What is the price of courage?
The Fulcrum of Courage, Part 14
To a 10th century Christian, a saint was an especially admirable person. Despite having faults, a saint overcame personal flaws and failures and moved forward.
God gave saints visions and profound insights, granted them the ability to perform miracles, and welcomed them into Heaven for their essential goodness.
When the Archbishop of Reims died at the end of 989, Gerbert of Aurillac was his most anticipated replacement.
However, the position was hotly contested by one of Lothair’s illegitimate children, Armulf. Even though Gerbert helped Hugh Capet become King of France, Hugh made the political choice to appoint Armulf.
Two years later, Hugh arrested Armulf for treason and Gerbert became Archbishop.
Gerbert held the position for the next two years. Then, abruptly, the Western Bishops restored Armulf, and he had no choice but to move on.
As pope, Gerbert was called upon for inspiration.
Armulf was a millennialist.
Gerbert believed a demonstration of forgiveness and trust would ease tensions in the church. With his position in the Vatican secured, he confirmed his former rival as Archbishop of Reims. This made Armulf more powerful, but kept him at a distance.
In response to the rumors that he was having sex with a succubus, Gerbert publicly dismissed the notion that demons had bodies or even looked human.
He said that many cambions were simply fatherless children. He observed that play between an infant and its father lays a crucial foundation for lifetime well-being.
To millennialists, disbelief in demons contradicted the concept of a saint.
In January 1000, Armulf received a letter from the provost’s daughter.
She wrote that Gerbert learned the millennialist theory of history in Spain and denied it because of his loyalty to a succubus, Meridiana.
She suggested his public doubts about demons were proof he was having sex with a demon. Why would he mislead the faithful, unless he lusted for power?
Armulf was alarmed.
He immediately wrote to the Archdiocese of Rome and 7 millenialist Roman nobles to warn them a heretic was on the Holy See.
By February 14 of the year 1000, Gerbert was aware of their suspicions.
The faithful routinely turned to the Church for guidance, vision, and revelation. Local priests venerated saints as role models, and cults grew up around them.
If Gerbert appeared to deny the existence of saints, the church would be divided again.
The nobles of Rome became rebellious. Gerbert found it increasingly difficult to be clear and convincing in discussions with them. Rather than fading away, the rumor he was having sex with succubus continued to affirm their Apocalyptic beliefs.
Once again, he relied heavily on ritual and hardly saw Meridiana.
Most Christians had expected Gerbert to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for New Year’s Eve. Instead, he stayed in Rome and challenged the millennialists economically.
Simony and concubinage were widespread among clergy.
To ease tensions and weaken millennialist influence, Gerbert began making blanket moral statements. Although he refused to specifically name his rivals, he maintained that only capable men who lived spotless lives should become bishops.
Publicly, most clergy agreed with Gerbert’s stated positions.
In private, he lost support.
To non-millennialists, his hasty appeasements meant he was thoughtless.
To millennialists, he was in bed with a demon. His public declarations were examples of his ongoing bad faith.
To the ashen masses, Gerbert’s rumored lack of saintly perfection, desire to teach Arab numerals, and voluntary concubine implicated him as a sorcerer.
His relationship with Meridiana was no longer just a prudent secret. It could be weaponized politically to undermine the empire and split the church.
Otto III’s grief from the death of his mother, Theophanu, lingered. Painfully.
His anger was explosive. He turned to mystics for comfort.
Gerbert empathized with Otto III’s feelings of guilt and shame, and shared his respect for scripture. They both obsessed over millennialist ideas, looking for solutions.
Otto III had no memory of his father. After his mother died, he quickly developed a reputation for being unstable and otherworldly.
Millennialist clerics began openly telling their congregations that he was a cambion.
In 1001, the Archbishop of Milan arranged for Otto III to meet the Byzantine princess Zoe, and Otto III proposed.
They planned to meet in Rome when the marriage charter was complete.
As Princess Zoe left Apulia for their wedding, the people of Rome revolted.
Gerbert and Otto III were forced to flee to Ravenna.
Otto III tried to regain control of Rome three times, unsuccessfully. On his final attempt, he contracted malaria.
At age 21, he died unwed, of the same disease that killed the father he never knew.
His final moments on January 24, 1002 were spent in a delirium, less than a day’s ride north of the city his father and grandfather once retook together.
Rome fell into chaos.
Roman nobles battled each other while putting down pockets of rebellion.
Hoping to convince the aristocracy to change direction, and to mobilize clergy to stabilize the Holy Roman Empire, Gerbert returned to the Vatican.
The innuendo continued. Rumors were circulating that he didn’t go to the Holy Land because his succubus lover prophesied he would die in Jerusalem.
There were intense misunderstandings due to rigid and conflicting beliefs about the nature of reality and the meanings of words. Gerbert’s attempts to challenge millenialist schemas led to accusations of ignoble intent and impropriety.
To millennialists, coincidence was proof of causality. A prophesy revealed by a 10th century demon was an opportunity to postpone something inevitable.
On Saturday, May 7, 1003, Gerbert gave midnight mass at a church in Rome named the Holy cross of Jerusalem. Two days later, he fell ill.
Rumors began to circulate that a horde of demons attacked the congregation just as the ritual got underway. The story went that the Devil himself gouged out Gerbert’s eyes and tossed them to the demons for playthings.
He went from sluggish to intensely nauseous overnight.
This illness felt very unusual. He realized he was going to die.
Gerbert isolated himself in the Vatican. He eliminated distractions to reflect upon his life. He thought about what he could have done differently and prayed for harmony after he was gone.
Meridiana could not be present when Gerbert passed away.
He remembered falling in love with her and refusing to place either carnal impulses or priestly vows ahead of her. Yet she always respected his convictions.
Gerbert cherished their friendship and reflected upon the sacrifice she made by keeping their relationship secret. He wondered how their lives might have been different if he had renounced the clergy to formally marry her.
She understood why he publicly condemned concubinage, although it saddened her. They both suspected they would not see each other again after he publicly advocated for stricter criteria in nominating bishops.
He remembered her eyes. He remembered gently squeezing her hand.
He despaired at not being able to say goodbye.
Then he remembered Otto II once telling him about the letter he wrote to his father. At the very least, Gerbert could thank Meridiana for pointing to the borage in the monastery garden on the day they met.
For a moment he felt lost. It was because of her that he knew true love.
Then he deliberately chose to illuminate his gratitude in writing.
He remembered their vow, picked up a quill, and wrote her a poem filled with memories they cherished together.
Then he gave it to a trusted messenger to secretly deliver.
To be saintly enough to enter the kingdom of Heaven, Gerbert believed be needed to confess his relationship with Meridiana.
He recalled that when the sun rose on January 1, 1000, the world did not end. He was unsure whether he would ascend to heaven, but he understood the emotional meaning of truth and felt hope as well as fear. He chose not let the fear of death control him.
He still believed love was a worthy cause. All he had was himself to offer.
On his deathbed, he told the story of his love for Meridiana. A final confession was expected from every pope, yet all he sought was understanding. If his flaws and failures could be forgiven, perhaps they both might rise to Heaven.
Gerbert admitted to violating the very guidelines he advocated for bishops. He confessed to not feeling worthy of a traditional burial because of it. However, it was not Meridiana’s fault, he said. He alone should bear full responsibility.
If the cardinals agreed, his body would be chopped up and scattered around the city.
On May 12, 1003, Gerbert of Aurillac died in Rome at the age of 57.
He was the same age as Otto the Great when they met.
The provost’s daughter watched Gerbert’s every move right up to his death.
She intercepted his messenger and claimed to be Meridiana’s sister. She said Meridiana was hiding because it was not safe in Rome.
As the only person entrusted with Meridiana’s location, she would deliver the poem.
The messenger entrusted it to the provost’s daughter and asked her to pass on Gerbert’s love. Then she disappeared into the night.
When she read it, she was livid. Gerbert did not lament any terror at all!
His death was not enough! She would also have to destroy Meridiana.
Next: Are there limits to courage? Anonymity, secrets, and overwhelm.