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

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Overview

The medieval Catholic Church, widely considered a source of intolerance and inquisitorial fervor, was not anti-science during the Dark Ages—in fact, the pope in the year 1000 was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day. Called “The Scientist Pope,” Gerbert of Aurillac rose from peasant beginnings to lead the church. By turns a teacher, traitor, kingmaker, and visionary, Gerbert is the first Christian known to teach math using the nine Arabic numerals and zero.

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

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Overview

The medieval Catholic Church, widely considered a source of intolerance and inquisitorial fervor, was not anti-science during the Dark Ages—in fact, the pope in the year 1000 was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day. Called “The Scientist Pope,” Gerbert of Aurillac rose from peasant beginnings to lead the church. By turns a teacher, traitor, kingmaker, and visionary, Gerbert is the first Christian known to teach math using the nine Arabic numerals and zero.

In The Abacus and the Cross, Nancy Marie Brown skillfully explores the new learning Gerbert brought to Europe. A fascinating narrative of one remarkable math teacher, The Abacus and the Cross will captivate readers of history, science, and religion alike.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Keith Devlin, Stanford University professor and author of Fibonacci’s Bridge of Numbers: the Medieval Visionary and the Book that Launched the Modern World
“Nancy Marie Brown’s book provides a fascinating, well researched, in depth study of the life and times of one of the key figures who brought modern arithmetic into Western Europe.”

Marilyn Yalom, author of Birth of the Chess Queen
“This book will change how you think about the so-called Dark Ages.  Well-researched, well-written, and vividly illuminating.”
 

Pat Shipman, Professor of Anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University and author of Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari
“Nancy Marie Brown again uses her extraordinary ability to bring medieval time to life in The Abacus and the Cross, in the person of the ‘Scientist Pope’ Gerbert of Aurillac (later Pope Sylvester II). Working from sparse records, Brown manages to tell us of the remarkable scholar, brilliant mathematician, and inveterate punster who loved both his holy orders and luxurious living. She shows us a time in which the route to God lay through the study of science and math and when intellectual developments flowed across the boundaries of religion and empire in Eurasia. This is a remarkable book that reflects on our modern times on every page.”
 
Jeff Sypeck, author of Becoming Charlemagne “A pleasure to read, The Abacus and the Cross draws readers into a world of intrigue, superstition, and scholarship. Nancy Marie Brown writes lucidly about math and science, finding important stories in the lives of medieval people who deserve to be widely remembered.”

Kirkus
“A thoroughly engrossing account of the Dark Ages and one of its Popes, both far less dark than popular histories teach. . . .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.”

Science Writers Magazine
“As she reconstructs the strangely illuminated Europe of the Dark Ages, Brown reminds readers that the major conflicts in our world today—between Christianity and Islam, between religion and science—are products of our own age, not historical inevitabilities.”
 
Booklist
“As readably knowledgeable about Gerbert’s political fortunes as about his intellectual influence, Brown is a lively narrator and interesting interpreter of Gerbert’s life and world.  This portrait gives both the science and the history audiences something to talk about.”
 
Library Journal
“A rags-to-riches saga… captures how the direction of history can be influenced by one person. . . . Had Gerbert lived longer and been more politically savvy, Brown’s portrait makes one believe his ability to teach might have jump-started science before the Dark Ages enveloped Europe. VERDICT: Enjoyable to read, informative, and highly recommended for all history and history of science buffs.”
 
Maria Rosa Menocal, author of The Ornament of the World and co-author of The Arts of Intimacy
“Overflowing with illuminating material, The Abacus and the Cross is the biography of a vital moment we know precious little about: the second half of the tenth century, when Gerbert of Aurillac, the man who would be pope at the much-anticipated millennium, came of age. Among Brown’s many virtues is her ability to weave the intellectual and the material into a seamless narrative, so that when her readers learn about what books the monks of a monastery might be copying—and how those volumes connect to the intellectual past and future—they are also going to learn the mechanics of the copying itself, beginning with the cultivation of the animals whose skins will become parchment. She has the scientist’s eye for detail and the historian’s gift of storytelling and she has not one but dozens of great stories to tell about this transformative moment in Latin Christendom, as it began to embrace the foundations of modern science and technology.”
 
Richard Rubenstein, author of Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages
The Abacus and the Cross tells the fascinating, little known story of the ‘Scientist-Pope’ Sylvester II (Gerbert of Aurillac), whom older writers long considered a practitioner of the Black Arts. In this vividly presented, scrupulously researched biography, Nancy Marie Brown shows how a few open-minded intellectuals illuminated the Dark Ages by importing scientific knowledge and methods into Christian Europe from Muslim Spain. Brown’s descriptions of Gerbert’s ‘magical’ instruments, the abacus, celestial spheres, and astrolabe, as well as of his worship of a mathematically-inspired Creator, make important contributions to the history of medieval science.”
 

The New York Journal of Books
“Ms. Brown’s easily readable history draws the reader into a world of political intrigue, the excitement of introducing the abacus and astrolabe to Europe, and the shaky ground that surrounding the broader culture of Europe around 1000. Her book is a useful reminder that clear and well-reasoned history is by no means simplistic. The story of d’Aurillac’s life and papacy shows a medieval milieu more complex than oft portrayed.”

America Magazine (National Catholic Weekly)
“Touring the late 10th century via Nancy Marie Brown’s masterful recounting of the life and times of Gerbert of Aurillac, the French monk who became Pope Sylvester II, requires an intellectual Baedeker of sorts, one that Brown aptly and affably provides. . . . The Abacus and the Cross provides at once an engaging encounter with a figure of interest and influence, and a way to see the issues Gerbert confronts as having modern parallels. A grand tour, indeed.”
 
 

Library Journal
The story of Gerbert of Aurillac, later Pope Sylvester II, not only is a rags-to-riches saga but also captures how the direction of history can be influenced by one person. Gerbert entered the monastery early and thrived on learning and reading. Mastering grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, he also possessed a sophisticated command of Latin and later taught at major cathedral schools and tutored the sons of kings. In Córdoba, the crossroads for the exchange of knowledge between the Arabic world and Europe, he learned the abacus and higher mathematics and astronomy. Brown (Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman) captures the court and church intrigues, disputes, politics, wars, marriages, and backroom maneuvering that drove events before and after 1000 C.E. Had Gerbert lived longer and been more politically savvy, Brown's portrait makes one believe his ability to teach might have jump-started science before the Dark Ages enveloped Europe. VERDICT Enjoyable to read, informative, and highly recommended for all history and history of science buffs.—Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC
Kirkus Reviews

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465031443
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 10/2/2012
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 1,199,013
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Nancy Marie Brown is the author of The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman and Mendel in the Kitchen, named one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2004 by Library Journal. She lives in Vermont.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2013

    A very interesting and informative read. I recommend this to any

    A very interesting and informative read. I recommend this to anyone interested in medieval history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 14, 2012

    This is a GREAT book

    In school we were taught that 900 A.D.was in the middle of the "dark" ages. How wrong that is. Here is a book that will interest those interested in history, those who love geometry, those who wonder about life in the monesteries in the 10th century, and those who wonder about the abacus. I found it hard to put this book down. Trust me on this one, folks.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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