Boasting and Gloves: Some Thoughts on Hondscio, Grendel’s Forgotten Victim

Beowulf Detail


I’ve taught Beowulf to undergraduates for a number of years now, covering a wide range of topics, from the ‘hellish’ nature of the natural environment and the social role of gift-giving, to the question of what actually defines a ‘monster’ in the Anglo-Saxon mindset. The social function of boasting has also generated lively and interesting discussions in the past.  On this latter point, one character whose name never fails to raise a smile amongst students is mentioned only once in the poem, in Beowulf’s colourful retelling of his fight with Grendel during his audience with Hygelac (ll.2076-2080). From Seamus Heaney’s translation, the passage is as follows:


There deadly violence came down on Handsio

and he fell as fate ordained, the first to perish,

rigged out for the combat. A comrade from our ranks

had come to grief in Grendel’s maw:

he ate up the entire body


Who, then, is Hondscio, this most unlucky of Geatish warriors? In the parlance of Star Trek, he’s a redshirt to Beowulf’s Captain Kirk. As a victim of Grendel’s wrath, he meets his demise in ll. 740-744a:


He [Grendel] grabbed and mauled a man on the bench,

bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood

and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body

utterly lifeless, eaten up

hand and foot. Venturing closer

his talon was raised to attack Beowulf.


Our omnipresent narrator does not give Hondscio’s name, nor dwell on his untimely death. He’s merely an obstacle between Grendel and his intended target, Beowulf. Compare this to the immediate naming of Aeschre, Hrothgar’s advisor, who is abducted by Grendel’s Mother in a revenge attack against Heorot, and whose severed head is found near the grendelkin’s lair (l.1421). Hrothgar shows more sorrow for Aeschere  (ll. 1328-30) than Beowulf does for his yet unnamed comrade.


For those of you familiar with Old English, Hondscio is not the subtlest of puns. It reflects the famed Anglo-Saxon love of riddles and wordplay. Hondscio is a compound word, comprising hond (hand) and scio (shoe) – literally ‘handshoe’, or ‘glove’. Tell a bunch of students that a mighty Geatish warrior was named Glove and mirth usually follows.  But why ‘glove’? As noted by such scholars as James L. Rosier and Seth Lerer, the Beowulf poet is making a playful connection between Hondscio, a man consumed by Grendel, and the monster’s own ‘pouch’ or glove (OE glof, l. 2085), in which he intended to ensnare (or consume) Beowulf. As with Hondscio’s name, this is the only reference to the pouch in the entire poem.  The imagery of grasping hands, empty hands, and covered (or swallowed) hands interweaves throughout Beowulf’s boastful speech. As Seth Lerer eloquently puts it: ‘what is it that looks like a hand but swallows like a mouth? Answer: a glove.’ That Grendel swallows a Glove is suitably ironic and may have been worth a laugh or two around the mead hall.


There may be another reason why we have a victim named Handscio, and this is to do with the context in which he is mentioned. Boasting was an integral part of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. Much as Anglo-Saxon poetry involved the formation of compound words and the use of appositions to build upon linguistic and poetic themes, so the act of boasting – elaborating upon one’s achievements – can be read along similar lines. Beowulf, of course, takes Unferth’s riposte about his failed swimming contest with Breca (l.516) and turns it into a boast about an epic battle with sea creatures at the bottom of the ocean (ll.530-606). He does the same in his audience before Hygelac, adding impressive new details about his battle with Grendel, including a reference to Hondscio and a detailed description of his adversary’s glof. In some respects, the act of ‘boasting’ is also like wearing a glove: the facts (the hand), are given a brash new covering.


We can understand now why Hondscio was not named in the original onslaught. There he was only a helping hand, an unlucky first victim. As related to Hygelac, he becomes Hondscio, an adornment, the very epitome of a hero’s boast.


Sources Cited


Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. by Seamus Heaney; ed. by Daniel Donoghue (London: Norton, 2002

Seth Lerer, ‘Grendel’s Glove’, ELH 61 (1994), 721-751

James L. Rosier, ‘The Uses of Association: Hands and Feasts in Beowulf’,  PMLA 78 (1963), 8-14


An Alchemical Miscellany from the John Rylands Library

The horror film As Above, So Below (dir. Dowdle, 2011) taps into the popular perception of alchemy as a mysterious, decedent, unnatural art. Delving deep into the Parisian catacombs in an attempt recover the mythical ‘Philosophers’ Stone’ –  an artefact said to grant eternal life and turn base metals into gold – the story’s protagonists are instead picked off one-by-one by the ghosts and demons that dwell within. Whereas modern fiction writers have focused mainly on the negative aspects of alchemy, early modern period practitioners would not have viewed their endeavours as being morally or spiritually suspect in any way.  As we shall see, alchemy was considered a learned and noble pursuit.

Alchemy Fig. 1

Fol. 2v. Dedication to John Dee and inscription of ‘Jo. Huniades’ (top left) (photo: Stephen Gordon)

Latin MS 82 from the John Rylands Library in Manchester is a fascinating, if often overlooked, alchemical miscellany dating to the early seventeenth century. According to an inscription on the top of fol. 2r, the book appears to have once been owned by ‘Jo. Huniades’ –  Janos Banfi-Hunyadi (1576-1646) –   a Hungarian alchemist who lectured in chemistry at Gresham College, London, and was good friends with Arthur Dee, the son of the famed astrologer, John Dee (to whom the book is dedicated).

The book contains extracts from a variety of well-known alchemical and scientific works, including those by Thomas Norton, Raymond Lull, Heinrich Khunrath, Paracelsus and Michał Sędziwój (otherwise known as Sendivogius). While the purpose, processes, and symbolism of alchemy are much too dense to go into detail here, for the remainder of this post I just want to take you through some of the more interesting folios from this manuscript.

Alchemy Fig. 2

Fol. 4r: John Dee’s Monad Heiroglyphica (photo: Stephen Gordon)

One of the most striking pages from this miscellany included a representation of John Dee’s famous Hieroglyphic Monad. The Monad defies easy explanation, but can generally be read an amalgamation of the seven main astrological symbols (pictured to the left and right of the Monad) and as an expression of the alchemical process – i.e. the mystical joining of the sun ☉ and moon ☽; the four elements emerging from the fifth (represented as a cross); enabled through the active ingredient of fire ♈. In sum, the Monad is a symbol of physical and metaphysical perfection. Alchemical bon mots that frame this central image include:

  • Omne domum perfectum à יהוה (every perfect gift is from God’, taken from James 1:17)
  • Orando et Laborando quaeras, & invenies (You strive by prayer and work, and you will discover)
  • Est in mercurio quicquid quaerunt sapientes (there is in Mercury whatever wise men seek)
  • Unum in Omnibus Omnia in Uno (one in everything; everything in one)


Alchemy Fig. 3

Fol. 23r: The Unitrinum alchemical monster (photo: Stephen Gordon)

The idea of the interconnectedness of things – ‘one in everything, everything in one’ – is a central tenet of alchemical philosophy. Often this idea was expressed in the form of the ‘alchemical monster’, such as that seen on fol. 23r and which, incidentally, is my favourite image from the manuscript. The name of the monster, the Unitrinum, seems to derive from Nicholas of Cusa’s 1441 treatise, De docta ignorantia, specifically the passage “join together what seems to be the opposite and you will not have ‘one and three’ or the reverse, but ‘one-in three or a ‘three in one’ (unitrinum seu triunun), that is the Absolute Truth”.

As with all alchemical illustrations, the image is thick with symbolism. The head to the far left, with the red, bird-like beak, incorporates another version of Dee’s Heiroglyphic Monad, while the other two heads would seem to represent the sun or moon (or else the ideals of mercury and sulphur). The wings attached to the feet of the monster provide further references to Mercury.

Alchemy 4

Fol. 26r: Diagram of the alchemical citadel (photo: Stephen Gordon)

The compiler of Latin MS 82 – perhaps Banfi-Hunyadi himself – incorporated a number of engravings from Heinrich Khunrath’s  Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae (1595), such as this diagram showing the ‘alchemical citadel’. According to Khunrath, there is only one true door to alchemical and spiritual truth – a truth represented by a tiny version of the Hieroglyphic Monad atop the entranceway to the inner sanctum.

Alchemy fig. 5

Fol. 69r: the ponderous life of an alchemist (photo: Stephen Gordon)

Alchemy wasn’t all about discovery and creation, it also involved a lot of thought and spiritual contemplation. This ink drawing of a woman, head in hand and looking pensively out at the reader, is titled nescio quid meditans (‘Contemplating I know no what’), a quote taken from the from Satires of the Roman poet Horace.  Are we seeing here the inner thought and frustrations of Banfi-Hunyadi?

Alchemy fig. 6

Fol. 12v: Thomas Norton’s alchemical poetry (photo: Stephen Gordon)

Alchemy fig. 7.1

Fol. 73r: The ‘anatomical furnace’ from Latin MS 82 (left) (photo: Stephen Gordon), compared to diagram found in the Latin Aurora Thesaurusque Philosophorum (Basel 1577) (right)

While most of Latin MS 82 is written in Latin, there are numerous vernacular passages and annotations interspersed throughout the text. Folio 12v, for example, contains two extracts from Thomas Norton’s poetic Ordinal of Alchemy (1477), an alchemical reference guide that enjoyed much popularity at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Another text copied into Latin MS 82 includes part of the vernacular version of the Anatomia Corporum adhuc viventium (‘the anatomy of still living bodies’) by the physician and mystic, Paracelsus. Specifically, the compiler has copied the section relating to the distillation of urine and the diagnosis of illness. As you can see here, the monstrous-looking still has been given the proportions of an average human figure. It was believed that a diagnosis of the patient’s illness could be made by observing the parts of the ‘body’ where the urine vapours condensed. Although dubious to modern sensibilities, this is one of the most practical extracts in the entire manuscript.

Alchemy fig. 8

Fol. 18r: Further alchemical/astrological diagrams

Latin MS 82 provides a fascinating insight into the world of early modern occultism and the erudition of its practitioners. Of course, it is difficult for the modern reader to truly understand the nuances behind alchemical symbolism. Books of spiritual alchemy were intentionally obtuse, making that much harder to decipher the intentions behind such images as the monstrous Unitrinum. Further work needs to be conducted on Latin MS 82 for it to truly reveal its secrets.

Works Cited

Appleby, John H., Arthur Dee and Johannes Bánfi Hunyades: Further Information on their Alchemical and Professional Activities, Ambix 24 (1977), 96-109


Forshaw, Peter J., ‘The Early Alchemical Reception of John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica’, Ambix 52 (2005), 247-269

McGinn, Bernard, ‘Unitrinum seu Triunun: Nicholas of Cusa’s Trinitarian Mysticism’, in Mystics: Presence and Aporia, ed. by Michael Kessler and Christian Sheppard (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 90-117

Sin Eaters and Walking Corpses in Welsh Folk Belief: A Brief Note

As many of you may be aware, my main area of interest lies in the cultural history of the walking corpse.  I’m especially fascinated by medieval accounts of the marauding, troublesome dead.  I’ve written previously on how William of Newburgh employed revenant stories to criticise the conduct of William FitzOsbert, instigator of the London rebellion of 1196, and the hated Chancellor of England, William Longchamp. Newburgh’s contemporary, Walter Map, includes stories of walking corpses in his satire on court life, the De Nugis Curialium (c.1182).  Much like his wry putdowns of Bernard of Clairvoux and the Cistercian Order, Map takes a more ironic, humorous approach to the phenomenon.

One story concerns the hardships faced by a knight named William Laudun, who petitioned Gilbert Foliot (then Bishop of Hereford and, incidentally, one of Map’s closest confidants) for help in quelling a corpse that had been making a nuisance of itself in his village. Foliot advised that the corpse’s neck be cut and the entire body sprinkled with holy water (an orthodox method of containment, all things considered).  Ironically – and somewhat humorously, given Map’s close relationship to Foliot – the Bishop’s advice failed and the corpse contained to wreak havoc.  Only after Laudun had chased the corpse back to its grave and cleaved its head in two, from the crown to the base of the neck, did the hauntings finally cease.

This story purports to have taken place in Wales, most likely in Marcher territory. It is possible that Map is playing up and satirising the contemporary belief that Wales, situated on the very edge of ‘civilisation’, was a place filled with prodigies, marvels and monsters. The story may also have been intended as a gentle riposte to spiritual authority of his close friend, Foliot.  After many years of studying Walter Map and the De Nugis Curialium I have learnt not to take anything he says at face value. And yet, this is not to suggest that Wales in general (and Herefordshire in particular) did not possess a rich and long-lasting folklore on the malign activities of walking corpses. Consider the following extract from the antiquarian John Aubrey (1626-1697), whose interests in the history, folklore, and the material culture  of the British Isles yielded priceless information about the survival of ‘Gentilisme’ in the activities of the Welsh.

“In the County of Hereford [there] was an Old Custom at Funeralls, to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the Sinnes of the party deceased. One of them I remember (he was a long, lean, lamentable, poor raskal) lived in a Cottage on Rosse-high-way.  The manner was that when the Corps was brought-out of the house and layd on the Biere; a Loafe of bread was brought out, and delivered to the Sinne-eater over the corps, as also a Mazar-bowle [of Maple] full of beer, which he was to drinke up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof, he took upon himself all the Sinnes of the Defunct, and freed him [or her] from Walking after they were dead.”


Portrait of the Antiquarian and folklorist, John Aubrey (source: wikicommons)

Sin-eating is an age-old custom, identified as being practiced in Wales and the borderlands as late as the nineteenth century. Whilst admittedly the evidence is oblique, it is telling that Aubrey makes mention of the belief that dying in a state of sin meant the corpse walked after death. He is very particular on that point.  But to what extent can we trust the accuracy of Aubrey’s account?  If the veracity of his folkloric writings can be measured against the meticulousness of his antiquarian work, such as the mapping of the Avebury henge monument, then the answer is ‘quite a lot’.  Unresolved sin was one of the main factors that caused the dead to rise.  In placed where the habitual belief in restless corpses still held sway, the sin-eater had an extremely important task to perform.

Although often ignored in favour of more historically-identifiable entities such as the witch, airy demon, and disembodied ghost, there is much left to discover about the fear of the embodied ghost in early modern Britain. A closer look at the work of antiquarian writers such as John Aubrey may yield fruitful results.


Sources Cited

John Aubrey, ‘Remaines of Gentilisme’, in John Aubrey: Three Prose Works, ed. John Buchanan-Brown (Fontwell: Centaur Press, 1972), p. 179

Stephen Gordon, ‘Monstrous Words, Monstrous Bodies: Irony and the Walking Dead in Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium’, English Studies 96 (2015), 379−402

E. Sidney Hartland, ‘The Sin-Eater’, Folklore 3 (1892), 145-157

A Medieval English Crime Spree?


The murder of Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral (source: wikicommons)


The study of the supernatural is inextricably linked with the concept of ‘bad’ death. Although this isn’t the time or place to dwell too much on the minutiae of anthropological theory and its application in medieval contexts, it suffices to say that death can only be considered ‘bad’ if judged against its opposite. For medieval populaces, ‘good’ death was said to occur at home, in bed, following the reception of Last Rites from a priest. Very rarely did everyday death performances live up to this ideal. As I have discussed previously, mourners often used a variety of strategies to ensure the soul of the deceased had an unimpeded passage into heaven. Even so, examples of deaths that were particularly ill-performed or ill-timed – suicide, murder, drowning – appear time and again in the English eyre rolls (ca.1198–1348).  These records, which detail the cases heard by itinerant royal judges as they travelled from county to county presiding over local courts (eyres), provide a fascinating insight into the types of accidental and not-so accidental deaths that beset local village life.

Drowning seems to have been a common cause of death. To pick but one example, a case recorded in the Berkshire pleas of 1248 notes how four men attempted to cross a river in a boat that also contained a horse. Owing to the ‘agitation’ of the horse, the boat capsized and three of the four men drowned. The horse survived.  A sense of tragi-comedy can also be detected in an unusual case from the Shropshire rolls of 1256, where it was said a certain William, son of Robert Seys, accidentally killed Thomas of Worthen by throwing a javelin at his head. Despite being a child of 8-9 years, William was known to be of ‘ill-repute’ and thus outlawed.



The Murder of Antiochus III (c.1415) (source: wikicommons)


Investigations into cases of suspected suicide are another common feature of the eyre rolls, with the prosecution of self-murder often leading to the forfeiture of the deceased’s chattels – hence why many of the cases often concluded with the less financially-ruinous verdicts of temporary insanity or ‘misadventure’. It was while investigating such cases in the Warwickshire Eyre Roll of 1221 that, purely by chance, I came across the following:


“Thomas the clerk of Sutton Coldfield, William son of Hasculf the chaplain, William the turner, Robert de Bromhal, Osbert the charcoal burner, and Geoffrey his brother robbed a house in Sutton Coldfield and carried off two loads of cloth. Thomas, William and William were taken in flight with the cloth and hanged, and the others are outlawed by suit of Hugh of Bordseley for another deed, namely for the death of Arnold the Reeve. Thomas’ chattels, 12 shillings, whence let the sheriff answer. The others were of the county of Worcester and therefore no chattels…”


So far, so interesting.  Domestic robberies feature heavily in criminal pleas from this era. Much later, while examining the Worcestershire eyre roll of the same year (1221), a reference to ‘Robert de Bramhal’ caught my eye:


“John Colfox, Obsert the charcoal burner and Geoffrey his brother, and Robert de Bramhal came to Roger the beadle of Beoley’s house by night and broke into it and took Roger and his wife and cut off Roger’s foot and his wife’s finger-nails and fled. And it is said that Geoffrey the charcoal burner was taken at Hereford. Speak about it there. John was living in Warwickshire at Beoley [i.e. Beoley was on the county line]. They are all suspected, and therefore let them be interrogated and outlawed…”


Had I stumbled upon two crimes committed by the same group of people? It certainly seems that this plea refers to the same Robert, Geoffrey, and Osbert as reported in the Warwickshire eyre. Reading between the lines, the evidence suggests that the gang had embarked on a quite significant crime spree, ranging from robbery to maiming and murder. The pointed absence of Thomas the clerk and the two Williams from the second plea, combined with the offhand remark that Geoffrey had been apprehended in Hereford, suggests that the gang – or what was left of them – were travelling westwards. The records do not specify if anything was taken from Roger of Beoley’s house, but the very act of cutting off his foot and removing his wife’s fingernails suggests that extortion  was most definitely on the criminals’ minds.  With the Warwickshire pleas being heard before the royal justices in the autumn and the Worcestershire cases in June, it can be presumed that the events took place within the first few months of 1221.

Getting a glimpse into the everyday lives of past peoples is one of the most gratifying aspects of studying history. I started off my investigations into the eyre records intending to find cases of ‘bad’ death and the unusual treatment of the body. In the end, I found myself on the trail of a gang of murderous outlaws. If anyone has any information about what happened to Robert de Bromhal and Osbert the charcoal maker, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!


Sources Cited:

Rolls of the Justices in the Eyre for Lincolnshire 1218-9 and Worcestershire 1221, ed. Doris Mary Stenton, Seldon Society 53 (London: Quaritch, 1934)

Rolls of the Justices in the Eyre for Gloucestershire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire, 1221, 1222, ed. Doris Mary Stenton, Seldon Society 59 (London: Quaritch, 1940)

The Roll of the Shropshire Eyre of 1256, ed. Alan Harding, Seldon Society 95 (London: Seldon, 1981)



The Monstrous Devourer

With the semester coming to a close, the final pieces of marking complete, and Christmas fast approaching, my thoughts are increasingly  turning to the respite of the holidays. Like many, I look forward to working myself slowly – though more likely quickly! –  through the chocolates, crisps, and various other foodstuffs that have been accumulating at home over the past couple of weeks.  While excess for the sake of excess is certainly frowned upon today, gluttony was a vice held in even greater disdain by the moralising pamphleteers of the seventeenth century. The curious account of the ‘Monstrous Devourer’, dated to 26th April 1675, is a case in point.


Source: Early English Books Online

The anonymous author ‘L.W’ does not pull any punches when it comes to explicating the moral of this strange tale, beginning his discussion with the observation that ‘the baleness of man is excessible and wicked Feasting, and surfeiting of drunkeness’. Gluttons, says the author, cannot escape ‘the all-seeing eye of the most high and mighty God, that will one day bring them all to judgement’. The ‘great devourer’ was one such soul punished by God for his wantonness. A vagrant, forever moving from town to town, this unnamed fellow was said to possess the most grotesque and ravenous appetite:

“For this fellow eats all that ever comes nigh unto him, intrels of Beast, Bullocks, Calves, Sheep, Hogs, or any other garbage he can come at, and never stands to wash it, but devours it as it comes from the cattle, with the dung in it, without picking or cleansing little or much, and as he travels along between town and town, if he lights of any dead horse by the way, that has been dead for three or four dayes, he will not leave it until he has devoured it all…’

The pamphlet goes on to describe – with a certain salaciousness, it must be said –  how he once wandered into a butchers market and proceeded to devour sheep guts, offal and bull entrails, all before a fascinated crowd of ‘many hundreds’. Eventually captured and forced to perform at the Saint George’s Day Fair at Guidford on 23rd April 1675, the Devourer astounded onlookers by ‘eat[ing] Dogs and Cats whole without their skins, never taking their guts out’ making all that viewed the spectacle sick with disgust.

What, then, are we to make of this wonder? ‘L.W’ certainly has a few theories. It was rumoured the Devourer was a convert to Quakerism who, presuming to act in the manner of Christ and fast for forty days and forty nights, was visited by a spirit that told him ‘the should eat and never be satisfied for the space of seven years’.  The irony would not have been lost on the pamphlet’s readership. Quakers were often scorned for their enthusiasm, religious excesses, and blasphemous practices. Their religious deviancies  were often reflected in their tendency for public disorder. The actions of the infamous preacher James Naylor, who, in October 1656, entered Bristol on horseback in imitation of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and was promptly arrested for blasphemy, would surely have been fresh in the minds of L.W’s audience. As a vagrant and (presumed) Quaker in possession of a monstrous, parodic appetite, the Devourer was undoubtedly read as a paradigm of social and spiritual chaos.


Source: Wikicommons

Degenerate Quakerism was not the only explanation. ‘L.W’ also speculates that the Devourer may have simply been husbandman who had fallen into melancholy. With his humoural balance destabilised, his body was thus ripe for demonic infiltration (‘and then the spirit entered into him’). This, indeed, is an incredibly orthodox interpretation of the mechanisms of demonic possession, deriving from the medieval scholastic tradition. The presumed location of the devil within the Devourer’s body also adheres to established popular beliefs: ‘only about the Rimm of his belly, is a kind of blew bunch and that is supposes to be the place where the Spirit lyes, as he and some others do declares’.  Indeed, the theory that demons were unable to penetrate the soul and able only to ingratiate themselves in the lower, baser parts of the human anatomy had been a central tenet of demonology since the time of Vincent of Beauvis (d.1264). Folkloric sources concerning the walking dead betray a similar understanding that unclean spirits – not necessarily demons – were compelled to stay in the fetid parts of the body. Writing at the turn of the fifteenth-century, an anonymous Byland Abbey monk relays the following about the corpse of a certain Robert Kilburn:

“I must tell you that this Robert the younger died and was buried in a churchyard, but he had the habit of leaving his grave by night, and disturbing and frightening the villagers […] and when he had been conjured he spoke in the inside of his bowels, and not with his tongue, but as it were an empty cask, and he confessed his different offences…”

Whatever the ultimate cause of the Devourer’s hunger, L.W. is adamant that he should be regarded not with disdain, but with pity and charity. After all, the Devourer’s plight served as a stark warning to those who placed more stock in gluttony and drunkenness than the state of their eternal souls.  L.W’s final admonishment  has the distinct tone of a modern public service announcement:

“So many women tells their husbands of drinking and keeping of bad company, why, some be so void of grace, that they tell them, they will do it though it be to their ruine, and I fear there are too many that find it so, to the undoing of soul and body…”

As L.W. sees it, there is a ‘monstrous devourer’ lurking in all of us. Something, then, to consider when tucking in to our meals on Christmas day!


Works Cited

Charles L. Cherry, ‘Enthusiasm and Madness: Anti-Quakerism in the Seventeenth-Century’ Quaker History 73 (1984) 1-24

L.W. The Monstrous Devourer, or Great Feeder (London, 1675)

A. J. Grant., ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 27 (1924), 363–379.


The Mythos of Michael Scot

In the medieval and early modern worlds, the line between licit and illicit magical practice was often difficult to determine. A reputation for mastery in the dark arts could have a serious impact on an occult philosopher’s post-mortem reputation. Alchemists and astrologers had to tread carefully, lest rumours about their activities crystallise into something more substantial and scurrilous. As discussed most notably by Frank Baron, ‘Georg Helmstetter’ (d.1541), otherwise known as Faustus, is one of the most famous historical figures whose factual escapades became the raw materials for fiction. Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1592) and Johann Goethe’s Faust (1771) helped shape the identity of a minor, transient astrologer – by all accounts, a grubby and unscrupulous one – into the powerful and tragic figure we know today. However, Faust was not the only magician whose reputation was re-formed in this way. Michael Scot (?1170–1236), court astrologer to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (d.1250) and famed Arabic-Latin translator, had the same dubious distinction.

Despite the rich folkloric evidence surrounding Scot’s life and career, nothing concrete is known about his date of birth, early activities, or whether or not he was actually Scottish. It has been presumed that he studied in Paris before continuing his education in Toledo, here gaining a reputation as a translator of some repute. Indeed, the first mentions of Scot in the historical record can be traced to 1215 – where he accompanied Rodrigo, the Archbishop of Toledo, to the Fourth Lateran Council – and 18 August 1217, the date he completed his Latin version of al-Bitrogi’s On the Spheres. As well as his expertise in astrology, geometry and alchemy, Scot also seems to have had a keen interest in the medical sciences. On October 21 1220/1, whilst residing in Bologna, he was asked by a certain Albertus Gallus to examine the ‘stones’ (lapides) that came from the womb of Maria, a wise woman from the neighbourhood.


Source: wikicommons


By 1227 Scot was in the employ of Emperor Frederick II in Sicily, where his reputation as an astrologer began to surpass all previous accomplishments.  Such was his expertise in divination that his death (c.1236) was greeted with the following words from poet and fellow courtier Henry of Avranches:


Qui fuit astorum scrutator, qui fuit augur / Qui fuit ariolus, et qui fuit alter Apollo

[Scot] was a scrutinser of the stars, was an augur, was a cunning man, and was a second Apollo’


By the 1300s, his infamy had gown to such an extent that he was given the honour of occupying a place in Dante’s Inferno. Specifically, he can be found in the fourth Bolgia of the eighth circle of hell (Canto XX) where, in a nice example of contrapasso, sorcerers and astrologers are condemned to wander the circle with their heads twisted backwards, an ironic punishment for trying to see too far into the future.


Giovanni Stradano, Canto XX (c.1587) Source: Wikicommons

By the early modern period, the name ‘Michael Scot’ had become almost synonymous with the practice of illicit magic. It took only a small mental leap to associate Scot’s skill at prophesising the future with a hypothetical ability to conjure and control the most dangerous of evil spirits. As such, necromantic manuals carrying Scot’s name began to make an appearance around the latter half of the fifteenth century. Rylands Latin MS 105 (c.1500), one of the ‘star items’ from the recent Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World exhibition, is a magical experiment purported to have been translated by Scot from an Arabic ‘original’. Indeed, what makes this experiment –  entitled, Almuchabola Absegalim Al Kakib Albaon, id est Compendium magiae innaturalis nigrae –  so interesting is the inclusion of the garbled ‘Arabic’ text as a precursor to the Latin instructions, with the manuscript itself structured like an Islamic booklet (that is, reading from right to left):



Preparations for the experiment in fake or corrupted Arabic (top) and the associated Latin ‘translation’ (below), Rylands Latin MS 105 (photos: Stephen Gordon)

My recent article on Latin MS 105 for the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library explores the contents, provenance and textual history of this experiment in detail. In brief, the Latin part of the text begins with an introduction by ‘Scot’, who notes that due to his ‘ignorance’ of Arabic (linguae insciciam) – one of many clues the text was written by a scholar with only an oblique knowledge of Scot’s actual career – he enlisted the help of a Rabbi to translate the instructions into Latin, but keeping the mystical prayers in their original language. The fact that ‘Scot’ signs off with ‘Michael Scot, Prague in Bohemia, the day before the Ides of February [i.e. the 12th], in the year 1261’)’ provides further proof that this is an imaginative, if not historically accurate, piece of literary fiction.


Warning by Scot to conduct the experiment with utmost care, lest it lead to personal ruin,  Rylands Latin MS 105 (photo: Stephen Gordon).

The experiment itself is remarkably orthodox. Following the drawing of a magic circle and the fashioning of a hazel staff, the magician is also asked to create a mitre and scapular out of ‘virgin paper’. The names of the demons to be conjured should then be inscribed with crow’s blood on black goatskin and affixed with a stick to the edge of the circle. ‘Prince’ Almuchabzar, Achunhab, Baltuzararz, and Aghizikke are the four major spirits mentioned in the experiment, with Suhub, Rabuliph, Almischack and Salhabari named as the four minor spirits. To my knowledge the names of the demons are unique to the Compendium magiae innaturalis nigrae textual tradition. If the preparations had been conducted properly and the invocations enunciated correctly, then the chosen spirit would be compelled to appear in the shape of a human. The text further mentions that the spirit would only be allowed to depart if the task given to it by the magician was successfully completed.


Left: Magic Circle and Staff inscribed with efficacious symbols, Rylands Latin MS 105 (photo: Stephen Gordon)


Conjurations to compel the demon Almuchabzar to appear and then depart, Rylands Latin MS 105 (photo: Stephen Gordon)

Although the authorship of the Compendium magiae innaturalis nigrae was ascribed to various authorities over the years, ‘Michael Scot’ was the name most commonly used. Ancient and venerable names from history were often appended to necromantic manuals as a way of lending a sense of legitimacy to the illicit knowledge contained within. Operating alongside the ‘Scot’ manuscript tradition, there also existed an enthusiastic circulation of magical texts bearing the names of Solomon, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and even Faustus. Perhaps all it needed was for Christopher Marlowe to write a play about the mythical Michael Scot, expert conjurer of the Holy Roman court, for Scot to be as well-known as Faustus is today. This is not to say Scot’s name does not have a literary resonance. Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel (1812) provides wonderfully vivid accounts of his namesake’s fictionalised adventures in Paris and his vanquishing of witches and evil spirits, cementing his folkloric reputation as a particularly Scottish wizard. A quick Google search confirms that the mythos of Michael Scot is still going strong today.



Frank Baron, Doctor Faustus: From History to Legend (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1978)

Stephen Gordon, Necromancy and the Magical Reputation of Michael Scot: John Rylands Library, Latin MS 105’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 92 (2016), 73–103

Walter Scott, Lay of the Last Minstrel (London: Cushing, 1812)