Mining and metallurgy in medieval Europe
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The Middle Ages in Europe cover the time span from the 5th century AD to the 16th century, the beginning of the Renaissance. In Western Europe a blooming period for the mining industry began in the Middle Ages. The first important mines here were those at Goslar in the Harz mountains, taken into commission in the tenth century. Another famous mining town is Falun in Sweden where since the thirteenth century until the present day copper is being won.
The rise of Western European mining industry depended, of course, closely on the increasing weight of Western Europe on the stage of world history. In the history books more attention has traditionally been paid to generals, kings and artists than to things like mining and technology. Still, it is exactly these 2 areas that made the flourishing of Western European civilization to a large extent possible.
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
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
The period right after the 10th century, marks the widespread application of several innovations in the field of mining, and ore treatment. It marks a 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 meet the market demands for metals. The increased demand for metal was due to the remarkable population growth from the 11th to the 13th centuries. This growth had impact on agriculture, trade, and building construction, including the great Gothic churches.
The main concern had to do with inefficient means for draining water out of shafts and tunnels in underground mining. This resulted in the flooding of mines which limited the extraction of ore to shallow depths close to the surface.
The secondary concerns were the separation of the metal bearing minerals from the worthless material that surrounds, or is closely mixed, with it. Also the difficulty of the transportation of the ore, which resulted in additional high costs.
The economic value of mining, resulted in investment in the development of solutions to these problems, which had a distinct positive impact on medieval metal output. Such innovations as water power using waterwheels for powering draining engines, bellows, hammers; or the introduction of advanced types of furnaces. These innovations were not adopted at once, or applied to all mines and smelting sites. Throughout the medieval period these technical innovations, and the traditional techniques, coexisted. Their application depended on the time period, and geographical region. Water power in medieval mining and metallurgy was introduced well before the 11th century, but it was only in the 11th century that it was widely applied. The introduction of the blast furnace, mostly for iron smelting, in all the established centres of metallurgy contributed to quantitative and qualitative improvement of the metal output, making metallic iron available at a lower price.
In addition, cupellation, developed in the 8th century, was more often used. It is used for the refinement of lead-silver ores, to separate the silver from the lead (Bayley 2008). Parallel production with more than one technical method, and different treatment of ores, would occur wherever two ores were present at one site. (Rehren et al. 1999).
Underground work in shafts, although limited in depth, 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).
Late Middle Ages, 14th to 16th centuries
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 keep 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
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 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).
- Mining in the Upper Harz in central Germany.
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- Rehren, Th., Schneider, J. & Bartels, Chr., 1999. Medieval lead-silver smelting in the Siegerland, West Germany. Historical Metallurgy 33, 73-84.
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