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The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages

3.62  ·  Rating Details ·  194 Ratings  ·  44 Reviews
The medieval Catholic Church, widely considered a source of intolerance and inquisitorial fervor, was not anti-science during the Dark Ages—in fact, the pope in the year 1000 was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day. Called “The Scientist Pope,” Gerbert of Aurillac rose from peasant beginnings to lead the church. By turns a teacher, traitor, kingmaker, and ...more
Hardcover, 310 pages
Published December 7th 2010 by Basic Books (first published January 1st 2010)
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Ess Kay
Jun 13, 2011 Ess Kay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really loved this book. Brown has a lively, humorous style and she tackles Gerbert in a very personable way. Her inclusion of manuscript preparation methods and overview of the importance of the House of Wisdom, and Islam in general, to the education of the European West was wonderful. I'm also a sucker for the astrolabe - it is a fascinating bit of technology whose journey around time, Europe, Asia and the Middle East serves as a beacon for the intellectual exchanges across cultures.

Brown wa
C Romano
Jan 03, 2011 C Romano rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: scientists, history buffs
Recommended to C by: friend
This is an engrossing non fiction work that Investigates the mystery surrounding the Scientific Pope of 1000 AD. The Abacus and the Cross spans hundreds of years with scores of fascinating characters. Brown debunks the myth that the church in the year 1000 AD, and in the centuries proceeding 1000 AD, feared science and mathematics. She utilizes a recently discovered abacus that was hidden in a bible, parchment letters of that time and the astrolabe to throughly substantiate how mathematics and ...more
Jan 23, 2011 David rated it really liked it
I have long been fascinated by Gerbert of Aurillac, who as Pope Sylvester II indeed represented the light of science in an otherwise rather dark period of history. Popes for at least 150 years before Gerbert and for at least 100 years after Gerbert were almost exclusively preoccupied with wars among rival Italian states and rival factions among the Cardinals. The papacy was bought and sold like a commodity in the local market. And many of these popes failed to set an example of holiness, to say ...more
Jun 04, 2016 Atoorva rated it it was amazing
A fascinating biography of a man I knew nothing about and what a wonderful read it turned out to be !
Much before the Great Schism of 1054 and the first crusade of 1096, there lived a Pope who was a mathematician, astronomer and scientist. Gerbert of Aurilliac , Pope Sylvester II, was perhaps first Christian known to teach maths using arab numerals and zero , who got the science books translated from arabic to Latin , invented a kind of abacus , a computus and even built a primitive planetorium .
Margaret D'Anieri
While the information was fascinating and completely new to me (I along with many drank the koolaid about Columbus discovering that the earth was round, when in fact that was known in the 10th century) - the writing was tedious. Lots of names, lots of who was on whose side at any particular moment, lots of parenthetical references. I'm glad I read it, but it could have been so much better, starting with some simple charts of who was who as a reference.
Sep 20, 2012 Abbe added it
Shelves: in-library

The pontiff in question is Sylvester II, pope from 999 to 1003. From the fragmentary evidence about Gerbert of Aurillac, Sylvester’s name before his elevation, Brown resourcefully recounts his remarkable career and boldly asserts that the history of mathematics must be revised in light of Gerbert’s life. Born to a humble station around 950, Gerbert’s precocity impressed bishops and counts, and his friendship-forming personality, visible in surviving letters, showed up in places from Barcel

Jan 31, 2014 Franz rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating and entertaining book about a man who was the leading scholar/scientist in Western Christendom about a thousand years ago. Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 950-1003) was not only the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day, during the last few years of his life he served as Pope Sylvester II. Though this is billed as a biography of Gerbert, original sources are scarce, consisting largely of the relatively few surviving letters that Gerbert wrote and received. His enemies ...more
Apr 06, 2012 Walter rated it liked it
The book uses the life of Gerbert of Aurillac, a monk who became the bishop of Bobbio and later Ravenna, and ultimately was elevated to pope (and is known as Sylvester II). Pope Sylvester II headed the church in the year 1000. Nancy Marie Brown does a fine job disproving the myth that the Church and the West believed the year 1000 heralded the end of the world. The book shows Gerbert in his official capacity was more concerned with the management of the Church’s holdings than with supposed ...more
May 06, 2014 Tinika rated it it was ok
The Abacus and the Cross did not work for me. The premise of the book, The Story of the Pope (Gerbert of Aurillac/Sylvester II) Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages, was intriguing but I don’t feel Nancy Marie Brown delivered. The first section of the book was very speculative, full of “we can imagine ...”, “It’s possible that...”, “they could have...”. She develops her ideas in the second section by looking at the state of science at the turn of the first millennium. While ...more
Apr 27, 2011 Jess rated it really liked it
Really outstanding book which does yeoman's work of trying to dispel the myth of the "Dark Ages." At points, I couldn't stop reading bits out loud to the DH, and finding the flimsiest excuses to bring it up with complete strangers (no, really, we're talking store clerks here). I'm not even particularly thrilled about mathematics, which is the strong suit of Gerbert of Aurillac--later to be Pope Sylvester II--the subject of the book; it was just so exciting to feel like I was discovering the ...more
Bob Mustin
Sep 03, 2011 Bob Mustin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Nonfiction is still very much in vogue, and this book proves there’s no end in sight to the wealth of research to be done, stories to be told of historical characters. This book’s subtitle, “The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages,” virtually tells the tale here, but stories are all the better wrapped in a human personality.

The personality here is a French peasant-monk, who had the good fortune to go to Spain in the mid-900s, where over some 3-4 years he immersed
Joshua Buermann
Feb 16, 2015 Joshua Buermann rated it it was amazing
The first half of this biography of Gerbert of Aurllac covers a very brief period in the centuries-long transmission of Islamic science to the Latin west through al-Andalus. The narrow breadth allows the author to delve deeply into the details of a monastic scholar's daily labors, which can be quite fascinating. The wider history suffers somewhat: for instance Michael Scot -- who worked two centuries later at the Toledo School of Translators and helped bring the works of Avicenna and Averroes ...more
M Christopher
Mar 08, 2014 M Christopher rated it liked it
Shelves: church-history
An interesting story not very well told. The story of Gerbert of Aurillac, later known as Pope Sylvester II, should have been absorbing. The first French pope, an uncommon scholar who was the tutor and confidant of kings and emperors, and perhaps the man most responsible for bringing "Indian numbers" and the Arabic sciences of mathematics and astronomy to Europe, this little-known cleric was truly a pivotal figure in history. For centuries, his story has been obscured by the scurrilous rumors ...more
Oct 25, 2011 Debra rated it liked it
I'm very interested in the (relatively) new literature retrieving the
"Dark Ages" from the dustbin of history. While academicians have long asserted that there was little about the early middle ages that was really "dark" popular culture and writings generally have ignored that. What a wicked good job the writers of the Renaissance did in labelling the somewhat recent past (ok, in the big picture it was recent!) as dismal, unlearned, and dark.

The convergence of science and religion, so absent i
Dec 28, 2013 Jennifer rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, religion
An eye opening book.

This history of the scientific activity of the pope and others around the year 1000 addresses the myth that science died during the middle ages - that nothing happened between the ancient Greeks and the Renaissance. I've read other books that present the same concept, but this book was the first I've read that suggests that the politics of the Renaissance era directly led to the myth. The author writes that Petrarch, historian writing in the 1400s, apparently coined the term
I had such high hopes for this one, but was sorely disappointed. The topic was interesting. Pope Sylvester, the Roman Catholic Church in the 10th century, politics...all things I was excited to read about. Unfortunately, Ms. Brown's writing largely killed that excitement. I could not get into this book. It was a chore to read. I stuck with it because I truly did want to learn about Pope Sylvester and the Catholic Church during that time, but it was a struggle. The narrative was dull for 2/3 of ...more
Jason Walker
Pope Sylvester the Second seems like the kind of guy that should have always been Pope: bookish, knowledgable, ahead of his time. That seems like the story of every great organization and at the end of the day the Catholic Church will go down as one of the greatest closed societies that ever existed on this planet. In the age of Viking incursions and the first threats from the new Muslim arena, Pope Sylvester II managed it all without a war. Immediately after his death the Crusades would start ...more
Jun 27, 2013 Bob rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2011, 4-star
I'm glad I read it. It helped to put a lot of this time period in my mind into a much better perspective. I didn't realize how much turmoil there was between church and state, so many little empires with small armies who could attack each other, and choose to accept the pope or the emperor (empress) or not depending on how much they liked him. A leader of a state or the church could change in months due to disease, assassination, or simply by being chased out. For years, Jews, Chritians, and ...more
David R.
Apr 23, 2013 David R. rated it liked it
I am of two minds on the book. On the one hand, Brown's latest opus is wonderfully researched and written and sheds light on a neglected, if misrepresented figure of the late Middle Ages. But on the other, Gerbert (Pope Sylvester II) is simply not an important figure of the papacy and Brown goes to extreme lengths to cast him as the epochal figure he wasn't. It is probable he was an influential academic of his times, as these things would be understood today. But as an abbott and archbishop, he ...more
May 26, 2015 Amber rated it really liked it
An interesting and fairly unbiased account of a little known, little talked about pope, Sylvester II. I like the depth that Brown goes to to explain the political, spiritual and scientific climate that this pope would have come into power during. The build up is so great that it's quite a let down to realize that this pope had such a short reign, and Brown's suggestion that the world would be better if his reign had been longer is interesting. A good, refreshing break from historical accounts ...more
Steve Horton
Sep 23, 2011 Steve Horton rated it really liked it
A story starring a scientist pope must have grabbed the publisher by the lapels the same way "MTV cops" sold NBC on 1980's iconic television show Miami Vice. The book is well written, with a moat full of incredibly researched detail. I would propose this book is a monument to research. Want to know how to make parchment? Construct an astrolabe? How about an abacus? You could if you followed the descriptions that Nancy Marie Brown uses to bring the reader right into this non-fiction page turner. ...more
Mar 17, 2016 Bill rated it liked it
This book is about the tiny renaissance that happened Europe in the 900's and about Gerbert one of its creators which I believe is an eye opener for most readers. I enjoyed portions of this book and found some of it boring. I liked the beginning which was about how Islamic learning came to Europe and to the monasteries. I enjoyed the end which was about the apocalypse scare in the year 1000. I did not care for the historic accounts in the middle which is probably me not caring a bit about which ...more
Warren Watts
Jun 19, 2012 Warren Watts rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
An astoundingly well researched biography of Gerbert of Aurillac, who served as Pope from 999 to 1003. He is credited with introducing the Abacus and Hindu–Arabic numerals to the western world.

The book is very well written and really brought Gerbert to life.

I found his early life to be far more interesting than his later years, when he became embroiled in court politics. I just didn't find all the court intrigue that captivating; it seemed like a whole lot of he-said-she-said involving this Emp
Dec 30, 2012 Stephen rated it it was ok
A little disappointing as the author lets her anti-Catholicism overwhelm what could be an important story. The subject is a saint, yet she persists in claiming this pope is a victim of the superstitious wing of traditional, or in her terms - unenlightened, Catholics. What a shame that this author has to inject her revisionist opinions. Heck the enlightenment that she claims was so good gave rise to Napolean, Hitler and all the despots that elevates Man above God and all supernatural beings. Will ...more
Dec 31, 2011 Matt rated it it was ok
The first half of the book about the Pope's scientific research and advancements read more like a thesis than a non-fiction story. The author spent much of the time proving her points and explanations were overly long. The second half was more interesting as it delved into the fascinating politics of France and the Holy Roman Empire during the turn of the century (1,000). Interesting to learn that pretty much everyone back then knew the world was a round and that the Pope believed that to study ...more
Jul 12, 2011 Jim is currently reading it
Who knew? The dark ages weren't so dark after all, and this book provides a intriguing account of the life and times of the medieval scientist and monk who became Pope Sylvester II just in time to talk down the last apocalyptic Millennial scare -- in the year 1000. Born at a time when popes and other clergy kept 'housekeepers' instead of wives, and whose children filled convents and monasteries, along with the illegitimate children of the aristocracy, this is the story of a monk who was said be ...more
Feb 10, 2013 Emily rated it liked it
If you like history Brown's book is on the revisionist track and will certainly make you think about what the so called dark ages were like. This is less of a biography and more of a history of science. What I found most interesting about the book is the view of religion and science co-existing together at a time commonly thought of as desolate and devoid of learning. That aspect of the book translates well to the modern dialogue surrounding religion and science.
Jul 26, 2013 David rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
Very good overall, but following some of the history was confusing at times. Perhaps a "Family Tree" type chart showing which bishop was cousin to which king of which country, for example, would have been helpful.

Great, in-depth descriptions of how books, astrolabes, abacuses, etc. were made and used.

I was not aware of the Flat Earth Error which started in the 1800s to elevate Columbus' status while denigrating the churchmen of the "dark" age. Fascinating.
Susheel John
Jan 30, 2016 Susheel John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was glad to come across this book. It is atypical because it gives us insight into a man of both faith and science. There are a fair number of rabbit trails in the book when the author explains how certain scientific or mathematical discoveries occurred. This made it a little tough to follow at times. However, the enthusiast would not find the detours boring. If nothing else, I had not heard of Gerbert of Aurelliac before reading this book but I his story is remarkably worth telling.
Annie Shaw
Jun 02, 2011 Annie Shaw rated it liked it
I was unfamiliar with this part of history so, from that perspective, the book was absolutely fascinating, at least for a hundred pages or so. In the end, I didn't finish reading it...and not certain I will. I'm considering trading it back to but am open to a trade with another reader.
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Nancy Marie Brown is the author of one young adult novel and five general interest books: The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (2015), Song of the Vikings (2012), The Abacus and the Cross (2010), The Far Traveler (2007), Mendel in the Kitchen (2004), and A Good Horse Has No Color (2001).

She writes about Iceland and Vikings, science and sagas. Her books combine extremes: medieval literature and mod
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