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Book Commentary/Review – The Abacus and the Cross August 15, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, Gerbert of Aurillac, Islamic Golden Age, Islamic Science, medieval period, Middle Ages, Nancy Marie Brown, The Abacus and the Cross.
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The Abacus and the Cross by Nancy Marie Brown tells readers the story of Pope Sylvester II, the man who led the Catholic Church from 1000 to 1003. Three years in the middle of what is commonly called the “Middle Ages,” even the “Dark Ages.” Three years during the period before the Crusades, before the official break between Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Three years during a period of turbulent political tug-of-war betweenFrance, theHoly Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. Why write a book about a pope who ruled for only those three years? Because the three years as pope are only a small aspect of Gerbert of Aurillac’s life, and it was the years leading up to his three years as Pope Sylvester II that were consequential, that have relevance today.

Gerbert of Aurillac was first a scholar, an intellectual, a man of learning. He immersed in Islamic learning in Spain, bringing back knowledge preserved and developed by Muslims during what Western historians call the “Dark Ages.” But the life of Gerbert of Aurillac demonstrates dramatically that these were not “Dark Ages” for everyone. Gerbert experienced first-hand and embraced what was the “Golden Age” of Islamic learning (including mastering the abacus). Muslims translated ancient Greek learning, absorbed Persian and Indian concepts, and took human knowledge to new heights. Christians and Jews were welcomed to this effort, to learn, and to contribute. Gerbert’s vision was to have this type of intellectual atmosphere spread to Christian lands. This was at a time before the formal schism between Eastern and Western Christianity, a historical fork in the road.

But Gerbert’s vision was not to be. Later commentators labeled him as in league with the devil for working with Muslims, and considered concepts arising from this collaboration to be against God. Lesser men from his day, men without his intellect and vision, men who were Gerbert’s rivals for power and position, were honored while Gerbert’s name was tainted with the label of being aligned with heretics and the devil. For many years, the version of Gerbert of Aurillac’s life told by these lesser men prevailed.

The Abacus and the Cross gives us a meticulous accounting of Gerbert’s life, using Gerbert’s letters, and sources from the times, with carefully reasoned analysis of those sources, placing them in their contexts. Much time is spent on the complex politics of the period—Gerbert was tangled in these politics, a brilliant visionary who had to fight for a place in a difficult, often brutal world. For me, the great achievement of this book is to highlight for modern readers, both Christians and Muslims, that science is not “Western” or “Eastern,” and is not the enemy of either Christianity or Islam. Islam made a huge contribution to modern science, and remains a significant part of that legacy. During the so-called “Dark Ages,” Islam carried the torch of advancing knowledge, leading to advancements that make our modern world the most materially prosperous for humans ever. We all share in these triumphs. This book is more evidence that we should embrace each other and move forward, adopting Gerbert’s vision, one thousand years later.

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