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
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.
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.
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.