Illustrated Catholic Family Annual – Albert the Great

Albert the GreatArticle

Of the childhood of Albert the Great (who is styled by Pope Leo XIII in his late encyclical, “Blessed Albertus magnus”), as in the case of so many of the great men of the middle ages, but little is positively known. It is certain, however, that he was born in the town of Laningen, in Bavarian Suabia, and that his parents were of the nobility. The day, or even the year, of his birth is in doubt, but the best authorities place it in 1193. His biographer says “he was carefully educated from the commencement of his life.” “When seven years old the young pupil was sent to school to learn at first to read and write, which being soon acquired, he commenced to make the acquaintance of the Latin grammarians…. When the pupil had mastered the first principles of the Latin tongue, he received, before all, the Psalter, whose chants he was made to learn by heart, that he might draw therefrom pious thoughts and sentiments, and also take part in the public psalmody of the Church.” That his early education was successful is indicated by the words of his biographer: ” Albert soon gave sure signs of what he would one day become. Instead of yielding to. the frivolous amusements of the companions of his age, he delighted to visit the churches and to chant the hymns and psalms with the clerks.” After acquiring the principles of Latin the pupil pursued a course of studies in the classics. Albert’s numerous treatises, and even his sermons, show how deeply he was imbued with the spirit of classic literature.

Having reached an age when it behooved him to choose a career, Albert decided in favor of the peaceful and noble study of the sciences, though the profession of arms offered him honors, position, and renown. About the year 1212 Albert journeyed to Padua, and, taking up his residence there with a wealthy uncle, began his studies at the celebrated university, then especially distinguished for its culture of the liberal arts. “Grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy were the sciences which he studied under the direction of skilful masters.” From these he advanced to logic, ethics, politics, and medicine, and thus laid the foundations of that vast knowledge which so frequently caused him in after-life to be suspected of necromancy. But it was not alone from books that Albert labored to gather wisdom. He made many excursions into the surrounding country in order to study the face of nature. Albert had now to think seriously of the part he was destined to act in the world, but could not decide definitely on any course. “One day, while he was in the church of the Dominicans, the holy Virgin, before whose statue he knelt, seemed to address him in these words: ‘Albert, my son, leave the world and enter the order of Friar-Preachers, whose foundation I obtained of my divine Son for the salvation of the world. Thou shalt apply thyself to the sciences according to the prescriptions of the Eule; and God will fill thee with such wisdom that the whole church shall be illumined by thy erudition.'” It was, then, at the feet of the Mother of God that Albert’s future career was defined. He decided to become a religious, but his decision was not, owing to opposition on the part of his relations, for some time acted upon, until having one day entered the church of the Friar- Preachers, Albert was so affected by the moving eloquence of Blessed Jordan of Saxony that at the close of the discourse he sped to the door of the convent, and with tears besought admission to the order. His ardent desire was gratified, and the already famous scholar, who had lived in luxury in a marble palace, became a poor friar, with shaven head and body clad in a coarse tunic, his wants confined to the bare necessaries of life. He was soon after sent to the convent of Saint Nicholas, at Bologna, where he studied sacred science under the most celebrated professors. His untiring application to his studies soon placed him at the head of his fellow students, and his superiors rewarded him by promotion to the grade of lector, and sent him to Cologne.

About the year 1230, and in his thirty-sixth year, he took possession of that professor’s chair which, except for brief intervals, he occupied for more than half a century. Great numbers of students attended his lectures, among them Thomas of Cantimpre. But Albert did not confine his happy influence to the city of Cologne. “Every time that a convent of Friar- Preachers was established in any of the German cities Albert received orders to repair thither, in order to facilitate, by his reputation, learning, and virtues, the success and future of the new foundation. Thus, according to history, did he reside at Hildesheim, Strassburg, Freiburg in Breisgau, and at Ratisbon.” Albert spent about ten years upon these missions.

In 1243 he was recalled to Cologne, to resume his beloved professorship. In 1245 God sent to him a pupil who was destined to prove a worthy one, and whose fame, indeed, bids fair to outshine that of his master – Thomas of Aquin. In the spring of 1240 Albert, accompanied by his disciple Thomas, was sent by bis superiors to occupy a chair in the University of Paris. This proved one of the most glorious periods in the scholastic career of Albert. Princes, bishops, nobles, rich and poor, gathered to listen to his subtle reasoning, and so vast was the multitude that he was frequently obliged to lecture in the open air. In the year 1248 the general chapter of the Friar-Preachers, held at Paris, resolved to found a school of learning in each of the principal houses of the order—at Bologna for Lombardy, at Oxford for England, at Montpellier for Provence, and at Cologne for Germany. In the autumn of that year Albert (who had just received the doctor’s cap) was chosen by his superiors to direct the new school at Cologne, and his beloved disciple, Thomas of Aquin, was appointed his assistant, under the title of master of studies.

But it was not alone as a lecturer that the great master established his fame. His pen was busily engaged in composing treatises on logic, on natural science, on metaphysics, and on theology. So numerous are his writings that they fill not less than twenty folio volumes. And with all this his pupil Thomas of Cantimpre relates that he practised the most ardent piety, daily reciting the Psalter of David.

In this congenial atmosphere Albert spent five happy years, when in 1254 a chapter of the Dominicans, held at Worms, elected hira provincial of the province of Germany, which at that period embraced avast field, namely, “Austria, Bavaria, Suabia, Alsace, the Rhenish countries to Geldern and Utrecht; Holland, Zealand, Friesland, Brabant, Flanders; then again Westphalia, Hesse, Saxony, Thuringia, Meissen, Holstein-Schleswig, and the towns of the marshes, among which was Lübeck.” And what a true shepherd this won derful man proved! Although far advanced in years, he made all his visitations on foot. “He never carried money, but as a faithful lover of religious poverty, when necessity obliged him, he begged with his brethren from door to door the scanty food he had need of.” “In the convents where he resided he wrote books with his own hand, and left them at his departure, either to indemnify the house for the little he had consumed or to afford his brethren a share of the fruits of his learning.” In 1252 the venerable father founded the first convent of Dominican nuns at Soest, in the diocese of Cologne. About this time Albert was sent to Poland to revive the almost extinguished light of the faith among the Poles. His preaching among this half-savage people was eminently successful, and he had the happiness of restoring many souls to the Church. On his return from Poland Albert was called on to arbitrate between the archbishop of Cologne and his revolted subjects. In 1256, at Anagni, Albert delivered, in presence of Pope Alexander IV, his celebrated discourse in defence of the religious orders. Albert’s fame as an interpreter of Scripture and as a preacher had preceded him to Italy, and the pope appointed him lector of the Sacred Palace – a post once filled by Saint Dominic himself, and ever since held by the order of Friar-Preachers. In 1257 Albert returned to Cologne, and was elected provincial a second time.

About this time the bishopric of Batisbon became vacant through the deposition of its bishop, Albert, Count of Pottingau, who had proved unworthy of his great office. The diocese was in a deplorable state, and to restore it to its pristine splendor it was necessary to find a man of the highest reputation and attainments. The pope fixed his choice upon Albert. For a long time the great master resisted, alleging his incompetency and imploring the sovereign pontiff to select some one else ; and in this course he was encouraged by a letter from Humbert of Romans, general of his order, conjuring him not to accept the dignity, as it would be a bad example to the order for one of its members to accept such an appointment. Finally, on January 9, 1260, the pope addressed to Albert a brief which declared a longer resistance to be sinful. Albert thereupon set out for Ratisbon, and, to avoid all pomp, did not enter it till after nightfall, when he proceeded to the humble church of the Friar Preachers, where he passed the night. The following day, Tuesday of Holy Week, 1260, amid the glad shouts of the multitudes, the new bishop took possession of his cathedral. In assuming the episcopal robes Albert did not lay aside his duties as a perfect religious ; he still adhered to his old love of poverty, and so little did he concern himself about dress that he received the surname of ” Bishop of the big shoes,” because he wore in public the thick shoes common to the friars. But he nevertheless discharged the duties, temporal and spiritual, of a bishop with great wisdom and exactitude. He restored order where all had been chaos, reformed abuses, repaired old and built new churches, and withal wrote pious books. Of the revenues of his diocese he retained barely enough to defray his personal expenses ; the remainder he devoted to the payment of the debts of his predecessors, and to the relief of the necessitous.

But the episcopate was a burden the servant of God bore with unceasing reluctance, and after reiterated solicitation Pope Urban IV, in March, 1262, appointed lus successor. Albert joyfully retired to the seclusion of a convent, and for about three years we hear nothing of him. Then he emerges, in obedience to the mandate of the Holy See, to again preach the Crusade in Germany and Bohemia.

As the venerable Albert approached the close of his mortal career his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to the holy Mother of God increased, and it was at this period that he composed his two great works on these subjects. We would fain, did space permit, follow to the end the details of this wonderful life. Suffice it to say that he labored and prayed until, worn out with work and age, and surrounded by his weeping brethren, he gave up his beautiful soul on Friday, 15 November 1280, in the eighty-seventh year of his age. His remains were interred in the conventual church at Cologne, where they remained till 11 January 1482, when they were translated to a splendid mausoleum erected by the students of the University of Cologne. Vast numbers of the faithful visited the holy relics, and many persons were there cured of their maladies.

Poetry, eloquence, and history have united in extolling the virtues, genius, and labors of Albertus Magnus, and we might cite the testimony of men of all ages, from Dante to Humboldt ; but sublimer than all is the veneration shown him by the Church. Rodolph says that Pope John XXII in 1334 ordered the proceedings relating to Albert’s beatification to be begun, but the process was not completed. Meanwhile devotion to Blessed Albert daily increased among the people of Cologne, and the Dominicans, with the sanction of Pope Innocent VIII, published an office in honor of the blessed master. On 15 September 1622, Pope Gregory XV granted permission to the church of Ratisbon to celebrate yearly, on 15 November, a solemn of fice in honor of Blessed Albert. Pope Urban VIII extend ed the privilege to all the houses of the order of Preachers throughout the Roman states, Germany, and Italy. Finally, Clement X permitted all the Dominican convents to observe the anniversary of the death of Albert. Thus many popes have declared the memory of Albert blessed, and altars have been erected in many cities of Germany in his honor. When the Catholic bishops of Germany met at Fulda in September, 1872, they petitioned the Holy See to take in hand the cause of Blessed Albert, and the sacred honors will doubtless yet be rendered to him.

MLA Citation

  • “Albert the Great”. Illustrated Catholic Family Annual, 1880. CatholicSaints.Info. 13 January 2017. Web. 22 February 2017. <>