself, made by one of his students; her account of this is supplemented by a mercifully clear exposition of how an abacus is used and a finely detailed reproduction of the one recently discovered (the colour plates that accompany the text are well chosen and beautifully reproduced.) We also read of a Carmen figuratum addressed to the emperor Otto II and his Byzantine wife Theophanu that was identified as the work of Gerbert in 1999.

This is, then, a book to be commended both for some of the general lines of argument it develops and the up-to-date information it provides. But it contains any number of odd errors. The statement that mass was celebrated seven times a day in the monastery Gerbert entered as a child presumably reflects a belief that mass was celebrated at every monastic office, which was certainly not the case. A summary of the Filioque controversy that attributes to the Byzantines the belief that the Holy Spirit came from the Father to the Son reflects a very shaky understanding. The assertion that ‘[s]et amid the vine-covered fields of the Mosul region, Trier had been a Roman capital’ is a real eye-opener. More worrying are errors in interpretation. To see a world in which Muslims, Christians and Jews sat down together and translated works of science into Latin as having ended with the death of Gerbert flies in the face of the immense number of such works that were translated in exactly such settings during the following centuries.

So I put this book down with mixed feelings. Over 60 years ago, Gerbert was the subject of some luminous pages in Richard Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages. Nuanced and scholarly as it is, his perspective may not resonate as widely now. It would be reasonable to expect that Nancy Marie Brown’s interpretation of Gerbert will be more widely read, and its success in introducing many people to its topic will be something to welcome. Yet it has real limitations. At a time when the future of the study of the human past is hard to divine, it would be reassuring if the points of entry were of as high a standard as possible.

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