BIRTHPLACE AND EARLY STUDIES OF MICHAEL SCOT

In the Borders of Scotland it is well known that any piece of hill
pasture, if it be fenced in but for a little from the constant cropping
of the sheep, will soon show springing shoots of forest trees indigenous
to the soil, whose roots remain wherever the plough has not passed too
deeply. Centuries ago, when nature had her way and was unrestrained,
the whole south-eastern part of the country was covered with dense
forests and filled with forest-dwellers; the wild creatures that form
the prey of the snare and the quarry of the chase. In the deep valleys,
and by the streams of Tweed and Teviot, and many another river of that
well-watered land, stood the great ranks and masses of the oak and beech
as captains and patriarchs of the forest, mingled with the humbler
whitethorn which made a dense undergrowth wherever the sun could reach.
On the heights grew the sombre firs; their gnarled and ruddy branches
crowned with masses of bluish-green foliage, while the alders followed
the water-courses, and, aided by the shelter of these secret valleys, all
but reached the last summits of the hills, which alone, in many a varied
slope and peak and swelling breast, rose eminent and commanding over
these dark and almost unbroken woodlands.

Such was south-eastern Scotland in the twelfth century: a country fitted
to be the home of men of action rather than of thought; men whose joy
should lie in the chase and the conflict with nature as yet unsubdued,
who could track the savage creatures of the forest to their dens, and
clear the land where it pleased them, and build, and dwell, and beget
children in their own likeness, till by the labours of generations that
country should become pastoral, peaceful, and fit for fertile tillage as
we see it now.

Already, at the early time of which we speak, something of this work
had been begun. There were gaps in the high forest where it lay well
to the sun: little clearings marked by the ridge and furrow of a rude
agriculture. Here and there a baron’s lonely tower raised its grey
horn on high, sheltering a troop of men-at-arms who made it their
business to guard the land in war, and in peace to rid it of the savage
forest-creatures that hindered the hind and herd in their labour and
their hope. In the main valleys more than one great monastery was rising,
or already built, by the waters of Tweed and Teviot. The inmates of these
religious houses took their share in the whole duty of peaceful Scottish
men by following trades at home or superintending the labours of an army
of hinds who broke in and made profitable the wide abbey lands scattered
here and there over many a lowland county. All was energy, action, and
progress: a form of life which left but little room for the enterprises
of the mind, the conflicts and conquests which can alone be known and won
in the world of thought within.

These conditions we know to have reared and trained generations of men
well fitted to follow the pursuits of hardy and active life, yet they
cannot have been so constraining as to hinder the birth of some at least
who possessed an altogether different temper of mind and body. The
lowland Scots were even then of a mixed race: the ancestry which tends
more than any other to the production of life-eddies, where thought
rather than activity naturally forms and dwells, while the current of the
main stream sweeps past in its ordinary course. Grant the appearance of
such natures here and there in these early times, and it is easy to see
much in the only life then possible that was fit to foster their natural
tendencies. The deep woodlands were not only scenes of labour where
sturdy arms found constant employment, they were homes of mystery in
which the young imagination loved to dwell; peopling them with half-human
shapes more graceful than their stateliest trees, and half-brutal
monsters more terrible than the fiercest wolf or bear. The distant sun
and stars were more than a heavenly horologe set to mark the hours for
labour or vigil, they were an unexplored scene of wonder which patient
and brooding thought alone could reach and interpret. The trivial flight
and annual return of birds, tracing like the wild geese a mysterious
wedge against the sky of winter, gave more than a signal for the chase,
which was all that ordinary men saw in it. To these finer natures it
brought the awakening which those know who have learned to ask the mighty
questions—Why? Whence? and Whither? demands which will not be denied till
they have touched the heights and fathomed the depths of human life
itself. _Our life is a bird_, said one in these early ages, _which flies
by night, and, entering lighted hall at one end, swiftly passeth out at
the other. So come we, who knoweth whence, and so pass we, who knoweth
whither? From the darkness we come and to the darkness we go, and the
brief light that is meanwhile ours cannot make the mystery plain._

But though the nature of this primitive life in early Scottish days
could not hinder the appearance of men of thought, and even helped
their development as soon as they began to show the movements of active
intellect, yet on the other hand Scotland had not reached that culture
which affords such natures their due and full opportunity. Centuries were
yet to pass before the foundation of St. Andrews as the first Scottish
university. The grammar-schools of the country[2] were but a step to
the studies of some foreign seat of learning. The churchmen who filled
considerable positions at home were either Italians, or had at least been
trained abroad, so that everything in those days pointed to that path
of foreign study which has since been trodden by so many generations of
Scottish students. The bright example of Scotus Erigena, who had reached
such a high place in France under Charles the Bald, was an incitement to
the northern world of letters. Young men of parts and promise naturally
sought their opportunity to go abroad in the hope of finding like
honourable employment, or, better still, of returning crowned with the
honours of the schools to occupy some distinguished ecclesiastical
position in their native country.

This then was the age, and these were the prevailing conditions, under
which Michael Scot was born. To the necessary and common impulse of
Scottish scholars we are to trace the disposition of the great lines
on which his life ran its remarkable and distinguished course. He is
certainly one of the most notable, as he is among the earliest, examples
of the student Scot abroad.

There can be little doubt regarding the nation where he had his birth.
Disregarding for a moment the varying accounts of those who lived
centuries after the age of Scot himself, let us make a commencement
with one whose testimony is of the very highest value, being that of
a contemporary. Roger Bacon, the famous scientist of the thirteenth
century, introduces the name of Michael Scot in the following manner:
‘Unde, cum per Gerardum Cremonensem, et Michaelem Scotum, et Aluredum
Anglicum, et Heremannum (Alemannum), et Willielmum Flemingum, data sit
nobis copia translationum de omni scientia.’[3] In this passage the
distinctive appellation of each author is plainly derived from that of
his native country. That Bacon believed Michael to be of Scottish descent
is therefore certain, and his opinion is all the more valuable since he
was an Englishman, and not likely therefore to have confused the two
nations of Great Britain as a foreigner might haply have done. To the
same purpose is the testimony of Guido Bonatti, the astrologer, who
also belonged to the age of Bacon and Scot. ‘Illi autem,’ he says,[4]
‘qui fuerunt in tempore meo, sicut fuit Hugo ab Alugant, Beneguardinus
Davidbam, Joannes Papiensis, Dominicus Hispanus, Michael Scotus,
Stephanus Francigena, Girardus de Sabloneta Cremonensis, et multi alii.’
Here also the significance of _Scotus_, as indicating nationality, is one
that hardly admits of question. It was in all probability on these or
similar authorities that Dempster relied when he said of Michael:[5] ‘The
name Scot, however, is not a family one, but national,’ though he seems
to have pressed the matter rather too far, it being plainly possible that
_Scotus_ might combine in itself both significations. In Scotland it
might indicate that Michael belonged to the clan of Scott, as indeed has
been generally supposed, while as employed by men of other nations, it
might declare what they believed to have been this scholar’s native land.

At this point, however, a new difficulty suggests itself. It is well
known that the lowland Scots were emigrants from the north of Ireland,
and that in early times _Scotus_ was used as a racial rather than a local
designation. May not Michael have been an Irishman? Such is the question
actually put by a recent writer,[6] and certainly it deserves a serious
answer. We may commence by remarking that even on this understanding of
it the name is an indefinite one as regards locality, and might therefore
have been applied to one born in Scotland just as well as if he had
first seen the light in the sister isle. So certainly is this the case
that when we recall the name of John Scotus we find it was customary
to add the appellative _Erigena_ to determine his birthplace. At that
time the separation of race was much less marked than it had become in
Michael’s day, and it seems certain therefore that if _Michael Scotus_
was thought a sufficient designation of the man by Bacon and Bonatti,
they must have used it in the sense of indicating that he came of that
part of the common stock which had crossed the sea and made their home
in Scotland. But to find a conclusive answer to this difficulty we need
only anticipate a little the course of our narrative by mentioning here a
highly curious fact which will occupy our attention in its proper place.
When Michael Scot was offered high ecclesiastical preferment in Ireland
he declined it on the ground that he was ignorant of the vernacular
tongue of that country.[7] This seems to supply anything that may have
been wanting in the other arguments we have advanced, and the effect
of the whole should be to assure our conviction that there need be now
no further attempt made to deny Scotland the honour of having been the
native land of so distinguished a scholar.

Nor are we altogether without the means of coming to what seems at
least a probable conclusion regarding the very district of the Scottish
lowlands where Michael Scot was born. Leland the antiquary tells us that
he was informed on good authority that Scot came from the territory of
Durham.[8] Taken literally this statement would make him an Englishman,
but no one would think of quoting it as of sufficient value to disprove
the testimony of Bacon and Bonatti who both believed Michael to have
been born in Scotland. If, however, there should offer itself any way in
which both these apparently contending opinions can be reconciled, we are
surely bound to accept such an explanation of the difficulty, and in fact
the solution we are about to propose not only meets the conditions of
the problem, but will be found to narrow very considerably the limits of
country within which the birthplace of Scot is to be looked for.

The See of Durham in that age, and for long afterwards, had a wide sphere
of influence, extending over much of the south-eastern part of the
Scottish Borders. Many deeds relating to this region of Scotland must
be sought in the archives that belong to the English Cathedral. To be
born in the territory of Durham then, as Leland says Scot had been, was
not necessarily to be a native of England, and the anonymous Florentine
commentator on Dante uses a remarkable expression which seems to confirm
this solution as far as Scot is concerned. ‘This Michael,’ he says, ‘was
of the Province of Scotland’;[9] and his words seem to point to that part
of the Scottish lowlands adjacent to the See of Durham and in a sense its
_province_, as subject to its influence, just as Provence, the analogous
part of France, had its name from the similar relation it bore to Rome.
The most likely opinion therefore that can now be formed on the subject
leads us to believe that Scot was born somewhere in the valley of the
Tweed; if we understand that geographical expression in the wide sense
which makes it equivalent to the whole of the south-eastern borders of
Scotland.

Nor is this so contrary as might at first appear to the tradition which
makes Scot a descendant of the family of Balwearie in Fife. Hector Boëce,
Principal of Marischal College, Aberdeen, who first gave currency to the
story,[10] could hardly have meant to imply that Michael was actually
born at Balwearie. It is to be presumed that he understood _Scotus_ to
have been a family name; and the Scotts, who became of Balwearie by
marriage with the heiress of that estate, did not enter into possession
of it till long after the close of the twelfth century.[11] To call
Michael a son of Balwearie in the genealogical sense, however, is in
perfect agreement with the conclusion regarding his origin which we have
just reached; for the original home of the Scotts who afterwards held
that famous property as their _chef lieu_, lay by the upper streams of
Tweed in the very district which every probability has already indicated
to us as that of Michael’s birthplace. In 1265 we find an entry of money
paid by the Crown ‘to Michael Scot and Richard Rufus who have occupied
the waste lands at Stuth,’ near Peebles.[12] Identification is here
out of the question, as Michael the scholar, of whom we write, was by
this time long in his grave, but the entry we have quoted shows that a
family of this surname, who still used the Christian name of Michael,
was flourishing in this part of Scotland during the second half of the
thirteenth century.

It is to be remarked, too, that the Scottish tales of wonder relating to
Michael Scot have a local colour that accords well with the other signs
we have noticed. The hill which the sorcerer’s familiar spirit cleaves
in sunder is the triple peak of Eildon; the water which he curbs is that
of Tweed; from Oakwood he rides forth to try the witch of Falsehope,
and in Oakwood tower may still be seen the _Jingler’s room_: a curious
anachronism, for Oakwood is a building much more recent than the days of
Michael Scot, yet one which fixes for us in a picturesque and memorable
way the district of country where, according to the greatest number of
converging probabilities, this remarkable man was born.

As to the date of his birth, it is difficult to be very precise.
The probability that he died suddenly, and before he had completed
the measure of an ordinary lifetime, prevents us from founding our
calculations upon the date of his decease, which can be pretty accurately
determined. A more certain argument may be derived from the fact that
Scot had finished his youthful studies, made some figure in the world,
and entered on the great occupation of his life as an author, as early as
the year 1210.[13] Assuming then that thirty was the least age he could
well have attained at the period in question, the year 1180 would be
indicated as that of his birth, or rather as the latest date to which it
can with probability be referred; 1175 being in every way a more likely
approximation to the actual time of this event.

It is unfortunate that we find ourselves in the same position with regard
to the interesting question of Scot’s early education, having only the
suggestions derived from probable conjecture to offer on this subject
also. Du Boulay indeed, in his account of the University of Paris,[14]
pretends to supply a pretty complete account of the schools which Scot
attended, but, as he adds that this was the usual course of study in
those days, we find reason to think that he may have been guided in his
assertions, rather by the probabilities of the case, than by any exact
evidence. Nor is it likely that any more satisfactory assurance can now
be had on this point: the time being too remote and the want of early
material for Scot’s biography defeating in this respect all the care and
attention that can now be given to the subject.

We know, however, that there was a somewhat famous grammar-school at
Roxburgh in the twelfth century,[15] and considering the rarity of such
an opportunity at so early a period, and the proximity of this place to
the district in which Scot was born, we may venture to fancy that here
he may have learned his rudiments, thus laying the foundation of those
deeper studies, which he afterwards carried to such a height.

With regard to Durham, the matter may be considered to stand on firmer
ground. The name of Michael Scot, as we have already seen, has for many
ages been associated with this ancient Cathedral city by the Wear. If
the question of his birthplace be regarded as now determined in favour of
Scotland, no reason remains for this association so convincing as that
which would derive it from the fact that he pursued his education there.
The Cathedral School of Durham was a famous one, which no doubt exerted
a strong attraction upon studious youths throughout the whole of that
province. In Scot’s case the advantages it offered may well have seemed a
desirable step to further advances; his means, as one of a family already
distinguished from the common people, allowing him to plan a complete
course of study, and his ambition prompting him to follow it.

The common tradition asserts that when he left Durham, Scot proceeded to
Oxford. This is not unlikely, considering the fame of that University,
and the number of students drawn from all parts of the land who assembled
there.[16] The only matters, however, which offer themselves in support
of this bare conjecture are not, it must be said, very convincing. Roger
Bacon shows great familiarity with Scot, and Bacon was an Oxford scholar,
though his studies at that University were not begun till long after the
time when Scot could possibly have been a student there. It is quite
possible, however, that the interest shown by Bacon in Scot’s labours and
high reputation—not by any means of a kindly sort—may have been awakened
by traditions that were still current in the Schools of Oxford when
the younger student came there. Near the end of his life, Scot visited
in a public capacity the chief Universities of Europe, and brought
them philosophic treasures that were highly thought of by the learned.
It seems most probable, from the terms in which Bacon speaks of this
journey,[17] that it may have included a visit to Oxford. This might of
course be matter of mere duty and policy, but one cannot help observing
how well it agrees with the tradition that these schools were already
familiar to Scot. As a recognised alumnus of Oxford, he would be highly
acceptable there, being one whose European fame shed no small lustre upon
the scene of his early studies.

As to Paris, the next stage in Scot’s educational progress, the historian
of that University becomes much more convincing when he claims for
_Lutetia_ the honour of having contributed in a special sense to the
formation of this scholar’s mind. For here tradition has preserved one
of those sobriquets which are almost invariably authentic. Scot, it
seems, gained here the name of _Michael the Mathematician_,[18] and this
corresponds, not only with what is known concerning the character of
his studies, but also with the nature of the course for which Paris was
then famous. There is another circumstance which seems to point strongly
in the same direction. Every one must have noticed how invariably the
name of Scot is honoured by the prefix of _Master_. This is the case not
only in his printed works, but also in popular tradition, as may be seen
in the well-known rhyme:—‘Maister Michael Scot’s man.’[19] A Florence
manuscript, to which we shall presently refer more fully, throws some
light upon the meaning of this title, by describing Scot as that scholar,
‘who among the rest is known as the chief Master.’[20] It is matter of
common knowledge, that this degree had special reference to the studies
of the _Trivium_ and _Quadrivium_, being the scholastic crown reserved
for those who had made satisfactory progress in the liberal arts. Scot
then, according to the testimony of early times, was the supreme Master
in this department of knowledge. But it is also certain that Paris was
then recognised as the chief school of the _Trivium_ and _Quadrivium_,
just as Bologna had a like reputation for Law, and Salerno for
Medicine.[21] We are therefore warranted to conclude that Michael Scot
could never have been saluted in European schools as ‘Supreme Master,’
had he not studied long in the French capital, and carried off the highly
esteemed honours of Paris.

Another branch of study which tradition says Scot followed with success
at Paris was that of theology. Du Boulay declares, indeed, that he
reached the dignity of doctor in that faculty, and there is some reason
to think that this may actually have been the case. There can be no
doubt that an ecclesiastical career then offered the surest road to
wealth and fame in the case of all who aspired to literary honours. That
Scot took holy orders[22] seems very probable. He may well have done so
even before he came to Paris, for Bacon makes it one of his reproaches
against the corruption of the times, that men were ordained far too
readily, and before they had reached the canonical age: from their
tenth to their twentieth year, he says.[23] It is difficult to verify
Dempster’s assertion that Scot’s renown as a theologian is referred
to by Baconthorpe the famous Carmelite of the following century.[24]
This author was commonly known as the _Princeps Averroïstarum_. If he
really mentions Michael, and does not mean Duns Scotus, as there is some
reason to suspect, his praise may have been given quite as much on the
ground of profane as of religious philosophy. On the other hand we find
abounding and unmistakable references to Scripture, the Liturgy, and
ascetic counsels in the writings of Scot, from which it may safely be
concluded that he had not merely embraced the ecclesiastical profession
as a means of livelihood or of advancement, but had seriously devoted
himself to sacred studies. It is true that we cannot point to any
instance in which he receives the title of doctor, but this omission
may be explained without seriously shaking our belief in the tradition
that Scot gained this honour at Lutetia. During the twelfth century the
Bishop of Paris forbade the doctors of theology to profess that faculty
in any other University.[25] Scot may well, therefore, have been one of
those philosophical divines who taught _entre les deux ponts_, as the
same statute commanded they should, though in other lands and during
his after-life, he came to be known simply as the ‘Great Master’: the
brightest of all those choice spirits of the schools on which Paris set
her stamp.

At this point we may surely hazard a further conjecture. Bacon tells us
that in those days it was the study of law, ecclesiastical and civil,
rather than of theology, which opened the way to honour and preferment in
the Church.[26] Now Paris was not more eminently and distinctly the seat
of arts than Bologna was the school of laws.[27] May not Michael Scot
have passed from the French to the Italian University? Such a conjecture
would be worth little were it not for the support which it undoubtedly
receives from credible tradition. Boccaccio in one of his tales[28]
mentions Michael Scot, and tells how he used to live in Bologna. Many of
the commentators on the _Divine Comedy_ of Dante dwell on the theme, and
enrich it with superstitious wonders.[29] It would be difficult to find
a period in the scholar’s life which suits better with such a residence
than that we are now considering. On all accounts it seems likely
that he left Paris for Bologna, and found in the latter city a highly
favourable opening, which led directly to the honours and successes of
his after-life.

He was now to leave the schools and enter a wider sphere, not without the
promise of high and enduring fame. A child of the mist and the hill, he
had come from the deep woods and wild outland life of the Scottish Border
to what was already no inconsiderable position. He knew Paris, not, need
it be said, the gay capital of modern days, but Paris of the closing
years of the twelfth century, _Lutetia Parisiorum_: her low-browed houses
of wood and mud; her winding streets, noisome even by day, and by night
still darker and more perilous; her vast Latin Quarter, then far more
preponderant than now—a true cosmopolis, where fur-clad barbarians from
the home of the north wind sharpened wits with the Latin races haply
trained in southern schools by some keen-browed Moor or Jew. And Paris
knew him, watched his course, applauded his success, crowned his fame by
that coveted title of _Master_, which he shared with many others, but
which the world of letters made peculiarly his own by creating for him a
singular and individual propriety in it. From Paris we may follow him in
fancy to Bologna, yet it is not hard to believe he must have left half
his heart behind, enchained in that remarkable devotion which Lutetia
could so well inspire in her children.[30] Bologna might be, as we have
represented it, the gate to a new Eden, that of Scot’s Italian and
Spanish life, yet how could he enter it without casting many a longing
glance behind to the Paradise he had quitted for ever when he left the
banks of the Seine?