‘Knowledge is power.’ Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

A Matter of Interpretation is the story of Michael Scot, monk and scholar, tutor to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, an enlightened man for his time. When Scot begins a translation of the works of Aristotle he gets the blessing of the emperor and that of the Pope. As the project progresses the translation reveals knowledge that the Pope and others wants suppressed. Scot is ordered to halt the work but should he heed the command?

A Matter of Interpretation is a beautiful piece of storytelling. An historical novel that takes the reader on a journey through medieval Europe meeting the people and engaging with the ideas of the time. This novel is centred on a philosophical debate on knowledge, from the outset it is as gripping as it is thought provoking and intriguing. This is an historical novel set in the C12th/13th that deals with some involved themes but it is by no means an esoteric work. On the contrary, this is an accessible and engaging read. The tone is light so MacDonald’s exploration of why knowledge matters and what ownership of knowledge means has a natural rhythm and flow for the reader. How is being in charge of the narrative a tool of power and therefore a means of controlling people? How do state, church and the scholarly world deal with the retention and dissemination of knowledge in society? This is an age when those in power feared the heretic, not the unbeliever, outsider, but the person questioning values from within, suggesting new ways of seeing things and challenging authority. The authorities fear losing the grip on people if scientific truth or philosophical debate undermines religious teaching and this is a powerful motivator for censorship, as true in the Muslim world as it is in the Christian. In the age of fake news and rampant populism it’s hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that this novel is as much a contemplation of the modern malaise as it is of the past. Do we ever really learn from history?

At the heart of the novel is the fight over the ownership of knowledge, who should have access to knowledge and who should interpret that knowledge? The mass was held in Latin across the continent. MacDonald’s narrative posits the theory that throughout history knowledge has been used by an elite to maintain dominance and hold power.

This is a novel of ideas and political shenanigans and machinations, it’s also the story of a colourful life, described by McDonald as a ‘wayward’ life, that of Michael Scot priest and scholar. It’s a tale of religious divisions, different faiths and understanding, heresy and the beginning of the debate between science and religion. One of the questions at the heart of A Matter of Interpretation is what happens when great works reveal uncomfortable knowledge, arguments and thoughts contrary to the religious ‘truth’. Michael Scot is tasked with translating the works of Aristotle, but is soon at odds with the Pope when the text proves incendiary.

Palermo, Sicily, 1230. The monastery is assembled for Terce at the church of San Giovanni degli Emmiti, the abbot stands motionless as the monks waits for the Scotsman, he is always late. Finally he stumbles in, Terce is followed by a Mass. Michael Scot wears a metal skull cap, the cause of much speculation, but he removes it out of respect for the consecration. At that moment a brick falls from on high and strikes Scot on the head, he falls to the floor, blood pools around his head. Already there are murmurings of divine intervention. Many mistrust the Scottish monk, the translator of Aristotle.

The Chancellery, the Norman castle, Palermo a few days later. Giovanni da Messina is a notary working for Pier delle Vigne, the emperor’s chief secretary. The Pope wants to sue for peace, it will mean a lot of work for the clerks. The emperor bursts in demanding to know why an invitation to his banquet on Saturday was not sent to the priest Michael Scot. A clerk murmurs something about the accident but the emperor cuts him short demanding an invitation be prepared immediately, the poor scribe makes a mistake and it costs him his thumb. A new invitation is soon heading for the monastery.

The apothecary doesn’t think Scot will recover. As no reply to the emperor’s invitation has been received from the monastery Pier delle Vigne and Giovanni da Messina visit in person. Pier delle Vigne is suspicious of Scot and his influence on the emperor, referring to his visions as deluded maunderings. He is also angry at the state of the Papal negotiations and the precarious peace. When delle Vigne and Scot meet the animosity between the two men is obvious. Scot accuses delle Vigne of future treachery against the emperor. Hugo de Clermont, the abbot of San Giovanni, confessor to the emperor, is wary of Scot but mistrustful of delle Vigne and agrees to make sure Scot sees the emperor at the banquet. Helping the injured man make the journey.

Scot is certain that the brick will be the death of him but he must see the emperor first, the empire is in danger. The skull cap was protection against the very thing that happened in the church, he had foreseen that a blow to the head would kill him. Scot sees the future, the cities of the north under siege and the power of the emperor eroded. The Lombard League gaining the upper hand, betrayal, flood, famine and pestilence. delle Vigne and the grand master of the Teutonic Knights plan to discredit Scot with the emperor.

1183, Scotia. Scot’s father is killed on a raid and his mother is isolated and killed for being a witch. Hatred of superstition fuels Scot, he is a gifted mathematician. He studied at Oxford and Paris before heading to Palermo as tutor to the young emperor Frederick. Scot is encouraged in his plan to translate Aristotle despite dissenting councillors:

‘I trust you have not been corrupting the young king’s mind with blasphemous impieties from that heathen – the taint of which cannot but imperil his immortal soul.’

Scot travels to Toledo, to the caliphate of Al-Andulus and Cordoba, Rome and Palermo. Over a number of years he discovers that Aristotle has not only been translated poorly but interpreted wrongly and that powerful forces want him to stop his work. Scot begins to question why faith and the Holy Roman Empire can’t stand up to debate with the classical world. Why in an age starved of knowledge do we want to stifle philosophical and theological debate? In a sweeping novel that takes in the Convivencia and the crusades Scots quest helps to define the reason of the age.

There are similarities here with William of Baskerville in Eco’s Name of the Rose but the topic of forbidden knowledge is fully explored here rather than exposed as the motive for a crime.

An impressive, intelligent and enjoyable read.

Paul Burke 4/4

A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald
Fairlight Books 9781912054701 hbk Sep 2019