An Abacus.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011


The Abacus & the Cross

That’s a picture of an abacus up above. The book under consideration is The Abacus and the Cross. It’s a bit hard to call the book a biography since so much that is said about its subject, Gerbert d’Aurillac, later Pope Sylvester II, is framed as conjecture or possibility rather than fact. It has more history than biography in it, but the history is interesting and covers a period that many of us know little about.

Gerbert was born about 946, and was pope 999-1003. As a young man he traveled to Spain, which was then under Arab, and hence Muslem rule. Ms. Brown paints a rather idyllic picture of Spain in this period, and it is here that I have to register a dissent.

First off, I should probably set forth my prejudices, and the reader may then either discount them, agree with them, or rebuke me, politely, for them.

Up until 9/11 I was pretty tolerant of Islam. I was perfectly willing to accept it as a religion on par with Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, or any of the other great living religions. I’d never read the Koran, though I had downloaded at least one translation.* On 9/11 I was at work in DC, and while I did not see the plane hit the Pentagon, I had to ride by there every day. I saw the gash in the building. I smelled the gas and burning bodies. So I started losing my tolerance then and there. Since 9/11, I’ve looked in vain for statements opposing the agenda of the attackers, or expressions of tolerance towards other religions. These have been pretty much lacking. Incidents such as the response to the Danish cartoons, the falsely alleged Koran flushing, the Koran burning, the beheadings, hangings of gay men, honor killings, bombings, and all of the usual terrorist incidents have convinced me that the First Amendment is a pretty good thing, and that it should be exported, even on bayonets.

Ms. Brown mentions the tax on dhimmis but shrugs it off as not being that onerous. It should be kept in mind that in the US something similar was in effect. The poll tax, like the dhimmi tax, imposed a burden on people that was designed to relegate them to second class status. A photograph of a receipt for payment of Louisiana’s poll tax, shows that the tax was minimal, $1, or about $70 in current dollars.** Black people resented the poll tax, and it is safe to assume that Christians and Jews resented the dhimmi tax.

Ms. Brown makes the following points regarding the relations of the Church and science.

  1. There is Biblical justification for the study of science, and for the view that the world is mathematically ordered in Wisdom 11:21 “Thou hast ordered all things by number, measure, and weight.” This is part of the Catholic and Orthodox Bible but has been relegated to the apocrypha or deuterocanonical writings by post-Reformation sects.
  2. There was patristic justification for science dating back at least as far as Augustine.
  3. No one believed the world was flat. There was some debate as to its size, but little as to its shape.
  4. Petrarch is largely responsible for the term “Dark Ages.” and for portraying the Renaissance humanists as heroes who rediscovered the ancient learning. Ancient learning that was preserved in the very monasteries that were the sources of the Dark Ages.
  5. Washington Irving made up the whole tale of Columbus confronting the Council of Salamanca. They reality was that they thought his figures were way off. They were right. He was wrong. It was just good luck that the Americas were in his way.
  6. William Whewell was responsible for laying the foundation of the idea of the warfare between science and religion. This was picked up by John W. Draper and Andrew Dickson White. All of these men ignored contradictory evidence.

One of the complaints against the Church that is frequently voiced is that it kept Bibles and books chained up and did not promote the free use of books. It has to be kept in mind that books, prior to Gutenberg, were expensive objects. They were labor intensive and had to be copied out by hand. An exercise that might take a copyist a month or a year or more depending on the length of the book. Also, while papyrus grew in the rivers of Egypt, it was not cheap, nor was it suitable to Europe. Parchment, made from animal skins, was used instead of paper, made from plants. One sheep would not make up a Bible. It took 150 for a Bible. Virgil was 58 sheep (26).

Gerbert’s contributions to the sciences include:

  1. The use of Arabic numerals. An example of these is shown in the picture above. Look at the vertical column of figures at the far right. Those are the early versions of our modern numerals.
  2. The re-introduction of the abacus.
  3. A work on the astrolabe.
  4. The use of the armillary sphere and sighting tube.

Ms, Brown sees the consequences of Gerbert’s demise as being a slow decline in science in the Middle ages, and the final break between Rome and Constantinople. She also condemns the Crusades, and laments the disharmony among Christians, Jews, and Muslims that emerged towards the middle and end of the 11th century. Now, as I’ve said, I’m not sure just how idyllic relations were, so I would take those comments with a grain of salt. As for the whole period of the Middle Ages, I would recommend Marcia Colish’s book on the Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, as well as the books by David Lindberg and John Hedley Brooke that are linked to on the right. They all seem to be free of the agenda driven critiques that populate some recent books. They are all by well known specialists in their field, and are probably more reliable than some popular books.

Overall, with the exception noted, Ms. Brown has done a credible job of presenting interesting information that will help expand your understanding of the relations of Church and Lab.

Next up we find Machiavelli being naught in Mandragola and Aretino being gay in Il Marescalo. These are two of Five Comedies from the Italian Renaissance.

*I subsequently tried to read the Koran, and I found it, to be as polite as possible, drivel.

**Official CPI figures would put the current value at around $20-30. I contend that it’s more accurate to take the dollar up till 1933 as representing 1/20 oz of gold. With gold currently going at about $1,400 that makes $1 equal to about 70 of today’s.