Feast Day : November 15
Patronage: all students and researchers of the natural sciences; medical technicians; miners; naturalists; schoolchildren; scientists; students; theology students
Doctor of the Church, theologian, bishop and philosopher Name meaning: noble; brilliant Also known as: Albertus Magnus, Doctor Universalis, Doctor Expertus, Albert the German, Universal Doctor The eldest son of Count Bollstadt, a military nobleman in the service of Emperor Frederick II, Albert was born ca. 1206 at the castle of Lauingen in Swabia, a southern German province along the Danube River. Nothing is known of his early childhood or education, but as a young man he studied at the University of Padua. At age 16 he became impressed with the Order of Preaching Friars, or Brothers, founded by St. Dominic, and became a postulant in 1222 under Blessed Jordan of Saxony, second master general of the Friars Preachers and immediate successor to Dominic. Rumors circulated that Albert’s father, angry at his son’s renunciation of title and wealth, would try to retrieve him by force, but they came to nothing when the Brothers, commonly called Dominicans, discreetly sent the young Albert to the friary in Cologne. There he completed his studies and taught others, as well as teaching at Hildesheim, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Regensburg and Strasbourg. Learning and thinking in 13th-century Europe were undergoing radical changes, and Albert’s approach to these changes was intelligent, scientific and commonsensical. As a member of one of the new mendicant orders, Albert was not tied to a parish church or monastery, leaving him free to teach and preach anywhere, and, like the other friars, able to assume a key position in the new universities. Up until the 12th century, traditional education in the Latin-based world was based on the Scriptures and commentaries on them. Meanwhile, Islamic scholars had assimilated the logic and philosophy of Aristotle and other Greek works of mathematics and science. In the 12th century, Latin translations of these works became available, presenting Christian scholars with a challenge: how to use this valuable knowledge, reconcile it with earlier Christian thinking, and remove the heresy associated with Islam. Albert’s answer to this challenge was to learn all he could of the newly revealed information, try to understand it, examine it critically and accept what he could and adapt it to established Church dogma. He was interpreting Peter Lombard’s Book of the Sentences in 1245 when he was sent to the university in Paris, generally acknowledged as the greatest school of theology. There he encountered the Summa Theologiæ of Alexandern of Hales, the first book written after all the works of Aristotle had become known in Paris. He received his doctorate. Among Albert’s students accompanying him to Paris from Cologne was a young friar named Thomas Aquinas, who took his master’s teachings and became the greatest philosopher of his day. Thomas returned to Cologne when Albert was selected regent of the new Studium Generale there in 1248 and became second professor under Albert and master of students. In 1250 Albert drew up the rules for direction of study and graduation from Dominican universities and institutions. Thomas remained with Albert until 1252. What Albert began, and Thomas perfected, became known as the Scholastic system or Scholasticism: the application of Aristotelian methods and principles to the study of revealed doctrine, or the reconciliation of reason and orthodoxy. Albert did not believe the works of Aristotle should be banned or totally subsumed to early Christian teaching, nor did he accept all of Aristotle’s philosophy without question, but he showed that sense and experience were the basis of all human knowledge. In 1254, Albert was named prior provincial of the Dominican Order in Germany. In 1256, he traveled to Rome to defend the mendicant orders against the attacks of William of St. Amour in the book De Novissimis Temporum Periculis, or “The Dangers of These Present Times.” Pope Alexander IV (r. 1254–61) agreed with Albert and his peers, condemning William’s book on October 5, 1256. While in Rome Albert served as master of the sacred palace, the position as the pope’s personal theologian and canonist always filled by a Dominican. Albert returned to Cologne and resigned the office of prior provincial in 1257 to allow him more time for study and teaching. Three years later, in 1260, Alexander IV named thereluctant Albert bishop of Regensburg, a post that he resigned in 1262 to return to his beloved Studium in Cologne. In 1270 Albert wrote a treatise against Siger de Brabant and the Muslim philosopher Averroës in defense of his former student Thomas. In 1274, Pope Gregory X called Albert to attend the 14th General Council at Lyons. While en route he learned that Thomas had died at Fossa Nuova, and Albert lamented that “the light of the Church” had been extinguished. Albert journeyed from Cologne once more, in 1277, again to defend himself and St. Thomas against Church conservatives— specifically, Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris, who accused Albert and Thomas of being too favorable to the unbelieving philosophers. Albert hotly defended himself and Thomas, challenging his detractors to examine his theological record, but the so-called ape of Aristotle could not win on all points. A prodigious writer, thinker and experimenter, Albert fearlessly tested previously accepted facts and made keen observations about science and nature. In one famous episode, Albert had himself lowered over a cliff edge so he could check firsthand whether eagles had one egg and offspring per season, as was thought at the time. For centuries, his works were the accepted authorities on physics, geography, astronomy, mineralogy, chemistry and biology. He was renowned as an alchemist and said to practice the magical arts; he reportedly carried a magic cup that cured the ill. He traced the chief mountain ranges of Europe, explained the influence of latitude on climate and proved the Earth was a sphere. He performed groundbreaking studies on insects. Albert also wrote works of theology and logic and composed the Mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi. All in all, Albert wrote 38 quarto volumes of scientific and theological literature. By 1278, however, Albert was in poor health. His memory failed during a lecture that year, and his strength and mind continued to deteriorate. He died peacefully, sitting in a chair among his brethren at Cologne, on November 15, 1280, and is buried at St. Andrea’s Church. His tomb became a pilgrimage site. Some of his remains were translated to Lauingen and Regensburg. In art, Albert is shown in his Dominican habit.