Pope who brought science to the dark ages

 The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages, by Nancy Marie Brown. Basic Books. $A32.91

Nancy Marie Brown's work is a masterful recounting of the life and times of Gerbert of Aurillac, the French monk who became Pope Sylvester II.

Gerbert is the axis around which her narrative revolves; she unwinds the track of his life thoughtfully, with a scholar's care to avoid overstatement or drawing unsupported conclusions.

The future pope is revealed as a lifelong student, an avid bookman, an innovative teacher and textbook writer and an inquisitive and passionate investigator.

Brown notes that Gerbert was the first Christian teacher of arithmetic to employ Arabic numerals in the classroom and was skilled in the use of the astrolabe and other instruments of astronomical observation.

It is not until later in the story that what could be called Gerbert's spiritual motivation comes to light.

His passion for understanding the order of the universe, whether revealed in the intricate and intellectually satisfying connections of arithmetic and geometry, in the harmonies of stretched strings and windblown pipes or in the celestial mechanisms of fixed star and wandering planet - all these orders, for Gerbert, were ways to illuminate the mysteries of the Cosmic Orderer.

This may seem to modern eyes to be a dry field to till, but for this monastic scholar, it was a fertile plot for "contemplating, admiring, and praising the wondrous meaning of nature and the wisdom of its Creator."

- Paul Nienaber SJ

FULL REVIEW The Student Pope (America)

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