In A Nutshell
Michael Scott is a real-life Scottish monk and scholar whose legacy was turned into something magical, mystical, and devilish. A brilliant mathematician, translator, astronomer, and philosopher, he studied at Oxford University and traveled Europe in the 12th century. It was a dangerous time to be a scholar, though, and an even more dangerous time to be fluent in Arabic and in possession of Middle Eastern knowledge. Knowledge quickly turned to wizardry, and the monk became one of the few Scots to be damned to Hell in Dante’s Inferno.
The Whole Bushel
Details about Michael Scott’s life are sketchy at best, especially when we look at the line that’s drawn between monk and magician. He was born around 1175 in Scotland, but just where is up for debate as well, and every place that claims to be the site of his birth had their own legends about him. In Balwearie, he could use sand to spin rope. In the Borderlands, he created the three peaks of the Eildon Hills.
And in all places, it was said that he could bend the will of demons to do his own work. So who was this magician?
He started out studying mathematics and philosophy at Oxford University; when he left, he traveled across Europe from London to Paris to Spain. He was also a student of theology, astronomy, and language, the last of which would catapult him into the eyes of the papacy. While in Toledo, Spain, he did extensive work translating Arabic and Greek texts.
In a time when the Crusades were still recent history, that was a dangerous thing. In addition to knowing the language, Scott embraced many Middle Eastern customs and dress. While he was translating texts, he also embraced his other love—the occult. Add an obsession with astrology, demonology, and other occult subjects to an ability to read the texts and understand the language of a non-Christian enemy, and you have an undoubtedly dangerous combination.
It was his skills as an astronomer that ultimately made Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, send for him to install him in his court as his astrologer. That court was a central point in all that he found fascinating, and without a doubt, it was the place for him to be. But when Frederick II was excommunicated—twice—Scott’s reputation was called into further question.
And that’s when things start to get a little hazy.
It’s not even really known how Scott started to have magical powers ascribed to him, but it’s thought that his contemporaries believed that he garnered mystical information from the texts he was translating. Suddenly he was given the ability to control demons, to modify the landscape, and to prophesy. According to one story, he had a magic staff that allowed him to change the course of rivers, and another legend says that he had a black horse that allowed him to ride from Scotland to France in a single night. Some stories have him putting his witchcraft to good use, fighting pirates off the coast of Scotland.
He was also credited with being a healer, and there’s some historical documentation to support that claim, at least. Herbal medicine was one of the things that he was well versed in, and some accounts say that Frederick II took his advice on medical matters.
It was said that he knew he would die when a small stone fell from the sky and hit him in the head. He always wore a helmet, according to legend, until he entered a church, removed the helmet, and was hit from a stone that fell from the church ceiling. It did, of course, kill him—all according to legend, as the actual details of his death are lost.
Even Sir Walter Scott got into adding to his legend, saying that he and his magical books were buried beneath a cross that had been blessed to keep away his demonic minions. According to Dante, Scott was condemned to the eighth circle of Hell, one that was reserved for magicians and false prophets.
Show Me The Proof
The Scotsman: Scottish wizard who tutored the Pope
BBC History: The Borders Wizard—Michael Scott
Readings on the Inferno of Dante, Volume 2