Article ID: CBB340704223

Medieval Europe’s Satanic Ciphers: On the Genesis of a Modern Myth (2020)


The purpose of this article is to investigate the genesis and growth of a historical canard that can be encountered in numerous popular as well as some scholarly publications devoted to the history of mathematics. According to one of the core elements of this story, the number or symbol for zero was the cause of much anxiety in medieval Europe, as its unusual properties caused it to be associated with the Devil or with black magic. This anxiety is supposed to have extended to the entire system of Hindu-Arabic numerals, such that the use of these numerals was banned by the Church or by other powerful institutions. I shall argue that this narrative is false or unsubstantiated at nearly every level of analysis. Some elements arose from an unwarranted interpretation of medieval sources, while others are based on the unbridled imagination of certain modern authors.

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Authors & Contributors
Hachaichi, Yassine
Thomas Freudenhammer
Hamouda, Leïla
Christopher Partridge
Porreca, David
Knott, Betty Irene
British Journal for the History of Mathematics
VIET: Voprosy Istorii Estestvoznaniia i Tekhniki
Sudhoffs Archiv: Zeitschrift fuer Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Micrologus: Natura, Scienze e Società Medievali
Indian Journal of History of Science
Foundations of Science
Rowman & Littlefield
Pennsylvania State University Press
Palgrave Macmillan
Oxford University Press
Occult sciences
Science and religion
Witchcraft; demonology
Mathers, Samuel Liddell MacGregor (1854-1918)
Śivayog ī, Nijaguṇa
Randolph, Paschal Beverly (1825-1874)
Al-Baghdādī, Muwaffaq al-Dīn Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Laṭīf ibn Yūsuf
Whiting, Phineas Westcott
Sylvester II, Pope
Time Periods
Early modern
16th century
15th century
United States

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