Saturday, July 16, 2011

Roots of the Reformation XXIV: The Islamic Scholar and the Ottonian Reformation

An armillary sphere
Sandro Botticelli
Well, back to the Ottonian Reformation.  You may remember that about two weeks ago (July 1) to be precise, I mentioned a fellow by the name of Gerbert of Aurillac.  Hugh Capet—the King of France—had asked pope John XV to depose Arnulf from the Archbishopric of Reims as Arnulf was an ally of Charles of Lorraine who was contesting Hugh’s claim to the French crown—a somewhat shaky claim other than in the medieval world might made right and Hugh and plenty of might.  When the pope failed to act, Hugh took it on himself to convoke a synod of bishops and depose Arnulf and he named Gerbert in Arnulf’s place.  John XV did not like this and sent a legate to France who declared Gerbert’s election to the See of Reims invalid and restored Arnulf.  Now, we need to be somewhat careful about this.  The pope, at the timed, did not have the right to appoint bishops.  Bishops were elected by their Cathedral Clergy. (Popes would only get the authority to appoint bishops to most European sees in the nineteenth century and there are still a number of sees that maintain the right of election, though recent popes have interfered—with mixed success—with this right.)  Nevertheless, once a bishop was duly elected and installed, the papacy was quick to defend them against the attempts of kings or nobles to depose them.  When Byzantine Emperor Michael III deposed the Patriarch Ignatius in 858 and named Photius to the See of Constantinople, Pope Nicholas I excommunicated both Emperor and the new Patriarch.  So, in any event, Gerbert was deposed as Archbishop of Reims by the pope—not an auspicious sign for his future—but Gerbert was, as well shall see, the original “Come-back Kid.” 
Gerbert had been born in 946 in what is now south-central France.  At approximately the age of eighteen he entered the Benedictine abbey at Aurillac, not far from his birthplace.  This local is crucial to the story as the Abbey of Aurillac was a relatively influential one at the time due to the cult of its founder, the count Gerald of Aurillac and its ties with the influential Abbey of Cluny.  It is also important in as that geographically it was in a bridge area between France (to the North) and Catalonia—a region which stretched from what is today the South of France along the Mediterranean coast south into what is today Spain.  This region served as a conduit of information and trade between Europe and Islamic Spain. 
       In 967, Borrell II, Count of Girona visited the Abbey of Aurillac and the Abbot asked him to take the young monk back with him to Spain for studies.  Gerbert studied under Bishop Atto of Vic, a remarkably cosmopolitan man.  Atto himself was sent on a diplomatic mission to sue for peace at the Court of the Caliph at Cordoba—the Islamic armies were threatening the Christian stronghold in Catalonia and Borrell was anxious to avoid a war that would result in his counties (he was also Count of Barcelona, Ausona, and Urgell—all in the northeastern corner of modern Spain).  Cordoba, indeed Islamic Spain, was the most advanced civilization in Europe at this period.    In Cordoba Atto was introduced into a very different world, a world in which Christian bishops and clergy spoke Arabic, dressed and lived in the Arabic manner, and were in open conversations about philosophy and sciences with Arab and Jewish scholars.  It is unclear whether Gerbert accompanied Atto on this mission, or indeed if Gerbert ever managed to visit Islamic Spain, but whether in Catalonia or Al-Andalus he certain was exposed to Arabic learning and culture and drank it up. 
     During his time in Spain Gerbert was introduced to the Hindu-Arabic numerals and recognized how much easier mathematics was with this system than with the clumsy system of Roman numerals then in use in Christian Europe.  It would be Gerbert who introduced the Hindu-Arabic numerals to western Culture.  He also was introduced to the Abacus which had disappeared from European learning with the collapse of Graeco-Roman culture.  He reintroduced the armillary sphere which, like the abacus, had been lost to European knowledge and complemented it with sighting tubes that helped in stellar navigation.  Gerbert was not an inventor or original thinker as much as he was someone who was quick to grasp the advances made by the Arabic culture and was not afraid to bring them to the west.  He was only in Spain for two years, but it was two years that made a huge difference for European mathematics and science.  What is truly remarkable about Gerbert then is not his originality but his openness to other cultures, non-Christian cultures—where he felt he could learn something.  He did not let theological prejudices close his mind to the truths and wisdom he found outside Christian circles not did he insist that theology trumped science.  This was a remarkable openness in the tenth century—indeed many Catholics today think they have nothing to learn from non-Christian sources and look down on cultures that differ from their own.  Truth has nothing to fear from open dialogue and minds that are fearful of different insights and ideas only betray both a lack of faith and shallowness of intellect.      
     In 969 Borrell made a pilgrimage to Rome and Gerbert was included in his suite.  Pope John XIII (not one of our better popes (see entry of June 28th) suggested to the Emperor Otto I that he should name Gerbert tutor for his son, the future Otto II.  It would take this man and cast him in a very different direction than the Arabic scholar.

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