Is there any evidence indicating that the Pope attempted to suppress the number zero?

In an editorial review, Rob Lightner claims that "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea", by Charles Seife, explains "Why did the Church reject the use of zero?". On the other hand, "God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science", by James Hannam, rebuts "the idea that the pope tried to suppress the number zero".

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    The first sentence is very wrong. It reflects the attitudes of perhaps 150 or 200 years ago. Nowadays the Middle Ages get their due. Look up Late Antiquity for one example. Commented May 27, 2013 at 21:22
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    The BBC's In Our Time programme had an interesting episode on the history of Zero a while ago. The issue of any pope suppressing zero did not come up. To me esp. absent any motivation on behalf of the church the idea sounds like from the plot of the next Dan Brown novel (full disclosure: I'm not a fan :)
    – Drux
    Commented May 27, 2013 at 21:49
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    This should be posted on skeptics.
    – Apoorv
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 0:18
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    Thx, these additional references are welcome and somewhat helpful. BTW, you may also be interested in the German (ahem) historian Heribert Illig, according to whom the medieval period of European history did not exist, and there was a cover up that whole centuries were "inserted" after the fact ... :)
    – Drux
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 5:43
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    @Drux: Herr Illig is not alone, there are other people who peddle such theories. But I really think the less mention of them in this forum, the better... Commented May 28, 2013 at 9:27

1 Answer 1


According to this article, Pope Sylvester II (Gerbert d'Aurillac, c943-1003), is credited with re-introducing the abacus into Europe without an explicit use of the number zero. This was because it had not been introduced in the European mathematical vocabulary (Fibonacci did this around 1202, and it took centuries for it to become established), rather than an explicit decree that it should be banned.

Gerbert's abacus with representative numbers. Credit: nonagon.org

A detailed description of how Gerbert's abacus worked can be found here.

It's also interesting to note that Gottfried Leibniz had a somewhat mystical interpretation of the binary numbers, with one representing God and zero the void.

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    Welcome to the site James! The wikipedia article you cite is actually sourced from "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea", by Charles Seife. This link (yaleglobal.yale.edu/about/zero.jsp) confirms your point that Fibonacci introduced zero to Europe around 1202. Good work! Commented May 28, 2013 at 15:45
  • @James, how is it possible for even the Pope to remove zero from an abacus? What did he do, have Franciscan monks nail the bottom row, right most top bead to the center board? Make it a sin to slide the one bead? Is that where the term naughty bit came from?
    – user27618
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 21:27
  • @JMS I've edited the answer to add a picture and link to how it worked.
    – James
    Commented Aug 22, 2019 at 15:24
  • @James, thank you for the interesting post. very nice.
    – user27618
    Commented Aug 22, 2019 at 16:05

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