Thursday, May 12, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we tell the story of the mathematical, magical Pope with a talking bronze head.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 12th of May 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

For the social media teaser, I wrote that today I will tell the story of the “mathematical, magical Pope with a talking bronze head,” which- while not technically accurate- delighted me. So… let’s unpack this legend.

He was called Gerbert D’Aurillac (Ger-ber D’are-ee-ack) and was likely born around 940 in France. We aren’t entirely sure- his family was of no significance, and we have no record of his lineage.

He was educated at a local Cathedral school (in the days before universities, most formal education took place at the church under the direction of Abbots). Here, he would learn the Trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The higher sciences: the Quadrivium with its emphasis on math and astronomy would come later, as you will hear).

Gerber- or Sylvester (his papal name, and it’s easier to say) impressed his teachers and soon found himself setting off for a school near Barcelona where he would study with Arabic and Muslim scholars. It was from them that this future Pope would unlock the secrets of mathematics for the west. After all, mathematics never made much sense with roman numerals. But the use of indo-Arabic digits (the ones you know today) along with an abacus unlocked my most minor favorite discipline to the future Pope Sylvester.

So, he comes back to France and is an in-demand scholar- it said he invented the astronomical devices and a pendulum clock and even a talking bronze head from which he was in contact with the devil, or demons, or something not-very-nice. The “talking bronze head” is a surprisingly old trope- essentially, it was said to work like magic eight ball- you ask it a yes/no question, and it responds.

Gerbert would end up in the court of Otto III- the famous emperor of the Ottonian dynasty. From here, Gerbert influenced the election of Hugh Capet to the French crown (the Capetians would rule France for over 800 years). Gerbert was made an abbot and archbishop and eventually named Pope by Emperor Otto (that’s right! The Emperor was calling the shots as to who would be Pope, which would soon become an issue!)

Gerbert- now Sylvester II became the pope in the year 999- and, in doing so, became the first French pope (there have been 15 others since). He established relations with the new Christian kingdoms of Hungary, Poland, and Russia. Still, He was associated closely with Otto’s plan for a revived Christian empire with its seat in the German lands.

Sylvester died in 1003 at a relatively young age (possibly 60?), and his detractors took his death to begin a campaign to discredit him- his contact with non-Christians in Spain suggested to some that he must have been in league with the devil. Furthermore, his mathematical abilities and ability to read and predict the motions of heavenly bodies suggested something diabolical to those looking to discredit the Pope.

Gerbert D’Aurillac, aka Pope Sylvester II, has been a favorite for Papal fan fiction (it’s a thing… and if your movie or book takes place in Europe around the year 1000, there’s a chance you’ll get a cameo by the mathematical, magical Pope with a talking bronze head. He died on this, the 12th of May in 1003.

The Last Word for today comes from the lectionary reading from Ezekiel 2- from the calling of Ezekiel as a prophet.

But the people of Israel are not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for all the Israelites are hardened and obstinate. 8 But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. 9 I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.”

10 And he said to me, “Son of man, listen carefully and take to heart all the words I speak to you. 11 Go now to your people in exile and speak to them. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says,’ whether they listen or fail to listen.”

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 12th of May 2022, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who asked his magic eight ball which email server to use and was told, “Outlook doesn’t Look Good.” He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who has Pope Sylvester to thank for Algebra II- the high school class that kept me from going to my first eight or so college choices; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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