Friday, October 17, 2008


Of the twelfth-century chroniclers who tackled the summoning up of spirits, William of Malmesbury had the most to say about it. He drew out the idea of the churchman trapped by inquiry into the dangerous knowledge of the east in his version of the legend of Sylvester II (or Gerbert of Aurillac as he was before coming to St Peter’s chair). He patterned the narrative in part on the story of Theophilus (who sold his soul to the devil in return for magical powers) but he wove through it many contemporary fears about the dark arts: the renegade churchman, the magical agency of a Saracen, the practice of divination, the lure and lustre of occult knowledge and, of course, the inevitable commerce with demons. According to William, Sylvester travelled to Toledo, the renowned point of contact between Christian and Arab learning, in order to ‘learn astrology and other such arts from the Saracens’. William suggested that Sylvester was drawn into progressively more dangerous forms of this ‘technical’ knowledge but concentrated in particular on divination and astral magic. In his early studies, Sylvester ‘surpassed Ptolemy with the astrolabe, and Alexandreaus in astronomy, and Julius Firmicus in astrology’. He also ‘acquired the art of calling up ghostly forms from Hell’ as he steadily uncovered ‘whatever harmful or salutary human curiosity has discovered’. Ultimately he stole a magical book owned by a Saracen and forged a pact with the devil. We later learn that he had used his new knowledge to cast ‘a head of a statue, by a certain inspection of the stars when all of the planets were about to begin their courses, which did not speak unless spoken to, but then pronounced the truth either in the affirmative or the negative’. By such means, Sylvester intended to capitalise on his magical skills, acquire wealth and fame and guard against sudden death. True to the form of such tales, his confidence was misplaced and the devils which seemed to have submitted themselves so freely to him tricked Sylvester at the last, lured him to an early death and laid claim to his soul.

William’s story was a variation on old themes. Augustine had warned that men who desired evil things were subjected to illusion and deception as the reward, snared by the activities of the fallen angels. But the variations on the theme are important. First, William’s tale is filled with the fear that the search for knowledge about the future coupled with new divinatory learning might pave the way to hell. But secondly, and curiously, it also suggests that some of this new learning might not be dangerous, that it might even be useful. Even in this bluntly didactic piece William admitted that while many of the new things Sylvester discovered in Toledo were harmful, some of them might be salutary. William did not want to anathematise everything that emerged from the Islamic world even as he feared its intellectual and spiritual ramifications. To understand this ambivalence we need to understand the way in which knowledge originating from that world, and particularly astrological learning, was received in Benedictine communities.

The intellectual context in which William of Malmesbury existed helps to explain his measured phraseology and why he needed to draw a distinction between the useful and dangerous uses of scientia from the east rather than damning it all. William’s house at Malmesbury was fairly close to, and in communication with, other religious communities, at Malvern, Hereford and Worcester in which astrological learning was being cultivated. William himself clearly knew something about astrological books, alleging that Sylvester had read ‘Alexandreaus’ on astronomy and ‘Ptolemy’ on the astrolabe. He may well have been drawing on his own local knowledge to flesh out his version of the Gerbert legend, mapping the experiences of west-country scholars onto the life of the pope for, although the historical Sylvester had never travelled to Toledo for his studies, Adelard of Bath and others in the twelfth century had made that journey. Similarly, William assumed that Sylvester was a product of Fleury (rather than Aurillac) probably because Fleury was a known hub of astrological and related learning. Its connections with English Benedictine houses are proclaimed by the significant numbers of eleventh- and twelfth-century copies of the Alhandrean collection and the Mathesis in their monastic libraries, both of which have Fleurian affinities. For William, Fleury may have appeared the epicentre of astrological knowledge.

William’s careful balancing of the harmful and dangerous aspects of this new learning is also explained by his great respect for a number of its English practitioners. Walcher, prior of Malvern, was deeply interested in Arabic learning, and astrology in particular, but, for all his skill with the astrolabe, was still in William’s eyes a ‘very reverend man’ whose words were always to be trusted. William was also generally upbeat in his assessment of Robert Losinga, bishop of Hereford (d. 1095), who was similarly famed as an astrologer. Much might lie therefore behind that reference to knowledge which was salutary. William was sensitive to the problem of the learned man whose name was blackened by charges of demonic conspiracy and appreciated that some of his readers might reject his tale of Sylvester as ‘a popular fiction’ because ‘public opinion often wounds the reputation of learned men, maintaining that one whom they have seen excel in some department converses with the devil’. And William dutifully explored the possibility that Sylvester’s knowledge was purely God given, suggesting that Solomon had been gifted knowledge of like kind. But William did not want to push this point, arguing that God ‘could have given Sylvester this power’ but ‘I do not say he did so’. For William, the argument that demonic rather than divine agency lay behind Sylvester’s special learning was clinched by the gruesome manner of the pope’s death and his frantic deathbed search for forgiveness.

So the quest for knowledge could be dangerous, even soul-imperilling, but where exactly did the line between ‘salutary’ and ‘harmful’ knowledge lie? How was it to be determined? For William, matters of healthy inquiry were the traditional subjects of the schools (arithmetic, music, astronomy and geometry) while the dark arts which William chose not to enumerate, or simply did not know enough about to list, were locked up in the pages of secret books owned originally by skilled Jews and Saracens. Indeed, William seems to have pinned many of his suspicions down to certain mysterious and dangerous books which were now circulating among the religious. This seems to have been one way in which he imagined a line might be drawn between licit and illicit. Initially, he singled out the Mathesis of Julius Firmicus as fraught with danger, visiting a special condemnation on Archbishop Gerard of York in his Gesta Pontificum because a copy of the Mathesis had been found beneath the prelate’s pillow after his death. The subject of this work certainly had a bad press and was bound up in the minds of many twelfth-century writers with necromantic efforts to divine the future. John of Salisbury even argued that ‘the will of God is the first cause of all things and mathesis is the way of damnation’. But there was a final twist here. William was prepared to reconsider his view of Gerard’s bedtime reading – seemingly in the light of his own experience. The work of Julius Firmicus may have been anathema to him when he first wrote the Gesta but he later revisited the folio and excised the passage. Exactly what impelled him to make this revision is obscure, but it does seem, as Rodney Thomson has suggested, that between making the entry and altering it he may actually have read the Mathesis and satisfied himself that it did not transmit the ‘harmful’ knowledge which he so feared. Indeed, such a supposition is strengthened by the appearance of an excerpt from the text in William’s own Polyhistor.

The moral here, clichéd though it may be, is that the half-understood or unknown features of the new Arabic scientia did most to excite the fears of men like William. He retained that Augustinian suspicion of worldly knowledge and this could only have been sharpened by the Islamic associations of so much of the astrology and mathematics which was spreading through many of the surrounding Benedictine houses. Yet experience of the new learning could demystify it and soften William’s view. What was initially novel, shadowy and threatening could be assimilated and normalised once William had grasped it. Once William had done this, danger could not be so confidently traced to particular identifiable books. Rather it inhered more exclusively in the way that a scholar tried to apply new knowledge and the extent to which he allowed it to blot out the truths of the faith and thought for the soul. And Sylvester II, or Gerbert as he was when he engaged in his supposed Toledan studies, was the archetype of the learned churchman who twisted his knowledge of sacred and temporal things to gratify worldly desires. In holding stereotypes of the necromancer before the scholar, the church was able to warn against a new configuration of dangers.

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