Friday, December 10, 2010

Fact and fiction

Ah, better late than never.

I have received in the mail a review copy of Nancy Marie Brown's just published The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages. The subject? Gerbert of Aurillac, who in the year 999 became Pope Sylvester II.

Those who have read my novel In the Falcon's Claw have met Gerbert, or at least my fictional Gerbert based (loosely) on the historical person. It is Gerbert with whom my protagonist Aileran has a contentious and affectionate relationship throughout his adult life. Together they usher in the year 1000, a time when many in Europe feared the world might end.

Brown has done her research, certainly more than I did in writing the novel. I wish I had had her book when I was inventing the story of Aileran, Melisande and Gerbert. But then again, maybe not. My Gerbert is a fiction, based as much upon persons of my own acquaintance as on the man who unfolds in such intriguing detail in Brown's very readable history. The two Gerbert's share an intense curiosity about mathematics and astronomy. They are both worldly and ambitious. They both ascend to the throne of Peter.

Brown the historian develops the theme of faith and reason, which she thinks Gerbert and a few of his contemporaries brought seamlessly together. Faith and reason is also the theme of my novel, although my story is one of irreconcilability. From Gerbert (and the apparent arbitrariness of divine providence), my Aileran learns a healthy skepticism. From Gerbert he also learns the dangers inherent in the secular world. Gerbert dies in the raiment of opulence, the most powerful person in Christendom after the emperor himself. Aileran has a more humble death in the service of romantic love.

If you haven't read In the Falcon's Claw, I invite you to do so -- and share your impression here.

From Brown I learn - or am reminded if I once knew -- that young Gerbert's teacher at Aurillac was Raymond of Laval. In his recent genealogical researches, Tom has discovered that our Raymo ancestors in France were Raymonds, not Rameaus as I had supposed. Might it be that even deeper in time than Tom has penetrated we have an ancestor who was teacher of a pope?