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MONGST those who have obtained a very
great fame upon an unsolid foundation," says a modern writer, “ Michael Scot holds
a very distinguished place.” Hallam, who appears to have read everything, and to have neglected nothing, has very little about him, and that little is unsatisfactory, to his friends at least. It is contained in a note in Hallam's first volume, and here it is: “ Michael Scot, “the Wizard of dreaded fame, pretended to translate Aristotle, but is charged with having appropriated the labours of one Andrew, a Jew, as his own.” Scot’s fame was, therefore, purchased at little expense, for his singular learning in Greek, or rather the reputation of it, imposed upon many people.
We have seen, in the article on Faustus, that Coleridge had intended to write a drama upon Michael Scot after the manner of “Faust.” It is well that he did not carry out his determination with so knavish a hero, for even biographers of his own country can scarcely keep their hands from belabouring him, and, groping in the darkness of mediæval literature, are evidently enraged to find that the heroic figure described by Sir Walter, the great magician and learned man to whom even Lord Eldon was proud to trace his ancestry,* is a mere windbag, a charlatan, a fellow of vast pretensions, possessed of the slenderest basis of support, the smallest nucleus of reality, round which is wound the biggest possible ball of hypothesis, conjecture, and fable.
The celebrated and poetical character who grew up to be regarded as
A wizard of such dreaded fame,
The bells would ring in Nôtre-Dame,
was born in an era particularly well adapted for the growth
* “ When the late Lord Eldon was elevated to the peerage, the arms of the Scots of Balwearie were added to his own; and we are told that the Lord Chancellor felt a pride in his descent from the renowned Scottish magician. As nothing but modern evidence is produced in support of this connection of Michael with any family now in existence, we may be allowed to withhold belief from this story. The members of ancient families are always willing to connect their pedigree with some man of intelligence in past times. If Michael had been a poor philosopher living in Lord Eldon's own day, the prudent Chancellor would have taken particularly good care not to have given him a sixpence to buy bread with; but the son of the Newcastle coal merchant was willing enough to attest the antiquity of his own extraction by counting kin with a celebrated man of the thirteenth century.”—Lives of Eminent Men of Fife.
of an empiric fame. Michael the Scotsman, Scotus, is certainly claimed as a Scotsman, and is inserted amongst the celebrated men of Fife by Mr. James Bruce, who does not seem very well pleased with him for being a Scotsman at all. But he is also claimed as an English
Leland asserts that he was English, and Ball and Pitts, who both quote Leland, and cannot therefore be taken as authorities, assert the same thing. They also, says Mr. Bruce, indignantly claim “Duns Scotus as an Englishman;" and, indeed, there is better authority for Anglicising Duns than Michael. We take it, however, that the primary and very heavy proof that Duns and Michael were both Scots is that they were called so. When Leland quotes a passage from an unpublished treatise of Bacon, wherein the names of " Gerardus Cremonensis, Michael Scotius, Aluredus Anglicanus, Hermannus Alemannus” occur, we feel that there is no reason to disturb the distinctive titles given to each. Let Hermann be a German and Michael a Scotsman by all means, even though Leland does say that the magician was born and educated in the county of Durham. What does it matter?
At Balwearie, in the close neighbourhood of Raith, now in the parish of Abboteshall, Michael was born in 121450 many authorities tell us ; but as, in 1230, Roger Bacon says that certain portions of Aristotle's writings (librorum Aristotelis partes aliquas de naturalibus et mathematicis) had become known through the translation of Michael Scot, it seems evident that his birth should be placed earlier, perhaps as far back as 1200 or 1190. He flourished as the astrologer to the Emperor Frederic II. in 1233, and was contemporary with our Henry III, Louis VIII. of France, and Alexander II. of Scotland, and it is firstly to his (?) translation of Aristotle and the fame acquired thereby that he owed his elevation to the service of Frederic, and secondly to his astrological predictions that he owes his present fame and enduring celebrity.
Of a roving and curious disposition, the son of a poor Scottish knight, Scot crossed the border and resided for some time at Oxford, to perfect himself in the learning of the day. He went to Paris and studied there, and after some time made his appearance at Padua, where he lectured on astrology. He seems to have been born a favourite of literary men, and to have been accepted in that learned city, not as a mere pupil in, but as a master of, the art of magic.
Boccaccio introduced his name to his thousands of readers, and calls him a great master of necromancy; and when once thus placed, it is evident that his fame was made. In the eighth day, and the ninth novel of the “Decameron,” there is an amusing story of two painters, Messires Bruno and Buffalmacco, who, under the pretext of introducing one Master Simon, a physician, into a gay society, throw him into a cesspool, where they leave him to get out as he best can. It is in speaking to Master Simon of the society which they frequent, of course a fictitious one, that the painters introduce the name Michael.“ After having sworn the physician to secrecy, 'You must know,' continued Bruno, ó that twelve
or thirteen years ago there arrived in this town a famous necromancer called Michael Scot, because he was from Scotland, (the French translator prints it Michael Lescot).* He was received with very great honours and distinction by the best known gentlemen of Florence, who now are almost all dead. And when he left this place, he left also at their solicitation two of his disciples, whom he commanded to render to those gentlemen, who had so well received him, all those services which depended upon
them and their art. These two necromancers served the said nobles, not only in their affairs of gallantry, but also in other things, and became so accustomed to the climate, that they determined to fix their residence here. They bound themselves by ties of friendship to several persons of character and personal merit, without inquiring whether they were noble or roturiers, poor or rich, and these out of regard for their two friends, formed a little society, of about five and twenty men, who assemble together twice a month in a place they themselves have previously named.” '
One needs not to say, since the story is by Boccaccio, that the Society meets for the most immoral purpose. Courtesans of the greatest beauty and of the highest rank are there to enjoy these gay feasts with them ; indeed the
“ Egli non ha ancora guari, che in questa città fu un gran maestro in negromanzia, il quale ebbe nome Michele Scotto, perciò che di Scozia era."-BOCCACCIO, Dec. Giorn. viii. Nov. IX.
† BOCCACCIO, Decameron, Giorn. Ottava, Novella ix.