Everything You Think You Know About the Dark Ages is Wrong

The Abacus and the CrossBy Nancy Marie Brown | Source: Religion Dispatches

The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages
Nancy Marie Brown
Basic Books (2010)

What inspired you to write The Abacus and the Cross?

I was introduced to The Scientist Pope through an act of grace. Writing my previous book, The Far Traveler, about an adventurous Viking woman, I found myself making an imaginary pilgrimage to Rome just after the year 1000. Wondering which pope (if any) Gudrid the Far-Traveler had met, I discovered Gerbert of Aurillac, Pope Sylvester II.

I was astonished. Nothing in my many years of reading about the Middle Ages had led me to suspect that the pope in the year 1000 was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day.

Nor was his science just a sidelight. According to a chronicler who knew him, he rose from humble beginnings to the highest office in the Christian Church “on account of his scientific knowledge.”

To my mind, scientific knowledge and medieval Christianity had nothing in common. I was wrong.

I felt as if I had stumbled into a parallel universe, an alternate history of the Middle Ages that had been perfectly crafted for me: For most of my career, I have worked as a science writer, but my heart had first been captured by medieval sagas. The story of The Scientist Pope—one scholar called him “the Bill Gates of the end of the first millennium”—was a story I needed to tell.

It didn’t hurt that from about 70 years after his death in 1003 until today he was known (if at all) not as a scientist, but as a wizard—a sorcerer who had sold his soul to the devil. According to a thirteenth-century writer, he was “the best necromancer in France, whom the demons of the air readily obeyed in all that he required of them by day and by night.”

But I found the truth about Gerbert’s life, once I unearthed it, even more fascinating.


Read the entire interview on the Religion Dispatches website.


  1. Well, certainly no one in the year 1000 thought the earth was flat. Ancient Greek philosophers argued Earth was a sphere on several grounds:
    -a sphere is a “perfect” shape.
    -ships slowly disappear below the horizon as they sailed off into the distance.
    -Earth was observed to cast a round shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse
    Ancient civilizations had a fairly accurate understanding of the size and shape of the Earth. They had difficulty accepting the idea that the Earth moves. Some people still have difficulty accepting the idea that the Earth moves. http://sites.google.com/site/earthdeception/quotes

    I think we’re pretty close to throwing out all talk of “gravity” and concluding that all of the phenomena formerly attributed to it is really the working of perfectly balanced interactive electromagnetic forces involving the whole universe with our immovable Earth at the center of it all. Marshall Hall

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