It is a sharp corrective to the lazy divisions of modern thought that one of the greatest scientists of the Middle Ages should have been a Dominican, a saint and a Doctor of the Church.
He was equally an authority on physics, mineralogy, chemistry, astronomy and biology. Two centuries before Columbus, Albert explained that the earth is spherical and analysed how climate is affected by latitude. Contemporaries called him “the universal doctor”. For Albert recognised no division between science and theology. A dedicated Aristotelian, he was convinced that the study of natural phenomena could be used to enhance the understanding of Christianity.
Albert was born around 1200 into a powerful military family at Lauingen, a fief on the Danube, in what was then the Duchy of Swabia. Now it lies some 100 miles east of the German border with Alsace.
As the eldest son, he would have been expected to defend his family’s position. Instead, he went to study at the University of Padua, where he joined the newly constituted Dominican order. His father threatened to retrieve him by force, so that Albert was spirited away to another friary.
In 1228 he was in Cologne. Subsequently he moved from town to town, establishing his reputation throughout what is now western Germany.
Yet he also went to Paris, where he gained a master’s degree in 1248. In that year the Dominicans established four new study houses, and Albert was put in charge of the one in Cologne. Here one of his pupils was Thomas Aquinas, who absorbed from him the elements of Aristotle.
“You call him the Dumb Ox,” Albert is supposed to have remarked of Aquinas to his other students. “I tell you this Dumb Ox will bellow so loud that his bellowings shall fill the world.”
In 1254 Albert was made prior provincial of the Dominicans in Germany. Forced to defend the order against criticism, he went to Rome, where he made such an impression that in 1260 Pope Alexander IV appointed him Bishop of Regensberg.
Plainly, though, Albert was more suited to the life of the mind than to diocesan administration. After two years he was happy to return to scholarly seclusion in Cologne. Eventually his writings ran to some 40 volumes.
In 1274 he emerged to attend the second council of Lyon, and three years later went to Paris to defend the writings of the now deceased Thomas Aquinas.
Latterly, Albert seems to have been afflicted by a form of Alzheimer’s. Yet the memory of his genius did not fade after his death in 1280, even though he was not canonised until 1931.
In Fra Angelico’s Dominican Beati, painted c 1423 and now in the National Gallery, Albert is depicted in the top left-hand corner.