I feel there should probably be something of a drum roll here. Scot was an extraordinary man – it’s even been said that he was the leading intellectual of his generation. His story deserves a much longer telling (and I promise to add more), but here’s the synopsis.
Michael Scot lived in the 13th century. He is said to have built a church in a single night; thrown rocks on to Carrock Fell, and turned a coven of witches to stone to create Long Meg stone circle. He could summon demons, and command the sea; he cured the illnesses of the Holy Roman Emperor, and measured the distance to the stars. He transformed copper into silver and brought down the towers of the King of France’s palace with a strike of his staff; he divined the future by casting stones into a box of sand, and wrote the ultimate spell book, Compendium Magia Innaturalis Nigrae.
His writings were still in Wolsty Castle, near the Cumbrian coast, in the 17th century, when the writer, Satchells, visited. He wrote that Scot’s work, which was full of magical symbols, ‘was never yet read through, nor ever will, for no man dare it do… for Mr Michael’s name does terrify each one’.
So what was the truth? There’s no doubt that Scot was a real man; there are records about him in museums and libraries across Europe. The ‘magical symbols’ used in his writings were probably Arabic and Hebrew letters and astronomical shorthand, which the ordinary person of the time wouldn’t recognise. His studies suggest that he hadn’t ruled out the possibility of what we would call magic, but he would consider science, as he thought that certain substances, used in certain ways, when the planets were in certain positions, might produce supernatural effects.
The important thing to understand is that this was an age of discovery – they were splitting elements from compounds, ‘creating’ new substances – so why might some more study not create more, ‘magical’, effect? But his studies gained him a Europe-wide reputation as a dabbler in the arcane, and he has the dubious honour of being the only named Englishman condemned by Dante to the ‘eighth circle of hell’ in his ‘Inferno’.
Scot is supposedly buried at Holme Cultram abbey.