Remember when I very enthusiastically reviewed Nancy Marie Brown’s Song of the Vikings? Well during the papal elections (I’m a not so secret Vatican/Pope fanatic. Not in the sense that I’m Catholic but in the sense that I am in love with the crazy shit that the Bishops of Rome used to get up to.) I picked up one of her older books, The Abacus and the Cross, which bills itself as “the story of the pope who brought the light of science to the Dark Ages.” Yes, this book is a biography of Gerbert (later known as Pope Sylvester II) but it’s more than the life of one man. In the same way that Song of the Vikings was a biography of Snorri that also told a grander story of Icelandic history and culture this biography uses Gerbert’s life to tell the story of the end of the first century in Christian Europe.
Gerbert is the sort of person who you have to feel bad for. A peasant born monk who probably could have spent his life happily working away on various scientific and mathematical problems in the libraries of Europe Gerbert ended becoming involved in some of the big political kerfuffles of his time. The reader watches as the somewhat (Well, maybe more than somewhat) naive Gerbert is forced to learn the diplomacy needed to interact with kings and empresses and men with big tempers and even bigger armies. As Gerbert attempts to reunite the Holy Roman Empire it’s impossible not to want to hug him and say, “It’s alright, honey, you tried your best.”
Song of the Vikings helped provide a nuanced and more realistic portrait of Viking Iceland and The Abacus and the Cross does similarly for Plutarch’s “Dark Ages.” Following Gerbert’s travels to Spain we see the multicultural city of Corboda where Jews and Christians could advance to the upper levels of government in this Muslim city. There is no sugar coating in this book, no attempt to make the Dark Ages look like a “Kumbaya” singing group of multiracial people holding hands but it does put a clearer perspective on the cultural politics before the early 1000s.
Ms. Brown also preforms a service by reminding us of the importance of Muslims in not just preserving Greco-Roman science and culture but in adding to and advancing them to new heights. Indeed, Gerbert’s own achievements would have been impossible had it not been for the teachings of Muslim scientists and mathematicians. (Ms. Brown’s writings on the political motivations behind the demonizing of non-Christians that would follow only a few years after Gerbert’s death are also particularly interesting.)
The subject of the Church and its relationship with science and math and logic and reason (I’m working really hard to keep my agnostic evidence based snarky bastard side in check right now.) isn’t a new discussion but Ms. Brown provides more context by discussing how a Gerbert, a scientist who would become pope, found his faith and his science came together like one big happy family. By using him as an example for the more traditional faction of the Church that viewed science and math as forms of better understanding God versus those who were beginning to look at arithmetic as Devil worship Ms. Brown describes the contrasting sides quite nicely. The look at how this scientist pope was treated after death when those that disagreed with his views on science and math became the dominant voice is a fascinating way of understanding the shifts that occurred with the Church.
The Abacus and the Cross might not be as accessible as Song of the Vikings (I mean, the latter is about Vikings and who doesn’t love Vikings?) but if you give it a chance I think that most readers will find themselves engrossed in this book. This book could also be perfect for any reader who is looking for a solid history that provides nuances to their understanding of the history of the Catholic Church.
The Abacus and the Cross; Nancy Marie Brown; Basic Books, copyright 2010
REMINDER: I’m giving away two copies of this print for free. Details are here.