Georgius Agricola – Renaissance Geologist


"Why, yes I did walk the Earth at the same time as Da Vinci and Copernicus." - G. Agricola
“Why, yes, I was around at the same time as Da Vinci and Copernicus.” – G. Agricola

Georgius Agricola…the name conjures up images of togas, but not at a modern party.

Actually he wasn’t Roman. This German by the name of Georg Bauer just took the Latin name because all cool people did back in the early 16th century. It’s punny: “bauer” means “farmer” in German, and so does “agricola” in Latin (sorry to ruin 24 for you).

But what possible relevance could a Georgius Agricola have today?

Well, he did lay the basis for the mining and metal working industries that have brought you smartphones and skyscrapers. And he could think straight in an age of alchemy and religious fervor.

Agricola didn’t go along with the crowd. While others talked how everything is made of different proportions of earth, wind, fire, and air, he checked things out objectively (and got rich in the process).

And UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology calls him “the founder of geology as a discipline.” So there’s that, too.

Agricola’s life

Unlike some of the earth scientists we’ve looked at, Georg Bauer wasn’t an aristocrat. His father was a cloth merchant in Saxony (part of modern Germany) and was prosperous enough to send Georg to Leipzig University, which was strongly Catholic, in 1517.

This was the same year Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to a church door in nearby Wittenberg, jump-starting the Protestant Reformation.

Georg, staunchly Catholic, began studying for the priesthood, but one of his teachers convinced him to go into teaching instead. After three years in the university, Georg got a job teaching Latin (he was now Georgius Agricola) and Greek in a public school. It worked out well and he soon became the school’s principal. However, after just a few years he returned to the university for a degree in medicine.

Agricola doesn’t seem to have been eager to become a physician, so perhaps he was in it for the science (just as James Hutton would be two centuries later).

"Georg, you really must write a book or two or three or more."  - D. Erasmus
“Georg, you really must write a book or two or three or more.” – D. Erasmus

Leipzig was now a focus of the clash between Catholicism and Protestantism. Whether it was all the uproar that caused at the university, or instead possibly a poor fit between him and the medicine faculty (who would soon ban books written by another free-thinker called Paracelsus), Georgius Agricola moved to Italy and studied at the universities in Bologna and Padua. While there, he met and became friends with the greatest Renaissance scholar north of the Alps – Desiderius Erasmus, who was 25 years older than Agricola.

Since it was the Renaissance, everybody was trying to do everything at once. Agricola was into book publishing. He worked at the Aldine Press in Venice, preparing an edition of Galen’s writings on medicine. Erasmus, who was also a publisher, told him he should write a book himself.

The next year, in 1527, Agricola got his medical degree and moved north to set up practice in an important mining town in Saxony. Here, he married the widow of a local mining district director. Perhaps this marriage gave him the independent means needed to focus on the local geology (although “geology” wasn’t a concept then) as well as practice medicine. He also studied mining and metallurgy, talking with miners and reading all the available mining literature (mainly Pliny the Elder’s Natural History).

In the 1530s, Agricola moved again, becoming the town doctor in Chemnitz, another mining center closer to his home town. His first wife died and he married again in 1543. By now, having used his mining expertise profitably, he was one of the richest men in town, and the local prince gave him a house and some land. Three years later, the prince also made him mayor of Chemnitz and appointed him a court councilor.

Georgius Agricola died in 1555 at the age of 61. Legend has it he had a stroke during a religious argument. Chemnitz was a Protestant town, and they refused burial to a Catholic. His family therefore had him buried in a church in another town. They then refused to release at least eight of his unpublished works.

Those are now lost forever. That’s too bad, because what did get published was amazing.

And not just for the cover art
And not just for the cover art

Of minerals and fossils

Encouraged by Erasmus, Georgius Agricola did take up writing, mostly about minerals and mining, though he occasionally touched on other subjects, too. Erasmus published many of these books and also wrote the introduction to Agricola’s first book, published in 1530.

His two most famous books are On the Nature of Fossils, published in 1546, and On the Nature of Metals. They weren’t about fossils and metals as we think of those things today.

“Fossil” comes from the Latin word for “dig,” and up until the 18th century it referred to anything dug out of the ground. Agricola used the word to describe minerals and gemstones, as well as the sorts of things we would call fossils today.

He walked in Pliny’s footsteps. Then he went beyond Pliny, classifying minerals and gems by their physical properties, just like we do today. Up until then, such things had been filed alphabetically or by supposed mystic properties.

Lutz Weber puts it this way for the Oxford Journals,

Knowing nothing of atomic theory, stoichiometry, or crystallography, it was a colossal achievement to refute the ancient theory of the four elements: earth, water, fire, and air. For a classification of minerals, he used criteria of outward appearance such as hardness, color, consistence, solubility, smell, or taste. To the then-recognized seven metals, gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, lead, and mercury, he added bismuth and antimony. He was the first to recognize the difference between igneous and sedimentary rock, and he comprehended that ore deposits were formed by precipitation from solutions that had seeped into fissures in their surrounding rocks.

On the Nature of Fossils has earned Agricola the title of “father of mineralogy,” but On the Nature of Metals is called his masterpiece. Published posthumously in 1556 as a 12-volume series, it became the standard textbook on mining for the next two hundred years.

Back then, “metal” meant any mineral. Agricola therefore didn’t limit himself to such things as gold and silver. He wrote about prospecting, surveying, mining techniques and administration, assaying and processing various ores, what tools were needed to do all this, the relationship between mine owners and workers, and how to make glass, sulfur, and alum.

These volumes also have 289 detailed woodcuts that show, not only a lot of mining, but also little slices of life in a mining town in 16th century Saxony.

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Gosh, people worked hard back then!

Before Agricola, there was a lot of alchemy and talk. After Agricola, there was a new body of literature, based on empiric observation and “common-sense contemplation,” as Goethe called it, that kept mining and metallurgy (not to mention the yet-unnamed science of geology) moving forward through three centuries to the Industrial Revolution and, eventually, our modern world.

Yes, Georgius Agricola is very relevant to us all.

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