Before becoming Pope Sylvester II, the pontiff was known as Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 945-1003). He gained fame in Europe as a scholar of several subjects, but his specialty was perhaps as a teacher and innovator of the philosophy of logic. As he was an incredibly learned man with added spiritual knowledge obtained through his career as a clergyman, some people understandably believed that Gerbert of Aurillac had mystical access to the spiritual realm. Tales about Gerbert’s life, as a result, could sometimes feature the future pope interacting with heavenly or demonic creatures.
One such story was recorded by a Norman-English monk named Orderic Vitalis (c. 1075-1142), who set the story in the days when the scholar from Aurillac was still a simple schoolteacher. Making sure not to name Gerbert’s methods, Orderic claimed that the eventual pontiff somehow struck up a conversation with the devil and compelled the spiritual creature to reveal information about the future. Orderic Vitalis described the scene in his Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, stating, “It is related that when Gerbert was master of a school, he had a conference with the devil, and inquired of him what his future career was to be. He immediately received the following ambiguous answer:—Translated from R, you still will be R, and as pope shall be R” (Ecclesiastical History, I.24). Whether a true prophecy, or a later creation by a storyteller, the statement accurately summarized Gerbert of Aurillac’s future career as a high-ranking clergyman, in which he would successively lead three cities that all started with the letter R. From 991-997, he was the Archbishop of Rheims. He then became Archbishop of Ravenna from 998-999. Finally, he became Pope Sylvester II of Rome, reigning from 999-1003.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image of The Temptation of Christ by the Devil, [Public Domain] via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, picryl.com and Creative Commons).
- Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis, translated by Thomas Forester. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854.