Michael Scot

From Academic Kids

Michael Scot (1175 - ?1232) was a mediaeval mathematician and astrologer. The date of his death remains quite uncertain. The efforts of Sir Walter Scott and others to identify him with the Sir Michael Scot of Balwearie, sent in 1290 on a special embassy to Norway, have not convinced historians, though the two may have had family connections.

Born in Scotland, Scot studied at Oxford and Paris, devoting himself to philosophy, mathematics, and astrology. It appears that he had also studied theology and become an ordained a priest, as Pope Honorius III wrote to Stephen Langton on 16 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 Scot 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 Arabs upon them, and also brought him into contact with the original works of Avicenna and Averroes.

Scot began his scholarly career as a translator. Frederick II attracted him with many other savants 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, of De anima and of 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, mainly account for his popular reputation. These works include:

  • 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 appearing 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 the author undertook the works at the request of the emperor Frederick.

Scot allegedly 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 allegedly foretold that he would end by a blow from a stone of not more than two ounces in weight, and to protect himself he allegedly wore an iron helmet. The story goes 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 states that he returned to his native land to die, and according to one account lies buried at Holme Cultram in Cumberland; according to another, which Sir Walter Scott 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 becomes ascribed either to the agency of Auld Michael, of Sir William Wallace or of the devil.

The legendary Michael Scot 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, has also become celebrated: during this he allegedly 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. Folengo's macaronic poem of Merlin Coccaius (1595) tells of other powers and exploits.

But Michael Scot's reputation as a magician had already become fixed in the age immediately following his own. He appears Dante's Divine Comedy (Inferno, canto xx. 115-117) among the magicians and soothsayers in the eighth circle of Hell. Boccaccio represents him in the same character, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola arraigns him severely in his work against astrology, while Gabriel Naud finds it necessary to defend his good name in his Apologie pour les grands personnages faussement accusés 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).

Original detail from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica

Scot in modern fiction

Scot is the title character in the historic fantasy novel The Lord of Middle Air by Michael Scott Rohan, who claims descent from the magician.

Jane Yolen's Tartan Magic series features Scot as a villain.

In the children's television fantasy Shoebox Zoo, Michael Scot has survived to the present day, where he acts as a Gandalf-like character, serving as the mysterious advisor to the main character. He is played by Peter Mullan.


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