Pope Sylvester II

Originally named: Gerbert of Aurillac (943 – 1003).

Gerbert was born in the region of Auvergne in central France. Around 963 he entered the monastery of St. Gerald in Aurillac to become a monk. It was a rather strict Benedictine monastery and was independent of any local control, being subject only to the Pope in Rome. Here he studied his Latin grammar.
A visiting count from Spain was asked to take the bright young monk with him to Spain so he could study mathematics there. In 967, Gerbert was put in the care of the bishop of Vic in Catalunya that had a cathedral school. Here he studied arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.The school benefited from the frequent interaction and communication between the Catalunyans and the neighbouring Muslims of al-Andalus in the south of Spain and the libraries of the Cathedral of Vic were of the largest in Europe.

The Muslim "scientists" of that time had absorbed Greek and Persian science and, through their trade with India and China, had also been exposed to many of their scientific advances. Muslim astronomy was the most advanced of the world and their astronomers, proficient users of the astrolabe, had done much to map the skies.
In mathematics they were even more advanced. Alcharismi had adopted the concept of zero from the Indians and had established algebra. The Muslims had borrowed the abacus from the Chinese, were investigating prime numbers and were able to define music more precisely through the use of fractions.
This large scala of knowledge was available to Gerbert at the cathedral school of Vic and he showed himself to be an apt scholar.

In 969 the bishop of Vic made a pilgrimage to Rome and took the young Gerbert with him. There he met Pope John XIII who was so impressed with the young lad that he advised the then visiting emperor Otto I (962-973) to employ Gerbert as a tutor for his son, who later became Otto II. During his tutorship, Otto sent Gerbert to the cathedral school of Reims in France to study advanced mathematics.

In Reims he became quite famous for building an organ that was not powered by the usual air pressure from feet-powered bellows, but by constant pressure supplied by water power. In ca 980 he became a lecturer at the cathedral school of Reims.
At that time calculations were done mostly by using Roman numerals, a system which made it very difficult to do calculations in your mind. Gerbert was already familiar with Arabic notation and numerals and therefore could perform calculations in his head much faster than anyone thinking in Roman numerals.
Gerbert was also au fait with the abacus, the manual tool to do arithmetic. In fact, the abacus can be described as the first personal calculator or hand calculator.



A short interlude on the abacus

The abacus is a manually operated computing device consisting of a frame holding parallel rods strung with movable counters or beads.
The word abacus comes from Greek, abax, meaning counting board. Its source comes possibly from the Hebrew ābāq, "dust". The Greek word abax has as one of its meanings: "a board sprinkled with sand or dust for drawing geometric diagrams". The board with dust was the writing surface. In the 19th century slate would be used for the same purpose.
Later the abacus became a table or board with grooves in it in which counters, in the form of beads, discs or simple pebbles would be laid. In later versions the grooves were replaced by rods with free-sliding beads on them.
The abacus originates from the Babylonians circa 500 B.C. It moved via Greek and Roman civilizations to the East where it flourished in China and Japan.
In 1946 a two-day contest was held between a Japanese abacist and a contemporary state-of-the-art calculator, which was won decisively by the abacist.

How does it work: The right-hand column (which is at the bottom in the Venda stamp) indicates the ones, the next column the tens, etc. There is a crossbar across all columns, with two beads on the one side and five beads on the other side. The two beads have a value of 5 each, while the five beads each have a value of 1. To indicate a number, one shifts beads towards the crossbar. The Venda abacus above shows the value 1532786.


The Chinese call their abacus a suan pan and even today Chinese schools still teach the use of the abacus.

Soroban on Japanese Postal Card

The Japanese soroban has been in use since the 16th century. The soroban has only one value-5 bead on the top side (which they call the Heaven-zone as opposed to the Earth-zone).


Russian stchoty is operated by man on the right in this painting shown on a Russian Postal Card (1929)

The Russian abacus - called stchoty - has a different layout: 10 beads on each wire, the middle two being black. The stchoty was invented in the 17th century.


Gerbert developed a new form of abacus which he described in a book he wrote ca 1000 A.D. Where the classic Chinese abacus consisted of the 2/5 beads per line (2 beads on the upper deck, 5 beads on the lower deck), his new abacus consisted of 30 arced columns, three used for fractions, the remaining 27 were grouped in nine groups of three columns each. Each column was headed C (centum, hundred), D (decem, ten) or S (singularis, unit). The rightmost three columsn were for the numbers up to 999, the group to the left of that for the numbers up to 999000, etc. He replaced the beads with apices, counters, each with an Arabic digit inscribed on it. Where in the past a number of beads per row had been used to represent a single digit, Gerbert had reduced this to a single numbered apice in a specific position. In other words, one could now represent any number, no matter how large, using only ten symbols, one of them representing… zero. This meant an enormous simplification of the calculation process and a much more suitable notation for written arithmetic.


Apices as they looked in Gerbert's time         Representing number 9705

Where in the past written arithmetic was using the cumbersome Roman notation (XXXIII plus XXXVIII equals LXXI), this could now be simplified to 33 plus 38 equals 71.

In 991, Gerbert became archbishop of Reims and in 998 archbishop of Ravenna, Italy, but when Pope Gregory V stripped him of his functions, Gerbert fled to the court of Otto II. When Pope Gregory V died in 999, Otto II decided to wrest control of the papacy and appointed Gerbert in his place. Gerbert took the name Sylvester II when be became pope. Being the scientist that he was, he calculated the times of the eclipses due in the year 1000 and published these in 999, thereby preventing a panic in Christian Europe as many people believed the world would come to an end at the beginning of the new millennium (a sort of Y1K panic).



The Hungarian connection

Top-left quadrant of scene shows Pope Sylvester II handing crown to St.Stephen

When Stephen (975-1038) became King of Hungary in 997 he wanted to make Hungary a Christian nation, so he sent Abbot Astricus to Rome to petition Pope Sylvester II for royal dignity and for the power to establish episcopal sees. Sylvester acceded to his wishes, recognizing the Magyar nationality and endowing the famous kingly crown on Stephen. His crowning took place on August 17, 1001. The Crown of St. Stephen has become the proud and beloved symbol of Hungarian nationhood and is part of its Coat of Arms. Hungary did not accept a new king until he had touched the Crown of St. Stephen. During World War II the crown was taken to Fort Knox for safeguarding. It was returned to Hungary in the mid-seventies and it currently resides in the Hungarian Parliament building.
Hungary has issued a number of stamps depicting Pope Sylvester II and the famous Crown of St. Stephen.

Pope Sylvester II gives crown to Abbot Astricus

The word "KIR." on the above stamp is an abbreviation of Kiralyi (Royal) and was re-introduced on Hungarian stamps with this issue in 1938.

Hungary's Coat of Arms (centre) with Crown of St. Stephen at the top

Pope Sylvester II died on May 12, 1003.



            © Wobbe Vegter, April 2005






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