Albert the Great's Topoi of Direct Observation and his Debt to Thomas of Cantimpré
in Leiden: Brill, 1997, Leiden: Pre-Modern Encyclopedic Texts: Proceedings of the Second COMERS Congress, Groningen, 1997, 379-392
As early as 1852 scholars had become aware that Albert the Great’s expansion of Aristotle's nineteen books on animals, De animalibus, made between 1258 and 1262, relied heavily on Thomas of Cantimpré's De naturis rerum, completed by 1240. The arguments for this indebtedness were well summarised by the late Pauline Aiken, who in 1947 showed through a set of convincing parallels that Albert had not only made very considerable use of Thomas, but had also incorporated many extremely idiosyncratic errors in his source, errors which had come about through Thomas’ misreadings of Pliny and other earlier writers on natural history. ... The purpose of the present article is two fold. I should like first to present some general information about two now-lost encyclopaedic writers used extensively as sources by Thomas of Cantimpré. These still unidentified authors, Experimentator and the author of Liber rerum, must have been of considerable repute up to Thomas’ own day. Their works, however, are at present known only by the extracts in Thomas’ book. I shall then try to show how Albert develops the topoi of direct experience in his adaptations of these two writers from Thomas’ encyclopedia. What the result of my study suggests is that Albert very skilfully recycled material from both of these sources through a variety of rhetorical stratagems to make it his own, sometimes merely suppressing the names of the sources, and sometimes more elaborately augmenting, as we shall see, with comments of an evaluative and experiential nature, some of the more fantastic discussions of the two earlier authors, especially on whaling. Thus, Albert’s reputation as the first important medieval direct observer of nature can be seen to be based as much on his rhetorical skills as on the breadth and acuity of his actual experience of the animal world.
Last update January 6, 2023