Mining and metallurgy in medieval Europe

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Plan of mines in Banská Štiavnica in Slovakia (1726) by Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli - an illustration of mining in pre-modern era.

The Middle Ages in Europe cover the time span from the 5th century AD, marked by the decay of the Roman Empire, to the 16th century, when social and economic factors shifted Europe towards the Modern Era. During the millennium between classical antiquity and the modern period, a series of technological innovations and inventions, which led to the industrial era, took place. Such technological achievements affected directly the extraction of raw materials, such as metal ores and coal, and the growth of the metal output in terms of quantity, as well as quality.

Metal production in medieval Europe may have been affected, decreased or increased, by different factors, but it was never ceased, as different kinds of metal objects were always in demand either in periods of war (e.g. arms and armour) or peace (e.g. implements and tools, coinage, building construction, decoration, bells, ecclesiastical and status items, etc.). Metallurgical activities were also encouraged by central political power, regional authorities, monastic orders and ecclesiastical overlords, who always tried to have control and claimed Regalian rights over the mines and a share in the output, both in private lands and regions belonging to the Crown. They were particularly interested in the extraction of the precious metal ores, but not only, and for this reason the mines in their territories were open to all miners (Nef 1987, 706-715).

Early Middle Ages, 5th to 10th centuries[edit]

The social, political, economic stagnation and decline that followed the decadence of the Roman World affected Europe, throughout the early medieval period, and had critical impact upon the technological progress, trade and social organization. Technological developments that affected the course of metal production were only feasible within a stable political environment, and this was not the case until the 9th century (Martinon-Torres & Rehren in press, a).

During the first medieval centuries, the output of metal was in a steady decline and constraint in small scale activities. Miners adopted methods much less efficient than those of the Roman times. Ores were extracted only from shallow depths or from remnants of former abandoned mines, assuming that the old shafts weren't already sunk. The vicinity of the mine to villages or towns was also a determinant factor when deciding about working on site, because of the high cost of material transportation (Martinon-Torres & Rehren in press, b). It seems like only the output of iron diminished less in relation to the rest of the base and precious metals until the 8th century. This fact, correlated with the dramatic decrease in copper production, in particular, may indicate a possible displacement of copper and bronze artifacts from iron ones (Forbes 1957, 64; Bayley et al. 2008, 50).

By the end of the 9th century, economic and social conditions, which dictated the increased need of metal for agriculture, arms, stirrups, and decoration, started to favor metallurgy and a slow but steady general progress was noted. Smelting sites were multiplied and new mines were discovered and exploited, like the well-known Mines of Rammelsberg, close to the town of Goslar by the Harz Mountains. Open-cast mining and metallurgical activities were mostly concentrated in the Eastern Alps, Saxony, Bohemia, Tuscany, the Rhineland, Gaul and Spain (Nef 1987). French, Flemish, but mainly German miners and metallurgists were the generators of metal production.

High Middle Ages, 11th to 13th centuries[edit]

Medieval mine on the Bockswieser Gangzug [1] north of Oberschulenberg in Germany.

The period right after the 10th century, mark the widespread application of several innovations in the field of mining strategies and ore treatment and, consequently, the shift to large scale and better quality production. Medieval miners and metallurgists had to find solutions for the practical problems that limited former metal production, in order to correspond sufficiently to the calls of those times. The increased demand for metal was an expression of the remarkable population growth from the 11th to the 13th centuries and its impact on agriculture, trade, building construction, including the great gothic churches.

The main concern had to do with inefficient means for draining water out of shafts and adits when operating underground mining, which resulted in flooding of mines and limited extraction activities only in depths close to the surface. Once ores extracted, more problems concerning the difficulty of their transportation and thus the high cost of undertaking such attempts, as well as the profitable separation of metals from gangue or secondary separation of metals, came up. The need for solutions to these problems was the power that generated the development of achievements with critical impact over medieval metal output. The use of water power and wheels for water-driven draining engines, bellows, hammers and the introduction of advanced types of furnaces were the craftsmen's response to this problem. However, the introduction of these innovations did not mean that they were adopted at once or applied to all mines and smelting sites. Throughout the medieval period technical innovations and traditional techniques coexisted and their application depended on the time period and geographical region. Water power in medieval mining and metallurgy was introduced even before the 11th century, but it was only until then that it was widely applied. In addition, the introduction of the blast furnace, mostly for iron smelting, and the Stückofen(fr) furnace in all the established centres of metallurgy contributed to quantitative and qualitative improvement of the metal output, available in lower price. In addition, cupellation, already known from the 8th century, was more often applied for the refinement of lead-silver ores and the obtainment of the precious metal (Bayley 2008).

Underground work in shafts, although limited in certain depths, was accomplished either by fire-setting, for massive ore bodies, or with iron tools, for smaller scale extraction of limited veins. The sorting of base and precious metal ores was completed underground and they were transferred separately (Martinon-Torres & Rehren in press, b). Parallel production with more than one technical methods and different treatment of ores can be present in one site (Rehren et al. 1999).

The intensified progress and the unprecedented interest in metal production were also reflected in the multiplication of active mines and smelting sites (Nef 1987). In relation to sites of the early Middle Ages, these smelting sites need not be near the mines. The presence of streams and thick forests and the access to water for generating the wheels and to wood for fuel and building were more critical than ever. Rich silver-bearing ores of Freiberg in Saxony, discovered by accident in the 12th century, rivaled the Rammelsberg production. While until the 11th and 12th centuries, mining took place mainly in the Eastern Alps, during the following period it was also spread to regions of Central Europe. Base metals such as copper, lead, zinc, tin and iron, precious metals (silver and gold) and alloys, such as brass, bronze and pewter were produced in Central Europe. The most famous regions for their metal production are Bohemia, Silesia, Hungary, Upper Harz, the Black Forest, Styria, Saxony, England, France and Spain. While abundant wood resources were provided by the thick woodlands of the Carpathians, the Erzgebirge and the Sudeten Mountains.

Late Middle Ages, 14th to 16th centuries[edit]

Beschreibung allerfürnemisten mineralischen by Lazarus Ercker, 1580

By the 14th century, the majority of the more easily accessible ore deposits were exhausted. Thus, more advanced technological achievements were introduced in order to cope up with the demand in metal. The alchemical laboratory, separating precious metals from the baser ones they are typically found with, was an essential feature of the metallurgical enterprise. However, a significant hiatus in underground mining was noted during the 14th and the early 15th century because of a series of historical events with severe social and economic impacts. The Great Famine (1315–1317), the Black Death (1347–1353), which diminished European population by 1/3, and the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), which amongst others caused severe deforestation, had also dramatic influences in metallurgical industry and trade. The great demand of material, e.g. for armour, could not be met due to the lack of manpower and capital investment.

It is only by the end of the 13th century that great capital expenditures are invested and more sophisticated machinery is installed in underground mining, which resulted in reaching great depths. The wider application of water- and horse-power was necessary for draining water out of these deep shafts. Also, acid parting in separating gold from silver was introduced in the 14th century (Bayley 2008). However, notable signs of recovery were present only after the mid-15th century, when the improved methods were widely adopted (Nef 1987, 723).

Determinant for the European metal production and trade was the discovery of the New World, which affected world economy ever since. Even though new rich ore deposits were found in Central Europe during the 15th century, this was not enough to meet the large amounts of precious metal imports from America.

Smiths and miners within medieval society[edit]

Metallurgists throughout medieval Europe were free to move within different regions. German metallurgists in search of rich precious metal ores, for instance, took the leading part in mining and affected the course of metal production, not only in East and South Germany, but in almost all Central Europe and the Eastern Alps. As mining was gradually became a task for specialized craftsmen, miners moved in large groups and they formed settlements with their own customs close to mines. They were always welcome by the regional authorities, since the latter were interested in increasing the revenue and the exploitation of the mineral-rich subsurface was quite profitable. The authorities, lay and ecclesiastical, claimed a part of the output and smiths and miners were provided with land for cottages, mills, forges, farming and pasture and they were allowed to use streams and lumber (Nef 1987, 706-715).

Progressing to the high and late Middle Ages, as smelting sites became geographically independent from mines, metalworking was separated from ore smelting. The urban expansion from the 10th century onwards and the dominant role of towns provided metallurgists with the right environment to develop and improve their technology. Metallurgists got organized in guilds and, usually, their workshops were concentrated in town peripheries (McLees 1996).

In medieval societies liberal and mechanical arts were considered as totally different from each other. Metallurgists, as all craftsmen and artisans, lacked the methodical intellectual background but they were the pioneers of causal thinking, based on empirical observation and experimentation (Zilsel 2000).

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Dieter Stoppel (1981) (in German), Gangkarte des Oberharzes, Hannover: Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe
  • Bayley, J., 1996. Innovation in later medieval urban metalworking. Historical Metallurgy 30 (2), 67-71.
  • Bayley, J., 2008. Medieval precious metal refining: archaeology and contemporary texts compared. In: Martinon-Torres, M. and Rehren, Th. (eds), Archaeology, History and Science: integrating approaches to ancient materials. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, 131-150.
  • Bayley, J., Crossley, D. & Ponting, M. (eds), 2008. Metals and Metalworking: A research framework for Archaeometallurgy. The Historical Metallurgy Society, Occasional Publication No 6, 49-64.
  • Craddock, P.T., 1989. Metalworking Techniques. In: Youngs, S. (ed), Work of Angels: Masterpieces of Celtic Metalwork, 6th-9th centuries AD, 170-213.
  • Forbes, R.J., 1957. Metallurgy. In: Singer, C., Holmyard, E.J., Hall, A.R. & Williams, T.I. (eds), A History of Technology, vol. 2: The Mediterranean Civilizations and the Middle Ages c. 700 BC to AD 1500. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 41-80.
  • Keene, D., 1996. Metalworking in Medieval London: an Historical Survey. Historical Metallurgy 30 (2), 95-102.
  • Martinon-Torres, M. & Rehren, Th., in press (a). Metallurgy, Europe. In: Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Medieval World. Dallas: Schlager.
  • Martinon-Torres, M. & Rehren, Th., in press (b). Mining, Europe. In: Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Medieval World. Dallas: Schlager.
  • McLees, C., 1996. Itinerant craftsmen, permanent smithies and the archbishop’s mint: the character and context of metalworking in medieval Trondheim. Historical Metallurgy 30 (2), 121-135.
  • Nef, J.U., 1987. Mining and Metallurgy in Medieval Civilisation. In: Postan, M.M. & Miller, E. (eds), The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, vol. 2: Trade and Industry in the Middle Ages, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 693-761.
  • Rehren, Th., Schneider, J. & Bartels, Chr., 1999. Medieval lead-silver smelting in the Siegerland, West Germany. Historical Metallurgy 33, 73-84.
  • Smith, C.S. & Hawthorne, J.H., 1974. Mappae Clavicula, A little key to the world of medieval techniques. Transactions of American Philosophical Society 64 (4), 1-128.
  • Theophilus, On Divers Arts: The foremost medieval treatise on Painting, Glassmaking and Metalwork. Hawthorne, J.H. & Smith, C.S. (trans), 1979. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Zilsel, E., 2000. The Sociological Roots of Science. Social Studies of Science 30 (6), 935-949.