Was Pope Sylvester II a sorcerer?

Not all popes are known for their sanctity. In the Middle Ages, popes routinely acted immorally. But it’s Pope Sylvester II who has the distinction of being the first accused necromancer to rule the church. The claims stemmed from his erudition and religious politics.

Born Gerbert in south-central France around 946, he entered a nearby Benedictine monastery as a child. He excelled in his studies, and in 967, the abbot asked a visiting Spanish count to take Gerbert to Spain to study. He studied at church institutions in Catalonia, a buffer zone between the Franks and the Moors. Although the bishop of Vic guided Gerbert’s education, he still would be exposed to Muslim ideas of mathematics and astronomy inherited from Greece and Persia.

After his three years in Spain, Gerbert became the tutor for Otto II, the son of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. He then taught at a renowned cathedral school in Reims, France, until 983 when Otto II, now emperor himself, appointed Gerbert the abbot of a monastery in Italy. Otto II died later that year, and Gerbert returned to Reims, where, with some interruptions, he headed the cathedral school until 997. That year he became an advisor to the 16-year-old Holy Roman Emperor Otto III.

Gerbert taught far more than the standard curriculum while at Reims. He built an organ that used water power. He introduced students to Arabic numbers and continued studying the abacus, which he’d learned of in Spain. He even made a mammoth abacus by marking out the floor of the nave of the cathedral and using large disks for the customary beads. He devoted time to astronomy and used spheres and globes in teaching it.

In 998, he was appointed archbishop of Ravenna in Italy. Holy Roman Emperors asserted the power to select the pope and controlled papal elections. On Pope Gregory V’s death in 999, Otto III hand-picked Gerbert to succeed him. Taking the name Sylvester II, he was the first French pope. The assertion of imperial power would lead to the Investiture Controversy, the most significant conflict between secular and religious authority in the 11th century – and the blackening of Sylvester II’s name.

Manuscript illustration of Pope Sylvester II and the Devil (circa 1460)

Otto III took control of Rome in 998, built a palace there, and made it the empire’s administrative center. In 1001, Italians revolted against imperial rule, and angry Romans surrounded his palace. He and Sylvester II fled the city in February. Otto III died the following January at age 21. Sylvester II returned to Rome, where he died in May 1003. But the Investiture Controversy blackened his reputation.

The first attacks came from a Cardinal Beno. In a screed against then Pope Gregory VII issued around 1085, Beno said Sylvester II was the first in a line of popes who were sorcerers. He said Gerbert was waited on by demons, who helped him to become pope. Beno reported Gerbert summoned a demon before becoming pope and asked when he would die. The demon said Gerbert wouldn’t die until he said Mass in Jerusalem. One day, Sylvester II said Mass in a church in Rome called the Holy Cross of Jerusalem. “Immediately after, he died a horrid and miserable death, and in between those dying breaths, he begged his hands and tongue (with which, by offering them to demons, he had dishonored God) to be cut to pieces,” Beno wrote in Contra Gregorium VII et Urbanum II (Against Gregory VII and Urban II).

More extensive accusations came from British monk and historian William of Malmesbury in his Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England), written around 1125. He reported that Sylvester II “acquired the art of calling up spirits from hell” when studying in Spain. Moreover, he wrote, Sylvester II resided with a Muslim “philosopher” who sold Sylvester II “his knowledge” and loaned him books. One night Sylvester II stole the one book the man refused to lend. With the book, Sylvester “called up the devil, and made an agreement with him to be under his dominion for ever” if the devil protected him from the man.

William also tells a variation of Benno’s account of Sylvester II’s death. He says Sylvester used the astronomical knowledge he gained in Spain to build a brass or bronze head. He empowered the head to answer “Yes” or “No” to Sylvester II’s questions. When he asked if he would die if he said Mass at Jerusalem, the head said, “No.” He, of course, became ill after saying Mass at the Holy Cross. The pope the cardinals together and “lamented his crimes” at length, William wrote. At that point, Sylvester II “began to rave, and losing his reason through excess of pain, commanded himself to be maimed, and cast forth piecemeal.”

William’s description of the creation of the head manages to equate Sylvester’s II knowledge of astronomy with divination. As the Catholic Church had long condemned fortune-telling, this further proved Sylvester II’s ties to dark powers. Even his tomb supposedly ties him to prophecy. Around 1270, reports circulated that when the sound of rattling bones came from it, it was foretelling the death of the pope. Additionally, at least one historian reports, upon opening the tomb in 1684, Sylvester II’s body was still intact. Upon full exposure to the air, though, it turned to dust, further demonstrating his necromancy.

Modern society considers Sylvester II as a pre-Renaissance humanist and one of his age’s leading mathematicians and scientists. He may prove a saying erroneously attributed to author Arthur C. Clarke: Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.

During Gerbert’s lifetime, science transcended faith and faith encompassed science: The pope studied the stars and found God in numbers.

Nancy Marie Brown, The Abacus and the Cross:
The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages

(Originally posted at Exploring History)

Comments are closed.