One of the most fascinating and spectacularly illustrated Renaissance books on science and technology is De re metallica by Georgius Agricola (1494–1555). Translated into English the author’s name sounds like a figure from a game of happy families, George the farmer. In fact, this is his name in German, Georg Pawer, in modern German Bauer, which means farmer or peasant or the pawn in chess. Agricola was, however, anything but a peasant; he was an extraordinary Renaissance polymath, who is regarded as one of the founders of modern mineralogy and geology.
Georg Bauer was born in Glauchau on 24 March 1494, the second of seven children, to Gregor Bauer (born between 1518 and 1532) a wealthy cloth merchant and dyer. He was initially educated at the Latin school in Zwickau and attended the University of Leipzig, where he studied theology, philosophy and philology from 1514 to 1517. From 1518 to 1522 he worked as deputy director and then as director of schools in Zwickau. In 1520 he published his first book, a Latin grammar. The academic year 1522-23 he worked as a lecturer at the University of Leipzig. From 1523 to 1526 he studied medicine, philosophy and the sciences at various Northern Italian university graduating with a doctorate in medicine. In Venice he worked for a time for the Manutius publishing house on their edition of the works of Galen.
From 1527 to 1533 Agricola worked as town physician in St. Joachimsthal*, today Jáchymov in the Czech Republic. In those days Joachimsthal was a major silver mining area and it is here that Agricola’s interest in mining was ignited.
In 1530 he issued his first book on mining, Bermannus sive de re metallica, published by the Froben publishing house in Basel. It covered the search for metal ores, the mining methods, the legal framework for mining claims, the transport and processing of the ores. Bermannus refers to Lorenz Bermann, an educated miner, who was the principle source of his information. The book contains an introductory letter from Erasmus, who worked as a copyeditor for Froben during his years in Basel.
In 1533 he published a book on Greek and Roman weights and measures, De mensuris et ponderibus libri V, also published Froben in Basel.
From 1533 to his death in 1555 he was town physician in Chemnitz. He was also district historian for the Saxon aristocratic dynasty. From 1546 onwards he was a member of the town council and served as mayor in 1546, 1547, 1551 and 1553. In Chemnitz he also wrote a book on the plague, De peste libri tres, his only medical book, as ever published by Froben in 1554.
Having established himself as an expert on mining with the Bermannus, Agricola devoted more than twenty years to studying and writing about all aspects of mining and the production of metals. He wrote and published a series of six books on the subject between 1546 and 1550, all of them published by Froben.
De ortu et causis subterraneorum libri V, Basel 1546
The origin of material within the earth
De natura eorum, quae effluunt ex terra, Basel 1546
The nature of the material extruded out of the earth
De veteribus et novis metallis libri II, Basel 1546
Ore mining in antiquity and in modern times
De natura fossilium libri X, Basel 1546
The nature of fossils whereby fossils means anything found in the earth and is as much a textbook of mineralogy
De animantibus subterraneis liber, Basel 1549
The living underground
De precio metallorum et monetis liber III, 1550
On precious metals and coins
At the same time he devoted twenty years to composing and writing his magnum opus De re metallica, which was published posthumously in 1556 by Froben in Basel, who took six years to print the book due to the large number of very detailed woodcut prints with which the book is illustrated. These illustrations form an incredible visual record of Renaissance industrial activity. They are also an impressive record of late medieval technology. Agricola’s pictures say much more than a thousand words.
De re metallicahas twelve books or as we would say chapters. What distinguishes Agricola’s work from all previous writings on mineralogy and geology is the extent to which they are based on empirical observation rather than philosophical speculation. Naturally this cannot go very far as it would be several hundred years before the chemistry was developed necessary to really analyse mineralogical and geological specimens but Agricola’s work was a major leap forward towards a modern scientific analysis of metal production.
Book I: Discusses the industry of mining and ore smelting
Book II: Discusses ancient mines, finding minerals and metals and the divining rod
Book III: Discusses mineral veins and seams and plotting with the compass
Book IV: Discusses the determination of mine boundaries and mine organisation
Book V: Discusses the principles of mining, the metals, ancient mining and mine surveying
Book VI: Discusses mining tools and equipment, hoists and pumps, ventilation and miners’ diseases
Book VII: Discusses assaying ores and metals and the touchstone
Book VIII: Discusses preparing ores for roasting, crushing and washing and recovering gold by mercury
Book IX: Discusses ores and furnaces for smelting copper, iron and mercury and the use of bellows
Book X: Discusses the recovery of precious metals from base metals as well as separating gold and silver by acid
Book XI: Discusses the recovery of silver from copper by liquidation as well as refining copper
Book XII: Discusses salts, solvents, precipitates, bitumen and glass
Agricola’s wonderfully illustrated volume became the standard reference work on metal mining and production for about the next two hundred years. The original Latin edition appeared in Basel in 1556 and was followed by a German translation in 1557, which was in many aspects defective but remained unchanged in two further editions. There were further Latin editions published in 1561, 1621, and 1657 and German ones in 1580, and 1621, with an improved German translation in 1928 and 1953. There was an Italian translation published in 1563.
Of peculiar interest is the English translation. This was first published in 1912 in London, the work of American mining engineer Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) and his wife the geologist Lou Henry (1874–1944). A second edition was published in 1950. Hoover is, of course, better know as the 31stPresident of the USA, who was elected in 1928 and served from 1929–1933.
Agricola’s tome also represents an important development in the history of trades and professions. Before De re metallicaknowledge of trades and crafts was past from master to apprentice verbally and kept secret from those outside of guild, often on pain of punishment. Agricola’s book is one of the first to present the methods and secrets of a profession in codified written form for everyone to read, a major change in the tradition of knowledge transfer.
*A trivial but interesting link exists between St. Joachimsthal and the green back. A silver coin was produced in St. Joachimsthal, which was known as the Joachimsthaler. This got shortened in German to thaler, which mutated in Dutch to daalder or daler and from there in English to dollar.
All illustrations from De re metallica are taken from Bern Dibner, Agricola on Metals, Burndy Library, 1958