Michael Scot

The philosopher Michael Scot, from Balwearie in Fife, finished up in Italy as astrologer to Frederick II. Dante places him in the bolgia of the soothsayers in Inferno XX.116, but says little about him other than that he was very skinny. Boccaccio makes a reference to him in VIII.9. Though he was a serious Aristotelian intellectual (the greatest mathematician of the Middle Ages, Fibonacci, dedicated his revised Liber Abbaci to him in Salerno), popular reputation cast him as a powerful necromancer. Sir Walter Scott records a lowland Scots legend, similar to the plot of Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, in which the necromancer's book of spells still miraculously survived, but opening it would be fatal. It is this magical aspect which is picked up in Italy, doubtless reinforcing the proto-Celtic twilight image Scotland enjoyed in romances like the Tristano Riccardiano. Though many Italian legends about Michael were regarded even at the time as 'potius ficta quam facta' [inventions rather than facts], certain stories, particularly about his prophetic abilities, were widely circulated in Dante commentaries. Benvenuto's version is a wonderful piece of storytelling in its own right:

Hic fuit Michael Scottus, famosus astrologus Federici II, ... cui imperatori ipse Michael fecit librum pulcrum valde, quem vidi, in quo aperte curavit dare sibi notitiam multorum naturalium, et inter alia multa dicit de istis auguriis. Et nota, quod Michael Scottus admiscuit nigromantiam astrologiae; ideo creditus est dicere multa vera. Praedixit enim quaedam de civitatibus quibusdam Italiae, quarum aliqua verificata videmus, ... Male tamen praevidit mortem domini sui Federici cui praedixerat, quod erat moriturus in Florentia; sed mortuus est in Florentiola in Apulia, et sic diabolus quasi semper fallit sub aequivoco. Michael tamen dicitur praevidisse mortem suam, quae vitare non potuit: praeviderat enim se moriturum ex ictu parvi lapilli certi ponderis casuri in caput suum: ideo providerat sibi, quod semper portabat celatam ferream sub caputeo ad evitandum talem casum. Sed semel cum intrasset in unam ecclesiam, in qua pulsabatur ad Corpus Domini, removit caputeum cum celata, ut honoraret Dominum; magis tamen, ut credo, ne notaretur a vulgo, quam amore Christi, in quo parum credebat. Et ecce statim cecidit lapillus super caput nudum, et parum laeit cutim; quo accepto et ponderato, Michael reperit, quod tanti erat ponderis, quanti praeviderat; quare de morte sua certus, disposuit rebus suis, et eo vulnere mortuus est.

[This was Michael Scot, the famous astrologer of Frederick II, ... for which emperor Michael himself made a most beautiful book, which I have seen, in which he published news on many natural events, and amongst other things says a lot about these prophesies. And note that Michael Scot mixed necromancy with astrology, and thus is believed to have said many truths. For he predicted certain things about some Italian cities which we have seen come true, ... But he ill foresaw the death of his master Frederic, whom he had predicted would die in Florence, but who instead died in Florentiola in Apulia, thus the devil almost always tricks by ambiguity. But Michael is also said to have foreseen his own death, which he could not evade: he had foreseen himself dying from the impact of a small stone of an exact weight which was to fall on his head. He took precautions by always wearing an iron skullcap beneath his hood. But just once whilst entering Church for the feast of Corpus Domini, he took off his skullcap with his hood, more so as not to be remarked by the crowd, I believe, than from love of Christ, for whom he cared little. And suddenly a small stone fell upon his naked head, slightly wounding his scalp. After picking it up and weighing it, Michael discovered it was exactly the weight he had predicted, and now certain of his death, he ordered his affairs, and died of that wound.]