Michael Scot

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Michael Scot (Latin: Michael Scotus; 1175 – c. 1232) was a Scottish mathematician and scholar in the Middle Ages.

Early life and education[edit]

Scot was born somewhere in the border regions of Scotland or northern England. It has been claimed that he 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 nominated Scot as archbishop of Cashel in Ireland.[1] Scot declined this appointment, but he seems to have held benefices in Italy. From Paris, Scot went to Bologna, and then after a stay at Palermo, to Toledo. There he learnt Arabic well enough to study the Arabic versions of Aristotle and the many commentaries of the Arabs upon these, as well as the original works of Avicenna and Averroes.[1]


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 court in the Kingdom of Sicily, 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.

The second version of Fibonacci's famous book on mathematics, Liber Abaci, was dedicated to Scot in 1227, and it has been suggested that Scot played a part in Fibonacci's presentation of the Fibonacci sequence.[2]

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 the chronicler Fra Salimbene, he attempts to catch Scot out in his calculations of the distance to heaven by scaling from the height of a church tower (by having it secretly lowered).[a]

Scot was a pioneer in the study of physiognomy.[3] His manuscripts dealt with astrology, alchemy and the occult sciences generally and account for his popular reputation. These works include:

  • 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 (small or petty work) often published in the 15th century.
  • De physiognomia et de hominis procreatione, which saw no fewer than 18 editions between 1477 and 1660.

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;[1] then that of Canterbury in 1227 by Pope Gregory IX.


The date of Scot's death remains uncertain. The efforts of 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[edit]

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.

Scot's reputation as a magician had already become fixed in the age immediately following his own. He appears in Dante's Divine Comedy[4] in the fourth bolgia located in the Eighth Circle of Hell, 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.

In John Leyden's ballad Lord Soulis, Michael Scot is credited with teaching magic to the protagonist, the evil sorcerer William II de Soules, who ends up being boiled alive.[5][6][7]

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[edit]

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.

Michael Scot's soul is summoned from its current incarnation to his mouldering body by a lodge of black magicians in The Adept, by Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris. During The Adept Book Two: The Lodge of the Lynx the personality of Scot is reintegrated with his modern incarnation (a young girl named Gillian Talbot) in order to heal the coma created by one part of the spirit being removed from the body for a protracted period.

Michael Scott [sic] was the teacher of the wizard Prospero in John Bellairs' novel The Face in the Frost.

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.[8]

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.


  1. ^ See Masson (1957) for the text of the questions.


  1. ^ a b c Scott, T. C.; Marketos, P. (November 2014). "Michael Scot". University of St Andrews. Retrieved 23 October 2016. 
  2. ^ Scott, T.C.; Marketos, P. (March 2014), On the Origin of the Fibonacci Sequence (PDF), MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews 
  3. ^ Armando Maggi (1 September 2001). Satan's Rhetoric: A Study of Renaissance Demonology. University of Chicago Press. pp. 184–. ISBN 978-0-226-50132-1. 
  4. ^ Alighieri, Dante (c. 1320) Inferno, canto xx. 115–117
  5. ^ John Leyden. "Lord Soulis" (PDF). British Literary Ballads Archive. Retrieved April 8, 2014. 
  6. ^ David Ross. "Hermitage Castle". Britain Express. Retrieved April 3, 2014. 
  7. ^ "William de Soulis". Undiscovered Scotland. Retrieved April 3, 2014. 
  8. ^ Buchan, John, The Three Hostages (House of Stratus; 2001), ISBN 1-84232-794-1, pp. 142-148, retrieved from https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Three_Hostages.html?id=9y8UMM7jIvQC Sept. 23, 2012.


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