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Albertus, Magnus or Magus? Magic, Natural Philosophy, and Religious Reform in the Late Middle Ages*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

David J. Collins*
Georgetown University


This article analyzes the fifteenth-century attempt by the Dominican order, especially in Cologne, to win canonization for the thirteenth-century natural philosopher Albert the Great. It shows how Albert's thought on natural philosophy and magic was understood and variously applied, how the Dominicans at Cologne composed his vitae, and how the order's Observant movement participated in these developments. It situates the canonization attempt at the intersection of two significant trends in which the order was a leading participant: first, the late medieval efforts to reform Christian society beginning with the religious life of monks and mendicants; second, the increasing concerns about the practice of learned and demonic magic that laid groundwork for the witch-hunting of the early modern period. The article aims to shed light on intersections of science and religion — their apprehension and negotiation — at a decisive moment in European history for both fields of human endeavor.

Copyright © 2010 Renaissance Society of America

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This article was in large part written while I was at the Monumenta Germaniae Historica in Munich as a fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Foundation. I wish to express my thanks to these foundations for their financial support and to the MGH for the working environment and learned collegiality it generously provided. I am also grateful to Professors Martin Kaufhold (Augsburg), Peter Pfeiffer (Georgetown), and Gabriela Signori (Constance), who organized colloquia at their respective institutions where I presented portions of my research and received helpful advice. The article has also been improved thanks to several colleagues who read it in draft, including the journal's anonymous referees and Professors Michael Bailey, Richard Kieckhefer, Robert Lerner, Edward Muir, and Werner Williams-Krapp. Finally, I benefited from the resources of the library at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, and the ready assistance of its head librarian, Fr. Bernard Mulcahy, OP, and staff. Abbreviations used throughout the article are as follows (please see the bibliography for full citations): LCM = Magdalius, Jacobus; LLA = Rudolphus de Novomagio; LVA = Petrus de Prussia.


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