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 Aristotle—at that
date virtually unknown in that country—and 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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