De Re Metallica

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Metallurgy is a considerably ancient practice dating back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians, with much of the methods remaining constantly the same as the progress of civilization advanced. Different procedures and means to obtain, refine, and work the various riches of the earth have been developed as civilization continued to evolve, but much of the processed of metallurgy were hit and miss methods. Those procedures that yielded successes were recorded and codified as general practice only much later. Metallurgy and its cousin practice mining was still shrouded with much superstition intermixed with sound methods until the latter part of the 12th century onwards. Later on, manuals on the procedures of refining various metals were developed, although some of these writings, written by alchemists proved to be spurious, and, if logically sound, were unreliable at best. A more dependable and thorough work on mining, refining, and smelting metals was written to provide a thorough record of the various metallurgical practices was later undertaken by one Georgius Agricola – a gigantic dissertation entitled De re metallica (On the Nature of Minerals / Metals). Georgius Agricola, whose real name was Georg Bauer (sometimes spelled Pawer[1]), was a German scholar born in Glauchau, Saxony who advocated the pursuit of ‘new learning’, and with it, the drive to eradicate superstitious or outdated ideas and to usher logically sound and highly researched ones in its stead. His magnum opus, the De re metallica, earned him the nickname of ‘father of mineralogy’. The book, the work of years of research in the mining towns of Joachimstal and Chemnitz detailed the various processes of mining. His book was to later become a classic in both metallurgy and, in earlier times, chemistry, due to its extensively detailed research and highly reliable description of the methods and procedures of refining, extracting, and mining of metals. To this day, the De re metallica is still known as classic on metallurgical methods and practices, although its use is no longer a staple in the universities of this time.

The De re metallica is a twelve book treatise created for Augustus and Maurice of Saxony, prominent German aristocrats who Bauer’s patrons at the time of its creation. Published posthumously in 1556, the De re metellica detailed the various works of ancient miners and metallurgists, as well as the diverse methods of refining and processing metals into their pure or alloyed state.[2] Bauer, who was a believer of the ‘new learning’, envisioned the De re metallica to be a highly detailed and well-researched sourcebook on the different methods of mining and metallurgy, as well as on the nature, purpose and appearance of various mineral substances as a response to the number of unreliable or highly obscure alchemical texts that obfuscated rather than enlightened the reader on the methods of metallurgy.[3]

His twelve-book dissertation encourages the idea that miners were master craftsmen who, since ages past had been capable of harnessing the secrets of the earth through daring, and through the use of various processes that would yield such seemingly unattainable wealth. To this effect, the De re metallica is the first of its kind to be a wholly systematic treatise on the various methods of mining and the extraction of metals. While he did not altogether discredit the then common practice of alchemical pursuits, he shunned the magical thinking of some alchemists in favour of the more cerebral and logical approach to attaining wealth via the mastery of mining and the metallurgical craft. The De re metallica is replete with references from ancient practices of mining, mainly taken from writers such as Pliny the Elder and Theophrastus; as well as various techniques on metal refining and extraction and the different results that such methods engendered. Written in Classical Latin, the twelve-book treatise displays Agricola’s immense mastery of classical education, as well as his penchant for being a wordsmith in his own right, often coining Latin terms for mining procedures that were inexistent during ancient times. Much of the data that Agricola garnered during his composition of the book came from his close study of the mining towns that were his home during much of the time he spent writing his opus. Despite his efforts in creating a highly detailed tome on mining and metallurgy, he would not see his book published during his lifetime. Replete with illustrations to accompany the highly detailed texts, the work was published posthumously (six years late, having been completed in 1550) due to delays in the preparation of woodcuts for the work. Originally only published in Latin, it was not until a hundred and eighty years later that the first complete translation of his work would be privately published by Henry Hoover (mining engineer and later United States president) and his wife Lou Henry Hoover (geologist and Latin scholar)[4] in their publication, The Mining Magazine. Today, the De re metallica is no longer the staple of chemists and metallurgists as it once was, however, its impact on the methods and procedures of mining and metal refining as we know it today remains strong. Translations of the De re metallica are now available as paperback books, although they are rarely sold in bookstores despite being considered a ‘classic’. Antique editions of the book (either in English, or in the original; more so illustrated ones) are highly coveted by antiquarian collectors and can fetch high prices in the market, although it is not due to its wealth of information but due to the highly artistic and detailed woodcuts that the books contain, and, in some cases, even the highly ornate bindings that house the work.

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