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 mention of Scot in the historical record can be traced to 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.
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)