Shedding Light on the Dark Ages

Why the Dark Ages weren’t as “dark” as we’ve been led to believe.

The  Abacus And The  Cross

The popular perception of the Dark Ages is wrong. That’s the message of Nancy Marie Brown’s “The Abacus and the Cross” (Basic Books), which tells the story of Gerbert of Aurillac (d. 1003), a monk who rose from humble beginnings to become Pope Sylvester II, and came to personify the union between science and religion that was in evidence a thousand years ago. “In his day, the earth was not [believed to be] flat. People were not terrified that the world would end at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 999. Christians did not believe Muslims and Jews were the devil’s spawn. [And] the Church was not anti-science—just the reverse,” writes Brown.

But in today’s world—in which religion and science are seen as being at odds with one another, it’s a challenge to orient oneself to the idea that the Church was a champion of learning. In the following Failure Interview, Brown introduces us to the so-called “Scientist Pope,” and explains why our beliefs about the Dark Ages are misguided.

Why don’t we begin by talking about Gerbert. What was he like?
He was born a peasant, which was unusual because most churchmen were upper class nobles. But he was noticed for his intelligence and got a good education in a monastery in the south of France. When he demonstrated a great interest in mathematics, his abbot [Gerald of Aurillac] arranged for him to go to Barcelona, on the border of Islamic Spain. This was a time when many books were coming to Spain from Muslim countries—books of science and philosophy and medicine that were being translated into Latin.

Then he went to Rome and from Rome up to Reims, where he became, essentially, a college professor. He was a teacher of the quadrivium—the four mathematical subjects: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music—at the cathedral school at Reims, where he spent most of his scientific career.

Tell me about the abacus he invented.
An abacus board can take many forms, but the abacus he invented was a grid of twenty-seven columns painted on a flat surface. To use it there were a thousand counters made out of cow’s horn. It looked something like modern checkers, except that each [counter] was marked with an Arabic numeral. What you would do is you would place a counter in the right column, and you would add, subtract, multiply and divide using the same basic algorithms we do today. It was the first time that anyone in the West used what we call the place value system of arithmetic—the first time anyone used Arabic numerals in arithmetic. It was a very difficult concept for people to understand, but it was very influential and very popular. It got to the point where in the later Middle Ages, merchants and bankers would draw counting boards on tabletops, which is why we do business “over the counter” nowadays.

Why was Gerbert twice accused of treason?
When he held the position of Abbott of Bobbio [in Italy], he started getting accused of wasting money and doing all kinds of nefarious things. At one point, he was accused of keeping a wife secretly. He had a habit of keeping copies of his letters—we have 233 of them—and when you read them today you think to yourself: What was he doing? It looks like he was committing treason.

Two kings of France actually tried to have him strung up. Both died under very suspicious circumstances. One might suspect they were poisoned, but you couldn’t prove it. The individuals who had motive were Gerbert and the archbishop [at Reims], because each time they were awaiting trial for treason when the king suddenly dropped dead. Gerbert does take pains in one of his letters to point out that he had never sworn an oath of fealty to the king of France. He had sworn this oath to the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

What’s wrong with the popular view of the Dark Ages?
We have this idea that it was a time of superstition and ignorance when people didn’t look at the world around them and certainly didn’t look at it with a scientific eye. In fact, the Church considered mathematics the highest form of worship. Before you were allowed to study theology, you had to study the seven liberal arts—grammar, rhetoric and dialectic [the trivium], and then the quadrivium.

So the concept that the Church was against learning is wrong. For five or six hundred years after the Fall of Rome, it was the Church that preserved and expanded learning. And in Gerbert’s time they were actively seeking it out among Muslims and Jews. The Crusades were a hundred years later, and the Spanish Inquisition took place two hundred years later. All of the “dark” stuff happened after the Dark Ages. 

Why do we perceive the Dark Ages the way we do?
We generally say that [Italian poet] Petrarch, in the 1400s, was the one who coined the term the Dark Ages. The people in the Renaissance wanted to take credit for rediscovering Greek and Roman knowledge, and wanted to overlook the thousand years in between in which the Church had been in charge of learning.

We did the same thing. The whole idea that in the Middle Ages the world was thought to be flat was a concept created in the nineteenth century. [In the 1820s], Washington Irving wrote a story about Christopher Columbus that gave Columbus credit for discovering that the world was round, when in fact this was known for hundreds of years beforehand. The debate the Church had with Columbus was not about the shape of the Earth but about how big it was. We want to believe that before America was discovered everything was dark and ignorant. The myth that Washington Irving created is extremely popular.

Is it your goal to change the public’s perception of the Dark Ages?
Well, that would be great if I could do that with one book [laughs]. I think I would need a few more books to do that, but I find it an extremely fascinating time period and I wonder why we don’t know more about it.

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