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

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3.58 of 5 stars 3.58  ·  rating details  ·  133 ratings  ·  33 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 v...more
Hardcover, 310 pages
Published December 7th 2010 by Basic Books (first published October 21st 2010)
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Ess Kay
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...more
Steve Horton
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
C Romano
Dec 31, 2010 C Romano rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  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 m...more
David
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
Franz
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 sme...more
M Christopher
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 be...more
Tinika
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 interest...more
Bob Mustin
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...more
Walter
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 impen...more
Abbe
Sep 20, 2012 Abbe added it
Shelves: in-library
From

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

...more
Jess
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 conn...more
Jennifer
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...more
Debra
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...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 a...more
Bob
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 Mus...more
Warren Watts
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...more
David R.
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
Jim
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
Matt
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
Stephen
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
Mary Ann
An engaging read! Highly recommended.
David
Jul 26, 2013 David rated it 4 of 5 stars
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.
Emily
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.
Margaret Sankey
The life and career of Gerbert of Aurillac, from French peasant oblate to Pope Sylvester II--and Cordoban exchange student, evangelizer of Arabic numerals, book collector, inventor or an abacus table, kingmaker and scientist along the way. And source of one of my favorite aphorisms, "Discipuli victoria, magistri est gloria."
Annie Shaw
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 Amazon.com but am open to a trade with another reader.
Andrea Hickman Walker
This is amazing. I was fully aware that the Dark Ages weren't as dark as they're generally made out to be, but I had no idea that science was considered a way to approach the mind of God. This is absolutely fascinating and definitely underscores the fact that history is written by the winners.
Denise
A fascinating journey, beautifully written, very informative, and a lot of fun to read -- it brought to life a time about which I knew very little and corrected many misconceptions. A fine book, highly recommended.
Electric Landlady
Fascinating - and has also made me start rereading Ars Magica. Bonus!
Chris Schaeffer
A good book to read if you want to learn some facts about Gerbert d'Aurillac, who you should want to learn some facts about.
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Nancy Marie Brown is the author of The Abacus and the Cross, The Far Traveler, and other nonfiction books. She has 30 years’ experience as a writer and editor. From 1981 to 2003, she wrote about science for an award-winning magazine published by Penn State University. She earned a master’s degree in comparative literature from Penn State, where she specialized in the Middle Ages. Freelance since 2...more
More about Nancy Marie Brown...
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