Sicily’s go- to scholar
The Scot who became Frederick II’s brain trust
In 1198 Frederick II was crowned king of Sicily. His court at Palermo was a cultural and philosophical hothouse of the Middles Ages, attracting some of the brightest minds in the world – including a near namesake of mine, Michael Scot.
Scot was born around 1175, possibly on the England– Scotland border. He became an ordained priest as well as a philosopher, mathematician and astrologer. Studying in Durham, Oxford, Paris and Bologna, Scot also learned Arabic. Attracted to the polyglot court, Scot – then aged around 50 – worked with others to translate Arabic versions of, and commentaries on, Aristotle’s works into Latin. He was also Frederick’s go-to scholar for questions on subjects ranging from geography to the locations of hell, purgatory and heaven, as well as studies of the soul.
Scot published on alchemy, astrology and physiognomy, and also gained a reputation as a man of magic – supposedly turning to stone a group of witches. This popular reputation earned him a place in Dante’s Inferno in the eighth circle of hell (his patron, Frederick II, managed only the sixth).