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Michael Scott: the Scottish wizard

Scott, “the Wizard of the North”, is credited variously as Scotland’s first scientist, alchemist, sorcerer and astronomer. He is also one of Scotland’s forgotten geniuses. Who is the man behind the myth?

Philip Coppens

Scott was so famous, he has become a legend – nothing but a legend, for some. Like Roger Bacon, he was a man of science; like Bacon, after his death, his life became obscured by a smokescreen of myth and legend. A man promoting science had become a fairytale character. In 1385, Bacon was said to be capable of conjuring a bridge out of thin air to span a river – in the previous century, Scott was said to have split the Eildon Hills! Amongst his other legendary accounts was that he supposedly locked the plague in a secret vault of Glenluce castle.

Rightfully called “The Scottish wizard”, he was nevertheless a Scottish export – like Bacon was very much an English export. He studied abroad and worked abroad, most famously at the court of Emperor Frederick II in Sicily. His fame earned him a place in Dante’s Inferno, as well as Cornelius Agrippa’s De occulta philosophie. He is often referred to as “the most renowned and feared sorcerer and alchemist of the 13th century”. That other famous Scotsman, Sir Walter Scott, included him in Lay of the Last Minstrel and claimed he descended from his namesake.
Despite an illustrious career, little is known about Scott. He lived from ca. 1175 to 1232, possibly born in the Scottish Borders. As he was able to study abroad, it is assumed that his family was wealthy. The efforts of Sir Walter Scott and others to identify him with Sir Michael Scot of Balwearie, a castle on the south side of Kirkcaldy, in Fife, who was an envoy on a special mission for the king to Norway in 1290, have not convinced historians, if only because the time-span of “Sir Michael” is several decades too late for the “real” Michael Scott. Still, the two may have had family connections.

Scott studied at Oxford, Paris and Toledo universities. After his initial training in Oxford, he studied mathematics in Paris – he was often referred to as “Michael Mathematicus”, Michael the Mathematician. But he also received distinction in sacred letters and divinity, becoming a doctor of theology. Throughout, his main avocation remained nevertheless judicial astrology, that field of study that sat between religion and science, and which was the key determinative for becoming a “wizard”. It seems that after Paris, he was ready to learn more, but also to begin to teach others. He visited several foreign countries and universities, including that of Padua, where he distinguished himself by his essays on judicial astrology. It is most likely here that Scott had a very famous student: Leonardo Fibonacci, the author of “Liber abaci” (Book of the Abacus - 1202), the first European book to use “0” for zero. The book included the famous series 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55.... known to us as the Fibonacci Sequence, where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers.

From this period onwards, Scott’s fame gradually spread abroad. He decided to take up residence in the Spanish town of Toledo, whose university was celebrated for its cultivation of the occult sciences. He translated from Arabic into Latin Aristotle’s nineteen books on the History of Animals.

Emperor Frederick II

In 1217, Scott translated “Liber astronomiae” (Book of Astronomy) by Alpetragius (Abu Ishaq, Nured-din al-Bitruji al-Ishbilt), the first work that discussed the astronomical system of Aristotle. It is known he did this work in Toledo, where he is known to have been in March 1217 – the first solid piece of knowledge that is known about him. One of his most important translations was Aristotle’s De animalibus, also completed at Toledo before 1220 and preserved in more than sixty medieval manuscripts. He went to Bologna in 1220 and may have taught at Salerno.

These translations procured him the notice, and subsequently the patronage of Emperor Frederick II, who invited him to his court in Palermo, and bestowed on him the office of royal astrologer. When he arrived at the Imperial court, chroniclers noted his unusual dress-sense. It would seem that the Spaniards of those days differed from the other European nations in their habit. They wore a close girdle about the waist, like the hhezum of the East. Scott must have adopted such a dress while at Toledo, and thus the singularity of his appearance struck the eyes of the court. Others have argued that when Scott arrived, he was not following some Spanish fashion, but was actually wearing the costume of an Arabian sage: the flowing robes, the close-girt waist, the pointed cap.

At the time, performing miracles was largely in the bailiwick of Jewish Kaballists, but Scott was reported to have “a public reputation for performing miracles that would put any self-respecting wonder working Rabbi to shame”. He is also reported to have been adept at inducing visions by a combination of manipulation of light and suggestion – hypnosis?

At the Imperial court, Scott continued to translate the works of Aristotle, apparently at the Emperor’s specific desire. Apart from translations, Scott also wrote down his own acquired knowledge. He wrote “Liber Introductorius sive Indicia Quaestionum,” for the use of young students, as well as a treatise on physiognomy, entitled “Physiognomia et de Hominis Procreatione”, on human anatomy, physiology and reproduction, along with some zoology – underlining his training in medicine. A work about astrology, alchemy and the occult sciences, in the form a trilogy, Liber introductorius, Liber particularis and Physionomia (De secretis nature) was presented to Frederick in 1228, though were not completed. The work was no doubt to be his crowning glory – though he never accomplished that “great work”.

Frederick II and Michael Scott are believed to have had an intimate relationship. Though the Emperor was excommunicated twice and one pope labelled him the Antichrist, the Emperor was a very educated man, said to speak nine languages and be literate in seven – unusual in any period of time and most unusual for a noble – in any period of time. What must have attracted Scott to his court was that the Emperor was a patron of science and learning, centuries before Cosimo de Medici created a similar scientific safe-haven in the city of Florence. Not only Scott, but the famous astrologer Guido Bonatti from Forlì worked at the Imperial court.
Before Scott resigned his position, he predicted to the Emperor the time, place, and manner of his death; and the prophecy is said to have been exactly fulfilled in every particular detail. After a residence of some years in Germany, he came to England, apparently planning his return to his native Scotland, where he may have planned to retire.
While in England, Pope Honorius III wrote to Stephen Langton on January 16 1223/4, urging him to confer an English benefice. The Pope actually nominated him archbishop of Cashel in Ireland, evidence of the esteem he was held in. However, Scot refused to take up the position.

Though Scott was one of the most learned men of his time, he would be remembered for his wizardry. This side was already prominent when he was included in Dante’s famous work, which was written less than a century after his life:

“That other there, his flanks extremely spare,
was Michael Scot, a man who certainly
knew how the game of magic fraud was played.”

Scot’s main modern claim to fame is that a BBC Scotland children series, Shoebox Zoo, used his name and character and gave him fame – very much like Harry Potter made another wizard, Nicolas Flamel, more famous than any non-fiction author ever could.
In the series, Scott is the “good wizard” guiding a motherless child, Marnie McBride, to the book of forbidden knowledge. McBride, a 10-year-old who lives in Denver, Canada, goes with her father to stay with her grandparents in Scotland after her mother dies. She wanders into a dusty junk shop in Edinburgh on her 11th birthday and stumbles on a battered old wooden shoebox. When she opens the box and sees the Celtic animal carvings on its lid, she also opens a fantasy world of ancient forces battling to find Scott’s mysterious book of knowledge.

Scott was – to repeat – a larger than life character – a myth, which occasionally keeps being rewritten – take Walter Scott. Walter Scott is most likely the main factor as to why most believe Michael Scott is buried in Melrose Abbey, where there is a cross dedicated to him, as well as a statue of this turbaned figure. But it is just one of several possibilities. Others contend it is Home Coltrame, in Cumberland where Scott died and was buried. It is also believed that Scott lived in Glenluce, a Cistercian monastery – like Melrose Abbey. Others have him die in Europe, others point towards Italy. Legend has it that his books of magic were interred in his grave, or preserved in the convent where he died. Both Glenluce and Melrose Abbey were Cistercian abbeys and it may indeed be that these abbeys became the retirement home of the old Michael Scott.
If he ever did return to Scotland, he may have been seen as the spiritual grandfather of whiskey. Surviving copies of manuscripts attributed to him refer to distillation and to “aqua ardens”, the earliest name for distilled alcohol. These manuscripts do not actually provide rock-solid proof that he knew of distilled alcohol, as they are transcribed copies dating from several centuries after his death, but still… If he returned to Scotland, did he bring this knowledge back to Scotland? If so, it is possible that alcohol was known in Scotland more than 250 years before its first solid record in 1494. But it is known that the earliest solid European records of a distilled alcoholic spirit come from the famous medical school at Salerno in southern Italy, and from the University of Toledo in Spain. In both cases, the records date from ca. 1150 – well before Scott’s time. In short, Scott must have known. But like so much else of his life, whether he acquainted Scotland with the dram or not will remain a mystery…