Early Modern Expertise: Germans and Mining


In the fifteenth century people began recording information that had previously been transmitted through practice. This trend only increased over the course of the sixteenth century, when a vast store of artisanal knowledge heretofore communicated from master to apprentice found its way into manuscripts and printed books. Some texts were broad compendia of wide-ranging information; other works specialized in a single area. Although efforts to record and collect diverse types of knowledge occurred across Europe, it was the Germans who set themselves apart with their texts on mining. Ulrich Rülein von Calw’s Bergwerck v Probir büchlin [Mining and Assaying Booklet] from 1535 was an early instance of this phenomenon. Germans quickly gained a reputation for being experts in mining and metallurgy; as specialists, they were sent around the globe and even commissioned by rulers of other European powers. Early accounts from the English colony of Jamestown attest to the presence of German specialists there; likewise, King James I’s Confirmatory Charter to the Mineral and Battery Works Society speaks to the longstanding role of German-born mining experts in England. German miner Elias Hessen’s travel narrative offer a German perspective on his work with the Dutch East India Company. Mining also had a place—literally—in the princely collections of the German-speaking lands. Caspar Ulich’s Handstein, for instance, attests to artists’ fascination with the wondrous ores that emerged from mines and the activity itself. From these diverse sources, we see how Germanness became associated with a particular type of knowledge and associated practices.


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