The Contributions of Albertus Magnus and the Development of Zoology during the Thirteenth through the Fifteenth Centuries

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The Contributions of Albertus Magnus and the Development of Zoology during the Thirteenth through the Fifteenth Centuries


The beginning of animal science, or zoology, is often traced to the influential naturalist Albertus Magnus (1200-1280). After many centuries of nearly complete reliance on superstition and on the writings of respected ancient scholars, this German theologian and philosopher proposed the notion that information about nature could and should be collected by actually observing the various aspects of nature. Other philosophers, particularly Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Roger Bacon (c. 1220-1293) continued this call for a "natural" rather than "revealed" truth, and science began to develop independently from theology and superstition. This shift in thinking cleared the way for the development of zoology as a field of study.


Compared to the numerous early scientific advances that were made in the philosophical centers of the world, scientific inquiry stagnated from about a.d. 200-1200. During this period, superstition often ruled. Bestiaries, which are collections of often-moralistic fables about animals, became very popular. Christian religious leaders adopted the bestiary and used this animal lore to teach their values. With the popularity of the bestiary, fact and fiction became inseparably entangled, and a strong link formed between religion and animal science.

During the same time, religious leaders and many philosophers felt the writings of ancient scholars held the truth, and that methods such as observation and experimentation were worthless because they could neither add nor subtract anything from this truth. The works of Aristotle (384-322 b.c.), in particular, became a nearly insurmountable hurdle to those who felt direct study of the natural world could yield important insights into scientific thought. As described in Ernst Mayr's (b. 1904) The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution and Inheritance, "When an argument arose as to how many teeth the horse has, one looked it up in Aristotle rather than in the mouth of a horse."

That began to change with Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great). A member of the Dominican order of Mendicant friars, he was assigned the job of editing and interpreting past written works as they related to the teachings of the Church. He not only made exhaustive studies of Aristotle's contributions, but delved into plant anatomy, animal diversity, and studies of chemistry and geology. He wrote of minerals, plants, and animals, respectively, in De mineralibus, De vegetabilibus et plantis, and De animalibus. The plant and animal books contained great detail about various plant and animal species, descriptions of the taxonomy of plants, and his thoughts on a variety of topics, such as the relationship between an animal's form and its environment. In addition, he suggested that the works of Aristotle and others should not be the end point in scientific study, but rather that observation and investigation were vital to scientific growth. He wrote, "Science does not consist simply in believing what we are told, but in inquiring into the nature of things."

At around this same time, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) and Frederick II (1194-1250) also wrote important accounts of the natural world. Frederick's Art of Falconry focused on birds, while Hildegard's The Book of Simple Medicine, or Physica, described the medical uses for and natural history of animals, plants, and minerals. Thomas Aquinas, who taught at the University of Paris with Albertus Magnus, shared the opinion that science should have a rational basis rather than one dictated solely by theology. English philosopher Roger Bacon carried it further by suggesting that the traditional writings should not be accepted in the absence of scrutiny. At the urging of Pope Clement IV, Bacon wrote Opus maius, Opus minus, and Opus tertium. In these volumes, he proposed an educational reform that incorporated methods such as observation and measurement-taking in scientific enterprises. In one of his writings, he declared, "Cease to be ruled by dogmas and authorities; look at the world!"


Albertus Magnus, who eventually attained the title of saint, did more for the study of animals than provide additional detail about various species. His 26-volume De animalibus was an important, descriptive publication that included sections on reproduction and embryology. Like the tomes of the period, however, it was still mainly a summary, interpretation and explanation of the writings of such past philosophers as Aristotle. Albertus Magnus's most important contribution toward the advance of animal science was his belief that animal study should shed its human-placed, moralistic dressing, and instead should proceed objectively and through such techniques as direct observation.

This view marked a split from the belief that all questions could be answered by the ancient writings of great scholars. Without this new reasoning by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, animal science would have continued to flounder under the firm hands of religion and tradition.

Building on this idea, Bacon advanced experimentation as an important scientific tool. His push for experimentation—which was unnecessary under the old conviction—combined with his rather brash personality brought accusations as a user of magic and witchcraft. As a result, Bacon lived most of his life in isolation. In the meantime, German scientists Hildegard von Bingen and Frederick II were doing the type of observational work suggested by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Frederick's Art of Falconry was one of the first books in hundreds of years to incorporate a great amount of new zoological information that was based on comprehensive personal observation.

Also during this period, Europeans were beginning to conduct grand explorations of what to them were largely unknown areas of the world. Marco Polo (1254-1324) told of China, Prince Henry the Navigator's (1394-1460) men returned with stories of Africa, and Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) had stories of the New World. Each described a diversity of newly discovered animals, the like of which were obviously missing from the works of the early naturalists. In addition, their tales refuted bestiary claims about fanciful creatures and fearsome monsters that lived in or on some of these foreign waters and lands.

These philosophers, naturalists, and explorers together helped catapult the study of animals from religion, bestiaries, ancient writings, and superstitions, and launch it as a new, objective field of scientific endeavor. After an interruption of some 1,000 years, from the time when the ancient scholars relied on observation and nature study, these methods again began to take their places as legitimate scientific activities.

Experimentation also began in earnest. One method of experimentation was particularly important to the fledgling field of zoology: animal dissection. Like observation, animal dissection basically ceased as a method of scientific inquiry for about 1,000 years, but following the shift in thinking toward objective zoological studies, it again gained prominence. Through dissection, naturalists and scientists were able to enhance their understanding of anatomy and physiology. Through comparative studies, they began to explore the similarities among various species and the differences between individual organisms of the same species—the understanding of which would become important to later work in species classification, evolution, and other areas.

In addition, the dissection of animals yielded basic knowledge about body function that could be applied to human medical care and treatment. Salernum, one of the foremost European medical schools, began in the twelfth century to routinely conduct pig dissections to instruct its students about human anatomy. In the following century, Frederick II made a contribution to the education of the students by requiring all of them to attend at least one human dissection each year at the school. The importance of anatomical studies and human dissections became evident. Soon, other schools were making similar requirements, and medical practitioners' knowledge about the human body and its anatomy and physiology climbed to new heights. These studies, in turn, triggered more questions about specific areas, such as the circulatory, nervous, or respiratory systems. Among physicians, medical specialties became more commonplace. Among scientists, these initial anatomical and physiological studies opened the door to investigation into the intricate mechanisms at the foundation of human biology.

Animal science also continued to thrive. Led by the initial shift in philosophy by Albertus Magnus and enhanced by the many insights of noted philosophers and scientists in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, animal studies slowly began to transform into modern zoology. In the sixteenth century, Swiss scientist Konrad von Gesner (1516-1565) wrote his illustrated, five-volume work Historia Animalium, which included depictions of many animals never before seen by Europeans, while denouncing all fictitious varieties. The book is seen as a milestone in the development of zoology. In 1599, Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) published his comprehensive bird-related encyclopedia Ornithologia. Other naturalists and scientists followed suit with general zoological studies, as well as investigations into specific species. With these and future contributions of famous and lesser-known scientists, modern zoology found its place as a respected field of science.


Further Reading


Byers, Paula K."St. Albertus Magnus." In Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Ley, Willy. Dawn of Zoology. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1968.

Magner, L. A History of the Life Sciences. New York: Marcel Dekker Inc., 1994.

Mayr, E. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution and Inheritance. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982.


Nickel, Helmut."Presents to Princes: A Bestiary of Strange and Wondrous Beasts, Once Known, for a Time Forgotten, and Rediscovered." In Metropolitan Museum Journal 26 (1991): 129-38, New York.

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The Contributions of Albertus Magnus and the Development of Zoology during the Thirteenth through the Fifteenth Centuries

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The Contributions of Albertus Magnus and the Development of Zoology during the Thirteenth through the Fifteenth Centuries