A Brill Calendar: March 24
"De Re Metallica" and President Hoover
Few eminent Renaissance scholars have been honoured with a translation by a President of the United States of America.
By profession a mining engineer, Herbert Hoover (1874 – 1964), saw in Georgius Agricola’s work, (German: Georg Bauer; Clochau, Saxony, March 24 1494 – Chemnitz, November 21 1555), “the first to found any of the natural sciences upon research and observation, as opposed to previous fruitless speculation”. Hoover translated Agricola’s ground-breaking work ‘De re metallica’ (posthumously published 1556) as a young man in 1912. His assessment is shared throughout the ages; and with so towering a claim it may help to suggest reasons for an unprecedented phenomenon.
Perhaps the best one is that the subject of Agricola’s fascination, the earth’s inner core, was absent in existing curricula of high learning and academic scholarship; and the topic isn’t steeped in documentary sources hailing back to Antiquity. Agricola’s academic education suited this generalist, roaming criss-cross through Germany & Italy, eager for new knowledge. Upon returning to his native region in Germany in 1526 he was appointed as city physician in Joachimsthal, at the time Europe’s Mecca of mining.
In Italy he got acquainted with the stimulating ambiance that prevailed in workshops of early 16th century printers, particularly at the Aldine Press in Venice, where adventurous scholars assisted in correcting and type-setting texts up to then only known in different manuscript copies, without typographical fixity, often corrupted by scribes and copyists lacking adequate knowledge of what they were transcribing. In the Aldine entourage, Agricola met and befriended the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus, some thirty years his senior. The man from Rotterdam provided for Agricola’s first work, the ‘Bermannus’(1530) a recommending foreword: a rare distinction Agricola shares with only four other humanists, Sir Thomas More among them.
It is seldom that a new scientific discipline is not associated with the birth of new words. Before Agricola, anything found in the earth was called ‘fossil’; the word is akin to ‘digging’ in Latin. After him, ‘minerals’ came into their own.