Albertus Magnus and the World of Nature 
by Irven Resnick and Kenneth Kitchell.
Reaktion, 272 pp., £16.95, August 2022, 978 1 78914 513 7
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Albertus Magnus​ , the Dominican friar born sometime around 1200 and canonised in 1931, is often called the patron saint of natural scientists, but he might as well be called the patron saint of curiosity. The 38 volumes of his collected works cover not only theology, law and logic, but almost every science known to his era: zoology and botany, physiology and medicine, astronomy and astrology, geography, mineralogy – even its troublesome stepchild, alchemy. His interest in alchemy was the chief reason that his canonisation was so long delayed: it inspired a rich store of legends about his astonishing feats of magic. As the medievalist David Collins asked, is it Magnus or Magus, Albert the Great or Albert the Magician?

Irven Resnick and Kenneth Kitchell, who have long toiled on the Albertian corpus, provide a lively, accessible introduction to his life and thought. Albert joined the Dominican Order around 1223 and spent most of his long academic career between Paris and Cologne, where Thomas Aquinas was his star student. Even then, the university was no ivory tower. Faculty had to deal with heresy charges, censorship by overreaching bishops, rivalry between friars and secular masters, and drunken brawls among students – who could matriculate as young as 14. One such brawl in 1229 prompted the University of Paris to go on strike to protest the killing of several students by the city guard. In a papal bull that finally ended the two-year ‘dispersion’, Gregory IX gave masters the right to regulate such matters as academic dress, lecture schedules, the length of the summer holiday and the price of student lodgings. He also forbade the arts faculty to teach the newly translated Aristotelian texts on natural philosophy – at least until they were ‘purged of error’.

Before the mid-12th century, only two of Aristotle’s logical tractates were known, translated by Boethius in antiquity. But from roughly 1150 to 1270, his entire corpus became available in Latin, usually via Arabic, accompanied by commentaries from the Islamic scholar Averroes (Ibn Rushd). Not surprisingly, Aristotle held many views incompatible with Catholic doctrine, for instance that the world is eternal, the soul dies with the body and God is a passive unmoved mover, not an energetic creator. But despite ecclesiastical fears, there was no rush to embrace these teachings. Instead there was intellectual excitement, sparked by such works as the Physics, the Nicomachean Ethics, On the Movement of Animals and On Generation and Corruption. In scholastic writings, Aristotle is called simply ‘the Philosopher’, while Dante honoured him as ‘the Master of Those Who Know’. In this context, Albert set himself the ambitious project of paraphrasing and commenting on every Aristotelian text he could find – an enterprise that occupied him from roughly 1250 to 1270 – to purge the ‘errors’ that concerned the pope and rehabilitate the Philosopher for Christian study. A more practical source of error was philological, because oral transmission, textual corruption and translation through an intermediary language, not to mention differences between the animals of ancient Greece and medieval Germany, had conspired to render many passages opaque. It is instructive to watch Albert wrestling with such absurdities as elephants who fight with their ears or fish who devour their own flesh.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to see him as primarily a textual scholar. Albert was above all an empiricist. The information he regarded as most credible was that which he had personally observed. Next came that provided by experti or ‘people with experience’. To Albert’s credit, the people whose reports he considered trustworthy were not only fellow academics, but people from all walks of life, ranging from midwives to mariners to miners. Reliable authors such as Aristotle and Avicenna (Ibn Sina, a Persian polymath) occupied only the third stratum in his hierarchy of knowledge, with folklore or legends coming last. Again and again we find him saying probavi per experimentum (‘I have proven this through experience’), even when it means disagreeing with authoritative sources. His experiments sometimes involved vivisection, such as cutting the face of a living mole to see if it really lacked eyes or drowning a scorpion in oil to learn whether, mixed with vinegar, the liquid could heal a scorpion bite. (The scorpion survived for 22 days, walking around the bottom of the container the whole time.) It was rumoured that ostriches ate iron, but Albert denies this: ‘I have often spread out iron for several ostriches and they have not wanted to eat it. They did greedily eat rocks.’ One might wonder where he managed to find ostriches, but he may have encountered them in the menagerie of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, who kept a travelling zoo that also included peacocks, camels, leopards, lynxes, apes, lions, giraffes and even an elephant with a wooden tower on its back.

Albert’s treatment of whaling is almost Melvillian. He spoke to open-boat whalers, who told him about the various methods of throwing a harpoon, and reports that he saw a whale captured in Frisia that yielded eleven jars of oil. A whale in Holland was said to have yielded forty jars. Further, he claimed to have verified that a butchered whale could produce between 150 and 300 cartloads of bone and flesh, and he knew that whalebone (baleen) could be carved and used commercially. But he debunked the story (found in Sindbad the Sailor and The Voyage of Saint Brendan) of a whale so large that mariners could mistake it for an island, land their boats on it and build fires on its back – causing the animal to plunge into the sea and drown them. His field of study extended from the largest to the smallest creatures: he offers meticulous observations of the way spiders deposit their eggs and the mating cycle of silkworms, as well as recipes for flea repellents (one of which involves boiling a hedgehog). Artisanal work also fascinated him. His treatise On Minerals draws on extensive conversations with jewellers and miners, and he interviewed cooks about the best ways to prepare broths from animal fat or to curdle milk to produce different kinds of cheese. Noting that people get hungrier in cold places than in warm, he remarks with some hyperbole that ‘one Pole or German eats more in a single day than a Lombard or a Frenchman does in four.’

We might expect that ‘experience’ would fail the chaste friar when he wrote about human sexuality, but as a priest he heard confessions, a vital source of information about sexual practices. Female penitents might have been his source on the techniques used to fake virginity or stimulate sexual arousal. Departing from the medical writer Galen, Albert followed the Aristotelian line on reproduction, in which the male sperm is the active principle in generation, imprinting form on the raw matter provided by the female menses. Women, being deficient in vital heat, emit only a kind of ‘seed’ or vaginal secretion that lacks formative agency. Notoriously, both Albert and Aquinas teach that nature always intends to produce a perfect offspring, namely a male. For various reasons, including insufficient heat, the process can fall short and result in the generation of a female. While individually a woman counts as an imperfect man, she is nevertheless required for the preservation of the species. Thus, in his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, Albert remarks that ‘the material desires form as does the female the male and the ugly the beautiful.’ Further, every woman truly desires to become a man: ‘There is no woman who would not wish to put off … femininity’ if she could. The only shaping power ascribed to the mother is the dangerous power of imagination: should she happen to imagine a monster during the act of copulation, for instance, she might give birth to one.

Other ‘accidents of nature’ could result in the birth of twins. Albert claims to have heard from ‘many worthy of trust’ about a pair of conjoined twins with strikingly different personalities. They survived into their twenties but, when one died, his twin perished ‘from the putrefaction and stench of his dead brother’. Albert also gives a rare account of a medieval intersex person, drawn from either personal observation or direct report. The child appeared to be female at birth, but the opening of the vulva was closed over by skin. So the parents asked a surgeon to cut it open – ‘and out leapt his testicles and his penis’. As an adult, Albert reports, the man took a wife and fathered many children. His anecdotes can be less than credible. One Clement of Bohemia told him about a ‘hoary old monk’ who had intercourse with his mistress 66 times in a single night. The next day, the monk dropped dead and, on autopsy, ‘his brain was found to be entirely evacuated’, leaving a lump no bigger than a pomegranate. The tale was meant to reinforce the idea that, because sperm is produced in the brain and descends to the genitals, excessive intercourse dries out the brain. This drying also causes baldness; the proof is that castrati are never bald.

Medieval physicians recognised four ‘complexions’ or temperaments – sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic – based on the body’s dominant humour. Illnesses, and therefore remedies, varied according to the patient’s complexion. In addition, each complexion was affected by the six ‘non-naturals’, factors external to the body: diet, sleep, exercise, sexual intercourse, emotions and environment. For Albert, the influence of geography on human complexions was so profound as to produce different physical and mental types in the seven ‘climates’ or geographic regions of the earth. Given the high value placed on heat (the main reason for male superiority), we might expect people living in warm climates to be assessed as healthier or more intelligent, and to some extent that is what we find. The people of India, for example, ‘excel more in ingenuity on account of the moving heat and the keenness of their spirits’. This is the reason, Albert writes, that India has produced so many distinguished philosophers, mathematicians and magicians. Conversely, northern peoples such as Slavs, Germans and Englishmen are naturally phlegmatic and rather dull-witted, although ‘when they are moved to study they persevere longer and they are much better by far after mental exercise.’ Perhaps Albert was thinking of his own example. Similarly, human beings have no ‘natural’ skin colour, for pigment, too, is a response to climate. Indians, besides being clever, are ‘beautiful in colour’, while Africans are dark because of the sun’s excessive heat, and northerners white because of the cold – just like polar bears and white hares, though the same animals are black or brown in southern climates. Albert does report certain stereotypes about Black women, namely that they desire sex more often than white women and produce more nourishing breast milk (this notion comes from Avicenna).

In both Cologne and Paris, Albert interacted with Jewish communities. A wave of Talmud burnings swept France in the mid-13th century, following the complaint of the Jewish convert Nicholas Donin to Gregory IX (the same pope who censored Aristotle) that the Talmud was full of heresies and blasphemies. His charges led to a public show trial, after which some twenty cartloads of Jewish books were burned in Paris in 1242. In 1248, Albert served on a new commission appointed to scrutinise the Talmud in a fairly extensive Latin translation. Although he didn’t participate in any legal action against Jews, he often returned to the Talmud in his later writings and coined the word Talmudisti (‘Talmudists’) for the medieval commentators we now call Tosafists. Among the Talmudic ‘heresies’ Albert rejects are Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi’s insistence (anticipating modern scholars) that Job was not a real person but a fictional character, and the myth of Adam’s first wife, Lilith, who, after refusing to submit sexually to her husband, had intercourse with demons. Albert knew more about Lilith than he could have found in the Latin Talmud, so perhaps he discussed her with Jewish contemporaries. Similarly, he rejected the ‘Jewish’ belief that Adam was a hermaphrodite before the creation of Eve – a teaching also found in some ancient Christian writings. Throughout his works, Albert seems less interested in denouncing Jews than in engaging with unfamiliar ideas, even when he found them wrongheaded.

Many medieval clerics hungered for lucrative appointments such as bishoprics. Albert, however, wasn’t pleased when Pope Alexander IV made him bishop of Regensburg in 1260. The position required him to shelve his research for a time, much like an academic compelled to become department chair. But as an obedient son of the Church he consented, even though he inherited a nearly bankrupt diocese plagued by scandals. Scholars weren’t sainted merely for their services to learning, and Albert’s cause certainly owed much to his exemplary conduct in office. As a bishop, he was required in principle to visit every parish in his diocese, but as a Dominican, he was forbidden to travel on horseback. Friars were supposed to eschew such luxuries and make their preaching tours on foot. Albert could have wangled a dispensation for his episcopal duties, but he didn’t. He earned the nickname ‘Boots the Bishop’ (episcopus cum bottis) for his rough clothing and heavy boots, travelling with only a donkey to carry his pack. From more personal experience than usual, he could report on which animal hides made the most durable footwear. Resnick and Kitchell even calculate the distances of all his known pastoral and preaching journeys, concluding that he ‘probably walked more than 30,000 kilometres’ – the equivalent of four round trips from Cologne to Jerusalem. Perhaps all that exercise contributed to his longevity: he died in 1280. Nevertheless, after only a year in office he begged for, and received, permission to resign and return to his teaching career.

Fellow Dominicans lobbied for Albert’s sainthood over the centuries, but detractors complained that he was more concerned with nature than with God, and far too immersed in pagan philosophy. His interest in alchemy was real enough, though he didn’t believe that anyone had actually transmuted lead into gold. Nevertheless, more than fifty books on alchemy were posthumously ascribed to him, resulting in a badly skewed reputation. Perhaps his most influential book in the later Middle Ages was another that he never wrote: On the Secrets of Women, a medico-philosophical textbook on gynaecology and embryology. Compiled by one of Albert’s students, this hugely popular text treats many of the same topics he explored, with a large admixture of misogyny. Meanwhile, Albertus Magus became the subject of many legends. He welcomed a visiting duke by making a garden bloom in the snow, rode to Rome on the devil’s back, abducted a French princess by whisking her through the air, and so on. He is even said to have created a talking metal automaton, which Aquinas piously destroyed – a distant parallel to the famous Jewish legend of the Golem of Prague. But, colourful as this folklore may be, it pales before the real achievements of the Doctor universalis, one of the most intriguing figures in premodern science.

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