Albert the Great belongs to that band of university students and teachers who joined the Dominicans and Franciscans in the early decades. Born at Lauingen near Ulm he studied at Padua where he joined the Dominicans. He taught at Dominican houses throughout Germany and was professor at Paris. Thomas Aquinas was his student there and later his assistant in founding the Order’s house of studies at Cologne.
Occupying himself with the full range of philosophical and theological questions, Albert took particular delight in the empirical observation of the natural world. ‘Experiment is the only safe guide in such investigations’, he wrote. At the same time he says that ‘the whole world is theology for us’. He stands alongside so many monks, nuns and friars who not only contemplated the natural world as an expression of God’s glory and wisdom but became vintners, bee-keepers, gardeners, farmers, collectors, apothecaries and so on. His interest in natural science means Albert was more like Aristotle than Thomas ever was. In fact it was Albert who led Thomas and others in ‘making Aristotle intelligible to the Latins’.
Albert undertook administrative responsibilities as provincial of Germany and as Bishop of Regensburg (1260-62). The Dominicans were generally reluctant to become bishops - Dominic himself, and Thomas, had refused. Humbert of Romans tried to dissuade Albert from accepting a bishopric fearing it would make it impossible for him to preach from that base of poverty which for Dominic was essential. ('I would prefer to see you dead in your coffin than a bishop', Humbert wrote to Albert.) A change of Pope made possible Albert’s early return to preaching, teaching, and writing although he agreed to preach a crusade in Germany at the request of the new Pope and attended the Council of Lyons in 1274.
Albert was drawn into many controversies, particularly those concerned with the interpretation of Aristotelian philosophy and the bitter disputes with secular clergy who felt threatened by the arrival of the friars. In 1277 he defended Thomas’ teaching which had been declared suspect by the Bishop of Paris.
Albert stands at the head of a German Dominican school which differs in important ways from the Thomist school. Ulrich of Strasbourg, Dietrich of Freiberg, and Berthold of Moosburg developed Albert’s work using newly available neoplatonist sources while their interest in speculative mysticism led Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, and Henry Suso to develop themes dear to Albert such as the incomprehensibility of God and the importance of self-knowledge. Albert wrote commentaries on some Biblical books as well as on the works of Pseudo-Dionysius. The popular De adhaerendo Deo and other works of spirituality and piety attributed to Albert are now regarded as works of later authors.
Known as ‘the Great’ even before he died, Albert was canonised in 1931 and declared a Doctor of the Church. Patron of natural scientists, he continues to inspire those fascinated by the natural world, whether for its own sake or as a way of contemplating the Creator. One of the greatest of the early scientists, Albert continues to be honoured as an exceptional genius. He has a typeface named after him and also, because of his love for the natural world, a plant species and an asteroid (as well as an award winning Kentucky stallion). In 1998 Deutsche Bundesbahn named one of its most powerful locomotives ‘Albertus Magnus’.