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Sylvester II

Early Life

Pope Sylvester II was born in or near the town of Aurillac in Western Francia around 945/946. He is recorded on the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History at 1003 AD.The boy was the son of a commoner named Agilbert, a native of Aquitaine, and he named his son Gerbert upon his birth. The boy was sent to the Benedictine monastery of St. Gerald where he learned theology and grammar under the Benedictine monk Raimond and the Abbot Gerauld.

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Gerbert was an enthusiastic student. He was liberated from the cloistered life of a monk when Count Borell II visited the monastery on his way home to Catalonia from Aquitaine in 967. When it was time for Count Borell to leave, the abbot Gerauld asked him whether there were men of learning in Spain. When the count said that there were many, Gerauld convinced his young charge to accompany the count to the Spanish March. In another version, it was Gerbert himself who asked the Count whether he could accompany him to Spain which offered more opportunity to learn than the monastery in Aurillac.

Sylvester II”

Rise to Prominence

Gerbert lived in Santa Maria de Ripoll, a Benedictine monastery near Barcelona in Catalonia. He lived there for three years before Count Borell took him to Rome on a pilgrimage. This was where Gerbert met the Pope John XIII and Emperor Otto I. Impressed with the young monk, John XIII convinced Gerbert to enter the service of Otto I by becoming the tutor of the emperor’s son Otto II. He did so around 971/972. There he met Gerannus, Lothair of France’s envoy in Otto’s court who also happened to be a renowned logician. Gerbert was so impressed with the ambassador that he requested Otto to let him go and accompany Gerannus back to Reims as his student.


He stayed in Reims for some time and was promoted as abbot of the Bobbio Abbey in 984. His stint as the abbot of Bobbio was short-lived for the call of the scholarly life was too strong. He returned to Reims in the same year to be the student of Bishop Adalbero. He became entangled in politics the moment he arrived in Reims when he helped the bishop secure the throne of the young Otto III in Germany and of Hugh Capet in France against the Carolingian king Louis V the Lazy. He later became the secretary of Otto’s aunt and Louis V’s mother Emma whose relationship with her son was not too amicable because of her frustrations with his idleness (hence the “Lazy” nickname).

The two clerics’ endorsement of Otto III as emperor did not sit well with Louis V. So he attacked Reims but failed to take it and retaliated by destroying the properties held by Bishop Adalbero. The distraught bishop was forced to send Gerbert to Otto III’s mother Theophanu to appeal for help, but Louis died in 987 before Theophanu could do anything about it. His death heralded the end of the Carolingians. He was succeeded by Hugh Capet as king of Western Francia in the same year. Adalbero, however, died as Louis V, so the archbishop’s office remained vacant just in time for Hugh Capet’s accession.

Many people, including Gerbert himself, expected him to succeed Adalbero as archbishop of Reims but he was passed over when Hugh Capet rejected Gerbert’s appointment. He appointed Arnulf (a member of the Carolingian family) as the archbishop of Reims instead. With this act, Hugh Capet sought to divide the Carolingian heirs among themselves through the appointment of one of their own to an esteemed position in the Frankish political scene. To appease Gerbert, however, Hugh Capet offered other clerical positions to him except for the archbishopric of Reims.

Hugh’s strategy backfired when Arnulf, along with his Carolingian uncle Charles, took over Reims and ruled it without the king’s help. Gerbert sided with Arnulf and Charles for some time (perhaps out of fear for his safety or he wanted to retaliate for Hugh’s rejection). He did not stay in their service for long and he reconciled with Hugh Capet in 990. Hugh tried to disentangle the whole mess he created when he appointed Arnulf. Together with Gerbert, he assembled the Synod or Council of Reims in June of 991 to remove Arnulf from the position. They also tried to elect Gerbert as archbishop of Reims, but Arnulf only ignored the ruling when news of his deposition reached him. It did not help that the Synod of Reims itself was not recognized by Pope Gregory V.

Gerbert asked Otto III’s grandmother for help, but she, too, was unable to get Arnulf out of Reims. He also personally appealed to Gregory V in Rome in 996 to no avail. Hugh Capet died in 996, and Otto III left Italy in the same year, so he was left without his backers at that time. He departed Western Francia for good in 997 and lived in Otto III’s court in Germany where he served in a monastery in Sasbach.

Pope Sylvester II

Gerbert accompanied Otto to Ravenna in 998. There he readily accepted the archbishopric of the city when it was offered to him. Perhaps in an effort to make amends and as a way to settle the problems with Arnulf, Pope Gregory V ratified his archbishopric immediately. He was proclaimed the archbishop of Ravenna in 999. However, this was short-lived as Gregory died in February of the same year. Otto endorsed his adviser Gerbert as the deceased pope’s successor. He adopted the name Sylvester II after his election.

The newly elected Pope Sylvester II also confirmed Arnulf’s election as Archbishop of Reims (whether he felt generous at that time or he simply wanted to mock Arnulf, his motive was never really determined). His tenure as pope, however, was extremely short as the Romans rebelled against Otto and Sylvester II in 1001. Both were forced to flee to Ravenna and other non-hostile cities in Italy soon after. Otto tried to retake Rome several times but he died on his way there in 1002. His death was followed by Sylvester in 1003.

Picture By Unknown, Public Domain, Link
Douglas, J.D., and Earle E. Cairns, eds. The New Dictionary of the Christian Church. Michigan: Zondervan Pub. House, 1996.
Mann, Horace K. The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages. 5, The Popes in the Days of Feudal Anarchy: Formosus to Damasus II., 891-1048. Vol. 4. B. Herder, 1910.
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1 thought on “Sylvester II

  1. this is a very wonderful story of how the leadership was being handed over from one leadership to another (church history).

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