Georg Bauer (Georgius Agricola)
PHYSICIAN, MINERALOGIST, AND SCHOLAR
Humanism. Georg Bauer, better known as Georgius Agricola, was born in Saxony, Germany, attended the University of Leipzig from 1514 to 1518, and then taught Greek and Latin, first at the municipal school in Zwickau and then as a lecturer at Leipzig. His early training in grammar and classical literature suggests that he followed the humanist program, as does his adoption of a Latin form of his name, Agricola (meaning, like Bauer, “farmer”). Humanism, which was a scholarly movement to recapture the elegance of classical rhetoric and the civic-mindedness of Athens and Rome at their greatest moments, was flourishing in the universities of Italy, France, and Germany in the early sixteenth century at the time that the seeds of the Lutheran Reformation were being sown. Although Agricola was critical of the papacy in his early years, like his humanist friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, he remained formally a Catholic.
Medical Training. In 1524 Agricola left Germany and traveled to Italy, where he studied medicine at the University of Bologna. After receiving a degree he moved to Venice, where he worked for the humanist printer Aldus Manutius, preparing a new Greek edition of treatises written by antiquity’s greatest physician and medical author, Galen of Pergamon. In 1526 Agricola returned to Germany, and the following year was appointed municipal physician in Joachimsthal, Bohemia, which was a new and growing mining town located in what was sixteenth-century central Europe’s largest mining district. In this setting he realized that classical scholars had never studied mining and metallurgy in depth and set about preparing Bermannus sive de re metallica (Bermannus, or On Metals), which was published in 1530. The secondary title of the book was reminiscent of Cicero’s De re publica (On the Republic), the quintessential humanist text from the height of the classical Roman civilization. Similar titles in the sixteenth century, such as Realdo Colombo’s treatise De re anatomica (On Anatomy) mark their authors as humanists.
International Audience. Written as a dialogue (again, a humanist style) between a fictional miner, scholar, and poet named Bermannus and two friends, who were educated physicians, the book was the first on this subject written in Latin and aimed at an international, scholarly audience. In 1530 he left his position at Joachimsthal and traveled widely in the area, studying mining and beginning work on De re metallica (On Metals), a more extensive, folio edition on the subject with almost three hundred woodcut illustrations, which was not published until 1556. This book comprehensively treated all aspects of metal production from mining and assaying ore to refining and working the finished products, with detailed descriptions and illustrations of the elaborate machines employed in the industry. It was widely circulated in the sixteenth century and soon translated into German and Italian. A modern English translation was made by mining engineer and later U.S. president Herbert Clark Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, and published in The Mining Magazine in 1912. In 1533 Agricola took a position as municipal physician in the Saxon town of Chemnitz, where he married, served on the town council, was appointed mayor for four terms, and finally died in 1555.
Model Approach. Agricola’s approach to the subject of mining and metallurgy served as a model of open discourse and access to scientific and technological information and stood in direct contrast to the work of his contemporary, Paracelsus, whose treatises were written in obscure language and intended for a select audience of practitioners. Critics of the secrecy that pervaded alchemy and other occult sciences, such as Andreas Libavius at the end of the sixteenth century, lauded the approach of authors such as Agricola and accused the Paracelsians of disregard for the public good, the promotion of which was a central tenet of civic humanism.
Marco Beretta, “Humanism and Chemistry: The Spread of Georgius Agricola’s Metallurgical Writings,” Nuncius, 12 (1997): 17-47.
R. F. Tylecote, A History of Metallurgy (London: Metals Society, 1976).