Scottish mathematician and astrologer
Born 1175? Died 1232?
The dates of his birth and death are quite uncertain, the most probable being those here given. The efforts of Sir Walter Scott and others to identify him with the Sir Michael Scot of Balwearie, who in 1290 was sent on a special embassy to Norway, must be considered unsuccessful, though he may have been a member of the family. Scot studied at Oxford and Paris, devoting himself to philosophy and mathematics. It appears that he had also studied theology, and was ordained a priest, as Pope Honorius III wrote to Stephen Langton on the 16th of January 1223/4, urging him to confer an English benefice on Scot, and actually himself nominated him archbishop of Cashel in Ireland. This appointment Scot refused to take up, but he seems to have held benefices in Italy from time to time. From Paris he went to Bologna, and thence, after a stay at Palermo, to Toledo. There he acquired a knowledge of Arabic. This opened up to him the Arabic versions of Aristotle and the multitudinous commentaries of the Arabians upon them, and also brought him into contact with the original works of Avicenna and Averroes.
His own first work was done as a translator. He was one of the savants whom Frederick II attracted to his brilliant court, and at the instigation of the emperor he superintended (along with Hermannus Alemannus) a fresh translation of Aristotle and the Arabian commentaries from Arabic into Latin. There exist translations by Scot himself of the Historia animalium, the De anima and De coelo, along with the commentaries of Averroes upon them. This connection with Frederick and Averroes, both of evil reputation in the middle ages, doubtless contributed to the formation of the legend which soon enveloped Michael Scot's name. His own books, however, dealing as they do almost exclusively with astrology, alchemy and the occult sciences generally, are mainly responsible for his popular reputation. Chief among these are Super auctorem spherae, printed at Bologna in 1495 and at Venice in 1631; De sole et luna, printed at Strassburg (1622), in the Theatrum chimicum, and containing more alchemy than astronomy, the sun and moon being taken as the images of gold and silver; De chiromantia, an opuscule often published in the 15th century; De physiognomia et de hominis procreatione, which saw no fewer than eighteen editions between 1477 and 1660. The Physiognomia (which also exists in an Italian translation) and the Super auctorem spherae expressly state that they were undertaken at the request of the emperor Frederick. Michael is said to have foretold (after the double-tongued manner of the ancient oracles) the place of Frederick's death, which took place in 1250.
Around his own death many legends gathered. He was supposed to have foretold that he would end by a blow from a stone of not more than two ounces in weight, and that to protect himself be wore an iron helmet, and that, raising this in church at the elevation of the host, the fatal stone fell on him from the roof. Italian tradition says he died in that country, while another legend is that he returned to his native land to die, and according to one account was buried at Holme Cultram in Cumberland; according to another, which Sir Walter Scott has followed in the Lay of the Last Minstrel, in Melrose Abbey.
In the notes to that poem, of which the opening of the wizard's tomb forms the most striking episode, Scott gives an interesting account of the various exploits attributed by popular belief to the great magician. In the south of Scotland any work of great labour and antiquity is ascribed either to the agency of Auld Michael
, of Sir William Wallace
or the devil
. He used to feast his friends with dishes brought by spirits from the royal kitchens of France and Spain and other lands. His embassy to France alone on the back of a coal-black demon steed is also celebrated, in which he brought the French monarch to his knees by the results of the stamping of his horse's hoof: the first ringing the bells of Notre Dame and the second causing the towers of the palace to fall. Other powers and exploits are narrated in Folengo's
Macaronic poem of Merlin Coccaius
(1595). But Michael's reputation as a magician was already fixed in the age immediately following his own. He appears in the Inferno
(canto xx. 115-117) among the magicians and soothsayers. He is represented in the same character by Boccaccio
, and is severely arraigned by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
in his work against astrology, while Gabriel Naud
finds it necessary to defend his good name in his Apologie pour les grands personnages faussement accuses de magie.
For full details and analysis of all the legends attaching to Scot, see Rev. J. Wood Brown, Life and Legend of Michael Scot (1897).
Being the entry for SCOT, MICHAEL in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.