Albert the Great and the Structure of Plants

Herbalists need to be able to identify plants, and if they are to cultivate them they need to understand the environmental conditions their herbs require. They require the skills of the horticulturist to produce the raw materials from which their pharmaceutical skills allow them to concoct remedies. These are important skills, but they are not the skills of the botanist, who studies the anatomy of plants and the processes of growth and reproduction.

In medieval Europe, botanists relied heavily on ideas and theories that had originally been propounded by Aristotle and Theophrastus. So authoritative were these authors that later scholars found it difficult to advance beyond them. Possibly the first scholar to do so was Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great, ca. 1200–80). One of the most learned men of the age, Albert was also called the Universal Doctor. Among his pupils was Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), who was called the Angelic Doctor. Roger Bacon (ca. 1220–ca. 92), a scholar who was an enemy of Albert, was known as the Admirable Doctor.

Albert was familiar with De plantis (Of plants), a book that was probably written by the Syrian philosopher and historian Nicolaus of Damascus (born ca. 64 b.c.e.), a close friend of Herod the Great (73–4 b.c.e.) and tutor to the children of Antony and Cleopatra. The writings of Aristotle and Theophrastus first reached Europe in the ninth century in manuscripts based on the work of Isidore of Seville (ca. 560–636), who obtained his information from Pliny. Nicolaus belonged to a different tradition, of 13th-century writers concerned mainly with Aristotle, who translated the original Greek into their own language, Syriac. Arab scholars then translated the Syriac into Arabic, and European scholars translated the Arabic into Latin or sometimes Greek. De plantis was a pseudo-Aristotelian work, which is to say that it had gone through this sequence of translations, although Albert believed it to be the original work of Aristotle.

Having studied De plantis, Albert wrote a commentary on it, entitled De vegetabilibus et plantis (On vegetables and plants), in which he included many of his own detailed descriptions of plant structures that must have been based on his own observations. He noted, for instance, that a vine sometimes produces a tendril instead of a bunch of grapes, from which he concluded that the tendril is a bunch of grapes that failed to develop. He observed that a thorn is a modified part of a stem and a prickle a superficial structure growing from the outer layer of the stem. Albert believed, with Aristotle, that plants have vegetable souls and questioned whether the souls of two different plants could unite if they lived in close proximity—such as ivy clinging to a tree. He also believed that one species could change into another, as when mistletoe appears on the rotting wood of a dying tree.

Albert, count of Bollstadt, was born in about 1200 in Lauingen an der Donau, Swabia, in what is now Bavaria, southern Germany. He commenced his education either at home or in a local school before enrolling at the University of Padua, Italy, to study liberal arts. Following his graduation in 1223, he joined the Dominican Order in Padua and studied theology at the University of Bologna, before becoming a teacher. He taught theology for several years in Cologne, where the Dominicans had a house, and then in Regensburg, Freiburg, Strasbourg, and Hildesheim. In 1241 he was ordered to go to the Dominican house of Saint-Jacques at the University of Paris, where he taught for four years and in 1245 received a master's degree in theology. Thomas Aquinas was one of his students and in 1248 returned with him to Cologne, where Albert took up the post of regent of the newly established Studium Generale, a Dominican university, and Thomas became the second professor and master of the students. In 1254 Albert was elected head of the Dominican Order in the province of Teutonia (now Germany), a mainly administrative position from which he resigned in 1257 and returned to Cologne. He was appointed bishop of Ratisbon in 1260, but resigned in 1262 and returned to his previous post at the Studium Generale. He died in Cologne on November 15, 1280. Albert was declared a Doctor of the Church on December 16, 1931, making him a saint (Saint Albertus Magnus). In 1941 Pope Pius XII made him the patron saint of natural scientists.