Albertus Magnus

A Concise Biography

Statue of Albertus Magnus
Statue of Albertus Magnus at the University of Cologne in the Albertus-Magnus-Platz. Adaptation of a photo by Tim Bartel, made available through the GNU Free Documentation License.

Known as Saint Albert the Great or Sankt Albert der Grosse (in German); also known as Albert of Cologne, Albert of Lauingen or Doctor Universalis (Latin for "Universal Doctor"), Albertus Magnus was a philosopher, a bishop, a prolific writer, and one of the most influential scientists of the Middle Ages.

The Early Years of Albertus Magnus

Born the eldest son of a wealthy German lord, Albertus received a substantive early education before he studied liberal arts at the University of Padua.

There he joined the Dominican order in 1223. His education continued at Padua and Bologna, and later in Germany, where he taught theology at several convents. By 1245 Albertus was lecturing on the Bible and on Peter Lombard's Sentences at the Dominican convent of Saint-Jacques at the University of Paris.

A Monumental Work

It was evidently in Paris, where he encountered the works of Aristotle and Averroës, that Albertus began work on his monumental project: a compilation of all knowledge as it was understood in his time. The subjects he sought to encompass included astronomy, mathematics, economics, logic, rhetoric, ethics, politics, metaphysics and all branches of natural science. He covered these topics in several works, including the Physica, Summa theologiae, and De natura locorum. It would take Albertus more than 20 years to complete this phenomenal presentation.

The Scientific Approach of Albertus Magnus

Albertus made a distinction between receiving knowledge through faith and revelation and acquiring it through study, scientific observation and philosophical inquiry.

As a scientist, his "experiments" were limited to making careful observations and describing and classifying what he observed.

Through his writings and lectures -- which brought him great renown -- Albertus helped to establish the study of nature as a legitimate science while still recognizing traditional Christian viewpoints.

He saw no discrepancy between theology and science; rather, they were simply different aspects of a harmonious whole. Among his most important contributions to the development of scientific thought in the Middle Ages was helping the scholarly community to recognize Aristotelianism in spite of contemporary theological reactions against the ancient philosopher.

Albertus Magnus the Teacher

In 1248, Albertus went to Cologne and organized the first Dominican studium generale ("general house of studies") in Germany. He presided over the house with Thomas Aquinas as his chief disciple and continued his writing and research. Albertus and Thomas would remain friends throughout their lives, even though their viewpoints on doctrine would diverge.

Although Albertus would leave Cologne for several extended periods, he always returned to his order and to teaching. In 1254 he became provincial of the German province of the Dominicans, "Teutonia," for three years. In 1259 Pope Alexander IV appointed Albertus to succeed the bishop of Regensburg, but after Alexander's death in 1261 he was able to resign his see. From 1263 to 1264 he preached crusade throughout Germany and Bohemia as a legate of Pope Urban IV.

He then lectured at Würzburg and Strasbourg, finally settling in Cologne for good in 1270.

A Great Scholar

Albertus Magnus is the only scholar of his era to have earned the appellation "Great" -- a title that was used during his lifetime. Even Roger Bacon, who was far from friendly to Albertus, called him "the most noted of Christian scholars." He was canonized in 1931, and in 1941 he was declared the patron saint of all who cultivate the natural sciences by Pius XII.


Who's Who Profile of Albertus Magnus


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Snell, Melissa. "Albertus Magnus." ThoughtCo, Jan. 31, 2016, Snell, Melissa. (2016, January 31). Albertus Magnus. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "Albertus Magnus." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 22, 2017).