Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nate Silver's Medieval Ancestor

As you've no doubt heard, Nate Silver's total win of everything that happens, ever, has prompted suspicion of his methods. Mark Coddington's astute reading of the mistrust of Silver by political journalists eloquently framed the central issue: Nate Silver's methods are epistemologically different from a political journalist's--scientific method vs. analysis & discernment. Is Nate Silver a Witch? took this a step further, by mocking political journalists' and Republican pundits' insistence on their own certainty and complete dismissal of Silver's rational methods.

This narrative of faith vs. science strongly recalls the legends of Gerbert of Aurillac in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum. Gerbert, who reigned as Pope Sylvester II from 999-1003, had, according to legend, created an oracular head that revealed the future to him. Prior to William, writing ca. 1125, chroniclers had insisted that Gerbert's speaking head relied on demonic magic. This was largely due to the fact that, in the 10th and 11th centuries, prediction and forecasting (with the exception of prognostication of the weather and calendrical reckoning) were thought to require demons. But William changed the story, attributing Gerbert's head to celestial forces--the particular conjunction of the planets and stars. By William's era, cosmological and astronomical texts in Arabic, Greek, and Hebrew were increasingly translated into Latin. Many of these treatises involved the accurate measurement of heavenly bodies for the specific purpose of divination (for medical reasons, to answer questions or offer advice, or to cast natal charts). Predicting the future was, now, something that did not require demons but could instead be based on scientific methods. 

Gerbert was an early pioneer in the mathematic and astronomical sciences of the quadrivium in the tenth century. And after he died? He was the sorcerer-pope who traded his soul to the Devil for foreknowledge.
Cod. Pal. germ. 137, Folio 216v. Martinus Oppaviensis, Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum. c1460. Courtesy of Heidelberg University.

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