"The Abacus and the Cross" by Nancy Marie Brown

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It’s impossible to say to what extent fear of the Apocalypse gripped medieval Europe as the calendar crept toward the year 1000 AD, but there were churchmen and self-promoters willing to preach terror and penitence to the gullible masses. Gerbert d’Aurillac, monk from southeastern France, later canon, archbishop and pope, was clearly not one of these.

In “The Abacus and the Cross” we learn of the public progress of Gerbert, the great scholar and tutor and adviser to emperors. The most sought-after schoolmaster of his day, he headed
the cathedral school at Reims, the most important church in France, from 972 to 989. He rose to the top at a time when kings and emperors sought to ornament their courts with learned men of science and with as many books as could be assembled. What we think we know of tenth-century Europe is largely just wrong. Muslims occupying the Iberian Peninsula had established Cordoba, the continent’s greatest city, with its largest library, from which it freely spread the most advanced mathematics and science knowledge of the age. In 2001, scholars uncovered an actual abacus board attributed to Gerbert, and it contains all the Arabic numerals and their equivalent Roman numerals. The abacus’s construction and use, and the use of Arabic numerals, Gerbert learned from Muslims while in Spain. Thus can historians trace and credit the introduction to Europe of Arabic counting to Gerbert, the philosopher-pope. What other enlightening things can we take away from this wonderful, engaging book?

Author Nancy Marie Brown teaches us many lessons that apply equally today as they did a thousand years ago: in politics, trust no one; be temperate in speech and writing, because you never know when you might need to turn to someone for help; you can’t do anything about your legacy once you’re gone. Gerbert had big, big dreams for the Holy Roman Empire of the time, but he and his emperor friend, Otto III, died before they could be realized. What the Saracens and Europeans then perpetrated against each other forms the great tragedy of this story.

This highly readable book brims over with eye-opening anecdotes, focusing on the story of Gerbert, never more in his element nor happy as when pursuing his scientific studies. Here the scholarly and scientific issues of the time come alive; they live and breathe in Ms. Brown’s deft and comfortable treatment. No dry tome, this. Pick it up and enjoy it, and peer into a far-off realm and time. Highly recommended.
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