Great Scot: The Sicilian Life of Michael Scot

Remembered today, if remembered at all, as a wizard or magician, Michael Scot was in fact a medieval scholar of the highest order. Both Fife and the Borders in Scotland have a claim to be his birthplace and both have legends that attribute to him the kind of powers of which any wizard would be proud, including the ability to split asunder the very rocks of the Eildon Hills. Setting aside such mythical might, Scot was, nonetheless, a prodigious character. At a time when attending university was the privilege of a very small minority, Scot attended three of Europe’s best: Oxford, Paris and Bologna. Unsurprisingly, such scholarly wanderings enabled him to collect the sum total of knowledge available to a man in his position.

Michael was, however, unsatisfied. In the grand tradition of medieval vagabond academics, he wandered from court to court in search of anything and everything that would extend his research. He was eventually drawn to the court of Frederick II in Palermo. It is a testament to the position of Sicily in the Middle Ages that such a man was attracted to the island, when he could have gone anywhere in Europe. Readers who have investigated a little of Sicilian history will be familiar with Stupor Mundi. ‘Wonder of the World’, as the title translates, was the nickname given to the aforementioned Frederick II, the Hohenstaufen King of Sicily.

Frederick II
Frederick II

The appellation is an accurate one, as Frederick had created a court that valued learning, both in his capacity as the Germanic Holy Roman Emperor and the king of the island. Literature was promoted through the Sicilian School of Poetry, which wrote in the vernacular, and the king was himself a poet and author of scientific tracts. On the other hand, lest we think the island a paradise, it was also a dangerous and war-torn time. It seems that Scot’s position at court was cemented by his ability to foresee a war with the Lombard League using his astronomical/astrological observations.

In particular, Scot wrote texts for the Emperor, detailed in Thorndike’s biography of the scholar, including the Liber introductorius, the Liber particularis and the De secretis naturae. The introductorius put together Scot’s take on current scientific knowledge, focusing on the fields of geography, medicine, the planets, tides and theological research. The particularis was a religious tract conjuring up Heaven, Hell and God for the questioning and often sceptical Frederick. One shouldn’t forget that Stupor Mundi was frequently the receiver of Papal sanction, the worst of which was excommunication. Although this had as much to do with his conflicts against the Papal States as it did with his religious practices. The last of Scot’s books mentioned above was the De secretis naturae, a text on the very corporeal subject of human beings, their workings and bodily functions.

The Liber physiognomiae
The Liber physiognomiae

Michael is perhaps best remembered by academics for his translation of the Arabo-Spanish philosopher, Averroes. During an absence from Frederick’s court, Scot went to Toledo in Spain, then the seat of the famous ‘translators’ school’ where he set to work on rendering Arabic manuscripts into Latin, producing very readable translations of Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle. Toledo was then a melting pot of Christian, Arabic and Jewish thought, without which much Greek philosophy written down in Arabic by the Moors, would not have passed down to the Christian world. Frederick II was also in a position, at the crossroads of Mediterranean Europe, to taken advantage of these cross-currents.

It was Scot’s renown as the king’s right-hand intellectual man that brought him to the attention of the great Dante Alighieri. Although the writer was attracted to Michael’s astrological prowess, he was sufficiently convinced of his dark arts to banish him to the Eighth Circle of Hell along with all the other enchanters and false prophets who claimed they could read the future. Perhaps Dante had envisaged some infernal re-encounter with Frederick as he also assigned the ‘Wonder of the World’ to the flames.

In reality, through the Emperor’s good auspices, Scot was offered the position as the Archbishop of Cashel in Ireland. Yet this polyglot scholar, fluent in Latin, Greek, Arabic and vernacular languages, turned down the role as he spoke no Irish. This leads one to suspect that he didn’t want to leave the crucible of culture that was Sicily; a man with his talents could have surely learnt what he needed.

9th century diagram of the planets
9th century diagram of the planets

He actually retired to his native Scotland where his death still remains shrouded in wizardry. The possibly apocryphal story has him predicting his own death by means of a falling stone. So great was his foreboding that he took to wearing a steel helmet to protect his thin skull and rapacious brain. During a mass in Melrose he was supposed to have removed the helmet as the host was being lifted in a grand gesture of defiance to the fates and, at that very moment, a piece of masonry fell from the church roof leaving him literally stone dead.

For those who want to know more of Scot, he makes an appearance in quite a few books, both factual and fictional. He is a character in Allan Massie’s The Evening of the World and a worker of the black arts in James Hogg’s The Three Perils of Man. Boccaccio gives him a mention, as does Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and that master of Medievaldom, his namesake Walter Scott, depicts him in The Lay of the Last Minstrel.

Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.

They are also authors of the newly released Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers, endorsed by Jason Webster: ‘It is essential reading for anyone who has ever fallen for the charms, mystique and passion of southern Spain’ and Alejandro Luque: ‘An itinerary from which dreams are made.’

SicilyAndalucia book

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