A Matter of Interpretation

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 11 Oct 2019

Member Reviews

I was delighted by this book which delves into the 12/13th centuries to deliver a real gem of a story based around a Scottish monk. Whilst reading, I wasn't too sure how much was fiction or fact and was really surprised to hear that the main character was based on an actual historical figure.  I was fascinated by the conflict between the religious ideologies of the time and amazed at the influence of the various popes of the day. 
Having enjoyed this so much, I would be encouraged to learn more about this period in history and I shall also look forward to the next book by this amazing author, Elizabeth MacDonald.
Was this review helpful?
I enjoyed this. It was very well written apart from a few bits of anachronistic language such as "sidekick" and "two- bit". It did drag a bit in the second half, but it was interesting to learn about a period of history of which I know little.
Was this review helpful?
The main character in this book is a Scottish translator who travels to Spain, so, naturally, it promised a lot. More specifically, the protagonist is Michael Scot, a monk who in the early thirteenth century served in the court of Frederick II. In this novel, Elizabeth Mac Donald reimagines the story of the real-life scholar, basing it upon the known facts and many myths about him. 

The Scot, as he is often referred to, travels across Europe in a quest for knowledge, armed with his linguistic abilities. He does so at the behest of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, but his efforts make him more enemies than friends and put him at odds with the Vatican. 

The novel crystallises the historic importance of languages and translation in humankind’s pursuit of knowledge and advancement. We see also the power that this meant for those who could obtain and control knowledge. So much was at stake over the candlelit activities of a learned monk.  

Scot provokes scandal in his fellow Christians for working with Jewish co-translators to bring the works of Muslim scholars to Christendom. Amidst the court intrigue and power struggles that abound in the novel, there are constant schemes to discredit him. 

Church and state clash as the Christian world struggles with the philosophical relationship between faith and reason. 

Canon Michael’s intellectual curiosity, meanwhile, draws him to the murkier arts of astrology and alchemy, provoking even more suspicion of his character and allegiance, especially as rumours spread that he has powers beyond worldly explanation. 

Mac Donald brings this mysterious character to life wonderfully, portraying him as complex, troubled and deeply human. In his thoughts and travails, there is much that those of us who have learnt languages and lived in multiple countries can relate to. At various points I found myself smiling and nodding, including when Michael meets people who aren’t sure what or where Scotland is. 

Besides the well-researched period detail giving an insight into the thirteenth century, the book also has much to say that is relevant to the twenty-first, on themes such as identity, belonging, integration and more.

Of particular interest is the way the three main religions of the day – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – coexisted and interacted. We meet a Muslim who talks about fanatical Christian suicides, we see Jews having to wear yellow badges, and Michael Scot faces ostracization for donning Muslim attire. Yet despite the differences and tensions, they did cooperate in scholarship and learning – The Scot is aided at various points by both Jews and Muslims – and, perhaps most importantly, they were there. They were always there. At a time when right-wing extremists not just in Europe but globally would have you believe that the presence of Islam in the Western world is a recent phenomenon, it is healthy to remember that that is not at all the case. The persecution of Jewish people, as portrayed in the book in both Christian and Muslim territories, is also painfully reminiscent of what was to keep happening for hundreds of years to follow.  

The language used by Mac Donald is also worthy of comment. Though subtle enough not to detract from the flow of the prose, there are deft reminders in certain words, phrases or syntax that the characters would not have been speaking English to each other. This is a bold move but it mostly pays off and has the double effect of also adding to the historical feel of the work. 

With this strategy and some of the comments on translation, you might guess (in a good way) that the author is herself also a translator. Who else, you might wonder, would think to make translation so crucial to the plot of a novel? The result is a fascinating and entertaining read, and certainly not merely for the enjoyment of fellow translators. 

Full of plotting, mystery, philosophical and existential questions, and a whisper of the supernatural, this is a novel to read by candlelight and keep going until the wax burns right down.
Was this review helpful?
Net Gallery thank you! Was taught you don't talk religion and politics unless you want a fight or lose a friend! This is the beginning of such a time where which is it and how do you separate the two. The characters in this story only want to bro what is write and the story has you believing them. You get to know them! Really loved the cover of this book and it was right on with the design. If you are interested in the beginning of history of when the Church faces the State of other way around this It's the book! I kinda had a hard time in the beginning but them it got so much better and figured out what was going on with the characters!
Was this review helpful?
You would think this has the makings of an exciting book: Frederick II (stupor mundi) the Holy Roman Emperor, a Scottish monk and scholar who travels into Moor-controlled Spain to read forbidden documents. Unhappily the book is soporific.

Yes, things happen, but the plot is not compelling, nor are the characters. Even though it is a period of great interest to me and the Emperor is one of the more colorful, I had to force myself to read more than five pages at a stretch.

Pass this one by.
Was this review helpful?
I thank NetGalley and Fairlight Books for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
This is a case of a historical figure whose life is so gripping and fascinating that we would find it difficult to believe in if he was a fictional character. Although I must confess to not having previous knowledge of Michael Scot, the setting of the story in the XIII century, the variety of locations, and the endeavours of Scot attracted me to the book, and I’m happy that was the case.
Although the story is seemingly simple (a monk, particularly gifted for academia, pursues his objective of getting to the source of knowledge wherever it might be and in whichever language, in XIII century Europe, travelling, translating, accumulating knowledge, and having to fight against conspiracy and orthodoxy), there are many different strands woven into it, and reflecting the complex push-and-pull of the politics of an era in which religion and faith wars played a huge part in the struggle for power and combining that with Scot’s quest for knowledge is a mighty task. In my opinion, MacDonald does a great job, but I am not sure everybody will appreciate the way the story is told, and it is not one for people looking for a plot that moves along quickly and is full of adventures. There are journeys and adventures, but some of the most interesting parts of the book come from philosophical discussions and disquisitions as to the nature of truth and knowledge. 
The book is written in the third person, from an omniscient narrator’s point of view, and even though we read the story from what appears to be Scot’s perspective most of the time, this is not always the case, and even when we are following his adventures and are privy to his thoughts, we might learn about the way he appears to others and get comments and observations from others around him as well. There is also some first-person narrative, a “Confession” Scot is writing, interspersed with the rest of the novel, which, for me, was the part that made Scot appear more sympathetic and human (at points he is so obsessed with his studies and his project, that he seems unaware of the human beings around him, and he made me think of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, although he seems to also have his “humanities”). The story starts close to what we later find out (and most readers might already suspect) will be the end, with an event that hints at a mystery, and then most of the rest of the story is told in something akin to a flashback, offering readers a chronological account of Scot’s lifestory.  Although this did not bother me, I suspect readers approaching the story with the expectation of a standard mystery (and no, this is not The Name of the Rose either) might be disappointed. Yes, there is a mystery, or several, but the book is not about that. It is about Scot and his time, and how his figure was more important and his pursuit worthier than he and his contemporaries realised. I’d recommend possible readers to check a sample of the novel to see if they feel the writing style would suit them. 
Scot’s life has all the elements that would mark him as a heroic figure (and as I said, one that we’d struggle to believe possible if he were fictional). He has a traumatic childhood, with the loss of his mother (who was a healer and suffered because of it); he proves himself a great scholar despite his humble beginnings, and although he faces opposition from the start, he also gets some help and assistance, manages to become Frederick’s (later to become Holy Emperor Frederick the II) tutor, and with his patronage, he sets off to find and translate Aristotle’s old texts. His journey towards knowledge makes him face dangers, come into contact with other countries and cultures (in Toledo and Cordoba he studies closely Arabic texts and his main collaborators are Jewish scholars), and be faced with the strict opposition of the Church, which at the time saw much knowledge (other than approved Theology) as a likely source of heresy and inherently dangerous. 
As I read the book, I felt as if I was immersed in the different countries, smelling the spices, contemplating the landscapes, touching paper for the first time (an amazing discovery for Scot), and was captivated by Scot’s goal. As a person who regularly does translations, I appreciate how hard his self-imposed task was and enjoyed learning a bit more about the process and the difficulties he faced. If I missed something, though, was hearing a bit more about the texts themselves. Perhaps that is only me, and many people would think there is enough detail, but I felt many of the discussions about Aristotle and about the work of some of his other interpreters and commenters was very vague and general —either assuming that all readers would already know, or that they would not be interested— especially when compared to more detailed accounts of Scot’s use of astrology and his dreams/visions. At some point in the novel Scot makes peace with his interest in Medicine (something he had tried to avoid due to his mother’s fate), but although he manages to avoid the worst of the church’s ban on Aristotle’s works and on translations by studying Arabic texts on Medicine, I missed a more detailed account of his work on that subject. (I studied Medicine, so perhaps this accounts for my interest more than any gaps in the novel itself).
There are many characters, as is to be expected in a novel covering so much ground and where many of events are of great historical importance. We have several popes, bishops, abbots, we have the crusades, we have kings, scholars, politicians… It is not always easy to keep straight who is who (especially if you don’t know much about the era), and I wonder if the final version will contain some charts or even a timeline to clarify matters for readers who are not experts on the topic. The political intrigue, corruption, battles, and jostling for power and influence make it as gripping a read as modern political thrillers can be.
I have mentioned the distance imposed by the point of view of the narration. I must also confess to feeling more intellectually interested in Scot than connected with him at an emotional level. Only towards the end of the story he seems to come to reflect and appreciate the importance of engaging with people and the help others have given him through the years, but there is little in the way of connection to other human beings, and that perhaps is where he fails (for me) in the role of hero. His weaknesses seem to come only from his illness and, perhaps, from his single dedication to knowledge, that results in others less qualified getting into important positions likely to influence events more than he can. (There are warnings about the risks he faces from early on, but he dismisses them and only comes to realise they were right later in his life). Women also play very little part in the story (apart from mentions of his mother —the most significant— and the wives of some of the characters, only in passing), and other than a comment about their role according to a philosopher, towards the end, this is not a book about them, and we learn close to nothing about their lives.
We know what the end will be from the beginning, but most people will enjoy seeing Scot get some redress (even if it is a case of too little, too late). The author’s note at the end of the book explains her interest and reasons for writing the book, and also her sources, which I am sure, will be useful to many readers who will want to explore the topic in more detail.
Overall, this is a book I’ve enjoyed, and I recommend it to people interested in XIII century European history, especially in the struggles for power and knowledge, the interaction between the different religions, and the influence of the various centres of learning. It is sobering to realise that attitudes have changed so little in some scores, and how even the seemingly most enlightened civilisations are (and have been) afraid of intellectual enquiry, knowledge, and research, as if, indeed, they believed it to be a poisoned apple. Attempts at keeping the population under control by limiting their access to knowledge (or by manipulating the information they are given access to) are not new and, unfortunately, never seem to go out of fashion. Not a light read, but one sure to make readers want to learn more about the period and the man.
Was this review helpful?
Thankfully, the myth which wants us to believe that the medieval period was simply a “dark age” of ignorance and superstition is no longer taken seriously – at least by objective historians. The 12th and 13th centuries, in particular, were a fecund time in the quest for knowledge, as Christian philosophers rediscovered Aristotle via the writings of Arabic commentators such as Averroes and Avicenna and, through interaction with Jewish and Muslim thinkers, strove to build a corpus of knowledge on these “classical” foundations.

This is not to say, of course, that medieval scholars had it easy. Whilst universities, operating under the auspices of the Catholic Church, were recognised centres of research and knowledge, the same Church also saw itself as an enforcer of orthodoxy. And the boundary the orthodox and the heretical was hardly set in stone – suffice it to say that Thomas Aquinas, now considered the Catholic theologian par excellence was, for a time, regarded with suspicion, as being too “Aristotelian” in approach. This was also a politically fraught time – the Holy Roman Emperor was often at loggerheads with the Papacy (whose “temporal” powers were on a par with those of any other secular leader); alliances were notoriously fluid, and the coexistence of different cultures and religions was, at best, uneasy and, at worst, could lead to bloodshed.

Elizabeth Mac Donald’s engrossing debut novel “A Matter of Interpretation” brings the Middle Ages vividly to life through a “fictional biography” of historical figure Michael Scot (1175 – c. 1232). Born in the Scottish Borders, Canon Scot acquired early fame as a scholar in the University of Paris. MacDonald’s novel traces the trajectory of his career – from his Paris days, to his appointment as tutor to the young Emperor Frederick II, his subsequent sojourns in Spain and Sicily, and his late work at the behest of the Emperor. Scot was a well-known figure in intellectual circles and, in his own lifetime, had already acquired notoriety as an astrologer and wizard. Boccaccio portrays Scot as a necromancer and, in the Divine Comedy, Dante consigns him, with other ‘false prophets’ to the Eighth Circle of Hell. Dark legends about Scot have him feasting with friends on food brought by magic from the royal courts of France and Spain. The truth, however, is likely more prosaic. Many scientists up to the early modern period explored areas of knowledge which we would now consider dubious and superstitious, such as alchemy and astrology. As Ma cDonald’s novel makes clear, Scot was no exception, and several of his manuscripts dealt with esoteric subjects. However, Scot was also rightly celebrated as a translator of Aristotelian texts such as Historia Animalium and De Coelo and of Averroean commentaries on the Greek philosopher. Scot was also a pioneer in the study of mathematics and physiognomy.

Mac Donald has evidently researched her subject in depth. A wealth of historical detail lends authenticity to her novel and, even when the author’s imagination takes over, the narrative remains within the parameters of the possible. The Michael Scot we meet in the book’s pages is neither a two-dimensional bygone figure, nor the fantastical wizard of legend. He comes across as a credible, flesh-and-blood character, a complex man who is continually struggling to reconcile faith and reason, and to balance his monastic obligations and the call of (sometimes forbidden) knowledge. This is expressed in the movingly poetic Confessio of the final pages, in which MacDonald gives voice to Scot himself:

Life is a gossamer web of paradox. For as long as my eyes are fixed on God, knowledge helps to give this intricate whole meaning; as soon as knowledge becomes an end in itself, it is as if the thread holding me had separated from the whole. And I must then cling to it all the more desperately, at any moment fearing to fall. It is not God’s wish that we hide from knowledge. He gave us the parable of the talents. If we hide from knowledge, we hide also from truth. We should also be mindful of the ultimate purpose of knowledge. I was not, and it shrivelled me.

Through Scot’s eyes and his friendships we also learn about his world, one as paradoxical as the man itself.

Many historical novelists try to achieve authenticity through deliberately old-fashioned language which, more often than not, has absolutely nothing to do what would have really been spoken by the protagonists. Mac Donald avoids this and opts instead for a contemporary idiom. This approach works, giving her narrative an immediacy and directness that is far more effective than a distracting cod-archaic style. Like Scot, she translates the knowledge and experiences of a bygone age into a story which can resonate with contemporary readers.

For an illustrated version of the review, including a playlist of related music to listen to, head over to my blog:

https://endsoftheword.blogspot.com/2019/09/elizabeth-macdonald-matter-of-interpretation.html
Was this review helpful?
I really enjoyed her exploration of this time period and subject matter. It felt very well researched and authentic.
Was this review helpful?
Set in the 13th century, this is the story of a monk named Michael Scot, a Scottish monk who studied in Paris then is sent to Sicily to serve as a tutor to the future Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. When he learns of the writings of Greek philosopher named Aristotle, Frederick commissions Michael Scot to translate these works. As he works with both Muslim and Jewish translators in Moorish Spain and translates more and more works from Arabic, his eyes are opened to the world beyond Catholicism. But when the Pope condemns these works as heretical, Michael Scot finds it difficult to stop. Is there a balance to be found between faith and reason? 

I loved all of the different settings in the book, from Moorish Spain to Norman Sicily to medieval Paris and more. I feel like these settings, especially in the medieval time period, aren’t often written about so I love when authors step outside the box and write about these lesser known times. There was a lot of research put into this book, and I enjoyed the author’s note at the end describing what got her interested in writing the book. I also enjoyed the portrayal of the struggle between knowledge vs religion. We got to see characters from each religion (Catholic, Jewish, and Islam) deal with this issue which I found interesting. 

However, I felt at times the 3rd person perspective didn’t allow me to fully connect to the story. Rather than getting perspectives from many characters, I would have preferred to focus on just a few to really get immersed in the world. There were some characters that didn’t feel fully fleshed out due to this and felt unnecessary to have perspectives from. Some events seemed too drawn out which caused the book to be a slow read. Overall, I enjoyed learning about Michael Scot since he was an influential figure in European history, but it wasn’t compelling enough to fully draw me in. Thank you to NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for an honest review.
Was this review helpful?
When I saw this book on NetGalley, I debated for a few minutes on whether I should request it or not because I had absolutely no knowledge of the setting or the historical events and if I am being honest I don’t have all the facts even now but I requested it. And I am glad to have read this because it really is such a good enjoyable book. I think I saw it being compared with The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and if that book is anything like this then trust me, it’s on the way to my TBR.

So Michael Scot, Frederick II and others are real people that existed and though their lives might not have gone in exactly the same fashion as the author has written it. I genuinely enjoyed the way she wrote them. Historical facts when mixed with fiction have been known to have disastrous results but in this one, it isn’t so. I read up a bit on Michael Scot and that man sounds absolutely amazing and that there should be a book about him doesn’t seem so surprising after that.

The book has an interesting start,  a stone falls from the ceiling of a Sicilian hermitage and from there, it’s a ride. As I read more and more, I came to understand a few things such as how Michael Scot of Scotland went to university in Paris and then tutored Frederick II of Sicily. It was at the instigation of the emperor that Scot went to Spain to translate Aristotle’s writings. This is where it gets really interesting and exciting.

The Church found the whole thing to be heretic and did not find Michael Scot or his deeds welcome. The translators seemed to be objectionable to the Church as well. It is true that if what Michael Scot wrote was any indication of where his studies and observations were taking him then the Church was never going to stand for it.

There is so much I should talk about but I will limit it to this. There’s a lot of political intrigue and accusations of heresy and necromancy. Yes, because anything factual or even remotely scientific in nature was allergic for the Church at the time.

If there were things that gave me pause while I was trying to rate it on GoodReads then it might be that the drama and intrigue could have been a bit more deftly handled and that there were a bit more emotionally invested moments, you know? I wasn’t super tense while I read it but there were moments where it could have really worked.

Overall, I did thoroughly enjoy it because the plot and the characters do make it impossible to put it down and I can’t wait to read more from the author because the level of research and details in this one shone through. It made for an interesting and enjoyable read when it could have easily been otherwise!

Fans of historical dramas filled with facts would enjoy this a lot, I think.
Was this review helpful?
Michael Scot - who I hadn't come across before - is a fascinating character.  In the 13th century he travelled from Scotland, via Oxford and Paris to Sicily where he became tutor to the future Holy Roman Emperor.  He then travelled to Spain, which was still Moorish, to translate documents which he felt were important, and indeed they were - especially in the field of medicine.   He pursued knowledge and was regarded as one of the greatest intellects of his time.  
Elizabeth MacDonald has introduced us to Scot, and tells an interesting tale well.

Recommended for fans of historical fiction, intellectual endeavour.
Was this review helpful?
Set at the beginning of the thirteenth century, A Matter of Interpretation focuses on the character of Michael Scott, mathematician, tutor and court astrologer to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. 

At a time of conflict between empire and papacy, Scott's translations of the works of Arab scholars, and, in particular, their commentaries on Aristotle, cause him to be suspected of heresy by the ecclesiastical establishment, a suspicion that is only reinforced by his strikingly unconventional personality.

This is a novel of ideas, and, as such, it makes considerable demands upon the reader. The world at the beginning of the High Middle Ages is often alien to contemporary minds. Nonetheless, it's the background out of which the modern Western world evolved. Elizabeth MacDonald's imaginative recreation of Michael Scott's speculations are fascinating, therefore, for their depiction of the intellectual climate in Europe at a time of huge transformation. Importantly, she manages to frame the debate within a lively and atmospheric piece of storytelling.  

Ambitious, illuminating and entertaining, this is historical fiction doing what it does best..
Was this review helpful?
An engrossing story, well-written and interesting.  This is not a period of history with which I am familiar, and I was  completely gripped by this book.
Was this review helpful?
I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald is meaty, in-depth historical fiction, recounting the life of a lesser known historical figure from the Middle Ages (my favorite time period). This rather somber tale is the type of historical fiction I love. The action is subdued, but the psychological picture of the man it portrays is vivid and compelling.

Canon Michael Scot was one of the most learned men in the court of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Scot was born in the wilds of Scotland (so he was always an outsider in the south) but he was educated in Paris, the foremost Christian intellectual center of the day. The depth and breadth of his learning was so impressive that he was chosen to be one of the young King Frederick’s tutors. Their relationship flourished over the years, fortunately for Scot, as the King/Emperor’s patronage not only allowed him to pursue studies in far-flung locations but also lent him protection when the subjects he chose to study offended the Church.

Scot was fascinated by philosophy, in particular Aristotle (unfortunately pagan) and the commentaries on Aristotle by Averroes (unfortunately Muslim). He lived for a time in parts of Spain under Islamic rule so that he could translate the Islamic studies into Latin. He studied not only philosophy, but mathematics, natural history, medicine and astrology. Although I usually find depictions of the occult distracting, the otherworldliness of Scot’s astrological predictions and their frightening accuracy fit in so well with the storyline that it was all believable. 

Because of Scot’s knowledge of medicine and his skill in healing, the emperor chose him for his chief physician. Scot’s own medical and mental torments made him an even more sympathetic and interesting character.

Although he was a monk himself, his unorthodox interests and his close work with Muslims and Jews earned him the enmity of his fellow churchmen. His friendship with Frederick also made him a target for ambitious courtiers. His life was one long struggle to learn and to disseminate what he had learned, despite the opposition. The details of his studies seemed well-researched and were presented in enough detail to convince without becoming burdensome to read.

A Matter of Interpretation takes us into Canon Scot’s world with all its intrigues, prejudices, and opportunities. The author does a superb job of bringing Michael Scot to life and pulling the reader into the story. I’ll be looking for more by this author!
Was this review helpful?
Stupor Mundi

Michael Scot, Twelfth Century scholar and monk is remembered today, if he is remembered at all, as a wizard, necromancer and magician. His appearances in literature, film or computer game tend to focus on the sensational. Not so in this elegant and stately novel, which is a genuine attempt to portray the historical Canon Michael in the context of his own times, warts and all.

That said, the novel has a dramatic opening:  Canon Michael attends mass in his monastery, removes the metal cap he constantly wears just in time for a lump of masonry to fall from the roof and strike him a near fatal bash on the head. Back track to Michael’s difficult childhood in Scotland, his success as a mathematician in the Paris universities, his position as tutor to the young Frederick II, king of Sicily and later Holy Roman emperor. The young king, in thrall to the papacy, commissions Michael to seek out and translate the Arabic versions of Aristotle, a task Michael relishes, enthused as he is by any new knowledge.

So far, so good; Aristotle may not have the pope’s stamp of approval, may even hint at heresy, but as Michael studies and discovers more, he enters more deeply into the arcane in his pursuit of astrology and alchemy. Indeed he appears to gain magical powers over others, perhaps through hypnotic suggestion, and also to predict individual fates accurately through his knowledge of astrology. The metal cap, worn at all times, is an attempt to avoid the fate he has revealed for himself.

MacDonald’s novel is a genuine historical novel, a fiction born of close research, an attempt to reconcile the apocryphal with the truth. The context is exciting, the court of Frederick II with its potential for the new combined with scheming courtiers who attempt to subvert scholar and emperor. This is a Europe on the cusp of change, knowledge guarded until the time is right versus those who would reveal and disseminate without concern for the consequences. This is a novel of ideas, which those who love language, science and freedom of expression will enjoy. Its thrills come from the revelation of human potential both for good and evil.
Was this review helpful?
The author brings out a book set in  Europe of the early 13th century.  Her painstaking research into material available from sources based on actual writings of the pertinent characters is quite evident.  The period is shortly before the time of the Italian Renaissance and heralds later events that gave rise to major art, sculpture and literary breakthroughs.  It was a period that still promoted crusades attempting to capture Jerusalem opening it for journeys there by many worshipers.  In spite of the invasions Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side by side all over southern Europe freely intermingling with each other while avoiding the wars going on around them.
     Michael Scot, a young monk has the fortuitous luck to meet Charles II who is the Holy Roman Emperor while both are young men. Michael has become interested in translating the work of Aristotle and Charles charges him with making these translations a full time job.  The thought is to regain via the translations the knowledge lost during the centuries since Aristotle lived. Michael travels and works in centers located in both Italy and Spain.  His findings include information that give rise to advancements in medicine among other disciplines that move these forward.
     Unfortunately during his work Michael incurs the ire of some clerics that feel that translations taken from Arabic are blasphemous and should not be used in publication of the work.  Charles does continue to protect Michael and the work he is doing which allow publication and circulation of his findings after his death.  This is a novel involving  people that lived and worked in a bygone period.  The author has  put words in the mouths of the individuals described.  There is, of course, no way to divine actual conversations, but these are set up so that they reflect Ms MacDonald's efforts to tell the story of a man that actually lived, worked and contributed to the advancement of knowledge during his lifetime.
     An interesting book dealing with an historically interesting man making a contribution to the acquisition of knowledge seemingly lost in time.  The principal persona are as fleshed out as is really possible at this later date. I'm sure that we will see more novels from Elizabeth MacDonald in the future and if they are set in a past will show as much actual research as this one did.
Was this review helpful?
I had such high hopes for this book.  The synopsis really drew me in as it takes place in medieval Italy, heavily involving monasteries and monks; a time in history I throughly enjoy reading about.   The book started off great; the first third of the book was interesting and fast paced.  However, it became bogged down with many historical facts, most which seemed irrelevant to the story and made reading confusing and arduous.  Also, many characters were introduced, making it difficult to keep everyone straight.

I commend the author for her research efforts, but unfortunately the style in which it was implemented did not work for me. 

Thank you to NetGalley and Fairlight Books for the ARC.
Was this review helpful?
My thanks to Fairlight  Books for an eARC via NetGalley of Elizabeth Mac Donald’s ‘A Matter of Interpretation’ in exchange for an honest review.

This work of literary historical fiction is set in late 12th-early 13th Century Europe and recounts the life of Michael Scot. As a young monk he discovers manuscripts by Aristotle on Natural Philosophy in a Saracen translation. They had been “hidden away out of sight like a shameful secret”. His pupil, Frederick, soon to become the Holy Roman Emperor, encourages him to translate these into Latin so these teachings will be available to Christendom.  However, the Pope declares the translations heretical triggering conflict between Church and State.

While I had previously heard of Michael Scot as the legendary Wizard of the Scottish Borders, I wasn’t at all aware of his broader career. This proved a restrained fictional biography rather than the more romantic works of historical fiction that take significant creative license to increase the elements of drama. I felt that Elizabeth Mac Donald was exploring territory between historical fiction and academic nonfiction. 

I enjoyed it very much for the rich characterisations and the level of research that clearly went into writing it. I felt that I had entered into Scot’s world for the duration of the novel. 

While living in London I attended some lectures given by The Kabbalah Society on the Toledano Tradition, and welcomed this further exploration of the all too brief period of the Convivencia where Christians, Jews, and Muslims had come together in order to promote scholarship and learning across religious divides. 

In her Author’s Note she provides her key sources for the life of Michael Scot and the time he lived in.

A fascinating novel that I highly recommend.
Was this review helpful?
The synopsisof this book is very enticing, based on the true story of Michael Scot, a mathematician and scholar in the Middle Ages who translated into Latin the works of such eminent figures as Aristotle and Averroes. In pursuing this task, he finds himself in conflict with the church which seeks to restrict access to such knowledge,

There is a huge amount of research and knowledge in this novel and people with a keen interest in this period of history will find much to enjoy. However, the prose is overblown and sentence construction is rather clumsy. If the writing had be a little moe spare and less relian on florid prose, it would have been a much more enjoyable read. Instead, it was rather a trudge.

Disappointing.
Was this review helpful?
Deliciously written, I loved this very well researched and exciting mystery/thriller. I wouldn't naturally choose to read a book set in the medieval period, however I found this book very comfortable to read. The author clear knows this period well and is generous in sharing her knowledge and understanding. Thanks for the ARC netgalley x
Was this review helpful?