THE LEGEND OF MICHAEL SCOT

Hitherto we have taken little notice of the fame by which Michael Scot
is most widely known in literature; preferring to speak first of the
authentic facts and real employments of his life, so far as these can now
be ascertained. It would be improper, however, to close our investigation
without taking some account of that darker reputation which has so long
represented him to the world as a magician and dealer in forbidden
lore. If we have deferred so long the consideration of this matter, the
reason may be found in the fact that there seems to be no truth in such
stories. They live only in legend, and in the literature of romance, and
must therefore be held apart by a firm line from the domain of sober
historical inquiry.

This conclusion, be it observed, is not based upon the prevailing opinion
of the present day that such arts are impossible, nor has it thence
been reached by way of the inference that because magic is impossible,
therefore Michael Scot cannot have meddled in it. Such was not at all
the view held in the thirteenth century. Then scholars as well as
the unlearned, and clergy as well as laity, believed firmly in the
possibility, nay, the reality, of what they regarded as an unwarrantable
interference with the order of nature. This belief makes it a fair
subject of discussion in regard to any one of that age whether or not
he may have practised forbidden arts. The question in Scot’s case is
a highly curious one, and, without further apology, we now proceed to
examine it in detail.

The most famous schools of magic in those days were fixed by popular
tradition in the Spanish cities of Toledo and Salamanca, especially
the former. Magic, indeed, was generally spoken of as the _scientia
Toletana_. The _Morgante Maggiore_ of Pulci may furnish us with a fair
example of the common belief:[257]

‘Per quel ch’io udì gia dir, sendo in Tolleta
Dove ogni negromante si racozza.’

and again:

‘Questa città di Tolleta solea
Tenere studio di Nigromanzia.
Quivi di magica arte si legea
Pubblicamente, e di Piromancia
E molti Geomanti sempre avea
E esperimenti assai di Idromanzia.’

Caesar Von Heisterbach, the anecdote-monger of the century, relates more
than one diverting tale of necromantic prodigies, the scene of which
he lays at Toledo. The most remarkable of these stories tells how some
Germans came thither to learn magic.[258] Their teacher in this art
called up certain spirits, who appeared first as armed men, and then in
the form of lovely maids. One of the students was thereby allured and
carried off. The others drew their swords and threatened the master
with death, until, overcome by fear, he used his power to secure their
companion’s return.

From the favourite locality of these legends we may infer that the magic
then in vogue was that of the Arabs, which, especially in Spain, had
now begun to supplant the ancient and primitive European superstitions.
This magic was not a mere ritual of spells, such as that of the Chaldean
monuments, but rather a complete theurgy, like the magic of Egypt; the
corruption of an ancient and elaborate religious system.[259] The Arabian
mage pretended to bow the superior powers which other men could only
worship, and boldly bade them do his will. It is hardly necessary to say
that such a system did not originally belong to the Arabs, who had been,
until the days of Mohammed, a rude and savage people. They learned it
in Syria and Egypt, where the theories of Porphyry and Iamblichus still
held sway.[260] In their hands this magic became enriched with many new
conceits, such as the nimble fancy of these children of the East knew
well how to interweave with all that they touched. The stars, they held,
were the centres of supreme influence, but had certain correspondences
with earthly things; with herbs, with stones, and even with sounds. These
were in a sort the offspring of heaven, for plants of power were precious
things put forth by the sun and moon; the minerals were condensed and
congealed by the same heavenly agency in a planetary hour, and earthly
voices, even the cries of dumb animals, were but the far echo of the
music heard in heaven, the music of the spheres.

So far, indeed, this was but common doctrine, shared by all the
science of the time, and eminently expounded in every astrological
system. The magic founded upon it began with the notion that this
close correspondence between heaven and earth might carry an influence
able to react in an upward, contrary, and unnatural direction. Plants
and precious stones, rightly employed, might prove able to bind the
stellar powers on which all depended. Names and forms of conjuration
might control the superior spirits which the stars represented. Hence
arose a whole system of magical practice, in which, from the circle of
the sorcerer—a symbol representing on earth the motion of the upper
spheres—the vapour of mingled herbs and minerals rose to heaven above the
glowing brazier, accompanied by recited spells. It is curious to notice
that when, after several ages, this essentially Eastern and theurgic
necromancy[261] gave place to the witchcraft of the North, with its dark
demonolatry, the essential idea of the Arabian magicians still survived.
Its influence may be traced in the importance always attached in popular
belief to the _reversal_ of natural practice, as a means of securing
supernatural power and effect. Hence the bizarre details which crowd the
witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: how hags walked
backwards, or _withershins_, that is, against the course of the sun, or
changed a prayer into a spell by muttering it in a contrary sense.

The Arabian magic as understood in Spain during the thirteenth century is
very fully expounded in a curious work called _Picatrix_.[262] This book
explains that the fundamental idea of the art was reaction leading up to
transformation or magical change, adding that this reaction may be seen
in three different regions of being; first among the elemental spirits
themselves, next between these and matter, and, last, the reaction of one
kind of matter upon another, as in alchemy. The second of these kinds
of reaction admits the influence of earthly things upon the heavenly
spirits, and is the foundation of that kind of magic which the _Picatrix_
proceeds to expound, in details which are often much more curious than
edifying. This book has special value as showing the intimate relation
between magic and the ordinary studies of those times. Aristotle is often
quoted in it,[263] and the position of necromancy with regard to other
branches of science is clearly defined. It is not hard to see that,
when thus understood, this art must have allied itself closely with
astronomy and astrology on the one hand, and with alchemy on the other.
In the account given by Bacon of Avicenna’s philosophy, he says that the
third great division of that author’s works, and one which had never
appeared in Latin, was that devoted to the most hidden parts of natural
philosophy.[264] The science of those days left an acknowledged place
for the occult and the mysterious among its doctrines. This place was
filled by magic, a study forbidden indeed by the Church, but generally
recognised as occupying a real though secret department among the other
sciences and arts. The tradition we so often meet with that masters of
necromancy actually taught the art of magic in Toledo, Salamanca, and
perhaps Padua, seems but a reflection in later times of what was then the
genuine belief of European scholars.

There is thus no reason why Michael Scot should not have devoted himself
to what was the subject of actual and serious study during the times in
which he lived, and especially so in the country where his chief literary
labours were carried on. Were we to follow the mere likelihood of the
case, his interest in astronomy and alchemy would lead us to think it
very possible he might have studied an art that was so closely connected
with these. But to change such a possibility into a certainty, or even a
probability, something more convincing than any _a priori_ argument must
be found. If no actual proof of Scot’s magical practice be forthcoming we
must be content to leave the matter where we found it; in the realm of
dim and unsubstantial tradition.[265]

The true criterion here must doubtless be sought in the evidence
furnished by contemporaries regarding the fact alleged. In the case of
Michael Scot such evidence is forthcoming, but we may say at once that it
proves upon examination to yield a distinctly negative result. His fame
in those days was such that he is mentioned by several important writers
of his own age, such as Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and Vincent of Beauvais.
None of these has a word to say of Scot’s reputation as a necromancer.
Some may urge that an argument from silence is unsatisfactory; but
does it not gain great force from the consideration that two of these
witnesses are decidedly hostile to Scot? Bacon, especially, seems to
have lost no opportunity of blackening his character. To these men
Michael Scot was a sciolist, a mere pretender to knowledge, ignorant
even of Latin; the very charlatan of the schools. He was a plagiarist
too; one who passed off the work of another man as his own; nay, darker
than all, he was a heretic, or so Albert would make him; a philosopher
who interpreted and exceeded the forbidden doctrines of Averroës. Is it
not certain that, if Scot had really practised magic in spite of the
prohibitions of the Church, we should have heard of this charge from
these active and bitter detractors? Our conclusion from their silence is
therefore neither far to seek nor hard to defend. These tales, we must
hold, were not current in the lifetime of Michael Scot, nor for many
years after. They had no foundation in fact, but were the fancies of the
following generation, and thus passed into the settled tradition which
has ever since persistently associated itself with the philosopher’s name.

But this conclusion raises another question. How did such a tradition
arise, and what were the points of attachment to which these stories
clung? The ground for the legend of Michael Scot would seem to have been
prepared by the close connection between him and his master the Emperor
Frederick II. Every student of those times knows well the storm of
invective and the weight of calumny which fell upon that great monarch
as the consequence of his feuds with the See of Rome. He was officially
declared to be no Christian but the mystic Beast of the Apocalypse,
vomiting blasphemies. He was accused of having produced the apocryphal
work _De Tribus Impostoribus_. His private life became the subject of
grave scandal and repeated censure. Men were taught to believe that he
revelled in a harem of Saracen beauties, and was addicted to infamous
immorality, as well as to forbidden arts. These accusations were current,
not only in Frederick’s own lifetime, but long afterwards. They may be
studied at large in the Papal Epistolaries,[266] and a striking example
of their current popular form is found in the following barbarous lines
which we borrow from an obscure author[267] who used his pen in the
service of the Guelfs:

‘Amisit Astrologos, et Magos, et Vates,
Beelzebub et Ashtaroth proprios Penates,
Tenebrarum consulens per suos Potestates
Spreverat Ecclesiam, et mundi Magnates.’

When we remember that Michael Scot was the man whom Frederick loved to
consult and employ, we understand what effect this depreciation of the
master’s fame must have had on that of his servant. If the Emperor made
Beelzebub and Ashtaroth his gods, Scot must soon have been recognised as
the go-between in this infernal business.

Such an impression would naturally be heightened by the recollection of
the years which had been spent by Michael Scot at Toledo and Cordova. We
have already noticed the dark reputation which attached to the former of
these places. It is only needful here to add that Scot’s ecclesiastical
character would by no means hinder the unfavourable inference that must
have been drawn from his lengthened residence in the chief seat of
magical study. St. Giles before his conversion, and Gerbert, afterwards
Pope Sylvester II., were commonly reported to have learned the black art
at Toledo. As to Cordova, the _Picatrix_ mentions the discovery of a
magic book in the Church there,[268] which shows that the supernatural
fame of Toledo attached itself also to this city.

It is far from improbable that the nature of Scot’s studies in these
places may have inclined men to believe in the stories told of him as a
necromancer. He spent his time upon Arabic texts, and, with the fanatical
clergy, not to speak of the common people whom they taught, the Moors and
all their works were accursed. No one could meddle much with them save at
the cost of such accusations of diabolic dealing. Nor was it merely the
language but also the very subject of Scot’s studies that was suspicious.
Since the days of the Alexandrian school there had grown up round the
name of Aristotle a strange legend which represented him as a magician;
none other than the great sorcerer Nectanebus of Egypt, the true father,
by an infamous sleight, of Alexander of Macedon.[269]

Nectanebus, so the tale ran, was King of Egypt, and learned in all the
magic arts of that mysterious land. When war threatened he would fill
a vessel with water and float upon it enchanted ships of clay. Thus
could he divine the success or failure of his country’s arms. One day,
however, as he was busy in this spell, the old gods appeared to guide the
craft he had designed as models of the hostile fleet. Nectanebus gave
up all for lost, shaved his head, and in the disguise of a philosopher,
fled to Pella in Macedonia, where he lived by practising the arts of
an astrologer and prophet. Olympias consulted him to know whether she
might hope to give an heir to her husband Philip, then absent from his
capital. Nectanebus bade her expect the honour of a visit from Jupiter
Ammon himself, and, dressing in the horns and hieratic robe proper to
the character he assumed, became, by her whom he seduced, the father
of Alexander the Great. The child was born amid thunder and lightning,
and was soon committed to the care of Nectanebus who became his tutor:
a clear point of connection with Aristotle, who really filled that
office. One day tutor and pupil walked on the edge of a cliff, when
the philosopher uttered a prophecy to the effect that Alexander was
fated to kill his own father. The boy, who fancied that Philip was
meant, took the words so ill that he flung his tutor over the rock,
and thus instantly fulfilled the prediction. This tale can be traced
from its appearance in the Pseudo-Callisthenes through the series of
Byzantine chroniclers—Syncellus, Glycas, John Malala, and the author of
the _Chronicon Pascale_—to the later romances where it is repeated and
amplified. The whole Middle Age believed it. Not till the fourteenth
century did a doubt of its truth appear,[270] and that it was current in
the west of Europe at the time of which we write appears plainly in the
preface to the _Secreta Secretorum_, which has the following significant
remark, ‘which Alexander is said to have had two horns.’[271] The real
meaning of the legend probably lay in a patriotic desire to vindicate for
Egypt, though subdued by Alexander, the honour of having originated the
Greek philosophy.[272] The thirteenth century, however, knew nothing
of such explanations; cherishing the tale rather on account of the wild
mystery which it breathes. No wonder then if the labours of Michael Scot
as an exponent of Aristotle gave some force to the popular idea that he
dealt in forbidden arts.

Need we point out that the same may be said of his fame as a Master
in astrology and alchemy? We have seen how close was the relation in
which these sciences stood to the magic of the day. As to mathematics,
for which Scot was so renowned, it is to be observed that the kind of
divination called _Geomancy_, which was performed by casting figures
in a box filled with sand, was remarkably like the method of working
sums which is still practised among the Moors.[273] We may add that
the facility with which difficult problems could be solved by the new
methods of calculation borrowed from that people must have seemed little
less than supernatural to those as yet unacquainted with the secrets of
algebra.

It seems probable indeed that at least one starting-point of Michael
Scot’s legendary and romantic fame may be looked for in the very quarter
to which we have just begun to direct our attention. There is in the
author’s possession a manuscript which promises to throw some light on
the obscurity of this matter.[274] It consists of sixteen quarto pages
written on parchment in a hand of the seventeenth century, and contains
a short preface, followed by two distinct works. One of these professes
to be an Arabic original, and the other a version of the same in Latin,
said to come from the pen of Michael Scot. The title of the work deserves
special attention. It is as follows: ‘Almuchabola Absegalim Alkakib
Albaon; _i.e._ Compendium Magia Innaturalis Nigrae.’ Now, although the
so-called _Arabic_ of the manuscript quite defies the best efforts of
scholarship to decipher it, this word almuchabola is perfectly authentic,
familiar even, being the common term in that language for what we call
algebra.[275]

This then seems to afford an actual example of the way in which the
Moorish science of numbers might be mistaken for something magical.
When we examine the manuscript more closely the suggestion which its
title affords becomes still stronger. Here and there, amid the strange
characters of an unknown tongue,[276] are designs of a curious kind;
parallelograms enclosed in bounding lines of red, and containing erratic
figures also in red, that show luridly against the black background with
which the outlines are filled. The Latin version explains that these
are the signs of the demons whom the accompanying spells have power to
summon or dismiss. No one, however, who compares them with the graphic
statements of mathematical problems in the margin of the _Liber Abbaci_
can fail to be struck with the resemblance.[277] The one book seems, in
regard of these figures, but a degenerate copy of the other, made by some
scribe who did not understand the matter he had in hand, and who darkened
the ground of his designs to heighten the fancied terrors of the subject.

It would not be easy to miss the meaning of this mistake. Michael
Scot had probably written or translated a treatise on algebra. We may
remember how well such a conjecture agrees with the tone of Pisano’s
dedicatory letter to him, in which he submitted the _Liber Abbaci_ to
Scot’s revision, and acknowledged him as a supreme master in this branch
of science. It is difficult to account for this fame save by supposing
the existence of an unknown work by Michael Scot on the veritable
Almuchabola, of which this pretended treatise on magic is all that now
survives. The mistake that gave it so corrupted a form could hardly have
been made as late as the seventeenth century, when such things were well
understood. The manuscript, though dating from that time, is probably
only a copy of one much older. The preface, indeed, mentions the year
1255 as the epoch of translation, and, although Michael Scot had then
lain more than twenty years in his grave, this date would suit well as
the birth-hour of a legend which, though certainly later than Scot’s
own day, had yet made considerable progress in the popular mind before
the close of the century. This explanation of the matter receives some
indirect support from a remark of Bacon’s. ‘It is to be noticed,’ he
says, ‘that many books are taken for magical works which are in reality
nothing of the kind, but contain true and worthy wisdom.’[278] He adds
that there are several ways of concealing one’s doctrine from the vulgar,
such as the use of Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic characters, and the _Ars
Notoria_ or shorthand. There is much reason to think it was in this
very way that Michael Scot had suffered. A mistake like that indicated
by Bacon was probably the real origin of his mysterious reputation as a
magician.

As soon as the mistake had once been made, and the notion of Scot’s
magical powers had fairly taken possession of the popular mind, it was
greatly reinforced by the association of his name and memory with the
still living and adaptable Arthurian legend. Alain de l’Isle, who lived
as late as 1202, says that the tales proper to this romantic cycle were
so heartily believed in Brittany that any one casting doubt upon Arthur’s
return would have been stoned by the people.[279] From the Trouvères the
legend passed to the Troubadours of the south of France. When the Normans
established themselves in Sicily, these latter poets, represented, it is
said, by Pietro Vidal, and Rambaldo di Vaqueiras, carried to this new
home of their race the _materia poetica_ which had so long engaged the
best talents of France. The religious war which desolated Provence in
the beginning of the thirteenth century completed the dispersion of the
Troubadours. Many found a refuge in Italy and Sicily. They communicated
an emotional impulse which led to the formation of the Italian language
as a means of literary expression. Through them the inheritance of the
Arthurian tales was secured to the people of the South, who soon began
to localise the chief incidents of this romantic cycle in the island of
Sicily.[280]

Gervase of Tilbury tells us that near the town of Catania lies the
burning mountain of Etna, called by the people _Mongibello_, and famed
among them as the abode of King Arthur, who, they said, had lately been
seen there. The matter fell out thus. The Bishop of Catania’s palfrey
escaped one day from his groom, and was lost. The man sought his charge
everywhere, and at last ventured to enter an opening he perceived in the
hollow part of the hill. Here he found a narrow winding path which led
to a pleasant land within Etna, and to a palace, the home of Arthur. He
entered the palace and found the King lying on a royal couch. Arthur
bade him welcome, listened to his story, and called for the steed to be
brought that the Bishop might have his own again. He further told his
visitor that, having been wounded in battle with Modred and Childeric
king of Saxony, he had come to this retreat that he might heal him of his
mortal sickness. Gervase adds that Arthur, not content with restoring the
horse, paid tithe to the Bishop as one of the dwellers in his diocese,
‘which was a wonder to all that heard it.’[281]

Caesar von Heisterbach has the same tale in his collection, but repeats
it with some variations. In his pages the pleasant land of Avalon, with
its peaceful palace, becomes a dark abode of fire, answering more nearly
to the actual phenomena of the mountain. Arthur hence issues a dread
summons to the owner of the palfrey, who in this tale is a Canon of
Palermo, bidding him appear in that infernal region within a fortnight.
The churchman obeys by dying at the time appointed.[282] The terror
which enters into this form of the story is even heightened by Stephen
of Bourbon when he comes to repeat it.[283] On the other hand the easy,
pleasant, semi-pagan tone observed in Gervase of Tilbury lives again
in the French romance of _Florian and Florete_.[284] Here we see the
kingdom within Etna before Arthur came thither, and find it a land of
faery, where the King’s sister Morgana holds her flowery court. The
_Fata Morgana_, as she is called, is still remembered on these southern
coasts. When the mirage appears in the Straits of Messina, and houses and
castles are seen hanging in thin air, the people call them by the name of
that mysterious princess. They think that the sides of Etna have become
transparent, and that what they behold is the realm of faery with the
Fata Morgana’s palace in the midst.

These legends show that Avalon, first dreamed of in the far North, had
by this time been carried southward to find a new locality under Etna,
and that already the mystic king, who dwelt with his court in the land
of shadows till he should again return to earth, had taken a firm hold
of the southern fancy. It was but a step more then, and one very easily
taken, when men began to see in the Princes of the Hohenstaufen, and
the chief figures of their court, the heirs of this legend in some of
its most important features. Frederick Barbarossa, for example, was
commonly said to pass the ages between death and life in a hollow hill.
The Germans identified this abode with the Kyffhauser, and expected the
Emperor’s return in the spirit of the tales told of Wodan, Frau Holda,
and Frau Venus, in their national mythology.[285] It was even reported
that a bold shepherd armed with the mysterious _key-flower_ had forced
the secret, entering these recesses of the hill and beholding Barbarossa
as in life, with his red beard growing through the marble table at which
he sat asleep. The romantic heritage next fell upon Barbarossa’s grandson
Frederick II. It was long before the adherents of the Empire who had
staked so much upon their great champion’s bold defiance of the Papacy
could bring themselves to believe that he was really dead. In 1250 his
corpse was carried in solemn procession from Fiorentino, where he died,
to Palermo, the place appointed for his burial. There he soon lay in the
ancient sarcophagus brought from Cefalù; his robe embroidered about the
hem with Cufic characters, and the sceptre and apple of empire in his
powerless hands;[286] but still the Ghibellines could not give up the
hope that one day he would wake again, and lead them to the victory they
looked for.

This expectation was much strengthened by a prophecy then current under
the name of the Abbot Joachim. ‘There cometh an Eagle, at whose appearing
the Lion shall be destroyed: yea a young Eagle who shall make his nest in
the den of the Lion. Of the race of the Eagle shall arise another Eagle
called Frederick. He shall reign indeed, and shall stretch his wings till
they touch the ends of the earth. In his days shall the chief Pontiff and
his clergy be despoiled and dispersed.’[287] On the other side a Guelf
poet, whose name we do not know, associated Frederick II. with Arthur in
the following lines:

‘Cominatur impius, dolens de jacturis
Cum suo Britonibus Arturo Venturis.’[288]

The collection called the _Cento Novelle Antiche_ reflects this myth
very plainly; for, in the strange tales then told of Frederick and his
court, we seem to see these personages already transported to a kind of
fairyland, where the laws of earthly life no longer hold good. The scene
is unmistakably laid in the Avalon of Arthur and amid his shadowy court.

One of the most striking incidents which marked the long funeral
procession of Frederick II. through the southern provinces of Italy
was furnished by the grief of a faithful band of Saracens, who, with
dishevelled hair and cries of sorrow, accompanied the body of their
great benefactor to its last resting-place. It is probable indeed that
these people, of whom Frederick had not a few both in Sicily and in
various colonies on the mainland, may have joined very heartily with
their Christian neighbours in giving currency to the latest application
of the Arthurian legend. In all essential features it must already have
been familiar to them as a form of myth long known in the East. Even the
romance of Nectanebus already noticed had a certain historical basis.
In the fourth century before Christ a king called Nekhtneb reigned in
Egypt. He was defeated by the Persians, and fled into a distant province
of Ethiopia. Thus the ancient national dynasty of the Pharaohs came to
an end, but the people long refused to believe that their king was dead.
They consulted an oracle, which told them he would return, as a young
man, to conquer the enemies of his country. This prophecy was engraved
on the base of the royal statue and served long to sustain the national
hope. The same dreams appeared in connection with the much more recent
Mohammedan power. The _Shi’ah_ and _Sunnee_ sects of Islam held firmly
to the idea that the twelfth Imam was not really dead, but would return
to earth. This mysterious person was _El Mohdy_, the last incarnation of
the Deity, as they supposed. He was said to dwell in a cave near Bagdad,
whence he would one day reappear to oppose _Ed Dejal_, the Moslem
Antichrist, in a time of great trouble, when he would overthrow him
and his ally the _earth-beast_ in final conflict near Aleppo. Mohammed
himself was said to have retreated with Abu Bekr to a cave, where they
lay concealed behind a spider’s web, as the Scottish tale says Bruce
did before his decisive appearance and victory. The influence of these
myths may be seen even during the lifetime of Frederick II., when the
extravagant hopes of his followers led them to use language regarding
the Emperor which was applicable only to the Deity. We may see in this
an anticipation by hyperbole of the apotheosis granted him by the
Ghibellines after his death.[289]

As for Michael Scot himself, it was a very natural progress of the
popular imagination which made him play Merlin to the Emperor’s Arthur.
That this place in the growing legend was actually his, seems probable
from the fact that, in the romance of _Maugis_ (or Merlin) _and
Vivien_,[290] the hero is made to study his art in Toledo, where Scot
had notoriously been. Mysterious caves, the refuge of slumbering heroes,
were spoken of as existing both near that city and Salamanca. It may be
that we here touch on the origin of Scot’s legendary connection with the
Eildon Hills in his own borderland. That the Scottish Avalon lay beneath
these there can be little doubt. Sir Walter Scott repeats a traditional
tale which reminds us unmistakably of those given by Gervase of Tilbury
and Caesar von Heisterbach. A countryman of Roxburghshire had sold a
horse to an old man of the hills. Payment was appointed to be made at
midnight, on Eildon, at a place called the _Lucken Howe_. When the coin,
which was of ancient and forgotten mintage, had been duly handed over,
the old man invited the other to view his dwelling. They passed within
the hill, where the stranger was surprised to see ranks of steeds ready
caparisoned: a silent cavalier in armour standing by the side of each.
‘These will wake for Shirramuir,’ said his guide. In the cave hung a
sword and a horn. ‘The sound of this horn,’ the old man told him, ‘will
break the spell of their slumber.’ The countryman caught it to his lips
and blew a blast. The horses neighed, pawed the ground, and shook their
trappings, while the knights stirred, and the place rang again with the
sound of their arms. He dropped the horn in fear, and heard a voice which
said: ‘Woe to him who does not unsheathe the sword ere he has blown the
horn.’ He was then carried back again to the hillside, and could never
more discover the entrance to that subterranean realm.[291]

An English form of the same tale has been preserved, and is worth
notice as containing what may possibly be a reference to Michael Scot’s
prediction regarding Frederick’s death ‘at the iron gates.’ The story
says that ‘in the neighbourhood of Macclesfield, on Monk’s Heath, is
a small inn known by the designation of ‘The Iron Gates,’ the sign
representing a pair of ponderous gates of that metal opening at the
bidding of a figure enveloped in a cowl, before whom kneels another,
more resembling a modern yeoman than one of the twelfth or thirteenth
century, to which period this legend is attributed. Behind this person is
a white horse rearing, and in the background a view of Alderley Edge. The
story is thus told of the tradition to which the sign relates:

‘A farmer from Mobberly was riding on a white horse over the heath which
skirts Alderley Edge. Of the good qualities of his steed he was justly
proud, and while stooping down to adjust its mane previously to his
offering it for sale at Macclesfield, he was surprised by the sudden
starting of the animal. On looking up he perceived a figure of more than
common height, enveloped in a cowl, and extending a staff of black wood
across his path. The figure addressed him in a commanding voice: told
him that he would seek in vain to dispose of his steed for whom a nobler
destiny was in store, and bade him meet him when the sun was set, with
his horse, at the same place. The farmer, resolving to put the truth of
this prediction to the test, hastened on to Macclesfield fair, but no
purchaser could be obtained for his horse. In vain he reduced his price
to half; many admired, but no one was willing to be the possessor of so
promising a steed. Summoning, therefore, all his courage, he determined
to brave the worst, and at sunset reached the appointed place. The monk
was punctual to his appointment. “Follow me,” said he, and led the way by
the _Golden Stone_, _Stormy Point_ to _Saddle Bole_. On their arrival at
this last-named spot, the neigh of horses seemed to arise from beneath
their feet. The stranger waved his wand, the earth opened and disclosed
a pair of ponderous iron gates. Terrified at this, the horse plunged
and threw his rider, who, kneeling at the feet of his fearful companion,
prayed earnestly for mercy. The monk bade him fear nothing, but enter
the cavern, on each side of which were horses resembling his own in
size and colour. Near these lay soldiers accoutred in ancient armour,
and in the chasms of the rock were arms and piles of gold and silver.
From one of these the enchanter took the price of the horse in ancient
coin, and on the farmer asking the meaning of these subterranean armies,
exclaimed: “These are caverned warriors preserved by the good genius of
England, until that eventful day when, distracted by intestine broils,
England shall be thrice won and lost between sunrise and sunset. Then we,
awakening from our sleep, shall rise to turn the fate of Britain. This
shall be when George, the son of George, shall reign. When the forests
of Delamare shall wave their arms over the slaughtered sons of Albion.
Then shall the eagle drink the blood of princes from the headless cross
(query, corse?). Now haste thee home, for it is not in thy time these
things shall be. A Cestrian shall speak it and be believed.” The farmer
left the cavern, the iron gates closed, and though often sought for, the
place has never again been found.’[292]

Arthur, the King of Faery, has dropped out of these legends in the course
of their transmission to modern times, but in another story, told of the
Eildon Hills, his sister, the Fata Morgana, still lives and reigns; for
she is no doubt the _Faery Queen_ with whom Thomas Rhymer spent so many
years underground ere he returned with the gift of prophetic truth.
In the Scottish legend, which makes Michael Scot have much to do in
forming these hills to their present shape, we seem to see him occupying
his natural place in the myth as that Merlin whose art composed and
maintained the magic kingdom of Avalon, where Arthur sleeps with Morgana
till the hour of his return.

The fertile fancy of these ages ran to the formation of other points of
likeness. Merlin had his Vivien, who betrayed him to his loss of life
and power by a spell of his own composing. So Michael was said to have
loved a beautiful woman, who, Delilah-like, left him no peace till he
told her the poison which alone had power over his charmed life: the
broth of a breme sow, of which accordingly he died, taking it confidently
from his false leman’s hand.[293] Michael too, like Merlin, had his _Book
of Might_; for the same fancy which materialised Frederick’s heretical
tendencies, and made them objective in the supposed work _De Tribus
Impostoribus_, soon did the like by those diabolical arts in which
Scot was said to have excelled. It is possible that some reference to
this may have been intended in the book which is held by the magician
in the S. Maria Novella fresco. The plan of these paintings in the
Spanish chapel at Florence was drawn out with great care by Fra Jacopo
Passavanti, a learned monk of that convent. He has left a series of
Lenten sermons, collected and enlarged by himself, and published under
the title of _Lo Specchio di vera Penitenza_.[294] The last two chapters
of this work are devoted to the reproof of magical arts; a subject
which the author would seem to have studied closely. He may have been
influenced in this direction by S. Augustine’s _De Civitate Dei_, which
he translated into Italian. More than one passage of the _Specchio_ may
be cited as illustrating the frescoes of the Spanish Chapel. He tells
us, for example, that the devil is said to be able to teach science to
his disciples in an incredibly short space of time, however rude and
ignorant they may be. For this purpose he has given them a book called
the _Ars Notoria_,[295] the same which is so severely condemned by
Aquinas. Now, as Aquinas, with open book of heavenly doctrine, is figured
in the chief position on the opposite (north) wall of the chapel, it is
no unreasonable conjecture which finds in the magician’s book on the
south wall a pictorial representation of the _Ars Notoria_ as it was
conceived by Passavanti. Elsewhere in the volume he again returns to
the subject of magical works.[296] Zoroaster, he says, first learned
the art from demons, and caused it to be written on two columns, one of
marble to survive the floods, and one of terra-cotta to resist the fire.
This diabolic teaching, thus preserved, flourished among the Egyptians,
Chaldeans, Persians, Indians, and other Oriental nations who remained
its chief exponents, ‘though perchance,’ adds Passavanti, ‘it may be
more studied among ourselves than we are ready to believe.’[297] This
passage may serve to show why the artist of the Spanish Chapel was
directed to draw his Magus in the fashion of the East, and helps us to
understand the prejudice which Michael Scot’s outlandish costume must
have raised against him. It is in any case certain that the stories of
his supernatural power became both memorable in substance and rich in
details by association with the tales of Arthur.

You may also like