Agricola, Georgius

views updated Jun 08 2018

Agricola, Georgius

also known as Georg Baueer

(b. Glauchau, Germany, 24 March 1494; d. Chemnizt, Germany [now Karl-Marx-Stadt, German Democratic Republic], 21 November 1555)

mining, metallurgy.

Agricola’s father was probably Gregor Bauer, a dyer and woolen draper. His youngest son, Hans Georg’s favorite brother, who joined Georg at Chemnitz in 1540, followed the same profession. The eldest son, Franciscus, became a priest at Zwickau and later at Glauchau. Georg attended various schools in Glauchau, Zwickau, and Magdeburg (1511), and in 1514—rather late, since the average age at matriculation was between twelve and fifteen—he entered Leipzig University. In 1515 he received the B.A. and remained at the university as lecturer in elementary Greek until the was chosen ludi moderator at Zwickau in 1517. In 1519, as rector extraordinarius, he organized the new Schola Graeca and wrote his first work, De prima ac simplict institutione grammatica (1520). This short booklet is an excellent specimen of the new humanistice pedagogy, with interesting examples taken from a schoolboy’s experiences.

Zwickau was a center of the Reformation, and although Agricola believed a reformation was necessary, he did not approve of its revolutionary aspects. He therefore returned to Leipzig in 1523 to study medicine under Heinrich Stromer von Auerbach; to support himself, he had been endowed with the prebend of the St. Erasmus altar for three years by the council of Zwickau. This enabled him to visit Italy, and on his way he stopped in Basel to pay his respects to Erasmus. Agricola spent three years at Bologna and Venice as a member of the editorial staff for the Aldina editions of Galen and Hippocrates. He also joined the English group headed by Edward Wotton and John Clement, son-in-law of Sir Thomas More. This group may have aroused Agricola’s interest in politics and economics.

Following the route through the mining districts in Carinthia, Styria, and the Tyrol, Agricola returned to Germany in the fall of 1526 with the M.D. and a wife the widow of Thomas Meiner, director of the Schneeberg mining district. The following spring he was elected town physician and apothecary of St. Joachimsthal (now Jachymov), Czechoslovakia. Here he continued his studies on the pharmaceutical use of minerals and smelting products, with a view to compiling comments on Galen and Hippocrates.

In those days St. Joachimsthal was the most important mining center in Europe besides Schwaz in the Tyrol. Miners and smelters, some of whom suffered from occupational diseases, were crowded together. Agricola studied not only their ailments but also their life, labor, and equipment. Day and night he visited the mines and the smoky smelting houses, and soon he had an excellent knowledge of mining and metallurgy. He recorded his impressions in Bermannus sive de re metallica dialogue (1530).

The success of this pioneer delineation of mining and metallurgy was assured by Erasmus, who contributed a letter of recommendation. Agricola was now a well-known author, and he indefatigably sustained his reputation with a flow of important books The next ones were political and economic: Oratio de bello adversus Turcam suscipiendo (1531) and De mensuris et ponderibus (1533).

Since there were too many demands on his time in St. Joachimsthal, Agricola decided to return to Chemnitz, to be town physician in this quieter, smaller town on the northern slope of the Erzgebirge. Chemnitz had a copper smelter which was used to extract silver from the ore. Agricola’s knowledge of mining enabled him to profit from mining shares. He always seemed to enter into the right partnership and to avoid profitless ventures. By 1542 he was one of the twelve richest inhabitants of Chemnitz. After fifteen years of hard work he succeeded in finishing a complete series of inquiries concerning the principles of geology and mineralogy.

This series must be considered his greatest scientific achievement. It had not yet been published when Agricola became involved in the war of Emperor Charles V against the Protestant Schmalkaldic League: he was elected mayor of Chemnitz, appointed a councillor to the court of Saxony, and sent as an ambassador to the emperor and his younger brother Ferdinand, king of Bohemia. For more than three years Agricola was with the councillors of Moritz, duke of Saxony, as one of the few Roman Catholic representatives at the Protestant court. He never wrote about the diplomatic missions he was charged with, but we may assume that his parleys with the Catholic emperor’s commanders and diplomats were effective. He was not able to return to his scientific work until 1548, but new books appeared soon after: De animantibus subterraneis (1549) and an enlarged edition of De mensuris et ponderibus (1550).

In 1550 Agricola returned to St. Joachimsthal for some weeks. He saw a very changed situation: the prosperity was gone. nearly all of the ruling family had been deposed or expelled, and some of the new royal officials had not the slightest idea of the needs of the town and its inhabitants. Agricola gave a 5,000–thaler credit worth 2,000 cows in those days to the counts Schlick to promote prospecting for new deposits, a search that was successful. He went home to Chemnitz conscious of having done a good deed, and with him lie took the finished text of his chief work, De re metallica libel XII, begun twenty years before in St. Joachimsthal. During his visit to St. Joachimsthal he had met the expert designer Blasius Weffring, who spent the next three years illustrating the text.

When the black plague spread through Saxony in 1552–1553, Agricola worked day and night, going from the pesthouses to his family, always fearing that he would bring the contagion with him; one daughter did die of the plague. His first wife had died in 1541, and the following year he had married Anna Schütz, daughter of the guild master and smelter owner Ulrich Schütz who had entrusted his wife and children to Agricola’s guardianship when he died in 1534. His studies during the plague led Agricola to publish De peste libri III (1554).

Agricola could not retire until another work was finished. In 1534 Georg the Whiskered, duke of Saxony and a patron of the Catholic church, had nominated Agricola as historiographer of the court of Saxony, probably with the hope of discovering genealogical claims on territories by heirs–at–law. For twenty years Agricola studied yellowed parchments and old chronicles. His honesty forbade him to conceal the rulers’ mistakes uncovered during his research: he was a scholar, not a courtier. He recorded his findings very frankly much to the disappointment of Augustus, third duke after Georg the Whiskered. It is no wonder, then, that the Sippschaji des Hausses zu Sachssen, an evaluation of all the rulers of Saxony, remained unpublished until 1963..

Augustus ignored the dedication dated 9 August 1555, but more important is that of 18 March 1555, for the second, enlarged edition of the mineralogical works (1558). It contains Agricola’s most quoted words on peace and war, written before the Peace of Augsburg (September 1555), when war between the Catholic and Protestant confessions seemed imminent. For Agricola, that decisive agreement was the end of all his hopes for a reunion in faith. He fell ill soon after and died after suffering a relapse in November.

After Agricola’s death the religious struggle renewed over his corpse. The Protestant clergy refused to allow his being buried in the parish church at Chemnitz, an honor traditionally accorded to mayors: and it was only through the intervention of his old friend Julius von Pflug, bishop of Zeitz–Naumburg, that he was interred in the cathedral at Zeitz.

Four months after his death, De re ntetallica libri XII, illustrated with 292 woodcuts, appeared. A year later an Old German translation by Philippus Bech was published using the same woodcuts, which were used for 101 years in seven editions.


I. Original Works. Agricola’s writings include De pima ac simplici instinttione grammatica (Leipzig, 1520); Bernunmus sire de re metallica dialogus (Basel, 1530: Paris, 1541); Oratio de hello adversus Tmram suscipiendo, original Latin ed. (Basel, 1538), in Old German as Oration, Anrede and Vermanung... widderden Tiircken, Lorenz Bermann. trans. (Dresden –NLire inberg, 1531); De mensuris et ponderibus (Basel–Paris, 1533: Venice, 1535). reissued as De mensuris et ponderibus Romanorum aique Graecorum libriV (Basel, 1550), with the following additions: De externis mensuris et ponderibus, Brevis defensio, De mensuris quibus intervalla metimur, De restituendis mensuris atque ponder–ibus, and De precio metallorum et monetis, the big foliant, containing De ortu et causis subterraneorum, De natura eorum quae effluunt e terra, De natura fossilium, De veteribus et novis metallis, Bermannus sive de re metallica dialogus (revised), and Interpretatio Germanica vocum rei metallicae addito indice foecundissimo (Basel, 1546; 2nd ed., rev. and enl., Basel, 1558) De natura fossilium was translated into English by Mark C. Bandy and Jean A. Bandy (New York, 1955); De animantibus subterraneis (Basel, 1549); De peste libri III (Basel, 1554); Sippschaft des Hausses zu Sachssen (1555), in Ausgewahlte Werke, V11, 77–416; and De re metallica libri XII (Basel, 1556, 1561, 1621, 1657), translated into English, with biographical introduction, annotations, and appendixes by Henry Clark Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover (London, 1912; new ed. [unchanged], New York, 1950).

Nearly all of Agricola’s works are brought together in Ausgewahlte Werke, 12 vols., incl. supps., Hans Prescher, ed. (Berlin, 1955–).

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Agricola are Bern Dibner, Agricola on Metals, Burndy Library Publication no. 15 (Norwalk, Conn., 1958); Erwin Herlitzius, G. A. Seine Weltanschauung and seine Leistung als Wegbereiter einer materialistischen Naturauffassung, Freiberger Forschungsheft no. D32 (Berlin, 1960); William B. Parsons, Engineers and Engineering in the Renaissance (Baltimore, 1939); Georg Spackeler, ed., Georgius Agricola 1555–1955 (Berlin, 1955); and Helmut M. Wilsdorf, Praludien zu Agricola, Freiberger Forschungsheft no. D5 (Berlin, 1954); Georg Agricola and seine Zeit (Berlin, 1956); and “Dr. Georgius Agricola and die Begriindung des Bergbaumedizin,” in Jahrbuch des Museums fur Mineralogie and Geologic Dresden, 5 (1959), 112–154.

Helmut M. Wiisdorf

Georgius Agricola

views updated May 14 2018

Georgius Agricola

The German mineralogist and writer on mining Georgius Agricola (1494-1555) is a major figure in the history of technology. His main contribution was his book on mining and metallurgy, "De re metallica."

Georgius Agricola, whose real name was Georg Bauer, was born at Glachau in Saxony on March 24, 1494. Virtually nothing is known of his family, his childhood, or his schooldays. At school his teachers Latinized his name to Georgius Agricola, a customary practice at the time.

Years of Study and Research

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 the principal. From 1522 to 1524 Agricola was a lecturer in the University of Leipzig. Then, in order to further his studies of the natural sciences, philosophy, and medicine, he spent 3 years studying in Italy at the universities of Bologna, Padua, and Venice.

By 1526 Agricola had returned to Germany, and a year later he took the job of physician in the little town of Joachimsthal, Bohemia. At that time Joachimsthal was in the center of one of the most productive metal mining regions in Central Europe, and Agricola was soon deeply involved in studying the closely related techniques of mining and metallurgy. After 3 years' residence in Joachimsthal, he finished his first book on mining, a hand-book on mineralogical and mining terms.

By now Agricola was fully committed to his research into mining and metallurgy. Around 1530 he left his medical post in Joachimsthal and toured German mines for 3 years. However, the lure of his native Saxony brought Agricola to Chemnitz in 1533, and he was appointed city physician. He lived and worked there for his remaining years. In 1543 he married a widow of Chemnitz, and they had at least five children.

Publications and Civic Activities

Five of Agricola's books were published in a one-volume edition in 1546 in Basel, comprising De ortu et causis subterraneorum, a pioneer study of physical geology; De natura eorum quae effluunt ex terra, dealing with subterranean waters and gases; De natura fossilium, the second in importance of Agricola's works, being the first proper study of mineralogy; De veteribus et novis metallis, dealing mostly with the history of metals; and Rerum metallicorum interpretatio, a dictionary of Latin and German mineralogical and metallurgical terms. In 1548 a curious little book, De animantibus subterraneis, appeared; it is a not very sound study of animals which live underground. He wrote more than two dozen works, many of which have survived, on mining, metallurgy, medicine, and religion.

In 1546 Agricola began to take an active interest in public affairs. He became a burgher of Chemnitz and served four terms as burgomaster. Although he was a staunch Catholic living under a Protestant monarchy, other political duties and civic responsibilities came his way and indicate the high esteem with which he was regarded. He died on Nov. 21, 1555.

"De re metallica"

Agricola's masterpiece, De re metallica, was the most important 16th-century book on any aspect of technology. He appears to have begun it about 1530, when he left Joachimsthal, and it took 20 years to complete. The printing was delayed until 1553, because of the time required to prepare the illustrations, and its publication in Basel in 1556 was a year too late for the approval of the author.

De re metallica consists of 12 books and covers every aspect of the industry. Hundreds of mining operations are described, and there are sections dealing with such related problems as surveying, geology, smelting, assaying, and administration. No less important and interesting than the text are the hundreds of delightful wood-cuts, which are technical drawings the like of which had not been printed before. Although they are not the only surviving illustrations of 16th-century engineering, they are the most realistic and reliable because they are based on actual practice rather than on speculation.

For 2 centuries De re metallica was the standard work in its field. Agricola had, for the first time in mining history, attempted to place the subject on an organized and scientific footing. More than a dozen editions appeared before 1700 in Latin, German, and Italian.

Further Reading

Agricola's De re metallica is his essential work. The fully documented translation by Herbert Clark Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover (1912), is recommended. There is a biography of Agricola in German but no full-length biography in English. Bern Dibner, Agricola on Metals (1958), is primarily an analysis of De re metalica but also provides some information on Agricola's life. Background material is in Frank Dawson Adams, The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences (1938), and William B. Parsons, Engineers and Engineering in the Renaissance (1939), which contains a description of Agricola's techniques of mining and metallurgy. □

Georgius Agricola

views updated Jun 08 2018

Georgius Agricola


German Mineralogist, Metallurgist and Physician

Georgius Agricola is often referred to as the father of mineralogy. His series of treatises on the principles of geology and mineralogy were instrumental during the formative period in the development of these fields. As influential as these works were, he is best remembered for his magisterial De re metallica, which faithfully recorded sixteenth-century mining practices.

Agricola, whose real name was Georg Bauer, was born on March 24, 1494, in Glauchau, Saxony. After attending various schools in Glauchau, Zwickau, and Magdeburg, he matriculated at the University of Leipzig in 1514 and received his B.A. the next year. He remained at the university as a lecturer in elementary Greek until 1517, when he accepted a position at the Municipal School in Zwickau. He became rector extraordinarius in 1519 but eventually returned to Leipzig, where he studied medicine under Heinrich Stromer von Auerbach. He continued these studies in Italy and later established a medical practice in the Bohemian city of St. Joachimsthal (1527).

Joachimsthal was an important mining center in the Tyrol, and Agricola was called upon to treat smelters and miners suffering from various occupational illnesses. He undertook a systematic study not only of their ailments but also of their lifestyles, working conditions, equipment, and methods. The results of his researches appeared in Bermannus sive de re metallica dialogus (1530). Books on politics and economics followed, and as his reputation grew so did the demands on his time. In 1534 he moved to the smaller, though still important, mining town of Chemnitz to continue his research.

Agricola had developed an interest in minerals, possibly because of the widely held belief in their supernatural and curative properties. His two most important works on mineralogy were both published in 1546. In De ortu et causis subterraneorum he developed the idea of a succus lapidescens (lapidifying juice). His succi can anachronistically be viewed as mineral-bearing solutions, though they are more akin to the humours of Galen (c. 130-c. 200). As he conceived them, stony matter could be condensed out of succi when heated, cooled, on becoming cool, or by exposure to air. Agricola was also one of the first to attempt a systematic classification of minerals. His scheme, presented in De Natura Fossilum, was based on the physical properties of minerals including weight, color, opacity, taste, texture, solubility, etc.

After serving as mayor of Chemnitz (1545) and then councilor to the court of Saxony, Agricola returned to his scientific work in 1548. New books appeared shortly thereafter, including De animantibus subterraneis (1549); and in 1550 he completed his master work De re metallica libri XII. This was the culmination of his researches begun over 15 years before in Joachimsthal. The work was published posthumously in 1556.

De re metallica presents a detailed and accurate account of sixteenth-century Saxon mining practices and is lavishly illustrated with 292 beautiful woodcuts. Drawing intelligently on Vannocio Biringuccio's (1480-c. 1539) De la Pirotechnia (1540), the first 11 sections deal exclusively with the extraction of metals, smelting, and assaying techniques of the day. The final section deals with the chemical technologies associated with metallurgical processes. De remetallica remained the standard text on mining and metallurgy for over four centuries.

As the black plague spread through Saxony (1552-53) Agricola's medical skills were in high demand. His ceaseless efforts to alleviate the suffering of some of the worst victims caused him great concern as it placed his own family at great risk. (Indeed, he was to lose a daughter to the plague.) His researches during this period are recorded in De peste libri III (1554). Agricola died in Chemnitz on November 21, 1555.



Agricola's De Re Metallica remained widely read and used by European miners and metallurgists, appearing in many editions until the late eighteenth century, when the development of a more quantitative and accurate chemistry made its description of smelting processes outmoded. The book then slipped into obscurity until 1912, when a young American mining engineer and his wife translated its Renaissance Latin into English for the first time, publishing it in The Mining Magazine of London, England. Her name was Lou Henry Hoover. His was Herbert Clark Hoover; he went on to be the thirty-first President of the United States (1929-33).


Georgius Agricola

views updated May 14 2018

Georgius Agricola


German mineralogist and metallurgist, born Georg Bauer, whose De re metallica (1556) remained the authoritative text on mining and metallurgy for over four centuries. Lavishly illustrated with 292 woodcuts, this work presented the first detailed, accurate account of sixteenth-century mining practices. His series of treatises on geology and mineralogy proved influential during the formative period of these disciplines. Known as the father of mineralogy, Agricola in De Natura Fossilum (1546) attempted the first systematic classification of minerals.

Agricola, Georgius

views updated May 08 2018

Agricola, Georgius ( Georg Bauer) (1494–1555) The author of works on ‘geology’ and mineral classification, and of the first comprehensive record of mining, De Re Metallica (1556). Using Roman sources and contemporary German knowledge, his books became basic reference material for two centuries.

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