Albert was born in one of his family’s ancestral castles north of Lauingen, Germany, probably in 1193 or 1206. His father was from the “ministerial” nobility, serving in imperial offices in Lauingen. His parents were wealthy and devout. Albert and his brother Henry were given an elite education and trained in the sports of the nobility, such as hunting.
Albert’s parents sent him to Italy to complete his education, studying under his uncle’s watchful eye in Venice and Padua.
In the previous century, the rise of the universities had taken education out of the monasteries, and the monastic orders had lost much influence over the intellectual world. In response, in the thirteenth century, the Mendicant Orders (the Franciscans and Dominicans) sought influence in the universities, where they could argue for their ideas and way of life.
In 1223, Albert heard a sermon preached by Jordan of Saxony, the Dominicans’ second Master General. Albert was one of 43 men who sought admission to the Order of Preachers in response to that sermon. His uncle opposed it. Indeed, the uncle pressed Albert to agree not to return to the Friars’ house for a given time. Once that time passed, Albert began to visit the Friars, but he waited longer to enter the Order for fear that he might back out again.
One night, he dreamed that he had entered the Order and had left again. The next day he heard another sermon by Master Jordan, who spoke about how the Devil deluded some people into fearing that they would leave the Order if they entered. The sermon was similar to his dream the night before, and the astonished Albert promptly entered the Order.
There is speculation over the location of Albert’s theological studies. However, in 1228, he was ordained and quickly employed as a teacher. He was lector at a series of German convents, about one year at each of them, teaching Scripture or moral theology.
He was lecturing on the Sentences of Peter Lombard in Cologne from 1244 to 1245, when the eighteen year old Thomas Aquinas first became his student. However, they were soon separated for three years while Albert taught at the University of Paris. Albert’s teaching was impressive, winning him an invitation to be among the experts to examine the Talmud for the Church. In learning from Jewish scholars, he encountered the writings of Aristotle. At that time, those writings were much studied by Jewish and Arab scholars, whose interpretations were sometimes opposed to Christianity.
Aristotle’s thinking on math, science and music had been preserved in the Christian world through the sixth century writings of Boethius. They had been taught in a Christian context in the late tenth century by Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II), who had learned some of the thinking of the Arabs while studying in Spain. Gerbert had introduced the abacus and Arabic numerals into western thought, but his writings and those of Boethius had fallen into disrepute around the year 1100. The thinking of Aristotle was still associated with the Arabs. While Aristotle’s writings became more readily available through the universities, their study still scandalized some Christians.
Albert quickly realized that part of the problem lay in the lack of accurate translations and the lack of accurate interpretations of Aristotle’s difficult points. He began to apply Aristotle’s philosophy to create a Christian philosophy. While Gerbert had applied Boethius’s ideas to science and music, Albert also used Aristotle’s writings in both natural sciences and in creating a Christian moral philosophy. He also wrote commentaries on Pseudo-Dionysius, applying his analytical skills to Christian mysticism. Albert passed his ideas on to Thomas.
In 1248, the Dominican Order planned a new Studium Generale for each of four provinces, and entrusted to Albert the plan to build such a school in Cologne. Albert thus returned to Cologne, where he taught Thomas for another three or four years. He recognized Thomas’s potential and gained attention for this quiet, brilliant and often misunderstood student.
The new school was an immediate success. Albert remained its Regent until 1254, lecturing and writing. He then became Provincial and began to visit the Dominican houses, traveling on foot, begging his way, encouraging the Order’s spirit of poverty, and enforcing it by punishment when necessary. A conflict then arose between Paris professors and the Mendicant Orders, which threatened to interfere with Dominican and Franciscan activity at the universities, and could have threatened the Orders’ existence. The Pope summoned the disputing parties to the Papal Court at Anagni. Albert and Thomas, together with the Dominicans’ Master-General, successfully defended the Orders, and Pope Alexander IV ordered their opponents’ book burned. Albert then remained for a time at Agagni.
Albert was allowed to leave his office as Provincial in 1258. For a while, he devoted much attention to the natural sciences. That work was interrupted in 1260 when Pope Alexander IV appointed him bishop of Regensburg, entrusting to him the work of restoring order in an impoverished diocese after the previous bishop was removed for poor administration. He gained access to considerable wealth as bishop, and he soon brought the diocesan finances into order rather than spending it for himself. He continued to live in the same simple way as before, even continuing to wear the heavy shoes of the common people, which he had worn when walking from monastery to monastery, gaining the nickname of bishop “cum bottis.” He was known for his love for the Eucharist and devotion to Mary. He then asked to be relieved of his role of bishop, and in February 1262, his request was granted.
Albert was then appointed to preach the Crusade, traveling through Germany. After his journeys, in 1266, he again became subject to his Order, settling in the Dominican house at Würzburg, where his brother was Prior, and then in Strassburg, where one of his former students was Lector. In 1270, he returned to Cologne, where he remained, teaching and guiding students, for most of the last ten years of his life. In 1277, he traveled to Paris briefly to defend the teaching of his former student Thomas, who had died before him. He spent his last few years quietly. On November 15, 1280, in his 70’s or possibly as old as 87, Albert died peacefully, sitting in an arm-chair in his cell, surrounded by his praying Dominican brothers.