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Need the Area of a Triangle? The Pope Can Help! – Gerbert the Math Teacher

Betty Mayfield (Hood College)


In the year 972, when Gerbert was in his late twenties, he was invited to go to the Cathedral School at Rheims (Reims), France, to study and teach mathematics and other subjects. He stayed there for eight years, learning and teaching, revising the curriculum, and acting as the head of the school. Figure 5 shows Rheims in northeast France. Gerbert spent his youth at a monastery in Aurillac (hence his name) in the Auvergne region, also shown on the map.

Map of medieval France with Reims highlighted.

Figure 5. The city of Reims (Rheims) in France. Map courtesy of On the World Map: Free Printable Maps.

Gerbert had a reputation as a brilliant, innovative, open-minded teacher. He constructed spheres for teaching astronomy, had a shield-maker make an abacus for use in the instruction of Hindu-Arabic numerals, used a monochord to teach music, and made a “diagram of rhetoric” out of parchment [Darlington 1947]. He also taught his students how to use an astrolabe [Swetz 2020] to find the height of objects—perhaps even in his geometry classes [Lattin 1961, p. 6]. He left behind several documents which served as textbooks, including one in geometry.

Betty Mayfield (Hood College), "Need the Area of a Triangle? The Pope Can Help! – Gerbert the Math Teacher," Convergence (November 2022)