A review of Agricola's De Re Metallica

A Review of Agricola’s Book: A Masterpiece in Mining and Metallurgy from the 16th Century


Asebi Bofah

6/8/20222 min read

I expected to find a worn-out archaic book with all the life sucked out of its pages. However, I was amazed that this 500-year-old artifact still had a lot of life running through its pages. The brown leather cover clearly showed signs of wear and tear but looked and felt strong, enough to last for more centuries to come. The spine of this one-and-a-half-inch thick book was bonded by straps of ribbon, which are robust enough to keep the book’s leaves together. This version of Agricola’s book had an exterior height of 13 inches with a width of 9 inches. The book felt heavy (about 5lbs), which I believe is not only due to how voluminous it was but also the thickness and quality of the sheets of paper.

One of the most distinct differences between the book and current books without turning any of the pages is the cover and how it was bounded. The book’s hardcover had no inscriptions on all exterior sides of the book. Also, compared to the thermal and glue binding used in modern books, this book was bounded by ribbon straps. The paper used had a rougher texture and seemed thicker than those used in modern books. There are several distinct features when it comes to the design and layout of the book’s content. However, I would like to mention the difference in the drop caps styles. In Agricola’s book, the paragraphs of each chapter began with these decorative initials, which probably could be the origin of the simpler drop caps styles used in newspapers and other print media of the 21st century.

I must admit that the illustrations in this book were stunning. The fact that these drawings were carved by hand into wood and still were enriched with such detail is impressive. Because I have some background in mining, I resonated well with some of the scenes from the illustrations as they reminded me of similar scenarios I had witnessed in person in some small-scale mining communities I worked in. For example, there are several illustrations in which the ore particles were being manually separated from gangue using sieves of different shapes and sizes. From the initial illustrations of the eighth Chapter (Book VIII), I observed that both men and women were involved in sorting the ore on long tables before the smelting process. The inclusion of men and women connotes a sense of communism among the mining communities in that age. Also, the fact that women are included in the process eliminates any form of exclusive masculinity related to mining and metallurgy.

I believe Agricola wrote this book to communicate and expose the intricacies of the discipline of mining and metallurgy to people who wanted to learn or understand the technology of the field. I make this conclusion mainly due to the illustrations in the book. The book is filled with several images of tools, equipment, and techniques by which different processes are carried out, from mining from the field to extracting the minerals from their ores. It also included illustrations that showcased details on surveying, mine construction and ventilation in the mine. Even though the book was written in Latin, I noticed a glossary of terms with German translations in the book’s last pages. Also, I could see a list of words under different headings. For example, I spotted a subheading “Serpentine,” which is synonymous with snakes. Beneath this heading were “Boa” and “Vipera,” which I presume connotes the boa and viper snake species, respectively. This is an exemplum of the details this book entails such that it even includes all these creatures and their taxons. There were several other observations I made in the book, but for the sake of brevity would not expound on them.

In conclusion, I was intrigued and felt privileged to witness and spend time observing such a rare and vital artifact in technical communication.