‘Of my life’s work, only the translations now seem to
me to have merit.’
– A Matter of Interpretation
[ About the Book ]
It’s thirteenth-century Europe and a young monk, Michael Scot, has been asked by the Holy Roman Emperor to translate the works of Aristotle and recover his ‘lost’ knowledge.
The Scot sets to his task, travelling from the Emperor’s Italian court to the translation schools of Toledo and from there to the Moorish library of Córdoba. But when the Pope deems the translations heretical, the Scot refuses to desist. So begins a battle for power between Church and State – one that has shaped how we view the world today.
[ My Review ]
A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth Mac Donald was published in hardback on 5th September 2019 with Fairlight Books. Described as ‘an enthralling tale of knowledge, language and power in medieval Europe’ it is due to be released in a beautiful new paperback edition on 26th March 2020.
A Matter of Interpretation is a book that focuses very much on historical facts and on one figure in particular, Canon Michael Scot. Elizabeth MacDonald became fascinated in her college days with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and it was during her research into his life that she happened upon a Scottish monk who had a very close relationship with Frederick II. Michael Scot was a man of the cloth with a rather unorthodox approach to life. His mother had been a healer and suffered for her talent, leaving Michael alone, an orphan in a very changing world. The thirteenth century was a tumultuous time. With both the Church and State fighting for supreme dominance, life was threatening and challenging.
Michael Scot travelled from Paris to Sicily to be a tutor to the then young Frederick II. A recognised man of knowledge he was to become the Emperor’s physician and astrologer and a deep fascination for knowledge became a shared passion. The Church had very strong views on how knowledge, beyond it’s own scope, was studied and shared. When Michael Scot began to study and translate the work of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, there were members of the Church who immediately were on edge. The works and words of Aristotle, dissected and distributed among the population was a step too far. There was a fear of the unknown.
Michael Scot journeyed across ancient lands meeting with men of many faiths in his attempt to disseminate and translate the words of this great philosopher. His curiosity and preoccupation with his work was admirable but also very brave. He had many who would have wished for his death, many who feared his thirst for knowledge and his lack of care of a persons colour or creed. The thirteenth-century was a time of fierce upheaval with the Crusades in a fight for Christendom and faith. Michael Scot was blind to all this in his endless quest for furthering the western world’s knowledge of these, before, unexplored words and works.
“The quest for knowledge and meaning takes place against a backdrop of momentous historic events that point to this era representing a tipping point in the approach to knowledge and its dissemination. For a brief time in the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily Christians, Jews and Muslims came together to promote scholarship and learning across all manners of divides. Ultimately, Christendom and Islam travelled along different routes in the stand-off between philosophy and theology, between reason and faith, and this can be traced back to choices made around the beginning of the thirteenth century.”
Elizabeth Mac Donald
A Matter of Interpretation takes the reader to the year 1230. We meet Michael Scot, a man unwell, knowing that death is near. He is writing his Confessio and is looking back at the years he spent on his quest for knowledge and meaning. He is but a shadow of his former self and, with his enemies now hiding in plain sight, he wishes to make his way home to Scotland to sleep, to die a peaceful death.
‘A life of learning. A life spent wandering the labyrinthine paths of knowledge and the arcane. What has it all been for? An ignorant fool I was at its inception; a presumptuous fool in its living. And the greatest proof of my deserving these epithets to be found in its ending…’
As he looks back over the years, the reader is immersed in an intense and vivid story of one man’s hunger for knowledge and the journey he took in his search for the same. Michael Scot is quite an enigma. His life and work disputed over the years. There were rumours that he had an ability to ‘see’ the otherworldly, that he had a magical way about him. He was cast as a wizard, a man of strange strengths and skills. This made him different, a person to be feared by many in the Church. It also made enemies of many.
A Matter of Interpretation is an extraordinary labour of love for Elizabeth Mac Donald. The scale of the research is obvious with important historical figures brought to life for the reader. I was, admittedly, challenged at times with the level of detail within the chapters but that is due to my own ignorance of that period of history.
Readers with a passion for theology, philosophy and history will be intrigued by this tale of a remarkable man. Michael Scot came from very humble beginnings but his hunger for knowledge and his abundant curiosity left historians, from both Church and State, fascinated with his legacy. A man ahead of his time? Perhaps.
A Matter of Interpretation is a significant piece of work. Mixing fact and fiction, it is quite a complex read, an exceptionally researched historical tale, rich and vivid in its narrative.
‘ I can no longer find it within myself to speak of what my destiny is or ought to have been; I cannot separate it from all that surrounds me. And it seems to me that it is our destiny, in the miniscule amount of time granted to us, to exist as a chip in the cosmic mosaic, the beauty of which, the purposeful design of which, lies ever beyond our grasp.’
– Canon Michael Scot
Confessio August AD, 1230
A Matter of Interpretation
[ Bio ]
Elizabeth Mac Donald’s debut novel, A Matter of Interpretation, was published by Fairlight Books in September 2019.
Elizabeth was born in Dublin, where she studied Italian and Music at University College Dublin. She was awarded an Italian government scholarship and pursued post-graduate studies at the Univeristà del Sacro Cuore, ‘La Cattolica’, Milan. She then taught English at the University of Bari before moving to Pisa, where she still lives with her husband and son. In her spare time, Elizabeth sings in the choir of the Scuola Normale, Pisa.
Elizabeth’s translations of the short stories of Liam O’Flaherty were the first in Italy (Terre e scogliere d’Irlanda, Edizioni ETS, 1994). She has translated the poetry of Dermot Healy, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly and many others. Her collection of short stories, A House of Cards, was longlisted for the Frank O’Conner International Short Story Award.
Twitter ~ @bizzieauthor