De Re Metallica [On the Nature of Metals] by Georgius Agricola

By Helen Steadman, Oct 24 2016 11:12AM

To kick off my PhD in English at the University of Aberdeen, I’m starting with the literature review in preparation for researching my novel about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers. (This novel, The Running Wolf, will be published by Impress Books on 10 November 2020.)

The cover shows a black background with the text in gold. The 'o' of wolf is a pool of molten gold with the running wolf emblem on it. Above that is a Rotterdam warship beneath a crescent moon and the constellation of Cancer. The cover is crowned with a sunburst of 9 swords. The spine is gold, with white writing and shows a running wolf emblem as well as the Impress Books logo. It's set out in the shape of a sword.
The Running Wolf (published by Impress Books on 10 November 2020)

I chose to review Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica [On the Nature of Metals] first as it will give me a period-specific view of metal mining and smelting. It was published in 1556, which is a bit earlier than the Shotley Bridge swordmakers’ time (c.1687), but as this text remained the most authoritative text for 200 years, then it should provide me with an accurate guide to metal working at that time. (The next authoritative text was Cristoph Andreas Schlűter’s book on metallurgy in 1738, Gründlicher Unterricht von Hutte-Werken [Through Teaching from Hut-Works], which was published some time after the period I’m writing about, so I may read this, depending on how far forward in time my novel goes.)

An azure background with drawings of metalworkers and their machinery. A horse turning a wheel to power bellows. Titles in white text.
De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricola

Apart from being a mine (sorry) of information about metal, it also provides broader insights into the period. The book contains many detailed woodcuts showing miners and metalworkers at work. There are also pictures of women and children, as well as working animals (dogs and horses). The wooden machinery is very interesting, and the detailed drawings reveal fascinatingly complex machinery.

De Re Metallica: Book VI

De Re Metallica: Book VI

My favourite part of the whole book is the section where Agricola is dismissive of people who dowse for metals with divining rods (p. 40). He calls them wizards, and he also gives short shrift to astrologers. Fair enough. But then he goes on to discuss gnomes at great length – going so far as to describe their height and their clothes (p.217).

Woodcut showing 'wizards' dowsing for metal with divining rods

Woodcut showing ‘wizards’ dowsing for metal with divining rods

Apart from this minor (sorry again) aberration, it is a serious book and Agricola’s knowledge of mining and minerals is very impressive. The book covers:

• Arguments for and against mining (both biblical and environmental)

• Miners and how they find mines

• Veins, stringers and seams in rocks

• Functions of mining officials

• Digging ore

• Miners’ tools and machines

• Assaying of ore (this made my head hurt)

• Roasting, crushing and washing ore

• Separating silver from gold and lead from gold/silver

• Separating silver from copper

• Making salt, soda, alum, vitriol, sulphur, bitumen and glass

My plan was to read the book and make lots of notes to write up and keep. Then, at some further point in time (next year, maybe), I’d start doing some writing.

Copy of notes for De Re Metallica: Book I

Copy of notes for De Re Metallica: Book I

But there was so much interesting information in this book that I couldn’t help myself, and I had to start writing. So, after taking notes for each chapter, I wrote up some key words on magic whiteboard sheets and used those as prompts for freewriting.

Magic whiteboard sheet for De Re Metallica: Book 1

Magic whiteboard sheet for De Re Metallica: Book 1

So far, I’ve managed about 6,000 words, which is not bad going! They’re not really in any particular order, and I doubt any of them will make the final cut. The very first words I wrote on 9 October 2016 are below. (Apologies in advance for my terrible handwriting.

First page of freewriting from De Re Metallica: Book I

First page of freewriting from De Re Metallica: Book I

I bought a copy of this book as I need to scribble all over it and refer to the pictures, but if you just want to read it, you can read it online here. If you want to see the Schlűter book (in German), there is a link to it here.


Georgius Agricola (1556) De Re Metallica [On the Nature of Metals], Trans. Herbert Clark Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover [1950], New York: Dover Publications Inc.

Cristoph Andreas Schlűter (1738) Gründlicher Unterricht von Hutte-Werken [Through Teaching from Hut-Works] Braunschweig: Meyer. Filed under: Shotley Bridge swordmakers, De Re Metallica, PhD English, PhD Creative Wriiting, using research as a writing promptPhD Literature ReviewMedieval miningGeorgius Agricola

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