On the art of metallurgy

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Georgius Agricola's De Re Metallica gives us a fascinating insight into the late medieval view of metal and its uses.
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In 1556, a treatise on mining was published in Saxony which became a standard text on the subject for the next two centuries.  De Re Metallica, by Georgius Agricola, was written in Latin, so of use in much of literate Europe. Not until 1912 was it translated into English – by an American mining engineer named Herbert Hoover, later the thirty-first President of the United States.

Why should we still be interested in this obscure, largely technical text? A great deal of De Re Metallica is concerned with the details of finding ores, extracting and smelting them – accompanied by so many explanatory woodcuts that the author was dead by the time they were all ready and the book published. Every one of the methods described and illustrated so meticulously has been superseded. The book is of no practical value.

What De Re Metallica offers is the late medieval view of an art which has defined our species. If there is one technology which has enabled us to transform the world we live in, it is metallurgy. From the first ploughshares to the rare earths in our mobile phones, the properties of metals have elevated us from capable animals into magicians, with the wings of birds, the strength of heroes, the power of gods.

The hubris of such power is becoming clear to us. We are capable of things undreamed of even in Hoover’s age. We are aware – looking at Agricola’s pages with their cottage furnaces and their instructions for assembling hand-operated bellows – that they are precursors to widespread industrial burning.

In the mid-sixteenth century Agricola had no idea of the scaling up to come. The most intriguing section of De Re Metallica sees him explore the for-and-against of mining. The arguments of its detractors, as he explains them, include the belief that metals are not necessary to satisfy humans. ‘The sweetest food of the soul is the contemplation of nature, a knowledge of the finest arts and sciences, an understanding of virtue… the body has absolutely no need of the metals.’ Nature offers its abundance in fruits and flowers, herbs and grains. It deliberately hides the metals below ground, and there they should remain. In Metamorphoses, Book I, Ovid identifies the miners’ sins: ‘they dug up riches, those incentives to vice, which the earth had hidden and had removed to the Stygian shades. Then destructive iron came forth, and gold, more destructive than iron; then war came forth.’

Mining, Agricola continues, is also criticised for devastating landscapes. In Italy, he cites a law forbidding the digging for minerals in order to protect fertile fields, vineyards and olive groves. Mining was already a greedy industry, requiring the destruction of large areas of woodland for fuel and building materials – and ‘when the woods and groves are felled, then are exterminated the beasts and birds’. Washing of the ores, he notes, was also known to poison water courses.

Persuasive as these arguments are, they were merely counterpoint to Agricola’s overall thesis – that mining is a noble art, ‘a calling of peculiar dignity’, that in the wide benefit his skill offered, the miner was a cut above ‘the merchant trading for lucre’. Until his time, mining had always been something of an arcane practice, its secrets kept close by those who knew them. The entire pursuit – from the speculative process of finding and following lodes beneath the earth, to the miraculous transforming of ores to metals – was mysterious. Clouds of superstition and magic surrounded it, allowing astrologers and alchemists to step in and practice their fog-dependent arts. Agricola’s De Re Metallica was a bid to restore the rational to the subject; to use the technology of the printing press to tell all of the simple mechanics of metal extraction and processing.

From this side of the Enlightenment, De Re Metallica  reveals nothing so much as the innocence and zeal of a new era. Metals were the earth’s gift, and their extraction and processing merely its somewhat arduous unwrapping. In the damaged aftermath of that era – where metals enable almost everything we do – we are heavy with doubt, wondering how to re-boot our thinking. An ecological view offers one way forward, urging us to treat nature as a whole, highlighting the danger of separating it into its constituent parts. In this, rocks and minerals are no different from plants or beasts. Extracting them and using them cannot be pursued without an awareness of the long-term effects.

In Agricola’s time, there was a widespread belief in the earth as a living creature. Tilling the surface was a mere tickle on its skin, but digging deep to bring up its metals – well, that created wounds. Such Gaia-type thinking was anathema to all that Agricola wrote, to all that he was trying to overcome. It crops up in his survey of mining-sceptics, before being dismissed as archaic and reactionary. But it is hard to read his pages now without an awareness that it is precisely that world-view, with its poetic power, that is now the most resonant.

Philip Marsden

Philip Marsden is the award-winning author of a number of works of travel, fiction and non-fiction, including The Bronski House, The Spirit-Wrestlers, The Levelling Sea and, most recently, The Summer Isles. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and his work has been translated into fifteen languages.

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