Back to Zero: A Word from the Author of 1491

In a recent post, I noted that the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann, stated that zero "didn't appear in Europe until the twelfth century. Even then European governments and the Vatican resisted zero--a something that stood for nothing -- as foreign and un-Christian." Mann, 1491, page 19. Although I did not doubt the timing of zero's appearance in Mayan and European culture, I did ask whether the Vatican had opposed zero (because I honestly did not know). Fortunately, Mr. Mann has emailed me and clarified his comment and provided specific examples and references on the issue. He has given me permission to post his email on the blog:

I am the author of "1491," the book which Layman blogged
about on Wednesday. As the post says, I made a brief
reference to the Church and zero in my book -- too brief,
because I think I was inadvertently misleading. This is the
good thing about blogs -- they point out where people like
me goofed. Anyway, here is a longer explanation of
what I should have said.

First, as I hope you realized, my book is not a brief
against the Roman Catholic Church. For example, I devote
time to its campaign against the exploitation of Indians,
which began very early with a papal declaration of their
rights as human beings that is something Catholics can be
proud of to this day.

But the church goofed about zero, though, in my opinion.
Let me explain. The Vatican did not have a single
monumental campaign against the zero (which is what I think
my book suggests -- sorry!), but there were numerous
ecclesiastical attempts to ban and stifle it, most but not
all on a local level. The best single source for this that
I know of is Tobias Dantzig's classic book Number from the
1930s, but histories of zero by Robert Kaplan and George
Ghevergese Joseph are also useful. The most useful popular
source is Dick Teresi's Lost Discoveries, which came out
in, I think, 2002.

According to all the historians that I know of, zero did
not come into Europe until Fibonacci, in the 12th century.
Prior to that, hardly anyone there had heard of it, and
calculations were difficult. And zero didn't become a full
fledged part of the European curriculum until the 17th
century -- Descartes apparently didn't use it, for example,
in his mathematics.

The reason is that zero is weird, if you think about it.
When you calculate with zero, you are treating a nothing as
if it were an entity, a something. Middle Ages western
intellectuals, many of whom were priests, couldn't wrap
their heads around it. Even Fibonacci referred to the "nine
[Indian numerals] and the sign 0" -- he didn't want to call
it a number, but saw it was a convenient device for

This suspicion led to a series of actions against zero.
Back in 967, for example, the monk who became Pope
Sylvester II figured out that his counting would be easier
with a zero sign (it wasn't a zero, as in a circle, but
worked like one). He was accused of trafficking with evil
spirits and forced to abjure it. This kind of thing went on
until at least 1348, when the ecclesiastical authorities of
Padua prohibited the use of zero in price lists, arguing
that prices had to be written in "plain" letters.

Through much of this period European merchants went ahead
and used zero for their accounts, because it was so much
easier. But they hid this from the legal and churchly
authorities. Florentine bankers, prohibited in the 12th
century from using "infidel" symbols, created duplicate
sets of books, one to show the church, one to do your
calculations in. Thirteenth-century archives are replete
with evidence of such bootleg zeroes.

So I should have said "in europe, governments and church
authorities resisted zero" rather than "European
governments and the Vatican." My apologies, and thank you
for drawing my attention to my mistake.

Best wishes,
Charles C. Mann

I truly appreciated hearing from Mr. Mann and told him in my response that although I had not finished reading 1491, I do not believe it is anti-Catholic or anti-Christian. In my less learned opinion, it is a welcome reassessment of the issues related to American Indians. I truly hope I did not give the impression that I thought Mr. Mann had written an assault on the Catholic or any other Church.

Mr. Mann's website is and it has instructions on how to contact him should you wish to comment on this or another issue. He, like the rest of us, has had to cope with the ever rising tide of spam.


James said…
Thank you to Layman and Charles Mann for helping make some progress with this. I'll be blogging on it later today.

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