1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Silvester (popes)

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SILVESTER, the name of three popes.

Silvester I., bishop of Rome from January 314 to December 335, succeeded Melchiades and was followed by Marcus. The accounts of his papacy preserved in the Liber pontificalis are little else than a record of the gifts said to have been conferred on the Roman church by Constantine the Great. He was represented at the council of Nice. The story of his having baptized Constantine is pure fiction, as almost contemporary evidence shows the emperor to have received this rite near Nicomedia at the hands of Eusebius, bishop of that city. According to Döllinger, the entire legend, with all its details of the leprosy and the proposed bath of blood, cannot have been composed later than the close of the 5th century (cf. Duchesne, the Liber pontificalis, i. 109). The so-called Donation of Constantine was long ago shown to be spurious, but the document is of very considerable antiquity and, in Döllinger's opinion, was forged in Rome between 752 and 777. It was certainly known to Pope Adrian in 778, and was inserted in the false decretals towards the middle of the next century.

Silvester II., pope from 999 till 1003, and previously famous, under his Christian name of Gerbert, first as a teacher and afterwards as archbishop successively of Reims and Ravenna, was an Aquitanian by birth, and was educated at the abbey of St Gerold in Aurillac. Here he seems to have had Gerald for his abbot and Raymond for his instructor, both of whom were among the most trusted correspondents of his later life. From Aurillac, while yet a young man (adolescens), he was taken to the Spanish march by “Borrell, duke of Hither Spain,” prosecuting his studies. Borrell entrusted him to the care of a Bishop Hatto, under whose instruction Gerbert made great progress in mathematics. In this duke we may certainly recognize Borel, who, according to the Spanish chroniclers, was count of Barcelona from 967 to 993, while the bishop may probably be identified with Hatto, bishop of Vich or Ausona from about 960 to 971 or 972. In company with his two patrons Gerbert visited Rome, where the pope, hearing of his proficiency in music and astronomy, induced him to remain in Italy, and introduced him to the emperor Otto I. A papal diploma, still extant, shows that Count Borel and Bishop Octo or Otho of Ausona were at Rome in January 971, and, as all the other indications point to a corresponding year, enables us to fix the chronology of Gerbert's later life.

When brought before the emperor, Gerbert admitted his skill in all branches of the quadrivium, but lamented his comparative ignorance of logic. Eager to supply this deficiency he followed Lothair's ambassador Germanus, archdeacon of Reims, to that city, for the sake of studying under so famous a dialectician in the episcopal schools which were rising into reputation under Archbishop Adalbero (969-989). So promising a scholar soon attracted the attention of Adalbero himself, and Gerbert was speedily invited to exchange his position of learner for that of teacher. At Reims he seems to have studied and lectured for many years, having amongst his pupils Hugh Capet's son Robert, afterwards king of France, and Richer, to whose history we owe almost every detail of his master's early life. According to this writer Gerbert's fame began to spread over Gaul, Germany and Italy, till it roused the envy of Otric of Saxony, in whom we may recognize Octricus of Magdeburg, the favourite scholar of Otto I., and, in earlier days, the instructor of St Adalbert, the apostle of the Bohemians. Otric, suspecting that Gerbert erred in his classification of the sciences, sent one of his own pupils to Reims to take notes of his lectures, and, finding his suspicions correct, accused him of his error before Otto II. The emperor, to whom Gerbert was well known, appointed a time for the two philosophers to argue before him; and Richer has left a long account of this dialectical tournament at Ravenna, which lasted out a whole day and was only terminated at the imperial bidding. The date of this controversy seems to have been about Christmas 980, and it was probably followed by Otric's death, on the 1st of October 981.

It must have been about this time that Gerbert received the great abbey of Bobbio from the emperor. That it was Otto II., and not, as formerly supposed, Otto I., who gave him this benefice, seems evident from a diploma quoted by Mabillon (Annales, iv. 121). Richer, however, makes no mention of this event; and it is only from allusions in Gerbert's letters that we learn how the new abbot's attempts to enforce his dues waked a spirit of discontent which at last drove him in November 983 to take refuge with his old patron Adalbero. It was to no purpose that he appealed to the emperor and empress for restitution or redress; and it was perhaps the hope of extorting his reappointment to Bobbio, as a reward for his services to the imperial cause, that changed the studious scholar of Reims into the wily secretary of Adalbero. Otto II. died in December 983, leaving the empire to his infant heir Otto III. Lothair, king of the west Franks, claimed the guardianship, and attempted to make use of his position to serve his own purposes in Lorraine, which would in all probability have been lost to the empire but for the efforts of Adalbero and Gerbert. Gerbert's policy is to be identified with that of his metropolitan, and was strongly influenced by gratitude for the benefits that he had received from the first two Ottos.

According to M. Olleris's arrangement of the letters, Gerbert was at Mantua and Rome in 985. Then followed the death of Lothair (2nd of March 986) and of Louis V., the last Carolingian king, in May 987. Later on in the same year Adalbero crowned Hugh Capet (1st June) and his son Robert (25th December). Such was the power of Adalbero and Gerbert in those days that it was said their influence alone sufficed to make and unmake kings. The archbishop died on the 23rd of January 989, having, according to his secretary's account, designated Gerbert his successor. Notwithstanding this, the influence of the empress Theophana, mother of Otto III., secured the appointment for Arnulf, a bastard son of Lothair. The new prelate took the oath of fealty to Hugh Capet and persuaded Gerbert to remain with him. When Charles of Lorraine, Arnulf's uncle, and the son of Louis IV. D'Outremer, surprised Reims in the autumn of the same year, Gerbert fell into his hands and for a time continued to serve Arnulf, who had gone over to his uncle's side. He had, however, returned to his allegiance to the house of Capet before the fall of Laon placed both Arnulf and Charles at the mercy of the French king (March 991). Then followed the council of St Basle, near Reims, at which Arnulf confessed his treason and was degraded from his office (17th June 991). In return for his services Gerbert was elected to succeed the deposed bishop.

The episcopate of the new metropolitan was marked by a vigour and activity that were felt not merely in his own diocese, but as far as Tours, Orleans and Paris. Meanwhile the friends of Arnulf appealed to Rome, and a papal legate was sent to investigate the question. As yet Hugh Capet maintained the cause of his nominee and forbade the prelates of his kingdom to be present at the council of Mouzon, near Sedan (June 2, 995). Notwithstanding this prohibition Gerbert appeared in his own behalf. Council seems to have followed council, but with uncertain results. At last Hugh Capet died in 996, and, shortly after, his son Robert married Bertha, the widow of Odo, count of Blois. The pope condemned this marriage as adulterous; and Abbo of Fleury, who visited Rome shortly after Gregory V.'s accession, is said to have procured the restoration of Arnulf at the new pontiff's demand. We may surmise that Gerbert left France towards the end of 995, as he was present at Otto III.'s Coronation at Rome on the 21st of May 996. Somewhat later he became Otto's instructor in arithmetic, and had been appointed archbishop of Ravenna before May 998. Early in the next year he was elected pope (April 999), and took the title of Silvester II. In this capacity Gerbert showed the same energy that had characterized his former life. He is generally credited with having fostered the splendid vision of a restored empire that now began to till the imagination of the young emperor, who is said to have confirmed the papal claims to eight counties in the Ancona march. Writing in the name of the desolate church at Jerusalem he sounded the first trumpet-call of the Crusades, though almost a century was to pass away before his note was repeated by Peter the Hermit and Urban II.[1]

Nor did Silvester II. confine himself to plans on a large scale. He is also found confirming his old rival Arnulf in the see of Reims; summoning Adalbero or Azelmus of Laon to Rome to answer for his crimes; judging between the archbishop of Mainz and the bishop of Hildesheim; besieging the revolted town of Cesena; flinging the count of Angoulême into prison for an offence against a bishop; confirming the privileges of Fulda abbey; granting charters to bishoprics far away on the Spanish mark; and, on the eastern borders of the empire, erecting Prague as the seat of an archbishopric for the Slavs. More remarkable than all his other acts is his letter to St Stephen, king of Hungary, to whom he sent a golden crown, and whose kingdom he accepted as a fief of the Holy See. It must, however, be remarked that the genuineness of this letter, in which Gerbert to some extent foreshadows the temporal claims of Hildebrand and Innocent III., has been hotly contested, and that the original document has long been lost. All Gerbert's dreams for the advancement of church and empire were cut short by the death of Otto III., on the 4th of February 1002; and this event was followed a year later by the death of the pope himself, which took place on the 12th of May 1003. His body was buried in the church of St John Lateran, where his tomb and inscription are still to be seen.

A few words must be devoted to Silvester II. as regards his attitude to the Church of Rome and the learning of his age. He has left us two detailed accounts of the proceedings of the council of St Basle; and, despite his reticence, it is impossible to doubt that he was the moving spirit in Arnulf's deposition. On the whole, it may be said that his position in this question as to the rights of the papal see over foreign metropolitans resembled that of his great predecessor Hincmar, to whose authority he constantly appeals. But he is rather the practised debater who will admit his opponent's principles for the moment when he sees his way to moulding them to his own purposes, than the philosophical statesman who has formulated a theory from whose terms he will not move. Roughly sketched, his argument is as follows. Rome is indeed to be honoured as the mother of the churches; nor would Gerbert oppose her judgments except in two cases—(1) where she enjoins something that is contrary to the decrees of a universal council, such as that of Nice, or (2) where, after having been once appealed to in a matter of ecclesiastical discipline and having refused to give a plain and speedy decision, she should, at a later date, attempt to call in question the provisions of the metropolitan synod called to remedy the effects of her negligence. The decisions of a Gregory or a Leo the Great, of a Gelasius or an Innocent, prelates of holy life and unequalled wisdom, are accepted by the universal church; for, coming from such men, they cannot but be good. But who could recognize in the cruel and lustful popes of later days—in John XII. or Boniface VII., “monsters, as they were, of more than human iniquity”—anything else than “Antichrist sitting in the temple of God and showing himself as God”? Gerbert proceeds to argue that the church councils admitted the right of metropolitan synods to depose unworthy bishops, but contends that, even if an appeal to Rome were necessary, that appeal had been made a year before without effect. This last clause prepares us to find him shifting his position still farther at the council of Causey, where he advances the proposition that John XV. was represented at St Basle by his legate Seguin, archbishop of Sens, and that, owing to this, the decrees of the latter council had received the papal sanction. Far firmer is the tone of his later letter to the same archbishop, where he contends from historical evidence that the papal judgment is not infallible, and encourages his brother prelate not to fear excommunication in a righteous cause, for it is not in the power even of the successor of Peter “to separate an innocent priest from the love of Christ.”

Besides being the most distinguished statesman, Gerbert was also the most accomplished scholar of his age. But in this aspect he is rather to be regarded as the diligent expositor of other men's views than as an original thinker. Except as regards philosophical and religious speculation, his writings show a range of interest and knowledge quite unparalleled in that generation. His pupil Richer has left us a detailed account of his system of teaching at Reims. So far as the trivium is concerned, his text-books were Victorinus's translation of Porphyry's Isagoge, Aristotle's Categories, and Cicero's Topics with Manlius's Commentaries. From dialectics he urged his pupils to the study of rhetoric; but, recognizing the necessity of a large vocabulary, he accustomed them to read the Latin poets with care. Virgil, Statius, Terence, Juvenal, Horace, Persius and Lucan are specially named as entering into a course of training which was rendered more stimulating by a free use of open discussion. More remarkable still were his methods of teaching the quadrivium. To assist his lectures on astronomy he constructed elaborate globes of the terrestrial and celestial spheres, on which the course of the planets was marked; for facilitating arithmetical and perhaps geometrical processes he constructed an abacus with twenty-seven divisions and a thousand counters of horn. A younger contemporary speaks of his having made a wonderful clock or sun-dial at Magdeburg; and we know from his letters that Gerbert was accustomed to exchange his globes for MSS. of those classical authors that his own library did not contain. More extraordinary still was his knowledge of music—an accomplishment which seems to have been his earliest recommendation to Otto I. Probably he was beyond his age in this science, for we read of Garamnus, his first tutor at Reims, whom he attempted to ground in this subject: “Artis difficultate victus, a musica rejectus est.” Gerbert's letters contain more than one allusion to organs which he seems to have constructed, and William of Malmesbury has preserved an account of a wonderful musical instrument still to be seen in his days at Reims, which, so far as the English chronicler's words can be made out, seems to refer to an organ worked by steam. The same historian tells us that Gerbert borrowed from the Arabs (Saraceni) the abacus with ciphers (see Numerals). Perhaps Gerbert's chief claim to the remembrance of posterity is to be found in the care and expense with which he gathered together MSS. of the classical writers. His love for literature was a passion. In the turmoil of his later life he looked back with regret to his student days; and “for all his troubles philosophy was his only cure.” Everywhere—at Rome, at Treves, at Moutier-en-Der, at Gerona in Spain, at Barcelona—he had friends or agents to procure him copies of the great Latin writers for Bobbio or Reims. To the abbot of Tours he writes that he is “labouring assiduously to form a library,” and “throughout Italy, Germany and Lorraine (Belgica) is spending vast sums of money in the acquisition of MSS.” It is noteworthy, however, that Gerbert never writes for a copy of one of the Christian fathers, his aim being, seemingly, to preserve the fragments of a fast-perishing secular Latin literature. Despite his residence on the Spanish mark, he shows no token of a knowledge of Arabic, a fact which is perhaps sufficient to overthrow the statement of Adhemar as to his having studied at Cordova. There is hardly a trace to be found in his writings of any acquaintance with Greek.

So remarkable a character as that of Gerbert left its mark on the age, and fables soon began to cluster round his name. Towards the end of the 11th century Cardinal Benno, the opponent of Hildebrand, is said to have made him the first of a long line of magician popes. Ordericus Vitalis improves this legend by details of an interview with the devil, who prophesied Gerbert’s threefold elevation in the famous line that Gerbert’s contemporaries attributed to the pope himself:

Transit in R. Gerbertus in R. post papa vigens R.

A few years later William of Malmesbury adds a love adventure at Cordova, a compact with the devil, the story of a speaking statue that foretold Gerbert’s death at Jerusalem—a prophecy fulfilled, somewhat as in the case of Henry IV. of England, by his dying in the Jerusalem church of Rome—and that imaginative story of the statue with the legend “Strike here,” which, after having found its way into the Gesta Romanorum, has of late been revived in the Earthly Paradise.

Gerbert’s extant works may be divided into five classes. (a) A collection of letters, some 230 in number. These are to be found for the most part in an 11th-century MS. at Leiden. Other important MSS. are those of the Barberini Library at Rome (late 16th century), of Middlehill (17th century), and of St Peter’s abbey, Salzburg. With the letters may be grouped the papal decrees of Gerbert when Silvester II. (b) The Acta concilii Remensis ad Sanctum Basolum, a detailed account of the proceedings and discourses at the great council of St Basle; a shorter account of his apologetic speeches at the councils of Mouzon and Causey; and drafts of the decrees of two or three other councils or imperial constitutions promulgated when he was archbishop of Ravenna or pope. The important works on the three above-mentioned councils are to be found in the 11th century Leiden MS. just alluded to. (c) Gerbert’s theological works comprise a Sermo de informatione episcoporum and a treatise entitled De corpore et sanguine Domini, both of very doubtful authenticity. (d) Of his philosophical works we only have one, Libellus de rationali et ratione uti, written at the request of Otto III. and preserved in an 11th-century MS. at Paris. (e) His mathematical works consist of a Regula de abaco computi, of which a 12th-century MS. is to be found at the Vatican; and a Libellus de numerorum divisione (11th- and 12th-century MSS. at Rome, Montpellier and Paris), dedicated to his friend and correspondent Constantine of Fleury. A long treatise on geometry, attributed to Gerbert, is of somewhat doubtful authenticity. To these may be added a very short disquisition on the same subject addressed to Adalbold, and a similar one, on one of his own spheres, addressed to Constantine, abbot of Micy. All the writings of Gerbert are collected in the edition of A. Olleris (Clermont, 1867).  (T. A. A.) 

Silvester III. When Boniface IX. was driven from Rome early in January 1044, John, bishop of Sabina, was elected in his stead and took the title of Silvester III. Within three months Boniface returned and expelled his rival. Nearly three years later (December 1046) the council of Sutri deprived him of his bishopric and priesthood. He was then sent to a monastery, where he seems to have died.

  1. This letter, even if spurious as now suspected, is found in the 11th-century Leiden MS., and is therefore anterior to the first crusade.