German Mining and Metallurgy in the Middle Ages

     Summary of  “Social ideals in technical change: German miners and English Puritans, 1450-1650” by Arnold Pacey
      This article examines the aspects of German mining through the 15th to 17th centuries and the social effects mining on German speaking countries. German advances in mining and metallurgy during this period are not often viewed as scientific because they viewed these fields as having some mystical connection. Despite their mystical view, these German speaking countries would become well known for their work in mining and metallurgy.

     At this point in time Germany as a country did not exist. Even so, German speaking nations in what we now call Germany began developing cultures around mining. A number of these locations had mined copper, silver, and lead ores for a long time through quarries and pit but few mine shafts or tunnels. However, they were reaching a point where they could no longer access more ore with their current technology.  In 1450 new technologies and techniques allowed the  German miners to access ores deeper underground. The most important ore mined by the Germans was silver. Silver had great social value across Europe as the chosen metal of coinage, which was important since Europe experienced growth in commerce in the 1450s.
Example of a silver coin known as a ‘Guldiner’, used in Austria, Switzerland, and southern Germany in the 15th century. This coin was likely made from silver from a German mine, considering the location it was used in.
      Around the same point in the 15th century, guns began to become more widespread. Gun barrels at this time were usually made from bronze, which required copper ore and tin ore. Other areas that did not have these ores so readily available began experimenting with making cannons out of cast iron. As a result of the abundance of these ores in Germany, they continued to perfect the craft of bronze cannon making. By 1592 Germany had made a name for themselves as the best producers of bronze cannons due to their plentiful supply of ores from mining and their years of experience making them. Several metallurgical techniques were developed during this time period. Smelting allowed for the experience of chemical reactions and set the groundwork for later chemistry. Assaying allowed for the observation of change in properties of metals as they were subjected to various processes.
      By the 16th century, German bankers had achieved international importance. Banking firms from Augsburg began sending German technicians to other parts of Europe such as Spain and England in search of new sources of profit. One of the driving reasons behind this search was the fact that the German mines were becoming less profitable. The reasons for the decrease in profits from mining in Germany was the competition from the abundance of resources,  particularly silver, that Spain brought over from their colonies in the Americas. The German Banking firms gained interest in a silver ore found in England very similar to the one found in Germany. This ore contained copper and lead, but the silver content was less than that of the ore found in Germany. To help extract the silver from this ore, the Haugs firm of Augsburg utilized the help of their agent in England, Daniel Hochstetter. Hochstetter assayed  ores from various parts of England in an effort to determine which ores could have silver extracted in an economically viable way. Though he was unable to achieve this, Hochstetter’s assays were able to detect one part silver in 5,000 parts of ore.
      Another important technological advancement in medieval Europe that impacted mining and metallurgy was the printing press. Prior to 1450, very few practical manuals or textbooks existed, but the introduction of the printing press to Europe allowed this literature to be possible. One notable author of material on these subjects was Georgius Agricola. Agricola had been educated at the university of Leipzig and studied medicine in Bologna, Italy, after which he worked as a physician among the miners  in Saxony and Bohemia. Agricola wrote books Latin grammar and weights and measures before he began work on his books about mining and metallurgy. Ancient authors had no written much about these subjects, so Agricola had to search through various texts and note any details they contained that pertained to mining and metallurgy. Agricola wrote more than a half dozen books on these subject between 1544 to 1556, with the final work and magnum opus “twelve Books on Metals” being published just after his death.
      Because of the mystic views of mining the German people had, its not hard to see how religion and the mining industry were connected in Germany. Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran church, grew up in Saxony with a father who had spent his whole life in the mining industry. Two Lutheran pastors, Christopher Entzelt and Johann Mathesius, wrote books on mining and metals and were acquaintances of Agricola. Mathesius went on to write a biography of Luther where he claimed that Luther had a good home because “God blessed the mining industry”.  Another writer going by Paracelsus wrote about the nature of metals in alchemy stating that God had impressed the virtues and powers of metals with his own finger.
Written by G. Morris. Word count: 690 (without header or captions or text below)
Link to a PDF containing more information about coins used in medieval times:

4 Replies to “German Mining and Metallurgy in the Middle Ages”

  1. G. Morris,
    Great summary of “Social ideals in technical change: German miners and English Puritans, 1450-1650” by Arnold Pacey! All the advancements in Technology in German-speaking countries is very impressive. I especially found the mining of silver advancements interesting. I liked the description of the banking and the comparisons of the German speaking banks to the England and Spain banks during this time period.

    Erica Alvarez

  2. Gabe,

    Great job! I really liked how you added an abstract at the beginning of the article and caption of the picture. You provide your reader with necessary historical context and important details for understanding the article.


  3. Gabe,
    This was an excellent summary on German mining and metallurgy, I really learned a lot from it! I found it particularly interesting that these advancements were viewed as mystical and not scientific. Religion and mining normally do not intermix, but in this case they seem to be very connected.

  4. Hi Gabe,
    Really awesome summary. I am always fascinated with how religion and technological advancement are sometimes connected. Your summary reminded me of a book I read — ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf –that is about Alexander Humboldt who was super integral to the development of ecology as a science. But he worked a lot in mines and geology as part of his job with the Prussian king, so it was an important part of his life.

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