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De Re Metallica – Agricola, Hoover


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Mar 28, 2010
Rocky Mountains
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De Re Metallica – Agricola, Hoover

Georgius Agricola – a renaissance scholar on mining
The humanist Georgius Agricola published his book De Re Metallica in 1556. The title means something like “on metallurgy”. The work covers the mining industry and everything related to it and ranks as one of the great scientific works of the Renaissance. It brought the surviving experiential knowledge of the miners together with the classical school of the humanists.

Mining already took place in prehistoric times. At the Limburg Rijckholt mining complex the remains of ancient flint mines are visible which date back to around 3000 BC. In the bronze and iron ages the extraction and processing of metal ores became of interest. Powerful states like the Roman Empire could only exist thanks to the availability of sufficient metals and other raw materials.

The history of Western civilization is inseparably connected with the mining industry. The prehistoric mines at Rijckholt already consist of an extensive underground tunnel complex. Nevertheless, initially quarrying predominantly existed at the surface or in shallow open grooves. With the increasing demand for metals more complicated mining systems were created. As tunnels got deeper, drainage and ventilation demands became more urgent. As a consequence, all kinds of technical innovations gradually entered the mining industry.

In Western Europe a blooming period for the mining industry began in the middle ages. The first important mines here were those at Goslar in the Harz mountains, taken into commission in the tenth century. Another famous mining town is Falun in Sweden where since the thirteenth century until the present day copper is being won. The rise of Western European mining industry depended, of course, closely on the increasing weight of Western Europe on the stage of world history.
In the history books more attention has traditionally been paid to generals, kings and artists than to things like mining and technology. Still, it is exactly these 2 areas that made the flourishing of Western European civilization to a large extent possible. On the other hand, the lack of interest is, however, understandable. Especially very little is known about medieval mining.

De Re Metallica: secrets of the mining trade
Mining was typically left to professionals, craftsmen and experts who were not eager to share their knowledge. Much experiential knowledge had been accumulated over the course of time in the following areas:
  1. the detection of ores
  2. building and maintaining tunnel complexes and all technical developments around it
  3. winning the metal from the ore
This knowledge was handed down orally within a small group of technicians and mining overseers. In the middle ages these people held the same leading role as the master builders of the great cathedrals, or perhaps also alchemists. It was a small, cosmopolitan elite within which existing knowledge was passed on and further developed but not shared with the outside world.

Their knowledge was in part probably still dating back to that in classical antiquity. Through all kinds of routes, among others through the Byzantine Empire, old Roman techniques had reached Western Europe. It is clear however that those mining techniques were going through a stormy development in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. As mentioned before we know very little of what precisely took place in that era. Our knowledge of medieval mining relies mainly on archaeological remains and on the legal organization revolving around the mining industry. Miners, and especially mining specialists, were highly regarded and enjoyed all kinds of privileges.
Still, only a few writers from that time write anything about mining itself. Partly that was because this knowledge was very difficult to access. Most writers also found it simply not worth the effort to write about it. Even though mining specialists were held in high regard, they were still considered (generally illiterate) craftsmen. Scholars and other writers were rather pre-occupied with higher things and looked down on something as banal as manual work.

Georgius Agricola: both a scholar and craftsman
Only in the Renaissance that perception began to change. In this time many scholars abandoned this haughty attitude and developed a lively interest for all kinds of issues previously deemed unimportant. With the improved transport and the invention of the printing press knowledge spread much easier and faster than before. In 1500 the publication of the first printed book dedicated to mining engineering, called the “Nutzlich Bergbuchleyn” (The Useful Little Mining Book”) by Ulrich Rulein von Calw. The most important work in this genre were, however, the twelve books De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricola, published in 1556.

Agricola (his real name was Georg Bauer) was born in 1494 in Glauchau in Saxony. He was the type of the learned humanist, the universal scholar of the Renaissance. He was friends with Erasmus, who vigorously promoted his work. His main job was that of doctor, but he studied all known science in that time. In his youth he taught Latin and Greek for a while; During this time he also published a Latin grammar. From 1524 to 1526, he resided in Italy, the “Mecca of science” at the time.

In 1526, he returned to Germany and in 1527 he was appointed city physician and pharmacist of the City St. Joachimsthal in the Ore mountains. St. Joachimsthal (the current Jachymov in Czechia) was only a few years earlier, in 1515, created after rich silver finds on site. In the time of Agricola it had already become one of the most important mining centers of Europe. A new, heavy silver coin was struck from the ore found there. This coin was named after the place of origin: “Joachimsthaler”. Abbreviated as “Thaler” this word soon became the denomination of all silver coins of this type. The English word for it was “Dollar”.

Around 1533 to Agricola returned to his native country. He settled in Chemnitz where he found the time to write and publish. As was befitting a scholar of his time he wrote about all kinds of subjects: history, ancient weights and measures, medical topics, theology, and so on. In addition, he was actively involved in the politics of his time. He was Mayor of Chemnitz and Councillor of the Dukes of Saxony. As such he took part in several national days and peace talks which were held in connection with the wars of religion in Germany.

His greatest interest, however, was focused on all kinds of subjects associated with the mining industry. He published writings on minerals and what we now would call geology. He also dedicated a writing to subterranean flows and — which may sound slightly curious — he wrote a book about underground animals. His principal work, however, are the twelve books De Re Metallica. It was Agricola’s last work. After he died, preparing to have sent away in 1555. The book appeared the following year, in 1556


Argent Dragon

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Site Mgr
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Mar 29, 2010
Lone Star State
Really cool read & find GH !!!