Virtue of (Precious) Stones – Albertus Magnus


Albertus, Magnus or Magus, Magic, Natural Philosophy, and Religious Reform in the Late Middle Ages

This article analyzes the fifteenth-century attempt by the Dominican order, especially in Cologne, to win canonization for the thirteenth-century natural philosopher Albert the Great. It shows how Albert’s thought on natural philosophy and magic was understood and variously applied, how the Dominicans at Cologne composed his vitae, and how the order’s Observant movement participated in these developments. It situates the canonization attempt at the intersection of two significant trends in which the order was a leading participant: first, the late medieval efforts to reform Christian society beginning with the religious life of monks and mendicants; second, the increasing concerns about the practice of learned and demonic magic that laid groundwork for the witch-hunting of the early modern period. The article aims to shed light on intersections of science and religion — their apprehension and negotiation — at a decisive moment in European history for both fields of human endeavor.


The thirteenth-century friar Albertus Teutonicus (ca. 1200–80) was a source of enormous pride for his fellow Dominicans in the later Middle Ages. This was especially true for his confreres in Cologne, where he had lived and worked for many years. (1) Albertus had been a leading participant in the high medieval appropriation of Greek philosophical thought, and at the prompting of his order he had composed paraphrases — summaries with learned commentary — of nearly all of Aristotle’s works. His most distinctive contributions were in the area of natural philosophy, a medieval discipline whose subject of study encompassed natural phenomena and the causes of natural effects without recourse to mathematics. (2)

Albertus’s own scholarship, along with that of his Oxford contemporaries Robert Kilwardby (ca. 1215–79) and Roger Bacon (ca. 1219–92), established lasting touchstones for subsequent scholastic natural philosophers. By the fifteenth century, Albertus’s avid admirers had made current the cognomen by which he is best known to this day, Magnus, as well as his professorial sobriquet, doctor universalis. (3)

Exactly the universalis of Albertus’s scholarship, however, inspired ambiguous admiration. He occupied himself with the kinds of knowledge pertaining to the corpus mobile, as he defined natural philosophy, (4) that Aristotle himself had written about or that later interpreters had derived from him. Some of these kinds of knowledge, however, were excluded from,
or kept peripheral to, the curriculum at the medieval university.  (5)

(1) An epigram in reference to Albertus Magnus on the final page of Petrus de Prussia (hereafter LVA) reads: ‘‘Rejoice, happy and holy Cologne, for you alone have merited to possess that shining light and glory of the Germans before all others’’ (‘‘Gaude felix et sancta Colonia / quae iubar et gloriam omnem Alemanorum / pre aliis omnibus tu sola meruisti possidere’’). For two helpful, concise introductions in English to the life and work of Albertus Magnus, see Tugwell; Weisheipl, 1980b.
(2) Grant, 2007, 152–55, 163–65, 190–92.
(3) Grabmann, 2:287–412, is still an excellent starting point for evaluating Albertus’s significance to high and late medieval theology and philosophy. Weisheipl, 1980a, focuses more narrowly on Albertus’s work in a range of scientific fields. Stange summarizes and expands on Grabmann’s careful analysis of Albertus’s names and titles. Attending to a reference in Dante’s Divine Comedy, ibid. considers the possible derivation of magnus from Allemagne. Resnick and Kitchell is a helpful bibliography of works about Albertus.
(4) Albertus Magnus, 1951– (hereafter Colon. Ed.), 4:1 (Physica, defines the object of natural philosophy as a corpus mobile (mobile body): ‘‘Hoc autem in omni scientia naturali absque dubio est corpus mobile, prout motui subicitur.’’ Albertus’s most famous student, Thomas Aquinas, defines it (Physica 1.1.3) slightly differently as ens mobile (mobile being): ‘‘Consequens est quod ens mobile sit subiectum naturalis philosophiae.’’ Thomas’s definition became the more authoritative in subsequent centuries.
(5) Grant, 2007, 170–78. For an explanation of how the ‘‘three philosophies’’ — ethical, metaphysical, and natural — came to be included in the curriculum of the faculty of the arts at the medieval university, see Leff.

These controverted subjects included specific forms of astrology, alchemy, and divination that are commonly designated ‘‘learned magic.’’  (6) Albertus’s student Ulrich of Strassburg (ca. 1220–77) wrote exuberantly in the 1260s that Albertus was ‘‘a man, divine in every sort of knowledge . . . and experienced in magic.’’  (7)

Albertus’s  engagement in these suspect fields was significant enough to have inspired the speculation, already in his lifetime, that he was a magus, a magician. Such a rumor could be judged differently in different quarters. As is well known, the study and practice of magic enjoyed an uneven reception across the Latin West from late antiquity to the early modern period: at different times, in different places, in different cultural, political, and ecclesiastical milieus the magical arts were, by precise form, variously condemned, tolerated, accepted as benign, and even cultivated. (8)

By the fifteenth century, however, a clear concern is evident in and beyond Dominican circles that the speculations about Albertus’s practice of magic defamed him, misrepresented his scholarship, and required refutation.

The efforts to correct the perceived calumny reached a high point in the 1480s as the Dominican order appealed for Albertus’s canonization. The city and university of Cologne ceremoniously reinterred Albertus’s remains in 1483; (9) the order’s general chapter in Rome formally appealed to the pope in 1484 for a canonization; (10) and friars in the province of Teutonia composed and sent to press several literary works, including the first two full-length, freestanding narrative vitae with Albertus as their subject. (11)

(6) It is important not to misportray these fields of inquiry as excluded from the academy or as marginalized without distinction from the curriculum. It is well known that monks, friars, and other clergy associated with schools were among alchemy’s most avid practitioners. And scholars of mathematics, medicine, and natural philosophy readily incorporated ‘‘thescience of the stars’’ — the study of heavenly bodies, the measuring of their movement, and their effects on earthly bodies — into their curriculums by the fifteenth century.

In fact, Rutkin emphasizes the synthesizing concept of ‘‘astrologizing Aristotelianism’’ to explain astrology’s effect on integrating the ancient mathematical sciences — astronomy, geography, and geometrical optics — with Aristotelian natural philosophy after the thirteenth century. Moreover, Rutkin begins his account of astrology’s real academic marginalization with its exclusion from a textbook by the Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius (1537–1612) in 1570. For a helpful summary of alchemy’s academic status, see Newman. On astrology, see Lindberg, 74; Rutkin, 2002, 62; Rutkin, 2006, 541.  For a helpful schema of the shifting definition of learned magic, see Henrichs.

(7) LVA, c-iii v –c-v r ; Ulrich of Strassburg, 4:142 (De summo bono, ‘‘Vir in omni scientia adeo divinus . . . et in magicis expertus.’’ Ulrich may have derived his assertion from a line of Albertus’s on Hermeticism: see Colon. Ed., 7:32 (De anima, 1.2.6): ‘‘nos ipsi sumus experti in magicis.’’
(8) Two excellent surveys of the history of magic are Bailey, 2007; Kieckhefer, 2000. For learned magic, see Boudet, 18–20.
(9) The translation report is edited in ‘‘Monumenta,’’ 349–51.
(10) Reichert, 101.
(11) See Petrus de Prussia (LVA); Rudolphus de Novomagio (hereafter LLA). In addition, a metrical vita by Jacob Magdalius (hereafter LCM) was appended to LLA.
(12) Pope Sixtus IV authorized the translation of Albertus’s remains within the Dominican church at Cologne in 1483. Innocent VIII permited Dominicans in Cologne and Regensburg to erect altars dedicated to Albertus in 1484. Gregory XV permitted the celebration of a liturgical feast in Regensburg in 1622. For the limited papal approval of cults in the fifteenth century as a precursor to beatification, see Krafft, 1009–13, especially n375.
(13) Albertus was raised to the altar by a procedure known as equipollent canonization, with which the pope legitimated an established cult of veneration from time immemorial and abbreviated the usual judicial process antecedent to canonization. Albertus’s Acta canonizationes, published in folio by the responsible papal dicastry, amount nonetheless to nearly 1,000 pages: see Pius XI. Ten years later, in an oblique critique of science and technology’s latest military applications, Pope Pius XII declared him the patron saint of ‘‘students of the natural sciences’’: see Pius XII.
(14) Neither the vitae nor the canonization appeal receive attention in the usual reference works: there is, for example, no reference in Rautenberg; Schmid; Wetzstein.

Albertus’s scholarly life and of the vita sancti as a genre in the context of important fifteenth-century developments in the understanding of how magic worked and how the devil was its agent. In the following analysis, I proceed by first introducing the vitae and their authors, then by analyzing their content and arguments comparatively, and finally by placing the results of this comparison in the context of several late medieval conflicts that shaped the learned and ecclesiastical milieus in which the Dominican order was a significant participant.

There are, as will become apparent, three larger historiographical problems related to these conflicts that intersect in the episode and make it one of emblematic significance. Here I wish toalert the reader to them: they surface throughout the following pages, and I will return to them in the conclusion. The first has to do with links between late medieval movements of religious reform — such as represented by the Observants within the Dominican order — and the increasing hostility to magic in both its learned and common forms; (15) the second, with the authoritativeness of texts, the determination of authoritativeness, and the instrumentalization of the texts; and the third, with notions of the West’s disenchantment and revisionist identification of disenchantment in unexpected places: in hagiographical texts, among reform-minded late medieval Dominicans, and in the context of concern about demonic influences on human society.


Although Albertus’s numerous philosophical and theological works had been copied, studied, and commented upon in abundance throughout the later Middle Ages, and interpretations of Albertus’s thought had even coalesced into their own school in the early fifteenth century, (16) the vitae composed in the Cologne priory between 1483 and 1490 were the first freestanding, complete lives written about him. (17)

(15) I follow the distinction between learned and common cultures argued by Kieckhefer, 2000, 56–57; Kieckhefer, 1994.
(16) Hoenen and de Libera; Meersseman, 1:22–30, 2:103.
(17) Albertus was not the only prominent thirteenth-century personality neglected by life-writers in his own day. Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250) likewise failed to inspire the composition of a vita. Interestingly, another moniker of Ulrich of Strassburg’s for Albertus was nostri temporis stupor (the wonder of our times): Ulrich of Strassburg, 4:142 (De summo bono,, not so different from one of Frederick’s: stupor mundi (the wonder of the world). Both Albertus and Frederick shared an interest in the occult and a place in the
imagination of practitioners of the occult sciences in the later Middle Ages: see Sommerlechner, 11

They depended on a common set of earlier written sources. (18) In addition to making a few autobiographical remarks in his own writing, Albertus merited brief biographical reference in chronicles of the Dominican order, which he had entered in 1223, and of the diocese of Regensburg, where he had been bishop from 1260 to 1262. (19) Likewise, several of Albertus’s students recorded biographical details in their own works, such as Thomas of Cantimpre ´ in his Bonum universale de proprietatibus apum (1257–63) and Ulrich of Strassburg
in his Summa de summo bono (1265–72). (20)

Other sources at the disposal of the vitae-writers include entries in chronicles and collected lives such as Ptolemy of Lucca’s Historia ecclesiastica nova (1313), (2)  John of Colonna’s De viris illustribus (ca.1330), (22) and Henry of Herford’s Liber de memorialioribus (after 1355). (23) The most substantial biographical description before the 1480s comes from Luis de Valladolid, a Spanish Dominican and professor of theology at Paris, who introduces an authoritative index of Albertus’s works with a brief vita in 1414. (24) Luis draws heavily from the work of Thomas of Cantimpre ´, a life of Thomas Aquinas, and Gerard of Frachet’s Vitae fratrum. (25)

The work can be associated with an incipient saintly cult for Albertus insofar as it addresses Albertus’s holiness of life, lists miracles occurring through his posthumous intercession, and makes reference to a chapel in his hometown

(18) Such as Gerard of Frachet’s Vitas fratrum OP and the Rithmicum dictamen de Alberto episcopo, both composed in 1260, two decades before Albertus’s death; as well as the chronicle of the Order of Preachers composed by Bernhard Gui. Also, biographical
information was recorded in Thomas of Cantimpre ´’s mid-thirteenth-century Bonum univerale de proprietatibus apum, as well as the Historia ecclesiae nova of Ptolemy of Lucca and the Liber de viris illustribus of John of Colonna, both composed in the first third of the
fourteenth century. In 1380 Hermann of Minden took Henry of Herford’s work into his Catalogus Episcoporum Mindensium.
(19) Critical research began at the beginning of the last century in the context of another canonization petition: Loe ¨, 1900, 1901, and 1902; Gaiffier; Pelster; Scheeben, 1931a; Schieffer; Stehka ¨mper and Zender.
(20) Ulrich of Strassburg. There is no complete modern edition of the De proprietatibus apum. Several editions were taken to press in the fifteenth century, including Thomas of Cantimpre ´, 1473: this edition is indexed as GW M46646 and Coppinger 1218.
(21) Ptolemy of Lucca, 1150, 1151, 1184.
(22) John of Colonna, De vita et moribus virorum illustrium, tam sanctorum quam aliorum philosophorum. See R. Sabbadini.
(23) Wolfenbu ¨ttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 11b Helmst, 145 v –146 v . See also Henry of Herford, 201–02.
(24) The work has been divided and edited in separate places: Luis de Valladolid, 1889, 96–105; Luis de Valladolid, 1931, 243–50. See also Loe ¨, 1900, 264; Pelster, 16–27; Scheeben, 1931c, 223–43.
(25) Gerard of Frachet.