A Source Book in Geography

Author: Albert von Bollstädt  | Date: 1971

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Albert the Great on the Nature of Places

Concerning uninhabitable regions and land

Under the pole there is a region which is perpetually cold and continually dark. The stars and the sun never appear there, although it may be day there for half the year and night for half the year. Therefore it happens that the excessive cold of that region continually thickens the air and it turns it into fog (mist).

Explorers sailing on the inhabitable parts of the northern part of the ocean tell this. When they see the darkness, they flee calculating that they cannot sail further. On account of the mistiness of the heavy fog which is there, they are not able to direct themselves. Their sight cannot wander outside the ship to the nearest places; and therefore, if they enter the fog, they don’t know how to return to the area of the light.

On account of the cold of those regions there are cold animals in those lands with quite small bodies, as the ass, and animals of such kind. Moreover birds of prey, on account of the heat of their compressed bodies and spirits (souls) are strongest in those habitable regions near the pole. The animals which are there tend to be white, as bears, and lions, and such like. Vegetation there grows a little at a time, for example, oats and barley; but wheat can never grow strong there. If wheat is sometimes planted it breaks down into a grain of another nature.

Concerning the difference of the temperature of climates

The place of exceeding cold is not the seventh clime, but rather an uninhabitable place beyond the northern region. Similarly, the place exceeding in heat is not beneath the equator and a little to this side in the latitude of the first clime, but rather beneath the tropic, which latitude is semicircular. Therefore, it seems that the midpoint between the coldest place which is 90° in latitude, or a little less, and the hottest which is 24° has a latitude of more than 40°. These are the sixth and seventh climes; therefore those climes seem to have temperatures greater than the fourth clime. Of this place there seems to be evidence that men of those climes are very handsome of body, are of noble and fair stature, and they are beautiful in color, while the men of the fourth clime are small and dark. The place where men grow strongest seems to be most suitable for habitation. For where men are more generally handsome and brave and noble of stature, there man thrives more readily. This is, as it appears, in the sixth and seventh climes. The place which is more agreeable to the habitation of man seems simply to be more temperate, since man is more moderate in his disposition among others which spring from contrary ones, for his habitat approaches more toward the median, and recedes from the highest degrees of contrary ones . . .

There is, however, even now another reason for the difference in nature of the climates. Since the earth is a round figure, as I pointed out in the book Coeli et mundi, the stars which project their rays over the earth, do not project over another (place). Northern stars send their rays over the last clime and not over the first. The southern stars send their rays over the first, and not over the last. Since the lights of those stars are of diverse natures, as noted in the book, Coeli et mundi, the result is that the climates affected by those rays, are of different natures.

Concerning the nature and arrangement of the lower hemisphere

Now we have to investigate the other half of the earth, that which is found in the lower hemisphere. The philosophers have on this subject very diversified opinions and even contradictory ones. Ordinarily they teach that nobody has passed from our regions into the other hemisphere. That is the reason why all those who have made observations on the different sections of the earth and on the stars have operated or worked on the upper hemisphere. That is especially manifest in their writings on lunar eclipses. A lunar eclipse takes place in fact for the whole world in the same manner and at the same time. Although philosophers who were on different longitudes had noted the moment of the eclipse, we do not ever see any difference between the observations of some and others—we do not see that it exceeds twelve hours. Just as each hour corresponds to a movement of 15° of the sky, it follows that in twelve hours the sky will have accomplished a revolution of 180° That is exactly half of the celestial sphere to which corresponds a half of the earth. The consequence is therefore that the different observers of lunar eclipses cannot be separated some from the others by more than half of the earth. For example, if for an inhabitant in the east a lunar eclipse takes place at the first hour of night, for the inhabitant of the west, it will be twelve hours difference. From that the philosophers concluded that there are inhabitants only on a half of the earth.

Concerning the difference in nature of places due to the influence of mountains, the seas, and forests

The natures of places differ according to the influence of the seas and ponds and other waters, and because of forests and mountains. For the sea is warm in its own way due to the combustible earth mixed with it, and on account of the great spreading of rays over it. And therefore, it is necessary that the places near it be either hot and dry, or hot and damp with an abundance of moisture, or cold and humid. For southern places located above the seas are sandy, hot, and dry as if they are scorched from the reflections of the rays of the sun from the multiplication of the light near the shores. And the sea distributed over those places is even turned into salt because of the burning rays of the sun, and it makes those places terrestrial (dries up) from the scorching heat and the parched dryness. And if wines are produced in such places, they are very fiery and dry, producing intolerable heat in those drinking, just as the wines produced on the island of Cyprus and in other similar places . . .

The nearness of the mountains gives different properties to the places according to the position and altitude of the mountains. For if the mountains are low, they change but little the nature of places, and if they are very high, then they are frequently snow covered, in which case they are exposed either toward the north closing off the place, or toward the south or the west. And if, indeed, they face the south, then the place will be hot by nature, because the reflection of the ray (which reflection is toward the mountains) makes that place very hot. And, therefore, strong wines are produced in such mountains as these on the southern side, unless the mountains are very high; in which case they will have perpetual snow, from which those places are made either temperate or cold.

If however, the mountains are near the south and facing the north, and the mountains are both high and numerous, the place will be very cold, as much from the snow on the mountains, as from the fact that the north wind blows here, and the place is both closed off and protected from the south wind. And because the north wind disperses clouds, that place will be cold and dry and a healthful place in which to live, unless some other environmental influence prevents habitation.

On the other hand, an elevated place, not mountainous, however, is the best especially for human beings to live, since it is not too cold and not too dry, but in reality it has more cold than heat. Therefore, its air is frequently pure, since the cold represses the gases and the vapors which make the air impure, and does not have impurities and mist except after a snowfall and then not much because of its great purity. This air is heated quickly in the summer, and cools quickly in the winter. For this air is best, which quickly takes on a change of seasons, and in such a place a good number of elements are changed according to the seasons. And therefore there is long life and health in these places, granted perhaps that the wines of such a region are not many nor very strong.

Concerning the diversity of the accidents of those things which are generated according to predetermined diversities

Those things which are born in the hottest places are the hottest, and exceedingly wrinkled from dryness, as a pepper seed (peppercorn), and very black on account of their heat as are the Ethiopians whose first seed of generation is hot, and so is the womb of women hot and dry, and the semen which is conceived is burned by the very strong heat, and their bodies grow dark on account of the scorching of the body; for it gives off a fine moisture and it burns the earthly mass which remains, and generates blackness. The earthly members which are inside them, as bones, become very white as is apparent in their teeth. Their flesh is suffused with blood as if they are glowing coals, as is apparent in their tongues and throats when their mouths are open. And they have prominent mouths, thick lips, reddened eyes, veins and eye lids on account of the heat. And because their bodies are surrounded by very hot air, it is necessary that they be porous and dry, since the moisture evaporates continually from them. For this reason their bodies are light and agile. Because of evaporation their hearts are made timid and cold having few humors. For this reason they do not fear fevers since nature takes care of itself because there is not much matter in them of corrupted moisture. And such as these age very quickly on account of the defect of natural strength which evaporates with the spirit, so their life span is thirty years; and then they are old and feeble. Because they have thin bodies, the moisture evaporates on account of the heat of the place, as we have said, and the earthy, dry, burned material remains, which if it is light and can come forth makes a red bile; and if it is unnaturally scorching, then it makes a black bile (choleric). The bodies of the Ethiopians are characterized more by these two humors, than by the phlegmatic and the melancholic. Indeed warm bodies due to the heat of the place are always relaxed and exceedingly pliable, for which reason, their women easily give birth, although due to dryness and weakness, they do not easily conceive. On account of the refinement of their spirits, they thrive more than the living things who are under the equator, and they excel more in ingenuity on account of the moving heat, and the keenness of their spirits. Of which this is the sign (proof): there have been distinguished philosophers in India especially in mathematics and the magic arts, on account of the power of the stars over those climates over which the planets project perpendicular rays. This, however, is in the first clime under the equator, and not under the second clime which is under Cancer, on account of the intemperance of the heat as we have shown above. The very black Ethiopians are indeed slight in body, frivolous in mind on account of the weakness and evaporation of the spirit. Moreover, the dryness and the heat also are the reasons why their hairs are thin and curly in the manner of grains of mustard. Granted, however, black people of this kind are sometimes born in other climes as in the fourth and fifth, nevertheless, they take their blackness from their first ancestors who are complexioned in the first and second climes, and a little at a time, they are altered to whiteness when they are transferred to other climes.

Conversely, the Goths and the Dacians from the west, and the Slavs from the east, having been born on the boundary of some clime and beyond are white on account of the cold, and because their bodies are not porous, and because the place in which they live is cold, and the cold constricts their bodies, much moisture remains in them. And this extends their bodies and makes them fleshy and phlegmatic. Since the vapor generated in the place of digestion, cannot evaporate because of the constriction of the body and pores, it is reflected back to the stomach. Thus it makes a watery fluid in it, as in boiling pots steam is reflected to the cover and is converted to water, and is distilled on the pot from which steam has been raised. Their bodies have been rendered fat. Therefore their stomachs are hot and their digestion is good, and the bodies solid. For this reason the members of the child bearing women are constricted and they are of firm flesh, and therefore, they give birth with difficulty, and many of them are endangered in child bearing on account of the firmness of their bodies. The cold constricts the flow and their veins, and then presses forth the blood that is in them. Therefore the northern women are rarely cleansed by menstrual flow, and frequently they bleed from the nose. For this reason philosophers have said that these women rarely conceive.

But we see an exception in the German women, who conceive almost more readily than any other yet they give birth with difficulty, and a good number of them rarely menstruate. Undoubtedly it happens because of the cold of the place, and the constriction of their bodies impedes the evaporation of their life spirits and bodily fluids. Because of this their power remains strong, and allows them to conceive when they are not perfect nor cleansed by menstruation. And this is also the reason why their bodies are so very hot. Therefore, they are bold because heat always abounds in the blood and bodily spirit. On account of which (as if nature were conscious of itself) they fear fevers very much, because of the small evaporation of bodily fluid. They do not fear wounds since there is an abundance of blood in them. And they have a thick head of hair and it is straight and not curly. On account of the heaviness of their bodies, they do not engage in spirited activities. Their humor is thick and bodily spirit does not respond to the motion and receptivity of mental activity. Therefore, they are dull-witted and stupid. They have not been exposed to the exercise of study. But when they are moved to study they persevere longer and they are much better by far after mental exercise . . .

The fourth clime and the fifth one which is neighboring it are laudable, and are midway between those excellences, having the laudable middle properties of both regions; this can be easily understood by anyone who knows that the mean is determined by the extremes. Moreover, the life of those there is long and their functions as natural as very laudable activities (living beings), and their customs good, and their pursuits praiseworthy, unless they have been misled from the virtuous life to a wicked life. But the customs of the northern people are wolfish on account of the heat in their hearts. The people of the south are light-hearted. The middle people, however, between these easily cultivate justice, keep their word, embrace peace, and love the society of men. For this reason Vitruvius, the architect, says that the rule of the Romans had endured longer than other reigns; because as the exposed middle has lain between the southerners who contrive with keenness of ingenuity and reason, and the northerners who lay hold of things, with eagerness and without discretion, the northerners on the one hand having audacity, and on the other, the southerners have political acumen; and so they equalled the former and the latter in those things by which they sought to shake the Roman kingdom.

From Albert the Great, De Natura Locorum, as translated by Sister Jean Paul Tilmann, O. P., in An Appraisal of the Geographical Works of Albertus Magnus and His Contributions to Geographical Thought (Ann Arbor: Michigan Geographical Publication No. 4, 1971), pp. 65–67, 77, 79–80, 81, 86, 87–89, 101–105. By permission of the author.


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Chicago: Albert von Bollstädt, "Albert the Great on the Nature of Places," A Source Book in Geography, trans. Sister Jean Paul Tilmann in A Source Book in Geography, ed. George Kish (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 283–288. Original Sources, accessed January 20, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QCJGYH5MMNCREGM.

MLA: Bollstädt, Albert von. "Albert the Great on the Nature of Places." A Source Book in Geography, translted by Sister Jean Paul Tilmann, in A Source Book in Geography, edited by George Kish, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 283–288. Original Sources. 20 Jan. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QCJGYH5MMNCREGM.

Harvard: Bollstädt, AV, 'Albert the Great on the Nature of Places' in A Source Book in Geography, trans. . cited in 1978, A Source Book in Geography, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.283–288. Original Sources, retrieved 20 January 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QCJGYH5MMNCREGM.