That was the way Sir Walter Scott spoke of him in The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and that was how Europe remembered him – as the wizard who had cleft the Eildon Hill in three, and consigned by Dante to the abode of magicians and soothsayers in the eighth circle of Hell.
But the Muslim world remembers him as the young man – ‘Michael the Scot’ or ‘Michael Scot’ – who came to Toledo in Moorish Spain to join the ranks of translators who worked to turn classic texts of philosophy from Arabic into Latin.
‘At Toledo, in Spain, translators were organised into teams that included Christians, Jews, and Moslems,’ says Jean Gimpel in The Medieval Machine. ‘They produced Latin translations not only of Greek works but also of original works by Arab scholars, particularly in the fields of medicine, astronomy, arithmetic, algebra, and trigonometry.’
It was there that the works of Aristotle began to re-emerge into Europe after a dark age of six hundred years, and it was Michael who made the first translation – of The History of Animals. He went on to translate more of Aristotle – The Spirit and The Heavens – and also texts from Arabic scientists.
Around 1227 he joined the court of King Frederick II of Sicily – the home of a glittering array of scholars. Sicily was one of the conduits into the West of learning from the East, and Frederick gathered around him some of the most brilliant men of the age. He founded universities at Naples, Messina and Padua.
Among those at Frederick’s court was the mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, known as Fibonacci. He is regarded as the greatest exponent of number theory in the two thousand years from the Greek Diophantus to the Frenchman Fermat. In 1228 Fibonacci completed the revised edition of his earlier book Liber Abaci – the book that introduced to Western Europe the Hindu-Arabic numerals 1 to 9, together with 0 – and he dedicated it to Michael.
Michael himself also wrote on alchemy and astrology – indeed writers of the time sometimes call him the court astrologer to Frederick – and these writings helped to give the reputation of wizardry. But anyone connected with the new Hindu-Arabic numerals had to take care: such things, said William of Malmesbury, were ‘dangerous Saracen magic’.
The story of the monk and scholar Michael Scot was told in an appropriate setting – an ancient cathedral. The ruined building at Fortrose is cared for by Historic Scotland, who kindly made it available for the lecture, and their help and support were warmly appreciated.
The weather turned out fine. It was a night to wear warm clothing, but it was dry, and the wind was down. The first 20 minutes of the lecture were in the Cathedral itself, and the second 20 minutes in the lower part of the adjacent Chapter House.
We were downstairs in the Chapter House, gathered round by lantern light, and before that we were in the Cathedral itself, with the floodlights lighting up the stonework and casting shadows on the walls. It was an ideal setting for the story of Michael, the young Scotsman whose scholarship became aclaimed across Europe.
There were photographic images from Selena Kuzman, along with a little music and poetry – and at the end the audience of around 25 people were invited to some local hospitality by a warm coal fire.
The date was Saturday 15 November, with the moon shining through the trees round about, and through the help of Historic Scotland and the support of the people of Fortrose, we had told a tale of mathematics and wizardry.
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