Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Disenchanting Albert, 1200–1800

How Medieval Thinking about Magic Led to Modern Science and Religion

David J. Collins


“Disenchanting Albert, 1200-1800” is an investigation into shifting medieval and early modern understandings of magic in conjunction with ideas about the natural and the divine. The thirteenth-century thinker Albertus Magnus’s thought on magic and its reception through the eighteenth century is at the focus. The emergence and ultimate rejection of Albert’s ideas will shed light on larger processes of rationalization in the West.

Albertus Magnus was an eminent thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian. He held professorial chairs across Europe and helped establish the first Dominican house of studies in Cologne, a constitutive part of the city’s burgeoning university. He mentored his ultimately more famous Dominican confrere Thomas Aquinas. His participation in the Christian West’s exuberant rediscovery of Aristotle’s thought, along with its development in the hands of medieval Islamic and Jewish thinkers, qualifies him as a founding father of the philosophical movement known as Scholasticism. A churchman of some prominence, he preached the Baltic Crusade and served two years as the bishop of Regensburg.

He was renowned for his expertise in magic. That competence, the scholarly reflection it inspired, and the subsequent reception of his thought on magic stand at the center of this project.
Albert’s renown for magical expertise expressed itself in multiple forms. His own students celebrated his prowess in magic as one expertise among many. His writings on magic – how to identify it, categorize it, explain it, and assess its morality – became part of the scholastic canon: a theologian or philosopher with a claim about magic needed to know Albert’s position first. In this respect, Albertus belonged to a core of scholastic thinkers (along with, for example, Roger Bacon and William of Auvergne), who were necessarily and recurrently relied upon, appealed to, developed upon, and disagreed with in the course of the West’s deliberations about what magic was (and was not) in the later medieval and early modern periods.

Albert’s teachings on magic, or any other subject for that matter, did not to enjoy this high regard perpetually. His thinking was attractively Aristotelian in the thirteenth century, and Aristotelianism had shaped his teaching on magic too. But the West’s appreciation of Aristotle in the five hundred year history under review in this project was neither uniform nor stable. Variations in opinion can most certainly be seen in the range of stances taken on magic.

The enthusiasm for Aristotle and his commentators, which had so shaped European thinking beginning in Albert’s day, waned. By many lights the defining hallmarks of the transition from the “medieval” to the “early modern” are the abandonment of Aristotelian frameworks and the development of alternatives. The movement away from Aristotelianism is often identified as constitutive of Renaissance Humanism, the Scientific Revolution, and Luther’s Reformation. A decrease in Albert’s status in the world of higher learning correlates to each of the major intellectual, cultural, and religious movements.

By the seventeenth century, at just about the same time his cognomen “magnus” was becoming commonplace, he can even be placed in a second tier of scholastic thinker, whose writings were “known of” but not quite “well known.” That diminution of significance occurred less precipitously and over a longer period of time regarding his thought on magic than on, say, epistemology and Christology; nonetheless, it occurred. Where fifteenth-century lecturers on medicine discriminated between the medicinal properties of emeralds and garnets with careful reference to Albert’s mineralogical studies, eighteenth centuries naturalists dismissed geomancy as an “ars Albertina.” In the earlier era, he was an authority; in the latter, he was a cipher.

The ultimate goal of this project is to shed light on processes of rationalization related to the emergence of modern notions of science and religion through analysis of Albertus Magnus’ teachings on magic and their reception through the eighteenth century in both learned and common milieus of the pre-modern West.