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Albertus Magnus

from Lives of Alchemystical Philosophers, based on materials collected in 1815 (1888)

by Arthur Edward Waite

{57} The universal genius of Albert, joined to a laudable curiosity in so great a philosopher, say the original "Lives of Alchemysticall Philosophers," did not allow him to pass by the Hermetic science without giving it due attention.

{58} Counter authorities, while admitting that in things scientific he must be counted the most curious and investigating of the children of men, emphatically assert that he has been erroneously included by demonographers among the number of magicians, and that in the twenty-one goodly folio volumes which comprise his opera omnia, there is no trace of sorcery. In one place he declares formally that "all those stories of demons prowling in the regions of the air, and from whom the secrets of futurity may be ascertained, are absurdities which can never be admitted by sober reason." The works on incredible secrets, so numerously attributed to him, are, therefore, condemned as spurious, Albertus Magnus having no more hand in their production than in the invention of the cannon and the pistol, which has been attributed to him by Matthias de Luna.

So early, however, as the year 1480 the Great Chronicle of Belgium records him magnus in magia, major in philosophia, maximus in theologia. It is futile for the historians of his order to argue that Albert never applied himself to the Hermetic art, says an anonymous writer. His books alone -- those which are his incontestably -- bear witness to his alchemical erudition, and as a physician he carefully examined what regards Natural History, and above all the minerals and metals. His singular experiments are recorded in the Secretum Secretorum, which first appeared at Venice in 1508.

Michael Maier declares that he received from the disciples of St Dominic the secret of the philosophical stone, and that he communicated it in turn to St Thomas Aquinas; that he was in possession of a stone naturally marked with a serpent, and endowed with so admirable a virtue that on being set down in a place infested with such reptiles, it would attract them from their hiding places; that for the space of thirty years he employed all his {59} knowledge as a magician and astrologer to construct, out of metals carefully chosen under appropriate planetary influences, an automaton endowed with the power of speech, and which served him as an infallible oracle, replying plainly to every kind of question which could possibly be proposed to it. This was the celebrated Androïd, which was destroyed by St Thomas under the impression that it was a diabolical contrivance.

The most marvellous story of his magical abilities is extant in the history of the University of Paris. He invited William II., Count of Holland and King of the Romans, to a supper in his monastic house at Cologne. Although it was midwinter Albertus had tables prepared in the garden of the convent; the earth was covered with snow, and the courtiers who accompanied William murmured at the imprudence and folly of the philosopher in exposing the prince to the severity of such weather. As they sat down, however, the snow suddenly disappeared, and they felt not only the softness of spring, but the garden was filled with odoriferous flowers; the birds flew about as in summer, singing their most delightful notes, and the trees appeared in blossom. Their surprise at this metamorphosis of nature was considerably heightened when, at the end of the repast, these wonders disappeared in a moment, and the cold wind began to blow with its accustomed rigour.

The life of Albertus belongs to the history of theology. He was born in Suabia, at Larvigen, on the Danube, in 1205. He is accredited with excessive stupidity in his youth, but his devotion to the Virgin was rewarded by a vision, which was accompanied by an intellectual illumination, and he became one of the greatest doctors of his time. He was made provincial of the Dominicans, and was appointed to the bishopric of Ratisbon, which subsequently {60} resigned to pursue his scientific and philosophic studies in a delightful conventual retreat at Cologne. In his old age he relapsed into the mediocrity of his earlier years, which gave rise to the saying that from an ass he was transformed into a philosopher, and from a philosopher he returned to an ass.

The term Magnus, which has been applied to him, is not the consequence of his reputation. It is the Latin equivalent of his family name, Albert de Groot.

Among the spurious works attributed to him is that entitled Les Admirables Secrets d'Albert le Grand, which is concerned with the virtues of herbs, precious stones, and animals, with an abridgment of physiognomy, methods for preservation against the plague, malignant fevers, poisons, &c. The first book treats of the planetary influences in their relation to nativities, of the magical properties possessed by the hair of woman, of the infallible means of ascertaining whether a child still in the womb is male or female, &c. In the others there is a curious chaos of remarkable superstitions concerning urine, vermin, old shoes, putrefaction, the manipulation of metals, &c.

A magical grimoire entitled Alberti Parvi Lucii Liber de Mirabilibus Naturae Arcanis, adorned with figures and talismans, appeared at Lyons, bearing the Kabbalistic date 6516. The composition of philtres, the interpretation of dreams, the discovery of treasures, the composition of the hand of glory, the ring of invisibility, the sympathetic powder, the sophistication of gold, and other marvels, are familiarly explained; but this work is another forgery, and an insult to the memory of a really illustrious man.

In the treatise which he wrote upon minerals, Albert informs us that he personally tested some gold and silver which had been manufactured by an alchemist, and which resisted six or seven exceptionally searching fusions, but {61} the pretended metal was reduced into actual scoriae by an eighth. He recognises, however, the possibility of transmutation when performed upon the principles of Nature. He considers that all metals are composed of an unctuous and subtle humidity, intimately incorporated with a subtle and perfect matter.

If the purely alchemical works which are ascribed to Albertus have any claim to authenticity, he must be ranked as a skillful practical chemist for the period in which he flourished. He employed alembics for distillation, and aludels for sublimation; he also made use of various lutes, the composition of which he describes. He mentions alum and caustic alkali, and seems to have been aware of the alkaline basis of cream of tartar. He knew the method of purifying the precious metals by means of lead and of gold, by cementation, likewise the method of testing the purity of pure gold. He mentions red lead, metallic arsenic, and liver of sulphur. He was acquainted with green vitriol and iron pyrites. He knew that arsenic renders copper white, and that sulphur attacks all the metals except gold.*

* Thomson, "Hist. of Chemistry," vol. i., pp. 32, 33.