Before he becomes a pope, the lives of the pre-popes range from dull and pious to world-travelling and full of debauchery. Before he became Pope Sylvester II, the priest was known as Gerbert d’Aurillac and was educated in France. He ranged around the world, gathering information about astrology and mathematics from Spain, mathematics and optics from Greece, hydraulically powered pipe organs, and supposedly learning the dark arts at some point during his travels. Gerbert was one of the more progressive individuals to exist in Europe in the late 900s; he held great respect for the Arabs and their mastery of the natural sciences and war craft. Unsurprisingly, Gerbert’s willingness to accept scientific discoveries and closeness with the Moors made him an unpopular figure with many priests, and his acid tongue and sharp pen made enemies with a large number of nobles. Nobility and priests began to spread stories about Gerbert’s Faustian figure; in one legend, Gerbert made a pact with a succubus named Meridiana, utilizing her demonic magic to ensure his place on the papal throne.
Look at how happy Gerbert looks with Meridiana. He doesn’t mind that she has faces on her knees or wee goat feet. People could benefit from this level of body-positivity.
In actual history, Gerbert was a prodigal priest from France who was given a position as the head of an abbey in Italy by the Emperor of the Holy Romans, Otto II. Gerbert’s time as a stranger in a strange land did not mesh well with him. His no-nonsense Frankish upbringing did not integrate into the laid back Italian region that he was living in. In his writings he took to airing his complaints, writing things like “Italy may produce crops, but Gaul and Germany breed soldiers,” “I dare not rely on the trustworthiness of my knights because they are Italians,” and the more direct, “[the abbey] has troops, but they are Italians, not men.”
In this era, priests were known to be quite the insult comics when recounting their experiences with races, people, kings, and paupers. Since they were the only people who really had a grip on literacy in the tenth century, priestly accounts fuel many of the descriptions of the time, and like people of all eras, priests were susceptible to human emotions clouding their opinions. For example, when a Bishop named Liudprand arrived in Constantinople to try and broker a marriage deal between a Holy Roman emperor and a “true Roman” Byzantine princess, he was less than impressed with the Byzantine King Nicephorus. (Byzantium was the remnants of the Roman empire after a schism, so princesses were called “purple-born” and represented the maximum level of respectability) In his records of his time in the Byzantine court, Liudprand wrote,
“The ruler of the Greeks wears his hair long, a trailing skirt, wide sleeves, and a woman’s cap. He is a liar, a cheat, a pitiless and arrogant man as cunning as a fox, full of hypocritical humility, avaricious covetous, an eater of garlic, onions, and leeks, and a water drinker. The king of the Franks, on the other hand, has his hair cut short, wears clothes utterly different from a woman’s, has a hat on his head, is a lover of truth, detests wiles, is compassionate when compassion is proper, but severe when severity is called for, truly humble, never avaricious, drinks wine, does not eat garlic, onions, or leeks like Nicephorus.”
Evidently, the early meetings between Liudprand and Nicephorus had gone poorly, and the emperor took out his ire on the Bishop. Liudprand made matters worse by stirring the pot whenever possible. The marriage deal between the two empires fell apart, likely in no small part because of the bad blood between the two diplomats.
The above image is of Emperor Nicephorus. That’s the face of a garlic-eating water drinker.
James Reston Jr., The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the year 1000 A.D. (Doubleday inc., 1998).