Plate 14 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus

Humanist Mining Practices


Georg Agricola, a university-educated humanist and physician, was from an artisanal family. His father was a dyer and wool draper, as was his younger brother Christoph. After receiving a Bachelor's degree at the University of Lepzig, Agricola went to Italy where he studied medicine. He then spent three years in Bologna and Venice, helping to edit Greek editions of Galen and Hippocrates published by the famous Aldine press. Returning to German lands, he became a physician and apothecary in Joachimsthal (now Jáchymov, former Czechoslovakia), a mining town in Bohemia. Later he became the town physician in Chemnitz in Saxony. As Agricola treated patients he also invested as a shareholder in mine operations while learning about mining and ore processing. His writings include a treatise on minerals and fossils, and the famous Latin treatise on mining and ore processing, De re metallica, first published posthumously in 1556. It became his most famous book, in part because of its spectacular illustrations. Agricola's interest in mining was fueled by the mining boom that enriched many German princes and investors in the first-half of the sixteenth century, including himself.

The De re metallica exemplified a combination of humanist learning and an interest in the technical practices of mining and ore processing, and it raises such practices to the status of learned disciplines that could be studied in Latin. The preface is a defense of mining modeled after the ancient writer Columella's defense of agriculture. Agricola developed an extensive Latin technological vocabulary for mining and ore processes. He also had an artist depict technical processes, instruments, and machines in detailed illustrations. These two woodcuts Click Here for a Larger Viewshow two aspects of mineral extraction. The first shows men prospecting for ores by a variety of different methods while two other men (undoubtedly the patrons or landowners who will benefit from any discoveries) converse and watch the process. The second image shows a smelting operation. There are two furnaces. One worker breaks the material solidified around the tap hole of the furnace. The other carries a basket of charcoal. Tools and materials are labeled with letters and identified in the picture caption. Click Here for a Larger ViewAgricola explains the process in detail in his text. Mining and ore processing are no longer just practices, but subjects worthy of discussion by humanist scholars in the language of learning, Latin.

Pamela O. Long
Washington, DC

Suggested reading

Agricola, Georgius. De re metallica. Translated by Herbert Clark Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover. New York: Dover Books, 1950.

Hannaway, Owen. "Georgius Agricola as Humanist." Journal of the History of Ideas 53 (October-December 1992): 553-560.

Long, Pamela O. "The Openness of Knowledge: An Ideal and Its Context in 16th-Century Writings on Mining and Metallurgy." Technology and Culture 32 (October 1991): 318-355.