Basel: [colophon:] Hieronymus Froben and Nicolaus Bischof, March 1556.
First edition, an exceptional copy, the finest we have seen, of the “first systematic treatise on mining and metallurgy and one of the first technological books of modern times” (PMM). The twelve books of Agricola’s treatise embrace everything connected with Renaissance mining and metallurgical industries, including administration, the duties of companies and workers, prospecting, mechanical engineering, ore processing and the manufacture of glass, sulfur and alum..
First edition, an exceptional copy, the finest we have seen, of the “first systematic treatise on mining and metallurgy and one of the first technological books of modern times” (PMM). “The twelve books of Agricola’s treatise … embrace everything connected with Renaissance mining and metallurgical industries, including administration, the duties of companies and workers, prospecting, mechanical engineering, ore processing and the manufacture of glass, sulfur and alum. Book VI provides detailed descriptions of sixteenth-century mining technologies, such as the use of water-power for crushing ore and the improvements in suction pumps and ventilation that became necessary as mine shafts were sunk deeper underground; it also includes an account of the diseases and accidents prevalent among miners, along with the means of preventing them. De re metallica remained the standard textbook on mining and metallurgy for over two hundred years” (Norman). “At a time when most industrial processes were held secret by families, guilds, or towns, Agricola saw fit to publish every practice and improvement that he considered of value, and to use Latin to gain the widest circulation in his homeland and abroad. He had little to draw on from earlier sources that had any practical value” (Dibner 1958, p. 25). Dibner emphasizes the contribution of De re metallica to the theoretical development of geology. “The original contributions of Agricola in his Book III were, firstly, that rocks containing ore were older than the ore they contained; secondly, that the ores were deposited from solutions passing through fissures and voids in the rocks. This step represents an evolving process, and when seen against a background of a Biblical wholly-created world, is quite revolutionary. Hoover considers this a greater contribution in the field of geology than that of almost any single observer since that time. Not only does he consider the deduction revolutionary, but he believes the process by which it was arrived at – actual observation – to be one of the most important steps in laying the foundations of modern science” (Dibner 1958, p. 36). Indeed, Hoover regarded Agricola as the originator of the experimental approach to science, “the first to found any of the natural sciences upon research and observation, as opposed to previous fruitless speculation … Science is the base upon which is reared the civilization of today … let none forget those who laid its foundation stones. One of the greatest of these was Georgius Agricola” (Hoover, p. xv). The 290 fine woodcuts, many full-page, illustrate all aspects of mining, metallurgy, and mining tools and machines. The work includes a reprint of Agricola’s De animantibus subterraneis, a treatise on subterranean fauna and cave-dwelling animals first published separately in 1549. Although not a particularly rare book on the market, copies in such fine condition as this one are almost impossible to find: the only one in comparably fine condition in recent auction records was the Feinsilber copy (Sotheby’s Paris, 11 October 2006, lot 18, €78,000), but that copy had patched library stamps on the title and last index leaf.
De re metallica consists of a preface and twelve chapters, or books. It opens with “a dedication to his patrons, the Dukes Maurice and August of Saxony, and with a four-page eulogy in Latin verse by his life-long friend Georg Fabricius (1516-1571) who kept Agricola’s large circle of friends informed of the latter’s activities. The poem prophetically ends with ‘And in the mouth of nations yet unborn, his praises shall be sung’” (Dibner 1958, p. 124). Agricola then describes the works of ancient and contemporary writers on mining and metallurgy, the chief ancient source being Pliny the Elder. Agricola explains that he has written this work since no other author has described the art of metals completely. Finally, he again directly addresses his audience of German princes, explaining the wealth that can be gained from this art.
Book I is concerned with the general theme of miners and mining as a trade, and of the minerals, metals and geological formations forming the background to this activity. Agricola attempts to organize the mineral kingdom into groupings having similar evident qualities: earths, juices (modern solutions or salts), gems, stones, marbles, rocks, metals and compounds; he notes that six different kinds of metals were widely known, namely gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and lead, but adds quicksilver (mercury) and also bismuth. Agricola notes that earlier authors, notably Pliny, had criticized mining on the grounds that metals extracted from the earth were mainly used in war and other evil practices, that it is dangerous for miners, and that it is destructive of the areas in which it is carried out; moreover, that gold and silver are intrinsically worthless. Against these objections, Agricola argues that without metals other activities such as architecture or agriculture are impossible; he dismisses the dangers to miners, noting that most deaths and injuries are caused by carelessness, and other occupations are also hazardous; and he notes that mines tend to be in mountains and gloomy valleys with little economic value, and clearing forests is advantageous as the timber can be used and the cleared land farmed. Metals have been placed underground by God and man is right to extract and use them.
In Book II, Agricola begins by tracing the history of mining from its earliest Greek, Roman and other sources. But the major portion of this chapter discusses how to decide where to locate a mine. This could be in one of four situations – a mountain, a hill, a valley, or a plain – the first two are preferable as there is less risk of flooding in the mine. The local climate, access to roads or navigable rivers, and the right of ownership must also be taken into account. A skilled miner can detect the presence of valuable minerals by taste: a salty, nitrous, aluminous, vitrioline or bituminous taste would indicate the presence of salt (which could be mined by evaporation), soda (e.g., sodium carbonate or hydroxide), alum (a hydrated sulphate of aluminium), vitriol (a metallic sulphate) or bitumen (a semi-solid form of petroleum), respectively. Veins of metallic ore might be exposed by landslides, earthquakes, violent winds, forest fires, or even a farmer’s plough. Agricola discusses the use of divining rods to locate minerals, although he rejects them and recommends the use of natural indicators instead.
Book III contains 30 illustrations of the various types of veins of metallic ore. Agricola also describes the use of a magnetic compass to determine the direction of veins. He follows the Greeks’ theory of the origin of metals, that they were composed of varying proportions of ‘water’ and ‘earth’, and he agreed with Albertus Magnus that the mixture of ‘water’ and ‘earth’ was baked by subterranean heat and that a metal was created when the resulting ‘juice’ was afterwards solidified by the comparative cold of the Earth’s surface.
Book IV describes how the ‘Bergmeister,’ who is in charge of the mine, marks out the land into areas called ‘meers’ when a vein is discovered. Agricola summarizes the roles of various other officials in regulating mines and taxing the production, and explains the laws of mining and how the mine can be divided into shares. He lists the chief trades in the mine, including miners, shovelers, windlass operators, carriers, sorters, washers and smelters; these are regulated by the Bergmeister and their foremen. The mines were operated 24-hours a day, five days a week, using Saturday for marketing and repairs; Sunday was reserved for church.
The woodcuts begin to appear with greater frequency in Book V, in which they are used to illustrate the construction of the mine. To exploit a subterranean vein a shaft is begun and a wooden shed with a windlass for extracting the ore is placed above it. The tunnel dug at the bottom follows the vein and is just big enough for one man. Agricola describes methods for lining tunnels and shafts with timber, dealing with problem of noxious gases by ventilation, and with the risks of flooding by means of pumps and water wheels. Since about 10 meters was the maximum height to which the suction of a single pump could draw water, rag-and-chain pumps were used, of which Agricola describes no less than six varieties. He illustrates a series of three such pumps at Chemnitz, worked by 96 horses to a depth of 200 meters. This chapter concludes with a long treatise on surveying, showing the instruments required and techniques for determining the course of veins and tunnels; surveyors also prevent mines accidentally removing ore from other workings.
Book VI is extensively illustrated and describes the tools and machinery associated with mining. It constitutes one of the most informative presentations of early technology. Included are descriptions of hand tools used for breaking and gathering the ore, the buckets and barrows for transporting it, the windlasses and engines for raising the ore from the pits, the pumps and water-wheels for draining the mines, and the ventilators for supplying fresh air to the miners. Agricola also warned against the accidents and ailments to which miners were exposed, and suggested how to guard against them.
Agricola devoted Book VII to the equipment and techniques used in the practice of assaying ores – a sampling process in which a small amount of the ore was tested for both qualitative and quantitative content. Various assayer’s tools are illustrated, such as tongs, skimmers, hooks and even a slit wooden board for peering into a fire without injury to the face. The use of a touchstone to assay gold and silver is discussed. Finally detailed arithmetical examples show the calculations needed to determine the yield from the assay. Some historians view this chapter of De re metallica as the first printed text on analytical chemistry (see, for example, Billinger).
In Books VIII and IX, Agricola discusses the methods of extracting metals from their ores on a commercial scale. He describes the processes and machines involved in ore sorting, washing, crushing, and roasting. The prepared ore is smelted in a furnace, with bellows used to provide extra air for the fire. The heated ore is mixed with molten lead to absorb the precious metals. (When assaying, this process is carried out on a smaller scale, the ore and lead being heated in a scorifier, a shallow dish of burned clay.) Various kinds of fluxes can be used to improve smelting – the colour of the flames emitted from an active furnace was an indication of what flux was needed. Different techniques are used for copper, iron, mercury or precious metals.
Books X and XI describe the various methods used to separate precious metals (silver and gold) from base metals (copper and lead). Gold and silver can be separated from each other using ‘aqua valens’ (hydrochloric or sulphuric acid), or by using salts or mercury.
Finally, in Book XII Agricola describes the preparation of what he calls ‘juices’: salt, soda, nitre, alum, vitriol, saltpetre, sulphur and bitumen. Glass making is covered, although Agricola seems not to be completely clear about how to make glass from the raw ingredients; he is more certain about the techniques of remelting glass to make objects.
De re metallica contains one of the first (if not the first) printed discussions of occupational health. “Agricola was very aware of the dangers of mining: ‘It remains for me to speak of the ailments and accidents of miners, and of the methods by which they can guard against these, for we should always devote more care to maintaining our health, that we may freely perform our bodily functions, than to making profits. Of the illnesses, some affect the joints, others attack the lungs, some the eyes, and finally some are fatal to men’ [translation from Hoover]. He was very clear about the necessity for adequate ventilation and devotes many pages and illustrations to the ‘ventilating machines’ needed: ‘Stagnant air, both that which remains in a shaft and that which remains in a tunnel, produces a difficulty in breathing; the remedies for this evil are the ventilating machines which I have explained above.’ Then Agricola comments on lung disease produced by dust: ‘for the dust which is stirred and beaten up by digging penetrates into the windpipe and lungs, and produces difficulty in breathing, and the disease which the Greeks call ασθμα.’ ‘Asthma’ in the 16th century was a more generally inclusive diagnosis for diseases producing breathlessness than it is now. Also, some types of dust are corrosive, he says, and this type of dust: ‘eats away the lungs and implants consumption in the body’ … Agricola also warns that protective boots and gloves must be worn in mines where toxic arsenical or cobalt ores were mined” (Donaldson, p. 250).
“Agricola seems to have been engaged in the preparation of De re metallica for a period of over twenty years, for we first hear of the book in a letter from Petrus Plateanus, a schoolmaster at Joachimsthal, to the great humanist, Erasmus, in September, 1529. He says: ‘The scientific world will be still more indebted to Agricola when he brings to light the books De re metallica and other matters which he has on hand.’ In the dedication of De mensuris et ponderibus (in 1533) Agricola states that he means to publish twelve books of De re metallica, if he lives. That the appearance of this work was eagerly anticipated is evidenced by a letter from Georg Fabricius to Valentine Hertel: ‘With great excitement the books De re metallíca are being awaited. If he treats the material at hand with his usual zeal, he will win for himself glory such as no one in any of the fields of literature has attained for the last thousand years.’ According to the dedication of De veteríbus et novis metallís, Agricola in 1546 already looked forward to its early publication. The work was apparently finished in 1550, for the dedication to the Dukes Maurice and August of Saxony is dated in December of that year. The eulogistic poem by his friend, Georg Fabricius, is dated in 1551. The publication was apparently long delayed by the preparation of the woodcuts … In 1553 the completed book was sent to Froben for publication, for a letter from Fabricius to Meurer in March, 1553, announces its dispatch to the printer” (Hoover, p. 19). Agricola dedicated the book to the Dukes of Saxony, while a French Royal privilege was obtained by Froben and Nicolaus Episcopius [Bischoff] in 1553.
“The illustrations in De re metallica are its most immediately striking feature; profuse in quantity and high in quality they integrate with the text to illuminate its meaning. Agricola says nothing of their makers, but a contemporary pastor, who was fond of including remarks on their trade in his sermons to his mining audience, attributes the drawings for the woodcuts to one Blasius Weffring of Joachimsthal. Some of the blocks were cut by Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch (fl. 1525-1572) who signed seven of them with his monogram. Deutsch also illustrated books by Oporinus [who printed Vesalius’ Fabrica] but his best-known work is probably his maps for the Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster first published in 1544. His woodcuts have been compared, not unfavourably, with those of Hans Holbein the Younger. One block in De re metallica is signed by Zacharias Specklin; the cutters of the unsigned blocks – the great majority – are unknown” (Donaldson, p. 249).
To take just one example of these woodcuts, that on p. 305 “shows workers sifting powdered charcoal that will be used to make linings for the hearths of the smelter furnaces. Agricola describes how to build furnaces for smelting gold, silver, copper and lead ores. The lining of the hearth, which Agricola calls the catinus, or crucible, is made by mixing powdered charcoal and earth. This mixture is pounded onto the floor of the furnace (the hearth) and onto a shallow pit in front of the furnace (the forehearth) into which the molten ore will flow … the carbon in the lining and the charcoal used as fuel combine with oxygen from the oxides in the ore to produce carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, allowing the metal to be separated out. To make the lining, the charcoal is first prepared by pounding it into a fine powder. Agricola explains that workers must crush the charcoal with wooden stamps in a mortar box, then put it into sieves, the mesh bottoms of which are made of withes. The illustration shows these sieves and demonstrates two methods of sieving. On the right, a woman moves a sieve (B) back and forth on two iron rods (C) placed in a triangular position over a tub (A). On the left, another woman pulls a sieve (B) back and forth over a bench frame (D), with the charcoal falling to the ground. [In the explanation of the labels at the foot of the page, labels B and C are interchanged in error.] Workers threw the small pieces of charcoal that remained in the sieves back into the mortar box to be pounded again … His instructions for preparing the charcoal appear on the preceding page, while the text on this page explains the next step, the preparation of the earth with which the powdered charcoal is to be mixed … The woodcut shows the process of charcoal sifting, displays the physical setting of the operation, and depicts four individuals. In the far background is a walled town, with its turrets and the steeple of a church clearly visible. At midrange on the right, in front of the house, an overseer or noble stands on a promontory looking out over the scene, his dog by his side. At the upper left, smoke rises from what must be a smelter. In the foreground the physical premises of the site appear – the rough ground, the various utensils, and two huts – and three individuals are depicted at work. The activity of one, the man wearing a hat behind the woman on the right, is not entirely clear, although it can be surmised that he is fetching the powdered charcoal to be sifted and carrying back the leftover pieces to be pounded again” (Long, pp. 98-99).
Latin editions of De re metallica were published in 1556, 1561, 1621 and 1657; German editions in 1557, 1580 and 1621; and an Italian edition in 1563 (dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I). Hoover writes of the 1557 German edition, “It is a wretched work, by one who knew nothing of the science, and who more especially had no appreciation of the peculiar Latin terms coined by Agricola, most of which he rendered literally”. The best translation is unquestionably that of the future US President Herbert Clark Hoover, who was a mining engineer by profession, and his wife Lou Henry, a geologist and Latinist, published in 1912.
Georg Bauer (or Pawer) was born at Glachau in Saxony on March 24, 1494. Bauer means ‘peasant’ or ‘farmer’ in German; it translates directly into the Latin noun for farmer, Agricola. Agricola entered the University of Leipzig at the age of 20 and was awarded a degree in 1517. He began teaching Latin and Greek in the town school of Zwickau in 1518, and within a year he was made principal. From 1522 to 1524 Agricola was a lecturer in the University of Leipzig. He spent the next three years studying the natural sciences, philosophy, and medicine at the universities of Bologna, Padua, and Venice. By 1526 Agricola had returned to Germany, and a year later he took the position of physician in the small town of Joachimsthal (now in the Czech Republic), then at the centre of one of the most productive metal mining regions in Central Europe (centuries later, it was the source of the uranium used by the Curies in their experiments on radioactivity). Agricola was soon deeply involved in studying mining and metallurgy, and three years later he completed his first book on the subject, Bermannus sive de re metallica dialogue (this short work was not illustrated). Agricola now left his medical post in Joachimsthal and toured German mines for three years. However, the lure of his native Saxony brought him to Chemnitz in 1533, where he was appointed city physician. He lived and worked there for his remaining years. He died on November 21, 1555, some five months before the publication of his greatest work.
“Agricola was not just a doctor who happened to work in a mining district; he was a serious and very well-regarded academic. He was no mere mechanic in an age which did not value vulgar manual occupations or crafts such as mining and, indeed, surgery, very highly. He was known to, and probably by, the great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam when the latter was working as a literary advisor and editor in the printing establishment of Hieronymus Froben in Basel. Certainly Erasmus and he shared friends; one of them, Plateanus, wrote a preface for Agricola’s first book on mining, Bermannus sive de re metallica, and recommended it to Erasmus who was sufficiently impressed, not only to recommend it to Hieronymus Froben to publish – as he duly did – but to grace it with an additional prefatory letter … [Agricola’s] humanist scholarship, which had made him a member of the most revered scholarly circle in Europe, was an essential part of the character of a man of whom his contemporaries expected much” (Donaldson, pp. 181-182).
Adams A349; Agricola-Bibliographie 184.108.40.206.1; BMC German 8; Darmstaedter pp. 85-6; Dibner, Heralds 88; Grolier/Horblit 2b; Honeyman 30; Hoover 17; Norman 20; PMM 79; Sparrow, Milestones 4; VD 16 A933; Ward & Carozzi 31. Billinger, ‘Assaying with Agricola,’ Journal of Chemical Education 6 (1929), pp. 349-353. Dibner, Agricola on Metals, 1958. Hoover, Georgius Agricola De Re Metallica; Translated From The First Latin Edition of 1556 with Biographical Introduction, Annotations and Appendices upon the Development of Mining Methods, Metallurgical Processes, Geology, Mineralogy & Mining Law from the earliest times to the 16th Century, 1912. Donaldson, ‘Agricola’s De re metallica, 1556,’ Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 45 (2015), pp. 180-182, 248-250. Long, ‘Of mining, smelting, and printing: Agricola’s ‘De re metallica’,’ Technology and Culture 44 (2003), pp. 97-101.
Folio (329 x 228 mm), pp. [xii, including blank a6], 538 [i.e., 502], , with two woodcut plates and 290 woodcuts in text, most half- or full-page, printer’s device on title and colophon leaf. Contemporary blind-stamped pigskin.