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Book of the week — Georgii agricolae…de re metallica libri xii…

“There are many arts and sciences of which a miner should not be ignorant. First there is Philosophy, that he may discern the origin, cause, and nature of subterranean things; for then he will be able to dig out the veins easily and advantageously, and to obtain more abundant results from his mining. Secondly there is Medicine, that he may be able to look after his diggers and other workman … Thirdly follows astronomy, that he may know the divisions of the heavens and from them judge the directions of the veins. Fourthly, there is the science of Surveying that he may be able to estimate how deep a shaft should be sunk … Fifthly, his knowledge of Arithmetical Science should be such that he may calculate the cost to be incurred in the machinery and the working of the mine. Sixthly, his learning must comprise Architecture, that he himself may construct the various machines and timber work required underground … Next, he must have knowledge of Drawing, that he can draw plans of his machinery. Lastly, there is the Law, especially that dealing with metals, that he may claim his own rights, that he may undertake the duty of giving others his opinion on legal matters, that he may not take another man’s property and so make trouble for himself, and that he may fulfil his obligations to others according to the law.”

Georgii agricolae…de re metallica libri xii…
Georg Agricola (1494-1555)
Basileae Helvet: Sumptibus itemque typis chalcographnicis L. Regis, 1621
Third edition
TN617 A27 1621 oversize

De re metallica, a treatise on mining and smelting, is a lavishly illustrated book, first published posthumously in 1556.

Georg Bauer, later called “Agricola,” studied medicine and chemistry from 1518 to 1522, at Bologna, Venice and Padua and became a physician and apothecary in the mining district of Joachimsthal, Bohemia, famous for its silver mines.

Agricola’s interest in occupational mining diseases led to frequent visits to mines, where he observed mining practices. In 1530 he wrote a work on mining and metallurgy, which he expanded near the end of his life into the work presented here, covering the entire field, its tools and techniques, in Bohemia, Germany, and Switzerland.

Agricola worked closely with his subjects and his illustrator. In the preface of De re metallica, Agricola wrote, “I have hired illustrators to delineate their forms, lest descriptions which are conveyed by words should either not be understood by men of our own times, or should cause difficulty to posterity.” The initial printing of the book was delayed a year because the woodcuts were not finished. Thus, the book was published after the death of Agricola.

The artist, Blasius Wefring, worked for three years on nearly three hundred detailed and animated woodcuts which corresponded closely to the text, showing cutaway views of equipment and procedures of how miners worked above ground and below. They also depict the worker, so engaged with their activities that we get a sense of their very lives – from wiping the sweat off their brows

to women working (and arguing) alongside men

to children entertaining themselves with sharp picks while their dads look on

to dogs lapping up water from a stream while men sit on a bench in the middle of it all, talking.

Like most artisans of the time, miners were not keen on making their techniques or tools particularly public, relying on information and training to be passed down from one generation to the next. Little had been written on the subject until this book was published. The book remained the authoritative text on mining (Isaac Newton owned a copy of the first edition) for the next two hundred years. Wefring’s woodcuts were included in the first seven editions of this book between 1556 and 1657.

The third edition is essentially a reprint of the original, first, 1556 edition. Some of the original woodcuts show considerable wear.

“He that in ye mine of knowledge deepest diggeth, hath, like every other miner, ye least breathing time, and must sometimes at least come to terr. alt. for air,” — Isaac Newton

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