Gerbert of Aurillac lived at the end of the millenium preceding our own. He was born an obscure peasant. But by virtue of his excellent education, political acumen and good fortune, he ascended to the highest post in Christendom, becoming Pope Sylvester II at the end of the tenth century. His meteoric rise in power helped bring about the genesis of "the legend of Gerbert" after his death.
A renowned teacher, Gerbert was accomplished in all the liberal arts and distinguished himself in nearly every field of human endeavor.
It was in the context of his role as a teacher and a mathematician that he acquired a reputation as an organbuilder. Among his contributions in that area is a treatise on pipe measurements which is attributed to him in a 12th-century manuscript.
Gerbert's reputation as an organbuilder has rested mainly, however, not on any actual deeds he may have accomplished, but on the testimony of William of Malmesbury, a 12th-century English historian. William completed the legend surrounding Gerbert's life, which began in the eleventh century. In the course of his narrative, William credited Gerbert with having built a hydraulic organ in the cathedral of Reims. William's account of the organ is examined in its context, perhaps for the first time. This study reveals that William's account must be dismissed as pure fancy.
A feature unique to this study is the use of sources from a variety of disciplines. In order not to present a one-dimensional (and therefore false) appraisal of Gerbert as an organbuilder, we have examined him in his various roles as letter-writer, mathematician, scientist, politician and churchman. Only when we know Gerbert in the context of his life and times can we make a valid assessment of his contribution to the art and craft of organbuilding.