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Early life and education
He was born in Scotland, possibly at Balwearie in Fife (as Sir Walter Scott believed), and studied first at the cathedral school of Durham and then at Oxford and Paris, devoting himself to philosophy, mathematics, and astrology. It appears that he had also studied theology and become an ordained priest, as Pope Honorius III wrote to Stephen Langton on 16 January 1223/4, urging him to confer an English benefice on Scot, and actually himself nominated him archbishop of Cashel in Ireland.
This appointment Scot refused to take up, but he seems to have held benefices in Italy from time to time. From Paris, Scot went to Bologna, and thence, after a stay at Palermo, to Toledo. There he acquired a knowledge of Arabic. This opened up to him the Arabic versions of Aristotle and the multitudinous commentaries of the Arabs upon them, and also brought him into contact with the original works of Avicenna and Averroes.
Scot was a typical example of the polyglot wandering scholar of the Middle Ages - a churchman who knew Latin, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. When he was about 50, Frederick II attracted him to his brilliant court in the Two Sicilies, and at the instigation of the emperor he superintended (along with Hermannus Alemannus) a fresh translation of Aristotle and the Arabian commentaries from Arabic into Latin. There exist translations by Scot himself of the Historia animalium, of De anima and of De coelo, along with the commentaries of Averroes upon them.
In a letter of 1227, recorded by Scot in his 'Liber particularis', Frederick put questions to him concerning the foundations of the earth, the geography and rulership of the heavens, what is beyond the last heaven, in which heaven God sits, and the precise locations of hell, purgatory and heavenly paradise. He also asks about the soul; and about volcanoes, rivers, and seas. According to chronicler Fra Salimbene, he attempts to catch Michael out in his calculations of the distance to heaven by scaling from the height of a church tower (by having it secretly lowered). See Masson (1957) for text of the questions.
- Super auctorem spherae, printed at Bologna in 1495 and at Venice in 1631
- De sole et luna, printed at Strassburg (1622), in the Theatrum chimicum, and containing more alchemy than astronomy, the sun and moon appearing as the images of gold and silver
- De chiromantia, an opuscule often published in the 15th century
- De physiognomia et de hominis procreatione, which saw no fewer than eighteen editions between 1477 and 1660. It is an early example of psychology.
The Physiognomia (which also exists in an Italian translation) and the Super auctorem spherae expressly state that the author undertook the works at the request of the Emperor Frederick.
"Every astrologer is worthy of praise and honour," Scot wrote, "Since by such a doctrine as astrology he probably knows many secrets of God, and things which few know."
He was offered in 1223 the role of being the Archbishop of Cashel in Ireland by Pope Honorius III; then that of Canterbury in 1227 by Pope Gregory IX.
The date of Scot's death remains uncertain. The efforts of Sir Walter Scott and others to identify him with the Sir Michael Scot of Balwearie, sent in 1290 on a special embassy to Norway, have not convinced historians, though the two may have had family connections.
Scot in legend
The legendary Michael Scot used to feast his friends with dishes brought by spirits from the royal kitchens of France and Spain and other lands.
He is said to have turned to stone a coven of witches, which have become the stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters.
But Michael Scot's reputation as a magician had already become fixed in the age immediately following his own. He appears in Dante's Divine Comedy (Inferno, canto xx.115–117) in the fourth bolgia located in the Eighth Circle of Hell that is reserved for sorcerers, astrologers, and false prophets who claimed they can see the future when they could not.
Boccaccio represents him in the same character, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola arraigns him severely in his work against astrology, while Gabriel Naudé finds it necessary to defend his good name in his Apologie pour tous les grands personages faussement soupçonnez de magie.
Sir Walter Scott deploys Michael Scott (sic) in his The Lay of the Last Minstrel. In Footnotes 12/13, he credits him with conquering an indefatigable demon, after it had succeeded in splitting Eildon Hill into its three distinctive cones, by challenging it to weave ropes from sea-salt. He records that in the Scottish Borders any work of great labour or antiquity is ascribed either to Auld Michael, or Sir William Wallace, or the Devil.
Scot in modern fiction
Scot is portrayed as a black magician given to practical jokes in James Hogg's novel The Three Perils of Man.
Allan Massie's novels The Evening of the World and Arthur the King (as well as a third projected novel) are written in the format of a romance composed by Scot on the theme of empire for the instruction of Frederick II; it implies that Scot and Frederick were lovers.
Scot is the title character in the historic fantasy novel The Lord of Middle Air by Michael Scott Rohan, who claims descent from the magician.
Jane Yolen's Tartan Magic series features Scot as a villain.
In the children's television fantasy Shoebox Zoo, Michael Scot has survived to the present day, where he acts as a Gandalf-like character, serving as the mysterious, if somewhat grouchy, advisor to the protagonist, Marnie. He is played by Peter Mullan.
In John Buchan’s The Three Hostages (1924), Scott [sic] and his work Physiognomia are mentioned in reference to the arts of spiritual/mind control, a subject of great interest to Dominick Medina, the tale's antagonist.
Scot appears as an Archmage in the White Wolf Publishing Mage/Changeling supplement Isle of the Mighty (1996).
In the book Falketårnet (English: "The Falcon Tower") by Erik Fosnes Hansen, he is one of the important characters. In this book he is known as an astrologer who gives another main character, Wolfgang, a horoscope.
In the short story "The Perils of the Double Sign" by Robertson Davies, (which appears in a collection called High Spirits,) the narrator mentions that Michael Scot is one of his favourite authors, and his knowledge of Scot's work on the occult aids him in his encounters with a genie.
Michael Scot (seemingly reincarnated as a child) plays a larger role in the young adult novel How to Make a Golem and Terrify People by Alette Willis.
- Buchan, John, The Three Hostages (House of Stratus; 2001), ISBN 1-84232-794-1, pp. 142-148, retrieved from http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Three_Hostages.html?id=9y8UMM7jIvQC Sept. 23, 2012.
- Silke Ackermann (2009), Sternstunden am Kaiserhof: Michael Scotus und sein Buch von den Bildern und Zeichen des Himmels ISBN 978-3-631-59489-6.
- Rev. J. Wood Brown (1897), Life and Legend of Michael Scot.
- (English) "Michael Scotus". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- Lynn Thorndike (1965), Michael Scot ISBN 1-4254-5505-0, ISBN 978-1-4254-5505-7.
- Georgina Masson (1957), Frederick II of Hohenstaufen - a Life. London,Secker&Warburg
- Christoph Kann (1993). "Michael Scotus". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German) 5. Herzberg: Bautz. cols. 1459–1461. ISBN 3-88309-043-3.