It’s a shame that people don’t generally know much about Michael Scot. Scratch around a bit and you might find someone who can drum up fantastical tales about turning witches into stone at Long Meg stone circle, raising a church overnight, or casting down mountains. Historians will tell you that he was a translator, alchemist, astronomer and early scientist, who lived around the turn of the 13th century.
Scot was probably born in the Borders, but he spent most of his life abroad, retiring to Holme Cultram Abbey in northern Cumbria1. There are 17th-century reports that he was buried there, and that some of his works were kept in Wolsty Castle.
Early stories about Scot are very different from the later ones. They focus on his ability to conjure images and experiences from nowhere, leaving observers stunned. In one example, he caused some grapes to appear, magically, in the centre of a table. He cautioned his guests not to cut the grapes until he gave the word, so they held their grape-scissors in their hands over the fruit, waiting for the moment. When Scot told them to proceed, the grapes disappeared and each man found that he was holding his scissors against his neighbour’s coat sleeves.
The most vivid story was recorded in 1389 by the Tuscan, Giovanni Gherardi da Prato. The setting is the coronation feast of the Holy Roman Emperor in November, 1220. The guests were washing their hands before sitting down to the great feast, when Michael Scot and a companion appeared, dressed exotically in eastern robes. They offered to show the Emperor a miracle; he asked for a refreshing shower, as the weather had been humid and oppressive. Rain duly appeared, and disappeared promptly at the order of the magicians.
The emperor offered them a reward and Scot asked permission to choose one of the knights to help them resolve a difficulty with a foreign lord. Ulfo, a German knight, was chosen.
Ulfo embarked upon an adventure. They set off for Sicily, before taking two great galleys and a large, armed force across the Mediterranean. They sailed past Gibraltar and on to the western sea, where they found an unknown land. The local people joined Ulfo’s army in two battles and a siege against a hostile king.
Ulfo triumphed against Scot’s enemy, married the king’s daughter and ruled in his place. Scot and his companion left on other adventures, appearing many years later to ask Ulfo to accompany him on a visit to the Holy Roman Emperor, whose court he had left many years before.
Ulfo stepped into the Emperor’s court. The scene was just as he had left it, decades before; the servants were handing out bowls of water for the guests to wash their hands before the coronation feast. Nothing had changed; no time had passed since Ulfo had left.
Sadly, Ulfo spent the rest of his life mourning the life he had lost.
If you compare this to the grape story – and there are other similar accounts – modern readers might begin to wonder if Scot was a master hypnotist. It’s certainly the case that he spent time with the Sufis, who were experts in hypnotism. Whatever the case, Ulfo’s experience was so real that he always believed that it had really happened, and Scot had wrenched him back from the life he had fought for.
- I should say that plenty of Scots will dispute this; he’s certainly associated with other abbeys in the Borders. Perhaps, for the sake of fairness, we should conclude that there is a strong association with Holme Cultram, which suggests he spent a notable period of time here. Some say he’s buried there, but then, some say he died abroad.
- Source: Paradiso Degli Alberti by Giovanni Gherardi da Prato, 1389 (1867 edition)
- Yup, this is the Michael Scot from the BBC’s programme, Shoebox Zoo. Other than a reference to Toledo (where Scot studied), I don’t think there’s much history in it 🙂