Michael Scot

Life

Not a great deal is known about the details of the life of Michael Scot, much of his personality though can be detected from a close reading of his works, from which a picture of a insatiable collector of information appears, niave perhaps and determined to communicate knowledge, but not a good interpreter of that knowledge. Roger Bacon credited Scot with bringing Aristotle into Latin from 1230 onwards, but also criticised him for his lack of analysis of his Arabic and Hebrew sources.

The facts that we can determine about Scot’s life are:

  • He was probably born in the late 12th century.
  • He was in Toledo in 1217 – where he completed his translation of AL-BITRODJI (ALPETRAGIUS) On the Sphere.
  • On 21 October 1220 he appears at Bologna, living in the house of the widow of ALBERTO GALLO and giving a medical consultation on a neighbour’s case of calculus. Frederick was in the area of Bologna at the time, so it is possible that they have met at that time.
  • From 1224 to 1227 he was recommended by Pope’s Honorius III and Gregory IX to benefices in England and Scotland
  • Leonardo Pisano (Pisan mathematician connected to Frederick II) dedicated his abacus work to Michael
  • Michael Scot probably joined Frederick’s court in 1227 – he was no longer mentioned in Papal registers. He was also called Frederick’s astrologer by contemporary writers.
  • In 1231, he was in Bologna where the podesta and certain notables of the city consulted him on the fate of the Lombard cities and replied with a set of famous prophetic verses.
  • His death was probably 1236 – Henry of Avranches (a court poet) mentions that Michael passed in this year. If we attach any weight to the Paris manuscript of SCOT’S Vaticinium, he was in Germany with the emperor on this journey, and would thus have met his death there. The story ran that he was killed at mass by the falling of a stone, in spite of a metal headpiece by which he had sought to protect himself.

From his writing we can determine that he knew the Church fathers, but not classical authors such as Virgil, Ovid or Cicero. He was also able to translate from Arabic and Hebrew, but probably not Greek. It was as a translator of Aristotle and Arabic writers that he first appears, but also authored his own works on astrology that were dedicated to Frederick II.

Works

Scot was famous as a translator of Aristotle and also of Arabs who had translated and commented on Aristotle previously. But he was probably more notorious as a writer of his own works of astrology, dedicated to Frederick II. These works are what most probably gave him the reputation of a magician. However, very little of these works actually refers to magic. Scot believed that astrology was a science that enabled the user to interpret signs of what was to come. He did not view it as heretical or in any way in conflict with Christian faith.

Scots’ works of Translation at Toledo included:

  • Translation of Al-Britodji – completed in Toledo 18 Aug 1217.Important source of Aristotelean cosmology in 13c – perhaps used by Francis Bacon.
  • Translation of Aristotle’s Historia Animalium – either from Arabic or Hebrew. Mistakes in translation repeated by Albertus Magnus.
  • There were Also translations of Aristotle’s De coelo et mundo, De anima, Physics, Ethics, Metaphysics belong to Spanish period.

After joining the entourage of Frederick, Michael is credited with the following works:

  • Abbreviatio Avicenne de animalibus – dedicated to Frederick and before 1232.
  • Works of astrology dedicated to Frederick and after 1228 – Liber introductorius, theLiber particularis, and the Physiognornia.
  • Various works on alchemy are also doubtfully ascribed to Scot.

Bacon criticised accuracy of Scot’s translations, saying most probably done by a Jew named Andrew, but credited him as introducing Latin translations of Aristotle, although in truth only De animalibus was for the first time translated into Latin by Michael.

Scot’s education and references show a knowledge of scripture and Church fathers such as Augustine, Ambrose, Boethius, Isidore and Bede.

However, classical writers such as Virgil, Cicero and Ovid rarely appear.

Michael knew Arabic and Hebrew, but probably not Greek.

Michaels Works of Astrology:

He believed that movements of planets etc do not create events but are signs of them.  Sound learning (mathesis) can help man to predict events, distinguished from magic (matesis), which no Christian can soundly practice. In fact it seems that astrologers were widely used in Italy at least to predict the outcome of events, for instance the elections of podestas to run city communes.

The three books he wrote were:

Physiognomia – interpretation of dreams for telling the future.

Liber introductorius – written in popular style, for beginners of astrology. Importance placed on sevens – seven planets, metals, arts, colors, odors, tones, etc. In this book he refers to sources and guardedly more dangerous books – a Liber perditionis anime et corporis containing the names, abodes, and workings of demons, and a Liber auguriorum, ymaginurn, et prestigiorum, which wasbanned by the Church.

He gives accounts of two experiments carried out with the Emperor – incubation of eggs and measuring the height of heaven.

Liber particularis – concerned with measurement of time in broad terms.

Most interesting part is the last quarter – a series of questions put by Frederick II. Frederick’s questions show a keener mind than do Michael’s facile answers.

Michael Scot information at Wikisource

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