No fewer than twenty-one folio volumes are attributed to the alchemist Albertus Magnus, and though it is highly improbable that all of them are really his – the ascription in several cases resting on but slender evidence – those others which are incontestably from his pen are sufficiently numerous to constitute him a surprisingly prolific writer. It is noteworthy, moreover, that according to tradition, he was the inventor of the pistol and the cannon; but, while it is unlikely that the credit is due to him for this, the mere fact that he was thus acknowledged indicates that his scientific skill was recognized by a few, if only a few, of the men of his own time.
Albertus was born at Larvingen, on the Danube, in the year 1205, and the term Magnus, which is usually applied to him, is not the result of his reputation, but is the Latin equivalent of his family name, de Groot. Like many another man destined to become famous, he appeared distinctly stupid as a boy, but from the outset he showed a predilection for religion, and so it came about that one night the blessed Virgin appeared to him, whereupon his intellect suddenly became altered, acquiring extraordinary vitality. Albertus therefore decided that he must show his gratitude to the Madonna by espousing holy orders, and eventually he won eminence in the clerical profession, and was made Bishop of Ratisbon; but he held this office for only a little while, resigning it that he might give his entire time to scientific researches. Thenceforth, until his death (the exact date of which is uncertain) he lived chiefly at a pleasant retreat in Cologne; and it is reported that here his mental vigour gradually forsook him, being replaced by the dullness which characterized him as a youth.
Albertus was repeatedly charged by some of his unfriendly contemporaries with holding communication with the devil, and practicing the craft of magic; while apropos of his reputed leanings in this particular, a curious story is recounted in an early history of the University of Paris. The alchemist, it seems, had invited some friends to his house at Cologne, among them being William, Count of Holland, and when the guests arrived they were amazed to find that, though the season was mid-winter and the ground covered with snow, they were expected to partake of a repast outside in the garden. Many of the guests were quite annoyed, while some even declared themselves insulted; but their host told them be seated, assuring them that all would be well. They continued to be dubious nevertheless, yet they took their places, and hardly had they began to eat and drink before their annoyance vanished, for the snow around them melted away, the sun shone brightly, the birds sang, and summer appeared to be reigning indeed.
Michael Maier, the author of Museum Chimicum and numerous other alchemistic works, declares that Albertus succeeded in evolving the philosopher’s stone, and that before his death he handed it over to his distinguished pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas, who subsequently destroyed the precious article, suspecting it to be a contrivance of the devil. The alleged discoverer himself says nothing on this subject, but, in his De Rebus Metallicis et Mineralibus, he tells how he had personally tested some gold which had been manufactured by an alchemist, and which resisted many searching fusions. And, be this story true or not, Albertus was certainly an able scientist, while it is clear that his learning ultimately gained wide recognition, for a collected edition of his vast writings was issued at Leyden as late as 1653.