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The Wondrous Michael Scott

Tomb of Michael Scott at Melrose Abbey

Tomb of Michael Scott at Melrose Abbey, no longer extant. Image adapted by Lenora.

“In these far climes, it was my lot
To meet the wondrous Michael Scott
A Wizard of such dreaded fame,
That when in Salamanca’s cave,
Him listed his magic wand to wave,
The bells would ring in Notre Dame!”

So wrote Sir Walter Scott in his 1805 poem ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’. But who was the wondrous Michael Scott and why did his legend outlive him by centuries particularly in the English-Scottish borders?   Walter Scott certainly had a lot to do with embellishing Michael Scott’s reputation as the Wizard of the North; but growing up in the borders as he did he would also have been aware of the many tales of Michael’s magical feats such as splitting the Eildon Hills in to three and spinning rope from sand and turning a coven of witches into the stone circle now known as Long Meg and her daughters.  But was Michael Scott a real living person and was he actually a wizard?

Alchemists shelfIntriguingly enough the answer to both of these questions is YES.  He was a real live Scottish medieval scholar and by the definition of his peers he was also a wizard.  But that was not all there was to Michael Scott – peel back the legend and the folk tales and you find a well-travelled, cosmopolitan man at the cutting edge of medieval learning.

Early life and education

Michael Scott’s early life is not well documented, scholars place the date of his birth around 1175.  This is based on the fact that he arrived at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1220 as a fully qualified scholar with an international reputation.

Some claim Durham, England for his birthplace other say Fife or Balwearie in Scotland.  His family name may not have been Scott – this could be a latter appendage acquired during his European Travels.  Nevertheless who ever his family was it is likely that they were monied enough to fund his education and extensive travels.

Michael was educated possibly at Durham cathedral School and definitely at Oxford and Paris.  In Paris he studied sacred letters, divinity and became a Dr of Theology as well as earning the soubriquet Michael Mathematicus (Michael the Mathematician).   Following his studies he embarked on a scholarly tour of Europe.

International Man of Mystery

For Michael the first decade of the thirteenth century was taken up with establishing his reputation as a monastic scholar of the first water and a practitioner of arcane sciences.  He took up residence in Toledo University, a university famous for the study of the occult.  Here his fame grew as a talented translator of Arabic works into Latin.  His work translating Arabic copies of Classical texts (such as the works of Aristotle) helped to reintroduce much lost classical learning back into Europe.  He translated works such as ‘Liber Astronomie’ by Alpetragius (Abu Ishaq Nured-din-al-Bitruji Al-Ishbilt) and ‘De Animalibus’ prior to 1220.  This familiarity with ‘secret’ knowledge of the east may, at the time of the Crusades when the secrets of the ‘infidel’ were regarded with suspicion, have added to his occult reputation.  Michael’s eccentric dress sense may also have added to his Wizardly credentials as he favoured a long robe, tied at the waste and topped off with a pointed hat.  This may have been in the style of an Arabic Sage but it did cause comment amongst his contemporaries.

The science of heresy

From Toledo, Michael travelled to Bologna, Padua (where he penned his treatise on Judicial Astrology), and Salerno where he may have taken on pupils including the famous mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci (creator of the Fibonacci sequence – so famous it even merited a mention in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code!)

During this time his fame as a translator spread across Europe – even the pope sought out his skills.  One of his areas of expertise that the Catholic Church was less keen on was Judicial Astrology – the practice of divining the future by calculating the position of the planets and sun in relation to the Earth.  Unlike natural and meteorological Astrology which were reputable branches of the sciences, Judicial Astrology existed in the unholy borderlands between religion and science and was considered a heresy by the Catholic Church.  It was also one of the key factors in being considered a Wizard in the Medieval world.

At the crossroads of civilisation

Frederick II Holy Roman Emperor

Frederick II Holy Roman Emperor, artist unknown

Frederick II (1194-1250), Holy Roman Emperor was known as Stupor Mundi – the Wonder of the Age.  His court at Palermo in Sicily was situated at the crossroads of civilizations – where the Mediterranean world met the Islamic and Jewish; Frederick was an enthusiastic patron of learning and the sciences and welcomed scholars to his court.  Into this cosmopolitan and glamorous world came Michael Scott, his invitation secured by his fame as a scholar and philosopher.  Frederick wanted a description of the universe and thought Michael Scott was the man for the job.  He posed a series of questions that Michael was to answer.

When not defining the universe for the enlightenment of Frederick, he continued his work as a translator and  his study of alchemy and judicial astrology, writing:

“every astrologer is worthy of praise and honour since by such doctrine as astrology he probably knows many secrets of God, and things which few know.”

such words only help to illustrate why this branch of study rankled the Church so much – after all priests held the monopoly on the secrets of God not heretical scholars!

At Frederick’s Court Michael also produced a number of original works on astrology, alchemy and the occult sciences (not all were completed).  He also studied medicine and was credited with curing Frederick on several occasions.

It is said that he and Frederick enjoyed a close friendship although on at least one occasion it was a testing friendship.  Legend has it that Frederick asked Michael to calculate the distance between the top of a church tower and heaven.  Untroubled by this, Michael confidently produced the figures. Wishing to test his friend, Frederick secretly had the tower’s height reduced and asked the question again hoping to catch Michael out.  The canny Scott was too clever for the cunning Emperor though and responded by saying:

“Either heaven has drawn further away from the earth – or the tower has got smaller!”

Michael’s reputation was not entirely unblemished, he was thought to be a vain man, especially in relation to his scholarly works.  He also claimed to have turned copper into gold and was not above putting on public displays of miracle-working and manipulation to the astonishment of the general population.  Such showmanship would have further cemented his image as a wizard in the minds of the ordinary folk – pre programmed to believe in wonders and miracles rather than look for rational explanations.

This vanity and showmanship also granted him a place in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Michael appears in the 8th Circle of hell and is introduced thus:

“that other there, his flanks extremely spare,Was Michael Scott, a man who certainly
Knew how the game of magical fraud was played”

And this despite Michael being Dante’s favourite astrologer!  His inclusion is likely to be a political gesture to the Pope and a swipe at the Pope’s sworn enemy ‘The Anti-Christ’ Frederick II.

Michael was also noted for his gift of prophecy and is credited with accurately prophesying the outcome of the Lombard War, the time and manner of Frederick II death and the manner of his own death.  Perhaps Frederick was not too happy having a date set for his demise, and eventually Michael left the glittering Court of the Holy Roman Emperor and continued his travels.

Returning Home

Melrose AbbeyMichael’s final travels appear to have been through Germany, Italy and England and he may have planned to retire to a Monastery. At some point the pope must have got over Michael’s association with his arch nemesis and offered Micheal and arch-bishopric in Ireland but Michael turned the living down.

Lay of the Last Minstrel 1806 Ed

Lay of Last Minstrel 1806 Ed, collection of Lenora

It is said that Michael, having foreseen his own death being caused by a falling stone, took to wearing a metal hat; however, God or the devil (depending on your viewpoint) has a way of claiming His own. On attending church one day Michael removed his hat and was struck by a piece of falling masonry.  He died later from his injuries.  He is recorded as having died in 1236.

As with his birth, the place of his death and burial is disputed, however the most famous tale is associated with Melrose Abbey where it is said he was buried with his books of magic.

Sir Walter Scott has the Minstrel describe it thus:

“I buried him on St Michael’s night,
When the bell tolled one, and the moon was bright,
And I dug his chamber among the dead,
When the floor of the chancel was stained red,
That his patron’s cross might over him wave,
And scare the fiends from the wizard’s grave.”


Soon after his death, Michael Scott’s legacy was under scrutiny.  Although he was referred to as ‘The most renowned and feared sorcerer and alchemist in the thirteenth century’ he was also consigned to the 8th Circle of Hell by Dante; appeared in Cornelius Agrippa’s “De Occulta Philosophie”; was both derided and defended by later scholars for his occult studies; and entered into the folk memory of the borders as a wizard and magician.  The fact remains, however that he was one of the greatest thinkers of his day: an internationally renowned philosopher, translator and scientist.

Although Michael Scott may have been a little put out that his other scholarly pursuits have been overshadowed by his more occult practices; I don’t think his vanity would have been too pricked to learn that history had granted him the sobriquet: Wizard of the North.


BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/earlychurch/oddities_earlychurch.shtml
Dante, Divine Comedy, Harmondsworth, 1977
New Scotsman, http://www.scotsman.com/news/scottish-wizard-who-tutored-the-pope-1-466356
Phillip Coppens, http://www.philipcoppens.com/michaelscott.html
Rampant Scotland, http://www.rampantscotland.com/famous/blfamwizard.htm
Scott, Walter, ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’, London, 1806
Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Scot and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judicial_astrology