YMHC #13: Things that Grow in the Earth: Recovering Resources in the Early Modern World

by Sebastian Felten, Tenure Track Professor of Early Modern History of Science at the Department of History at the University of Vienna (sebastian.felten@univie.ac.at)

In a chronicle on mining written in late-16th-century Germany, a curious word is placed on the title page: “Erdgewächs”. This compound word had an interesting ambiguity to early modern German readers. The second part (-gewächs) referred to the process of growing and its result – growth and things that have grown – and was used for humans, animals, and plants alike. The first part of the compound simply means Earth, so we have a word whose meaning might be rendered as growth in the earth or a thing that has grown in the earth. The chronicle was written by Petrus Albinus, the court historiographer to the princes of Saxony (Albinus 1590). The princes of Saxony drew income and prestige from silver mines in the Ore Mountains, and Albinus was tasked to write up the history of mining in the region. The word “Erdgewächs”, here, is used to paraphrase metals and “metal-like things”, that is, important resources that Saxon rulers used for state-building and projecting power across Central Europe.

Frontispiece of Petrus Albinus, Meißnische Land vnd Berg-Chronica (Dresden: Bergen, 1590). Image: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Public Domain. https://doi.org/10.3931/e-rara-28307

Today, growth is still associated with mining, though the semantics has changed. Consider this recent report on the unfolding shift from fuel-intensive to a mineral-intensive energy system: “By weight, mineral demand in 2040 is dominated by copper, graphite and nickel. Lithium sees the fastest growth rate […]. The shift towards lower cobalt chemistries for batteries helps to limit growth in cobalt, displaced by growth in nickel.” (International Energy Agency 2022, 28). Unlike demand for them, strategic minerals are no longer considered to be actually growing. They have become the non-renewable foundation for renewable energy.

Resources in the Early Modern World
Across academic disciplines, the global environmental crisis has catalyzed a conversation about resource extraction and use. Both a term and research program, the “Anthropocene” calls the attention of scientists to the role of humans in shaping the Earth System and prompts humanists to consider natural processes. Key terms in this debate – development, economic growth, and the environment – were shaped by post-1945 economic policy, bureaucracy, and science. This is a challenge for historians who work on different contexts and periods – how does premodern and non-Western source materials fit into the emerging Anthropocene paradigm?

A small working group on “Resources in the Early Modern World” has tackled this challenge through two years of intensive conversation. BuYun Chen (Swarthmore College), Lydia Barnett (Northwestern University), Nydia Pineda de Ávila (UC San Diego), Brad Bouley (UC Santa Barbara), Renée Raphael (UC Irvine) and I have juxtaposed case-studies from across Europe, East Asia, and Latin America, including mining sites in Potosí and Saxony. The fruits of our collaboration have been published as short essays in the journal Isis in September 2023 (https://doi.org/10.1086/726186).

What does it mean to write about “resources” before historical actors used the term? Pratik Chakrabarti pointed out that nature itself is a “matter of human imagination” (Chakrabarti 2020, 4), an insight we found inspiring. We also built on a recent special issue where Tina Asmussen, Pietro Omodeo and others argued that local belief systems and material imaginaries shaped period perceptions of production, extraction, and infrastructure (Asmussen and Omodeo 2020). Our focus on resource management, in turn, continues a working group at the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science Berlin that analyzed administrators as if they were scientists, calling attention to bureaucracy as a form of knowledge-production in its own right (Felten and Oertzen 2020; Raphael 2020). In a similar vein, we try to reconstruct the thought-styles within which administrators and other actors made sense of people and materials.

Early modern period: Root of destruction or reservoir for hope?
A central question we’ve wrestled with is the place of the early modern period in master narratives about modernisation. In the “resource narratives” we encountered, the early modern period is often invoked to provide an origin story. To understand the root cause of today’s unsustainable economic policies, scholars take a long durée view of at least 500 years. This narrative is found in a classic in the field – Carolyn Merchant’s Death of Nature from 1980 – but also in recent contributions to the Anthropocene debate (Moore 2016). Early modernity, here, is a period in which environmental damage was inflicted through the enclosing of the commons, mining, draining swamp-lands, etc. but more fundamentally, attitudes towards Nature shifted from one of respect to greedy extractivism. More broadly, the early modern period is the time when European colonizing, enslaving, and unequal trade relocated resources towards the northern hemisphere.

Another kind of resource narrative is more upbeat. In the pre-industrial societies, some scholars argue, you can find sustainable lifestyles that are now lost, but if recuperated could help imagine alternative pathways for humanity’s future. This sentiment is expressed, for example, in a recent Routledge Handbook for the History of Sustainability (Caradonna 2018). It’s also very pronounced in a recent volume titled Getting the Anthropocene Right, edited by Julia Thomas, who invokes people living in the Kalahari desert as well as population-controlling Tokugawa Japan as models for living within the non-negotiable bounds of the Earth System (Thomas 2022).

In our discussion, we were somewhat dissatisfied with both “resource narratives”, because they overdetermined the stories that we could tell. We increasingly felt that our case studies—and the perspectives of our actors—don’t really fit: they neither elucidate the roots of the current state of emergency, nor do they provide an easy model for sustainable lifestyles. Instead, we shifted our focus on recovering the plurality of concepts with which early actors engaged their material world. So what did Albinus convey when he wrote of metals as “things that grow in the Earth”?

Thickening juices
According to Albinus’ chronicle, a range of things grew in the earth: gold and silver, of course, but also cobalt, beautiful and useful stones, glass and pigments, clays and limestones, salts and mineral “juices”, coal seams and hot springs. There is a long history of making inventories like this, dating to at least the late 17th century (Cooper 2007). Placed in this genealogy, Albinus’ chronicle would be an early instance of “resource economics” – though this is a far cry from the Cold War economists who coined the term (Westermann 2014).

Rulers in 16th-century Europe did not need much convincing that mining was a lucrative activity. The 16th century was the heyday of Handsteine, lumps of mined materials that were arranged in symbolic tableaus and displayed on exquisite mounts (Haug 2021). In a Bohemian piece from the Habsburgs’ cabinet of curiosity, we find another incidence of metal-growth: naturally occurring threads of silver, here artfully arranged as shrubbery while Adam and Eve are being seduced by a snake – the snake in turn made of artificial silver thread. The mount is a coconut, so there might also be a play with vegetable and mineral growth.

Handstein, 1545, coconut, (gilted) silver, ores, enamel. Image: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Kunstkammer, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

But how exactly did 16th-century actors think that silver was growing in the earth? In a treatise on the origin of metals, the physician and mineralogist Georg Agricola that metals, gems, and other minerals formed through a thickening of earthy juices. (Agricola 1546). Minerals were conceived just like plants and animals. They matured, withered and died. But he emphasised that this cycle was slower than in plants and animals. Mineral juices moved slowly through the majestic bowels of the Earth, forming metals, gems, clays, coals, oils, and mineral waters — forming them slowly but perceptively.

Managing mineral growth through bureaucracy
Mining was often compared to agriculture in the early modern period. Agricola is best known for his De re metallica (1556) – an erudite masterwork that is still one of our best sources for mining at the time – and interestingly modelled it on an ancient Roman work treatise on agriculture. In the first book, Agricola addressed the common criticism that metals could not be harvested at the end of a season and that the revenue was very irregular. Against this opinion he argued that mining was as stable as farming if one takes a long view, noting that Saxony’s silver-mines remain still unexhausted after 400 years of extraction, and the lead mines of nearby Goslar after 600 years.

This, I argue, was a view from the mining office. Saxony’s mines were managed, since the late 15th century, by an increasingly self-conscious bureaucracy. The main task of the officials was to enforce the local mining law, which had many provisions for making sure that mines would be operated continuously. For example, owners who failed to send in workers would forfeit their right to extraction. The slow growth of metal was a management problem, which in Saxony was addressed by bureaucracy (Felten 2020).

The mining bureaucracy accumulated data about past mining activities, and from early on created compilations that summarised the silver yields over decades and centuries. In these compilations, the increase of metal became evident, even if the language of mineral growth started to fade away. This 18th-century compiler does not speak of “Gewächs”, as Albinus did, but emphasised nonetheless that God had revealed metals “up until this hour”. One audience for this pious work were investors, who needed persuading that the future would be as bright as the past.

Collective Empiricism
It was only through our group discussions that I realised how much early modern actors generally relied on agriculture as a means of conceptualizing their activities of provisioning communities with resources. This theme was clear in a range of cases – from Chen’s Ryukyuan forests to Barnett’s Italian swamps and Pineda de Ávila Californian missions. Renee Raphael could show that Iberian officials debated mining policy in Huancavelica with reference to agriculture. Here and elsewhere, growth was a conceptual frame-work in which the life cycles of crops, trees, metals, and people could be aligned and contrasted. These resonances would have been difficult for me to see, steeped as I was in my own case. For me, this collaboration convinced me once again of the merits of collective empiricism that working groups afford. They provide a congenial framework to ruminate on difficult source material while not losing sight of larger themes and a global context. I take this lesson with me as I embark on an ERC-funded project on mineral resources in Central Europe – and look forward to meaningful exchange with colleagues working on different regions of the world.

Sebastian Felten is Assistant Professor of Early Modern History of Science at the University of Vienna and PI of the ERC Starting Grant project “Administration of Mineral Resource Extraction in Central Europe, 1550-1850” (ERC, SCARCE, grant no. 101076422, https://scarce.univie.ac.at/).

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Albinus, Petrus. 1590. Meißnische Land vnd Berg-Chronica. Dresden: Bergen. https://opacplus.bsb-muenchen.de/search?id=12578884&db=100.
Asmussen, Tina, and Pietro Daniel Omodeo. 2020. ‘Foreword to Early Modern Geological Agency’. Earth Sciences History 39 (2): 363–70.
Caradonna, Jeremy L. 2018. Routledge Handbook of the History of Sustainability. Milton: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315543017.
Chakrabarti, Pratik. 2020. Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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Felten, Sebastian. 2020. ‘Sustainable Gains: Dutch Investment and Bureaucratic Rationality in Eighteenth-Century Saxon Mines’. Journal for the History of Knowledge 1 (1): 1–14. https://doi.org/10.5334/jhk.19.
Felten, Sebastian, and Christine von Oertzen. 2020. ‘Bureaucracy as Knowledge’. Journal for the History of Knowledge 1 (1): 1–8. https://doi.org/10.5334/jhk.18.
Haug, Henrike. 2021. Imitatio–Artificium: Goldschmiedekunst und Naturbetrachtung im 16. Jahrhundert. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
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Thomas, Julia Adeney. 2022. ‘Humanities and Social Sciences: Human Stories and the Anthropocene Earth System’. In Altered Earth: Getting the Anthropocene Right, edited by Julia Adeney Thomas, 51–80. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Westermann, Andrea. 2014. ‘Inventuren der Erde: Vorratsschätzungen für mineralische Rohstoffe und die Etablierung der Ressourcenökonomie’. Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 37: 20–40.

Cite this blog post
LIM COORDINATORS (2023, December 13). YMHC #13: Things that Grow in the Earth: Recovering Resources in the Early Modern World. Labour In Mining. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/qweo

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