Friday, January 17, 2014

Scholar of the Supernatural

[I am on a brief vacation, so here is a post from the past. This post first appeared 23 August 2012.]

In Dante's Inferno, the eighth circle is reserved for sorcerers, astrologers, and false prophets. There the narrator sees Michael Scot. You might think, if someone were so well-known after his death, that we would know more about him. Well, we know a little, but we have some cool stories.

Michael Scot, depicted here tearing up the Scriptures.*
Michael Scot was no doubt born in Scotland, although other locations (like Salerno and Toldeo) have tried to claim him. Dates of 1175-c.1232 seem to work for what little we know of his life. We know that Pope Honorius wrote to Stephen Langton on 16 January 1223, urging him to grant Scot a religious position, and that Honorius himself nominated Scot for Archbishop of Cashel. If Scot was educated sufficiently to be offered these positions, he would not have lived until 1290, which is the date Sir Walter Scott offers for his death. (Scott was confusing Scot with a Sir Michael Scot who lived later.)

Scot turned down the position in Cashel; it looks like he did hold benefices in Italy, however, spending time in Bologna and Palermo before going to Toledo in Spain. It was probably in Spain that he learned Arabic, which helped get him invited to the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Besides translating texts for Frederick, he was a court astrologer, saying of the work:
Every astrologer is worthy of praise and honor, since by such a doctrine as astrology he probably knows many secrets of God, and things which few know.
This was not likely to endear him to the Roman Catholic Church.

Although he was known in his lifetime as a brilliant Aristotelian scholar, and Fibonacci's Liber Abaci was dedicated to him, his books on alchemy and astrology and the occult sciences earned him a reputation for magic. A Bronze Age circle of stones in northwest England called "Long Meg and Her Daughters" was supposedly a coven of witches turned to stone by Scot. Other stories have him hosting feasts served by invisible spirits. Boccaccio refers to him in the Decameron as a magician. It is also told (long after the fact) that he predicted he would die from a small stone falling on his head from a great height. He always wore an iron cap to prevent it, but he removed the cap when entering a church one day (more not to stand out than for reverence of God, we are told), and a small stone of the size he predicted fell on his head. He picked up the stone, recognized that his prophecy was coming true, put his affairs in order, and died of the head wound shortly after! His reputation (helped by the dearth of facts) has made him a prime subject for fiction right up to the present day.

*From a fresco painted between 1366 and 1388 by Andrea Bonaiuti in the Cappellone degli Spagnoli of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. St. Dominic preaches to the crowd.

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