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Scott, Michael (ca. 1175-ca. 1234)

Scott, Michael (ca. 1175-ca. 1234)

Scottish mathematician, physician, astrologer, and reputed magician. Although Michael Scott's life is shrouded in obscurity, his name is familiar for various reason. First, the poet Dante referred to him in his Inferno, speaking of him as one singularly skilled in magical arts, while Scott was also mentioned by Boccaccio, who hailed him as among the greatest masters of necromancy. Moreover, Samuel Taylor Coleridge planned a drama dealing with Scott, who Scott asserted was a much more interesting personality than Faust. There is a novel about him by Allan Cunningham, but above all, he figures in Sir Walter Scott's The Lay of the Last Minstrel.

Sir Walter Scott, not a very careful antiquarian, identified the astrologer with one Sir Michael Scott of Balwearie, who, along with Sir David Wemyss of Wemyss, went to bring the Maid of Norway to Scotland in 1290. However, this identification is manifestly wrong, for in a poem by Vincent de Beauvais published as early as 1235, Michael Scott was mentioned as lately deceased.

This does not altogether dispose the idea that he emanated from the family of Balwearie, whose estates were situated near Kirkcaldy, in Fife, and it is almost certain that Scott was a man of high birth, since he studied at Oxford University.

When his Oxford days were over, Scott proceeded to the Sorbonne in Paris, where he acquired the title of mathematics, and from the French capital he wandered on to Bologna, in those days famous as a seat of learning. He did not stay for long, however, but went on to Palermo. He subsequently settled for a while at Toledo to study Arabic.

He appears to have been successful with these studies, thoroughly mastering the intricacies of the Arabic language. He next went to Sicily, where he became attached to the court of Ferdinand II, probably in the capacity of state astrologer. At least, he is so designated in an early manuscript copy (now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England) of his book on astronomy.

Scott had also at some time taken holy orders. In 1223, Pope Honorius III wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, urging him to procure an English benefice for Scott. It appears that in the following year, Scott was offered the Archbishopric of Cashel in Ireland, but he declined it on account of his total ignorance of the Irish language.

Scott was clearly highly esteemed at the Vatican, for in 1227 Gregory IX, successor to Honorius, made further overtures to the English primate on behalf of Scott. Whether these proved fruitful or not, according to Roger Bacon, Scott came to England in 1230, bringing with him the works of Aristotleat that date virtually unknown in that countryand giving them a certain popularity among scholars.

Although no documentary evidence is forthcoming to support this theory, local tradition at Melrose, Scotland, contends that the astrologer came to that town in his old age, and that he died there and was buried somewhere in the neighborhood. Various other places in the Borders area of Scotland likewise claimed this distinction, and Sir Walter Scott stated that throughout the south of Scotland, "any great work of great labour or antiquity is ascribed either to Auld Michael, Sir William Wallace, or the Devil."

One popular story about Scott maintains that he used to ride through the air on a demon horse, and another claims that he used to sail the seas on the back of some fabulous animal. Yet a further legend recounts that Scott went as Scottish envoy to the king of France, and that the first stamp of his black steed's hoof rang the bells of Notre Dame, whereupon his most Christian majesty granted the messenger all he desired.

As regards the writings of Scott, he is credited with a translation of Aristotle's De Animalibus, but the ascription is not very well founded. However, it is almost certain that he wrote Quvœsto Curiosa de Natura Solis et Lunae, which is included in the Theatrum Chemicum. He was undoubtedly the author of Mensa Philosophica, published at Frankfurt in 1602, and also of Liber Physiognomiœ Magistri Michaelis Scot, a book that was reprinted nearly twenty times and translated into various languages.

Reference has already been made to a manuscript attributed to Scott in the Bodleian Library, and it should be noted that at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, the Vatican, and at the Sorbonne, there are further documents purporting to have been written by the astrologer himself, at his dictation, or copied out by scribes soon after the actual author's death.

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