Gerbert at Burgundy, a student at Reims, wanted to outshine all the other students. At that time the daughter of the provost of Reims was the marvel of the city and Gerbert desired her and felt she was his due. As is often the case, those who think themselves wise can be made into a fool by love and she, seeing his poverty, scorned him. One day he decided to neglect his studies and, at noonday, wandered out of town and into the forest. Walking into a glade he found a woman of great beauty seated on a silk carpet with a heap of gold coins by her side. He stepped back in fear and would have gone away but she called him back by his name. She promised him that all the gold and much more could be his on one condition. That he foreswore the woman who had spurned him and become hers. “My name is Marianna.” she said. “I have searched for one worthy to call my own and I have chosen you. The only thing you must do is reject her with as much pride as she has used in rejecting you. I, who know your good nature, require no other security from you.” This hit a nerve. Gerbert was anxious for wealth and to escape the burdens of poverty. He promised her everything. So he went back to the town laden with gold and was not slow in starting to spend it. Soon he had set up a great household with many servants, bright clothes and a great deal of food and drink. He also used the money to advance in two branches of learning, that of the school and also that of the chamber. He rose in fame, Marianna instructing him in all that he should do. The daughter of the provost now regarded Gerbert with different eyes, smiling at what she had once rejected. She arranged opportunities to meet him in the street, when she greeted him with reverence and respect but he snubbed her and walked on as if she did not exist. When this had happened several times she became angry and went to her old nurse for advice. On the old woman’s suggestion they secretly followed Gerbert. He spent the morning in a tavern and then unsteadily walked out of town. They kept him in sight until he sat down in the shadow of a gnarled oak, where he fell asleep in the noon heat. Clad only in her shift, the young woman crept up on him and roused him with kisses and embraces and from the drunken man she easily obtained the boon she desired. Sobering up he remembered his promises to Marianna. He quickly left the young woman, although not without making promises to return, and went further into the forest, seeking out his benefactress. When he found her he fell on his knees, begging forgiveness for his lapse. She was angry but finally demanded he renew his homage to her and all would be forgiven. This he gladly did. The archbishop of Reims died. Thanks to his reputation, it was Gerbert who, by public choice, was enthroned as the new archbishop. He rose through the ranks of the church. In time he became a cardinal and then archbishop of Ravenna. In the course of time the pope died and Gerbert was chosen as the new one, taking the title of Sylvester II. In all that time he was careful never to taste the sacrament, though whether this was out of fear or respect it is not known. When he became pope, Marianna promised him that he would live for many years, just as long as he did not celebrate mass in Jerusalem. Since he lived in Rome and had no intention of being a traveller, he thought he would easily avoid this fate. In the third year of his reign a priest came to see him and begged him to celebrate mass at his church, because the congregation had become lax and the presence of the pope would surely mend their ways. He gladly assented and it was only when he arrived that he asked the name of the building and was told it was the Basilica of Sainte Croce in Gerusaleme, so called because it was built to house relics of the True Cross that had been found in Jerusalem. At the back of the crowd that had come to see him he saw Marianna laughing and he knew that he was about to pay for his worldly success. He called all the cardinals and made a public confession of his great sins. From then on he ordered that the consecration of the host should from then on be performed in front of the people rather than with the priest’s back turned as had previously been the custom, which had allowed him to get away with his crime for so long. Soon after that he died and was buried in the church of St John Lateran, in a tomb that constantly sweats. It is said that, if the drops run down to the ground and form a stream it is a certain sign that the pope will soon die.


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