Scott, Michael (1175?-1234?) (DNB00)

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SCOTT or SCOT, MICHAEL (1175?–1234?), mathematician, physician, and scholar, possibly belonged to the family of the Scots of Balwearie, near Kirkcaldy in Fife, whose ruined castle has been identified with Castle Wearie in the weird ballad of Lammikin. Sir Walter Scott erred in identifying him with Sir Michael Scot of Balwearie, who, with Sir David Wemyss of Wemyss, was sent to fetch the Maid of Norway to Scotland in 1290. The scholar died before 1235. More probably he belonged to the border country whence all the families of Scot originally came, and where the traditions of his magic power are common. He was probably born before 1180. After he had studied successively at Oxford and at Paris (where he acquired the title of ‘mathematicus’), he passed to Bologna, and thence to Palermo, where he entered the service of Don Philip, the clerk register of the court of Frederick II, in Sicily. Subsequently he continued his studies at Toledo. It has been conjectured by an anonymous commentator on Dante that Michael became the young king's tutor in Sicily, and that at Toledo he gained a knowledge of Arabic sufficient to enable him to translate ‘the writings of Aristotle on Natural History and Mathematics.’ At Toledo he wrote his ‘Abbreviatio Avicennæ,’ of which the colophon in the Vatican manuscript runs ‘Explicit anno domini MCCX.’ That he gained a knowledge of Arabic at Toledo is corroborated not only by the evidence of this and other works attributed to him, but by the contemporary authority of Roger Bacon (Opus Majus, London, ed. 1735, p. 36). In another place (‘Compendium Studii,’ Opera minora, ed. Brewer, p. 472), Bacon observes, with a touch of the jealousy of a rival scholar, ‘Michael Scot, like Herman,’ a German bishop and scholar of the same period, ‘ascribed to himself many translations. But it is certain that Andrew, a Jew, laboured more in them. On which account Herman reported that Michael knew neither sciences nor languages.’ After completing his studies at Toledo, Michael Scot became again attached to the court of Frederick II, with whom his name and writings, chiefly written at the request of Frederick, must always be intimately associated. He appears to have held the office or received the name of astrologer at the court of that emperor, and he is so designated in the Bodleian manuscript of his work on astronomy (see below). An earlier work, the ‘Liber Introductorius,’ professedly treats of astrology and prognostics.

Dean Milman discovered, or at least first pointed out, that Michael Scot, though his studies and works were chiefly secular, had taken holy orders and was patronised by the pope as well as by the emperor. On 16 Jan. 1223–4 Honorius III wrote to Stephen Langton urging him to find some benefice in his diocese for Master Michael Scot, who was distinguished for his eminence in science; and on 31 May 1224 the same pope granted him a dispensation to hold benefices apparently in Italy, notwithstanding his election to the Irish archbishopric of Cashel. This had been by the direct nomination of the pope, contrary to the election of the canons, who had chosen the bishop of Cork. But Michael declined the office on the ground of his ignorance of Irish (Theiner, Monumenta Hiberniæ et Scotiæ, p. 23; Bliss, Cal. Papal Letters, i. 94, 96, 98). Three years later, in 1227, Gregory IX, the successor of Honorius, renewed the request that a benefice in the diocese of Canterbury might be given to Michael Scot, but he never received any preferment in England or Ireland, though from the reference to ‘benefices’ which he was to be allowed to retain, it seems that he held more than one, probably in Italy (transcripts of papal letters in Addit. MS. Brit. Mus. 15352, ff. 214, 246; Bliss, Cal. Papal Letters, i. 117).

In 1230, according to Roger Bacon, ‘Michael Scot appeared [at Oxford], bringing with him the works of Aristotle on natural history and mathematics, with wise expositors, so that the philosophy of Aristotle was magnified among those who spoke Latin’ (apud Latinos). It is highly probable that this refers to a mission to the universities of Europe on which Frederick II sent Scot to communicate to them the versions of Aristotle which Michael himself and other learned scholars in the emperor's service had made from the Arabic. He doubtless visited Paris and Oxford, where he possibly met Bacon. He may even have revisited his native Scotland, on whose borders there were various later traditions of his death and burial—at Melrose, Glenluce, Holmcultram and Burgh under Bowness. Walter Scott of Satchells (1614?–1694?) [q. v.], the historian of the clan, was shown what was alleged to be his tomb at the last-named place in 1629, but this date is too late for a trustworthy tradition. It appears more probable that Michael returned to Italy, where the Italian traditions evidently place his death, though without naming any particular site. He must have died prior to 1235, for in a poem of Vincent of Beauvais, written in that year, ‘veridicus vates Michael’ is referred to as dead, ‘Sic accusator fatorum fata subivit.’

His great fame and varied learning soon led to an accretion of legends round his name, which hid his real merits and transformed the man of science into a magician. A few of the legends relating to him, despite the fact that their unhistorical character has been proved by recent research, deserve to be noticed, as they have given a theme for literary treatment to many of the masters of European literature, from Dante to Sir Walter Scott.

Dante, in the ‘Inferno,’ c. xx., describes

    That other there, whose ribs fill scanty space,
    Was Michael Scott, who truly full well knew
    Of magical deceits the illusive grace.

Villani records two of his prophecies which were fulfilled, that ‘the Dog of Verona (Can Grande) would become the Lord of Padua’ (lib. x. c. 139), and that ‘Foolish Florence of flowers will not long stand, but will fall into the dirt and live by dissimulation’ (xii. c. 18).

Boccaccio uses as a well-known name to introduce one of his novels, ‘a great master in necromancy called Michael Scot, because he was from Scotland, who received much honour from many gentlemen, of whom some still live, and when he wished to leave laid this charge on two of his scholars, that they should be always ready to serve the pleasure of the gentlemen who had honoured him (8th day, 9th novel).’

Scot is one of the great men accused of magic whom Gabriel Naudé defends. He is said to have predicted the place of the death of Frederick, ‘that he should die in Firenze (Florence).’ The emperor, to avoid the prophecy, would not enter that town, or even, fearing an equivocation, Faenze, but met his fate at Firenzuola (Little Florence). Scot himself, according to the Italian legend, came to his own death in the vain attempt to baffle destiny. He had invented a form of iron helmet, called cerebrerium, to protect his head from the blow of a stone, of not more than two ounces, which was to be, as he believed, the cause of his death, and having taken it off at the elevation of the host a stone of that weight fell from the roof of the church, which killed him. One version of the story charges him with lifting his helmet in mockery or hypocrisy, as he, like the emperor, was accused of infidelity. The Scottish tradition, on the other hand, which has gained circulation from its adoption by Scott in the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel,’ brought him back to his native country, where, especially in the south, ‘any work of great labour or antiquity is ascribed either to Auld Michael, Sir William Wallace, or the Devil,’ and, though tradition varied between Holmcultram and Melrose Abbey, ‘it was agreed that his Books of Magic were interred in his grave, or preserved in the convent where he died’ (Lay, canto ii. and notes). His death was attributed to his supping the broth of a ‘breme’ sow (i.e. a sow in heat), and not to the fall of a stone, as in the Italian legend. The wonders worked by him through diabolic agency, which he invoked by drawing a circle with his magic wand, and sometimes accomplished by invisible rides through the air on a demon horse, or through the sea on a demon ship, grew with time and the invention of story-tellers. Perhaps one of these tales of his ride on a jet-black horse as envoy to the king of France from Scotland, when the first stamp of his steed rang the bells of Notre-Dame, the second threw down the palace towers, and, to avoid the third, the king granted all he asked, may have contributed to his erroneous identification with Sir Michael Scott, the ambassador to Norway in 1290.

A novel called ‘Sir Michael Scot’ was published by Allan Cunningham in 1828, and Coleridge projected a drama on his life which he deemed a better theme than Faust.

Of those works attributed to Michael Scot which appear to be genuine, the following have been printed: 1. ‘Liber Physiognomiæ Magistri Michaelis Scoti,’ 1477, of which there are, it is said, eighteen editions in all, Latin, German, and Italian. It is sometimes entitled ‘Liber de Secretis Naturæ,’ and bound up with a work attributed to Albertus Magnus, ‘De Secretis Mulierum,’ which accounts, as well as Scot's character as a magician, for the opinion that he dealt with forbidden subjects, or at least subjects better left to medical science. Scot's work contains a treatise on generation, as well as one on physiognomy. The former is worthless; the latter is a curious anticipation of the line of inquiry since pursued by Lavater and others, and, like Lavater, it differs from phrenology in treating not the head only, but all parts of the body as significant of character. 2. A translation into Latin of Aristotle's work on natural history, ‘De Animalibus,’ of which Scot probably made two versions, one entitled ‘De Animalibus ad Cæsarem’ and the other ‘Tractatus Avicennæ de Animalibus.’ It is included in the edition of Aristotle's works published at Venice in 1496, with the title ‘Aristotelis Opera Latinè versa, partim è Greco partim ex Arabico, per viros lectos, et in utriusque Linguæ prolatione peritos, jussu Imperatoris Frederici II.’ There seems to have been a separate print of this in 1493, and there are eight manuscripts of it in the Royal Library, Paris, and one in the Vatican, the colophon of which has been already mentioned. 3. ‘Quæstio Curiosa de Natura Solis et Lunæ,’ printed in ‘Theatrum Chemicum,’ vol. v., Strasburg, 1622: a work on alchemy and the philosopher's stone. 4. ‘Mensa Philosophica, seu Enchiridion in quo de quæstionibus memorabilibus et variis ac jucundis hominum congressibus agitur,’ Frankfurt, 1602, 12mo; Leipzig, 1603, and frequently reprinted and published in English, under the title of ‘The Philosopher's Banquet,’ 1614; but this work is attributed by others to Theobald Anguilbert, an Irish physician, under whose name it was published in Paris in 1500.

Whether the treatise on the ‘Sphere of Sacrobosco’ [see Holywood, John] is by Michael Scot is not certain, but his authorship is assumed by Kästner in his ‘History of Mathematics,’ where it is noted under the title ‘Eximii atque excellentissimi Physicorum Motuum Cursusque Syderii investigatoris Mich. Scotti super Auctorem Sphæræ, cum quæstionibus diligenter emendatis incipit Expositio perfecta, Illustrissimi Imperatoris D.D. Frederici precibus,’ Bologna, 1495. This work is also attributed to Michael Scot in Sir Robert Sibbald's manuscript ‘Historia Literaria Gentis Scotorum,’ Advocates' Library, Edinburgh.

The following works are still in manuscript:—

I. Astronomy.—1. ‘Astronomia’ or ‘Liber Particularis,’ Bibl. Bodl. MSS. Canon Misc. 555, attributed in the colophon to ‘Michael Scot, Astrologer to the Lord Frederick, Emperor of Rome.’ 2. ‘Liber Introductorius,’ Bodl. MS. 266, has the colophon, ‘Expliciunt judicia secundum scientiam Michaelis Scoti grandis astrologi quondam Imperatoris Frederici de terrâ Teutonicâ,’ and the preface says it was the second book composed by Michael Scot for the Emperor Frederick. 3. ‘Liber Magistri Michaelis Scoti in quo continetur Magisterium Speciale,’ MS. Bodl. No. 44 (see Carini, Sulle Scienze Occulte nel Medio Evo, Palermo, 1872).

II. Alchemy.—4. ‘Liber Luminis Luminum,’ MS. Riciardi Florence L. iii. 13, 119. 5. ‘De Alchemia,’ Corpus Christi, Oxford, MS. cxxv. pp. 88 et seq. This work contains receipts by Scot, and among them one for the transmutation of lead into gold. 6. ‘De Sphæra,’ a translation of the Arabic work of Alpetrongi, made in 1217; MSS. Paris, Ancien Fonds, 7399, and Fonds de Sorbonne, 1820 (Jourdain, Recherches, p. 133).

III. Translations.—7. ‘Translation of the Commentary of Averroes,’ on the pseudo-Aristotelian work ‘De Cœlo et Mundo,’ dedicated by Michael Scot to Stephen de Provins; MSS. Paris, Fonds de Sorbonne, 924, 950; Venice St. Mark, vi. 54; Rome, Fondo Vaticano, 2089, 2184. 8. ‘Translation of the Commentary of Averroes on the De Animâ of Aristotle,’ MSS. Paris Sorbonne, 932, 943, Ancien Fonds 6504, Venice St. Mark, MSS. vi. 54. 9. ‘Translation of the Nova Ethica’ of Aristotle from the Greek into Latin was attributed to Michael Scot in a thirteenth-century manuscript in the library of St. Omer, but the work, if by Scot, is not extant. 10. ‘Certain Medical Receipts,’ especially on the urine, by Michael Scot, are given as taken from ‘the’ book of Master Michael Scot, physician to the Emperor Frederick, and from the works of other doctors in an Italian work on medicine; MS. Vatican, Fondo della Regina di Svezia, 1159. Other prescriptions of Michael Scot have been handed down.

[Wood's Historia Univ. Oxon. p. 121; Life of Michael Scot in Tytler's Scottish Worthies; Life by James Bruce, Edinburgh, 1846; Histoire Littéraire de la France, xx. 43, contains a life by Daunou; Biographie Universelle, 1825, tome xli.; Sir W. Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel, and notes; Kington's Life of the Emperor Frederick II; Milman's Michael Scot almost an Archbishop, published by the Philobiblon Society, 1854. The earlier lives are all superseded by the Life and Legend of Michael Scot (1175–1232), by the Rev. J. Wood Brown, M.A., 1897, which collects and supplements the results of Jourdain, Renan, and other French and Italian scholars, gives a full list of Scottish authorities and all references of importance to him in modern continental literature. The writer is greatly indebted to Mr. Brown for the perusal of the proofs.]

Æ. M.