SCOT AGAIN AT COURT

The return of Michael Scot from Spain to the Imperial Court was doubtless
a striking moment, not only in the life of the philosopher himself,
but in the history of letters. He then appeared fresh from a great
enterprise, and bringing with him the proofs of its success in the form
of the Latin Averroës. We cannot doubt that his reception was worthy of
the occasion and of one who had served his master so faithfully.

Frederick was now returned to his dominions in the south. He had
established his imperial rights in Germany at the cost of a campaign in
which the pretensions of Otho were successfully overcome, and, on his
return homeward in 1220, he had received the crown once more in Rome
at the hands of the supreme ecclesiastical authority. His progress was
indeed a continual scene of triumph. Arrived at Palermo, the court gave
itself up to feasting and gaiety of every kind.

Two ancient romantic authorities[194] choose with dramatic instinct this
moment, and these gay and voluptuous surroundings, as the _mise en scène_
amid which they show us Scot again appearing to resume the place he
had quitted more than ten years before. It is quite possible that there
may be a measure of historic truth here, as well as the art which can
seize or create an occasion, and which loves to contrast the triumph of
arms with the more peaceful honours of literary fame. Frederick, we must
remember, in a sort represented both. He was Maecenas as well as Caesar.
In welcoming Michael Scot and doing him honour at these imperial banquets
he was but crowning the success of an enterprise in which his own name
and interest were deeply engaged.

Traces of the impression made by this highly significant incident have
been preserved in the arts of poetry and painting as well as in that of
prose romance. Dante, who wrote his _Divine Comedy_ less than a century
later than the time of Scot, has given the philosopher a place in his
poem, describing him as:

‘Quell’altro, che ne’ fianchi è così poco,
Michele Scotto fu.’[195]

The commentators, with great reason, refer the epithet ‘poco’ to the
manner of Scot’s dress. It would seem that the Spaniards of those days
differed from the other European nations in their habit. They wore
a close girdle about the waist, like the _hhezum_ of the East; and
indeed they had probably taken the fashion from long familiarity with
their Moorish masters and neighbours.[196] Scot must have adopted such
a dress while at Toledo, and thus, when he returned to Palermo, the
singularity of his appearance struck the eyes of the court at once. The
impression proved a remarkably enduring one, since, even in Dante’s day,
it still persisted, offering itself, as we have seen, to the poet as
a picturesque means of presenting the famous scholar to the world, not
without a hidden reference to what was certainly one of the crowning
moments of his life.

We may suspect indeed that the fashion of Scot’s dress was more than
simply Spanish; for the mode of Aragon at least must surely have been
too familiar at Frederick’s court to excite so much attention. The
philosopher had lived long in close company with the Moors of Toledo and
Cordova. What he wore was probably no mere fragment of Eastern fashion
but the complete costume of an Arabian sage. The flowing robes, the
close-girt waist, the pointed cap, were not unknown in Sicily where there
was still a considerable Moorish population, yet they must have sat
strangely enough upon Scot when once he declared himself for what he was:
the reverend ecclesiastic, the Master of Paris, the native of the far
north.

There is a fresco on the south wall[197] of the Spanish Chapel in the
cloisters of Santa Maria Novella of Florence which contains a figure
answering nearly to this conjecture regarding Scot’s appearance. It
is that of a man in the prime of life, slight and dark, with a short
brown beard trimmed to a point. He wears a long close-fitting robe of a
reddish colour, noticeably narrow at the waist, with a falling girdle. On
his head is a tall red pointed cap from which the ringlets of his dark
hair escape on each side. He stands among the converts of the Dominican
preachers and bends towards the spectator with an intense expression and
action as he tears the leaves out of a heretical book[198] that rests
on his knee. It would be too much to assert that the figure we have
described was meant as a portrait of Michael Scot, yet considering the
place he holds in the _Divine Comedy_, it is not impossible that such
an idea may have crossed the artist’s mind and left these traces in his
work. Certainly no better pictorial illustration can be found, at once
of Dante’s lines, and of the somewhat equivocal reputation which began
to haunt Scot from the time of his return to court. There was indeed a
singular fitness in the Moslem dress considered as the daily wear of
one who, though a Christian and a Churchman, had just done more than
any living scholar to introduce the Moorish science and philosophy in
the West. His choice of such a fashion is evidence that Michael Scot
possessed a ready adaptability to his circumstances, and even a vein
of aesthetic and dramatic instinct which we might not otherwise have
suspected. But it is not to be forgotten that his versions of Averroës
were already condemned by the Church, and that the very manner of Scot’s
appearance when he brought them from Spain must have heightened the
suspicions of heresy which began to attach themselves to the translator
of these forbidden works. The only hope for such a man was that he
might be induced to tear his book and turn to less dangerous pursuits.
This is exactly the idea which the painter of the Spanish Chapel has
expressed, and in a form which accords so remarkably with the picturesque
description of Michael Scot by Dante.[199]

If the philosopher did not actually take such extreme measures with the
creatures of his brain and pen, the versions he brought to Sicily were at
least suppressed in the meantime, being concealed in the imperial closet
till a more suitable opportunity should occur for their publication. This
done, their author devoted himself to pursuits less likely to attract
unfavourable notice than those in which he had been lately engaged.

The place and duty which most naturally offered themselves to Scot were
those of the Court Astrologer. We have seen him occupied in this way
already, before he left Palermo for Spain, and there seems no reason
to doubt the tradition which says that such was indeed the standing
occupation of his life, and one which he resumed at once on his return.
To this application of celestial science the opinion of the times
attached no sinister interpretation, and Scot, finding himself the object
of suspicion on account of his late studies and achievements, must have
fallen back with a sense of security, strange as it may seem, upon the
casting of horoscopes and the forming of presages founded on the flight
of birds and the motion of animals.[200]

It is therefore in all likelihood to this period in his life that we are
to ascribe several works on astrology and kindred subjects which bear
the name of Scot. They may have come from his pen by way of supplement
to the doctrine which he had expounded so many years before in the
_Liber Introductorius_.[201] Such are the _Astrologia_ of the Munich
Library,[202] and a curious volume preserved in the Hof-Bibliothek of
Vienna with the following title: ‘Michaelis Scoti Capitulum de iis quae
generaliter significantur in partibus duodecim Caeli, sive Domibus.’[203]
The _De Presagiis Stellarum et Elementaribus_, and the _Notitia
convinctionis Mundi terrestris cum Coelesti_, cited by the writer on Scot
in the _Encyclopedia Britannica_, belong apparently to the same class.

We shall probably commit no error in assuming that the astrological views
of Scot at this period were substantially the same as those embodied
in his earlier writings on that subject.[204] In after ages they were
severely censured by Pico della Mirandola, who says of Scot’s doctrine
concerning the stellar images: ‘These invisible forms can be discerned
neither by the senses nor by right reason, and there is no agreement
regarding them by their inventors, who were not the Chaldeans or Indians
but only the Arabs.’ … ‘Michael Scot mentions all these (images) as
things most effectual, and with him agree many astrologers, both Arabian
and Latin. I had heard somewhat of this doctrine, and thought at first
that it was meant merely as a convenient means of mapping out the sky,
and not that these figures actually existed in the heavens.…’ ‘From the
Greeks astrology passed to the Arabs and was taught with ever-growing
assurance.…’ ‘Aboasar, a grammarian and historical writer, took this
science from the Greeks, corrupting it with countless trifling fables,
and made thereof an astrology much worse than that of Ptolemy.…’ ‘In
those days the study of mathematics, like that of philosophy in general,
made great progress in Spain under King Alphonso, a keen student in the
calculus, especially as applied to the movements of the heavenly bodies.
He had also a taste for the vain arts of the Diviner, having learned no
better; and to please him in this many of the most important treatises
of that kind, both Greek and Arabic, have been handed down to our own
day, chiefly by the labours of Johannes Hispalensis and Michael Scot,
the latter of whom was an author of no weight and full of superstition.
Albertus Magnus at first was somewhat carried away with this doctrine,
for it came with the power of novelty to his inexperienced youth, but
I rather think that his opinions suffered change in later life.’[205]
Mirandola belonged to another age than that of Scot, when purer
conceptions of astronomical science were already beginning to prevail,
but the very opinions he condemned held a real relation to that progress.
They encouraged in early times, as may be seen in the case of Alphonso
himself, a study of the heavenly motions without which no true advance
could have been made.

A story told by the chronicler Salimbene may, if rightly understood,
show us that Michael Scot too, for all his astrological dreams, was a
clever calculator and thus stood well in the line on which true advance
in astronomy was even then proceeding. The Emperor asked him one day to
determine the distance of the _coelum_, which probably means the height
of the roof, in a certain hall of the palace where they happened to
be standing together. The calculation having been made and the result
given, Frederick took occasion to send Scot on a distant journey,
and, while he was away, the proportions of the room were slightly but
sufficiently altered. On his return the Emperor led him where they had
been before and asked that he should repeat his solution of the problem.
Scot unhesitatingly affirmed that a change had taken place; either the
floor was higher or the _coelum_ lower than before: an answer which
made all men marvel at his skill.[206] Greek science had taught the art
of measuring inaccessible distances by means of angular observations,
and this art was well understood by the Arabs. The _Optica_ of Ptolemy
were already translated into Latin from an Arabic version by Eugenio,
admiral to King Robert of Sicily during the twelfth century,[207] and
mathematical instruments were known in that kingdom whereby angles could
be taken and measured with some nicety. Scot must have possessed such
an _astrolabe_ and the skill to use it with great delicacy, if we have
rightly read the terms of the problem he solved so unhesitatingly. There
is no cause for wonder then in the fact that, where pure and legitimate
astronomy was concerned, this philosopher, who had won fame in his
student days as the mathematician of Paris, who was now widely known
as the translator of Alpetrongi, and who as a keen observer and ready
calculator was well qualified for original research, should have taken a
high place in these studies on his own account, and should have come to
be acknowledged as a master in them. Even Bacon, who blamed Michael Scot
so bitterly when language or philosophy were in question, speaks in a
different way here, calling him a ‘notable inquirer into matter, motion,
and the course of the constellations.’

This well-earned celebrity may have been owing in no small degree to a
mathematical and astronomical work produced by the philosopher after
his return to court. Sacrobosco, the famous English astronomer, had
just risen into notice by his treatise on the _Sphere_. This book was
not indeed very remarkable in itself, but it obtained an extraordinary
currency during the Middle Ages, and after the invention of printing as
well as before it:[208] a popularity chiefly due, we may believe, to its
suggestiveness, which caused many of the learned to enrich the _Sphere_
of Sacrobosco with their own notes and observations. One of the first to
do so was Michael Scot. His commentary on the work of Holywood contains
several subtle inquiries and determinations regarding the source of heat,
the sphericity of the heavenly bodies, and other matters, which have been
repeated by Libri with the remark that their author must have been far in
advance of his times.[209]

We may notice here a curious legend of Naples to which Sir Walter Scott
has drawn attention in the account he gives of his great namesake.[210]
It would seem to suggest that this age, perhaps by means of Michael
Scot, was acquainted with philosophical instruments rarer if not more
useful than the astrolabe. The romance of _Vergilius_ tells how that
hero founded ‘in the middes of the see a fayer towne, with great landes
belongynge to it; … and called it Napells. And the fandacyon of it
was of egges, and in that towne of Napells he made a tower with iiii
corners, and in the toppe he set an apell upon an yron yarde, and no
man culd pull away that apell without he brake it; and thoroughe that
yren set he a bolte, and in that bolte set he a egge. And he henge the
apell by the stauke upon a cheyne, and so hangeth it still. And when the
egge styrreth, so shoulde the towne of Napells quake; and when the egge
brake, then shulde the towne sinke,’ The reference here is of course to
the _Castel del Ovo_ at Naples, a fortress which we know to have been
built, or at least strengthened, by Frederick II. What if the rest of the
legend embalm, like a fly in amber, the tradition, strangely altered, of
some instrument set up there to measure the force of the earthquakes so
prevalent in that part of Italy?

Such a notion is not the pure matter of conjecture it may at first sight
seem to be. Frederick was in relation with those who might well have put
him in possession of this among other secrets. When the Tartars stormed
the _Vulture’s Nest_, as it was called, in the Syrian castle of Alamout,
they found an observatory well supplied with instruments of precision,
and that of all kinds.[211] Now this place was the last refuge of the
Assassins, that strange sect who owned obedience to the Old Man of the
Mountain. Frederick II. when in the East paid these people a visit,[212]
and again at Melfi, in his own dominions, he received their ambassadors
and entertained them at a great banquet.[213] Considering then the
Emperor’s well-known curiosity in all matters of physical science, we
may feel sure he would profit by any improvements or discoveries the
observers at Alamout could communicate. If the contrivance set up at
Naples was really a _seismometer_, this would furnish a curious comment
on Bacon’s statement that Michael Scot excelled in investigating the
movements of matter.[214]

Passing to what rests on more certain evidence, we find Scot’s fame in
those days attested by one of his most distinguished contemporaries,
and that in a way which makes him appear as an honoured master in the
science of algebra, then lately introduced from the Moorish schools. This
improvement and testimony were both of them due to a certain Leonardo
of the Bonacci family of Pisa, who was, perhaps, the first to bring the
new method of calculation to the knowledge of his countrymen. His father
had been overseer of the customs at Bougie, in Barbary,[215] on behalf
of the Pisan merchants who traded thither. Observing the superior way of
reckoning used by the Moors in that country, he sent home for his son
that the boy might be trained in this admirable way of counting. Leonardo
perfected his art in after years by travel and study in Egypt, Syria,
and Greece, as well as in Sicily and Provence. The ripe fruit of this
knowledge saw the light in 1222, when he published for the first time
his famous _Liber Abbaci_. It consisted of fifteen chapters, in which
the author declared the secret of the Indian numerals as well as the
fundamental processes of algebra.[216]

This brief account of one who must ever hold an honourable place in the
history of mathematical science may enable us to value at its true worth
the praise which Leonardo bestowed on Michael Scot. It seems that the
first edition of the _Liber Abbaci_ was not entirely satisfactory. Scot
wrote a letter to the author which possibly contained strictures on the
work, and asked that a copy of the emended edition should be sent him.
Pisano replied by dedicating the book to his correspondent. It appeared
in 1228, and contained a prefatory letter, in which the author addresses
Scot in the highest terms of respect, calling him by that title of
_Supreme Master_ which he had won at Paris, and submitting the _Liber
Abbaci_, even in this its final form, to his further emendation. This
_laudari a laudato_ must have been most grateful to the philosopher, and
it enables us to see the standing he had among the mathematicians of his
time. One would almost be disposed to infer, from the respect Pisano
paid him, that Scot himself had composed or translated some lost work on
algebra. In another connection we shall find reason to think that this
conjecture may be well founded.[217]

Besides the practice of astrology and his deeper researches in astronomy
and mathematics, Michael Scot devoted himself to another profession,
that of medicine. This was then a science very imperfectly understood,
yet here too, in the years that followed his return to court, Scot made
a name for himself as a physician, and contributed something to the
advancement of human knowledge in one of its most important branches. The
healing art in Europe had only just begun to emerge from that primitive
state in which savage peoples still possess it; overlaid by charms and
incantations; the peculiar department of the wise woman, the sorcerer,
and the priest. Among the Latin races the lady of the castle and the
_bella donna_ of the village still cared for rich and poor in their
various accidents and sicknesses, as indeed they continued to do for
several ages more. Only crowned heads, the wealthiest of the nobility,
or the rich merchants of the cities, began to require and employ the
services of regular physicians. These were generally Jews, sometimes
Moors;[218] and thus fashion and experience alike began to make popular
among our ancestors the superior claims of science in medicine. Such
science had undoubtedly survived from the days and in the works of
Hippocrates, Galen, and Celsus, and was now preserved in the theory and
practice of the Arabian schools.

This point once reached, a further advance soon became inevitable.
Attention had been called to a deeper source of medical knowledge than
that generally possessed in the West. Learned men, whose tastes led
them this way, naturally sought to inform their minds by procuring
translations of the Arabic works on medicine. The just fame of Salerno,
a medical school which had been founded in the closing years of the
eleventh century by Robert Guiscard, depended on the intelligent zeal
with which this plan of research was then pursued.[219] The kingdom
of Sicily indeed occupies as important a place in the progress of the
healing art as Spain itself does with regard to the history of philosophy
and of science in general.

Frederick II., as might have been expected, did much to encourage and
regulate these useful studies. We have already noticed the bent of
his mind towards comparative physiology, and the daring experiments he
carried out, _in corpore vili et vivo_. One of the first literary and
scientific works which he commanded, or at least accepted when it was
dedicated to him, was a compilation from three ancient authors upon a
medical subject.[220] He was then but eighteen years of age. As time
went on his interest in this science continued, and became the motive
to a liberal and enlightened policy. He regarded medicine as a matter
of national importance, and strove by wise laws to make the practice
of that profession as intelligent and useful as possible. He protected
the faculty at Salerno and created that of Naples. None might lecture
elsewhere in the Sicilies, and every physician in the kingdom must hold
testimonials from one or other of these schools, as well as a government
licence to practise. The course preliminary to qualification consisted of
three years in arts and five in medicine and surgery. As a guide to the
professors, the doctrine of Hippocrates and Galen was declared normal in
the schools; yet, lest this should become merely formal and traditional,
directions were given that the students should have practice in anatomy.
Regarding the related trade of the apothecary, the laws denounced the
adulteration of drugs. Physicians might not claim a greater fee than half
a _taren_ of gold per diem, which gave the patient a right to be visited
thrice in the day. The poor were to be attended free of charge. We have
thought it right to be particular in these details, as they throw light
on the times, and on Scot’s own practice as a physician. Considering
indeed the place he held about the Emperor’s person, and the high
estimation in which his master held him, it seems not at all improbable
that his may have been the hand which drew these wise enactments, or his
at least the suggestion which commended them to Frederick. They must in
any case have been the rules under which he carried on his work as a
doctor of medicine.

This branch of Michael Scot’s activity relates itself easily and
naturally to what we already know of his acquirements and familiarity
with the Arabian authors. It was from the _De Medicina_ of Rases that
he borrowed so much material for his _Physionomia_. The _Abbreviatio
Avicennae_ too, which he translated for Frederick in 1210, was in no
small part a treatise on comparative anatomy and physiology, nor is it
likely that he can have missed reading the famous _canon_ of the same
author, in which Avicenna expounds a complete body of practical medicine.
We need not wonder then to find that, on Scot’s return to court, his
work on Averroës done, he added the practice of physic to his duties as
Imperial Astrologer. This new profession must have offered itself to him
as another means of securing a general forgetfulness of the questionable
direction in which his philosophical studies had lately carried him.

He seems in fact to have won almost as much fame in medicine as he had
made for himself in the study of mathematics. Lesley says ‘he gained much
praise as a philosopher, astronomer, and physician.’ Dempster speaks
of his ‘singular skill,’ calling him ‘one of the first physicians for
learning’[221] and adding that Camperius[222] had the highest opinion
of him. An anonymous writer, _De claris Doctrina Scotis_, is even more
precise, telling us that Scot was noted for the cures he effected in
difficult cases, and that he excelled in the treatment of leprosy, gout,
and dropsy.[223]

Some slight remains of this skill are to be found in the libraries of
Europe; for Michael Scot was a writer on the science of his art as well
as a practising physician. The chief of these relics is a considerable
work on the urine. This subject had been widely, if not deeply, studied
by the more ancient medical authorities, whose investigations appear in
the _Ketab Albaul_ of Al Kairouani,[224] and in a book to which we have
already more than once referred: the _De Urinis_ compiled for Frederick
in 1212.[225] The same title belongs to one of the treatises by Avicenna,
which has been reprinted in the present century.[226]

The _De Urinis_ of Michael Scot seems now extant in the form of an
Italian translation alone. The exact title is as follows: ‘Della notitia
e prognosticatione dell’orine, secondo Michele Scoto, così de’ sani,
come delli infermi,’ or, more briefly, ‘El trattato de le urine secondo
Michaele Scoto.’[227] The author enumerates no less than nineteen
divisions of his subject, which he seems to have studied very exactly.
This work long remained an authority in the medical schools, as appears,
not only from the two translations we have noticed, but also in the fact
that large use was made of it in a later collection which commences thus:
‘In the name of the Lord, Amen. These are certain recipes taken from the
book of Master Michael Scot, Physician to the Emperor Frederick, and from
the works of other Doctors.’[228]

There has also come down to us a prescription called _Pillulae Magistri
Michaelis Scoti_.[229] It enumerates about a dozen ingredients and the
scribe has added an extravagant commendation of its healing powers.
Mineral medicines were evidently not in fashion in those days; for the
recipe speaks only of simples derived from herbs of different kinds. It
is to be observed that this agrees exactly with the practice of Salerno,
as the Materia Medica of that school was chiefly drawn from the botany
of Dioscorides afterwards expounded by Ibn Beithar of Malaga, the great
Moorish authority on the healing virtues of plants. There is no reason
then to doubt the truth of the title which ascribes the prescription for
these pills to Michael Scot. It is in any case a curious relic of early
medical practice.

It is possible that the great plague which fell upon Palermo at the time
of Frederick’s marriage may have been, in part at least, the occasion
of that interest which both the Emperor and his astrologer took in the
healing art. These epidemics, which in several of their most fatal forms
are now only known by tradition, were the dreaded scourge of the Middle
Ages; their prevalence being no doubt due to the rude and insanitary
habits of life which were then universal. We read of another infectious
sickness which attacked Frederick and his crusaders when they were on the
point of sailing from Brindisi in 1227. The season was one of terrible
heat, so great indeed that one chronicle says the rays of the sun melted
solid metal! Lying in the confinement of their galleys on an unhealthy
coast the troops suffered severely. At last rain fell, but immediately
poisonous damps arose from the steaming soil, and the plague began to
show itself. Two bishops and the Landgrave of Thuringia were among the
victims of the pestilence, and very many of the crusaders died. Frederick
himself ran considerable risk of his life. Against the advice of his
physician he had exposed himself to the sun in the course of his journey
to Brindisi. After three days with the fleet he was obliged to return
on account of the state of his health, when he at once went to the
waters at Pozzuoli, which proved a successful cure. Michael Scot must
have entered into these affairs with a large concern and responsibility
for his master’s health, and we shall think much of the importance and
consequence he enjoyed at this time when we remember that the chief
object of his care as a physician was the life of one on whom interests
that were more than European then depended.

You may also like