A glimpse inside the pages of the first Latin edition of «De re metallica» of 1556.
A glimpse inside the pages of the first Latin edition of «De re metallica» of 1556. Iron Library

De re metallica – a 16th-century bestseller

How a Chemnitz doctor revolutionised mining, and why he had his book printed in Basel… The story of Georg Bauer, better known as Georgius Agricola.

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr is a cultural and media scientist and lives in Winterthur.

In 1556, Basel printer Johannes Froben published a book that would turn out to be an epoch-making bestseller. The tome was entitled De re metallica and it catalogued the state of the art of metallurgy and mining. The contemporary translation of the title was Vom Bergwerck (On mines). The author was Georgius Agricola, the town doctor of Chemnitz, who had died just a year before his book went to print.
Portrait of Georgius Agricola.
Portrait of Georgius Agricola. Wikimedia
Agricola was born Georg Bauer in 1494 in Glauchau, not far from Chemnitz. He studied ancient languages and, later on, medicine, and in 1527 he settled in Joachimsthal in the Erzgebirge. He spent most of his life as a doctor in Chemnitz, where he also held the office of Bürgermeister (mayor). The city was famed for its silver mining – a field in which Agricola was interested. Along with plants, minerals played a key role in the medical science of the time. And because Georgius Agricola was a polymath with many skills, he combined his various subjects of interest in a number of published works. In 1530 Bermannus, sive de re metallica, dealing with processes for ore prospecting and metal extraction, was published. In 1533 Agricola concerned himself with weights and measures in his volume entitled De Mensuris et ponderibus. In his book De ortu et causis subterraneorum, published in 1546, he gives attention to substances that seep or flow out of the earth. In 1544 he catalogued the mineralogical and geological knowledge of his era in the comprehensive work De natura fossilium.
Georgius Agricola statue in Glauchau.
Georgius Agricola statue in Glauchau. Wikimedia
And then came Gregorius Agricola’s masterpiece: De re metallica. This book brought together the content of many of the scholar’s earlier works, and was the first systematic presentation of mining, metallurgy and metals processing, divided into 12 chapters. The chapters dealt with, for example, veins, seams and rock strata, the delimiting of the ore deposits, the functions of the various people who worked in the mines, their tools, equipment and machines for extracting ore. This was followed by a description of the ore processing, the separation of silver, gold and lead, and instructions for the production of salt, soda, alum, vitriol, sulphur, bitumen and glass.
Furnaces were constructed from rock salt, and the salt water was boiled inside them.
Furnaces were constructed from rock salt, and the salt water was boiled inside them. ETH Library Zurich
But Gregorius Agricola also wrote about living creatures that could be encountered underground. By this he meant animals that make burrows in the earth’s interior, such as beavers and otters, rabbits, marmots, ferrets, badgers, bears, salamanders and snakes. At the very end of the work he also talks about mountain spirits, some of whom are friendly, but some unfriendly towards the miners. ‘There was one such creature at Annaberg, who killed more than 12 workers in a pit called Rosenkranz with his breath. The breath gushed out of his throat. His neck was said to have been long like that of a horse and his eyes were wild.’ But there were also good spirits. People called them goblins (Kobolde). ‘They giggle in cheerfulness and pretend to do many things while they are actually doing nothing. Some also call them little mountain men. They have the build of a dwarf and are only three spans long.’ Agricola apparently knew the mythology and the folk beliefs that swirled around the legends of the dwarves.
The 292 woodcuts played a significant part in the book’s success. They were drawn by Basilius Wefring. Woodcutting artists Hans Rudolf Manuel (1525-1571) and Zacharias Specklin (1530-1576) then cut Wefring’s illustrations into wood. The woodcuts contain an astonishing richness of detail and give an insight into the engineering skills of Agricola’s contemporaries; they are almost technical illustrations. From today’s perspective, the high degree of mechanisation is particularly striking, even if the main sources of power were men and animals.
The highly detailed woodcuts contributed to the book’s success.
The highly detailed woodcuts contributed to the book’s success.
The highly detailed woodcuts contributed to the book’s success. ETH Library Zurich
From Chemnitz to Basel is a distance of more than 600 kilometres – in the 16th century, a journey of several days’ duration. So why was the book printed in Basel? The reason for this may have been the superior print quality and the excellent reputation of the Froben printing works, says historian Christopher Zoller-Blundell, who works in the Iron Library (Eisenbibliothek) in the Klostergut Paradies near Schaffhausen. He rates the importance of the book as very high. ‘It had a huge impact on the development of the industry,’ he says. Mining was a key discipline in its developmental stages, and involved major technical challenges and a wide array of machinery, pumps and lifting devices. Many influential engineers began their careers in the mining industry. Agricola’s book documents the status of metallurgy in the early modern period. Anyone browsing through De re metallica today would conclude that the art of iron production and processing was very well developed even before industrialisation. However, the book is not a practical guide, but rather a theoretical examination. Agricola also describes the environmental damage caused by mining and ore processing. The mining of the ores devastated the surrounding area, and the smelting furnaces depleted the tree population. The production of mercury gave off toxic fumes that caused metalworkers’ teeth to fall out.
Portrait of Johannes Froben, print, late 18th century.
Portrait of Johannes Froben, print, late 18th century. Swiss National Museum
De re metallica was published in German translation in 1557, just a year after the first Latin edition. Nine further editions in Latin, German and Italian followed by 1675. The book is one of the most important sources on early modern metallurgy. In the 20th century, no fewer than 28 editions were published in a variety of languages. A revised German version is available in bookshops and can also be found on the internet. A new English version was published in 1912 by civil engineer, and later US President, Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964).
The 31st President of the United States of America, Herbert Clark Hoover, was a fan of Agricola’s work.
The 31st President of the United States of America, Herbert Clark Hoover, was a fan of Agricola’s work. Wikimedia
In 2015, researchers discovered a copy of a Chinese translation dating from the 17th century. It was produced by Jesuit missionary Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666). There is evidence that a Latin copy of the book came to China at the beginning of the 17th century. The Jesuit missionary translated the book for the Chinese Government, with the aim of raising funds for the Ming Dynasty. But the book was never printed.
At the court of the Emperor of China, the Jesuit Johann Adam Schall worked on astronomy and translated Agricola’s book into Chinese, among other things.
At the court of the Emperor of China, the Jesuit Johann Adam Schall worked on astronomy and translated Agricola’s book into Chinese, among other things. Wikimedia
There can be little doubt that the work also made its way to Switzerland: the University of Basel, founded in 1460, effectively had a standing order with the Froben printing works, and automatically received all books published by the company. The Zurich church leader (antistes) and priest Ludwig Lavater (1527-1587) quotes Agricola extensively in his compilation of stories on ghosts and spirits, so he must have had access to a copy. The book also has another connection with Switzerland. The Iron Library at the Klostergut Paradies near Schaffhausen is believed to have one of the world’s largest collections of this book. The Library holds a total of 18 copies, many of them first editions in Latin, German, Italian, French, English, Czech and Hungarian.

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