A thoroughly engrossing account of the Dark Ages and one of its Popes, both far less dark than popular histories teach.
Journalist and science writer Brown returns to the period of her previous book (The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, 2007, etc.) to concentrate on Gerbert of Aurillac (946–1003), an educator who became an archbishop, counselor to kings and emperors and finally Pope Sylvester II in 999. Although Gerbert was only a modestly important figure, the author interweaves her biography with a rich portrait of a society in which the usual litany of medieval ignorance and superstition are not much in evidence. Educated in a Church school, Gerbert learned not only the Bible but rhetoric, ancient classics, astronomy, mathematics and music. He traveled widely, visiting Spain, then largely ruled by Muslims, where he admired their learning and probably introduced both Arabic numbers and the abacus into Europe. Gerbert’s hundreds of surviving letters reveal intense curiosity about mathematics and nature, and Brown emphasizes that his educated contemporaries (almost all churchmen) shared this interest. They built instruments, drew maps, gave technical advice to rulers and used complex devices such as the astrolabe to study the stars, tell time and make precise calculations. The author gives equal time to medieval science, to debunking myths (educated men knew the earth was round) and to the tortured contemporary politics that preoccupied Gerbert for the last decade of his life.
The years around 1000 CE seem to be every medieval historian’s favorite era, but Brown’s welcome addition to the genre provides a lively, eye-opening portrait of a sophisticated Europe whose intellectual leaders showed genuine interest in learning.