A Ligneous Affect: Illustrating Vitality in the Woodcut Images from Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica

A Ligneous Affect: Illustrating Vitality in the Woodcut Images
from Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica
by Alan S. Montroso

Georgius Agricola’s posthumously published De Re Metallica, 1556, is hailed as the foundational work on early modern mining and metallurgy, and it was one of the most extensive treatises of its kind for centuries. Not only did the work elevate the prestige of German mining practices throughout Europe, Agricola also invented several hundred Latin phrases to describe German excavation technologies, and the volume was eventually translated into English by soon-to-be president Herbert Hoover, and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, in 1912. The text of the twelve books that comprise De Re Metallica are accompanied by copious woodcut illustrations that depict the many engineering wonders that enabled German mining to achieve its renown. Numbering close to 300, these carefully labeled images enable the reader to visualize the complexity of mineral-rich landscapes and the manifold tools requisite for extracting ore; they depict everything from the sizes and shapes of the veins tracing stories of ore through stony mountains to the ingenious human designs of hand-tools, waterwheels and other excavation devices. These surprisingly detailed images are also densely peopled with the miners themselves, with lumpy-hatted laborers putting to practice the extraordinary feats of German engineering. The most important mining technology of all, it seems, is the toil of the human body.

These seemingly-frozen images, carved into wood and pressed upon each folio page where they preserve the history of mining practices for perpetuity, are anything but static; taught horses’ muscles power cartwheels, ores pour from wagons in piles upon the earth, nimble human fingers operate vast arrays of machinery, bodies lower upon ladders – or by sliding – into the bowels of the earth. The grain of the wood blocks themselves lends a certain activity to these images, giving force to the rushing waters powering giant wheels and encouraging the drooping foliage of forests to sway in the breeze. Regardless of all their liveliness, however, the images in De Re Metallica are primarily concerned with depicting the use of tools and the proper form of technique, the purpose of the diagrams to allow the readers to recreate the engineering set-ups illustrated. Thus I was immensely surprised to find, huddled in a small wood cabin in the lower left corner of a full-page illustration in Book VIII, juxtaposed against a description of techniques for washing freshly excavated metals, two humans in loving embrace, a man and woman kissing passionately behind a half-closed door.

In spite of the proto-scientific objectivity of the text itself, the illustrator nevertheless found a way to inject a little affect into these visual representations of the lives of miners. For that is, truly, what is put on display in this hefty tome: lives. The laborers are entangled in rich landscapes of hewn earth, dank tunnels, rolling wheels and swaying trees, and, if only for a moment, lovers. The scenes portray not only labor practices but the quotidian living of these dire workers, workers who must conceal themselves behind doors to capture even a moment’s pleasure away from their toil. If Agricola treats his subjects – organic and inorganic – as lifeless and inert tools, the illustrator reminds us that all matter vibrates with desire, that shovel and stone and human are all active agents unfolding their beings in an enmeshment of flows and – for humans, to be sure – feelings; if the language of this text would render bodies inert, the images restore vitality to the many bodies that populate its German mining camps.

Having been warmed by this affectionate embrace, I began to notice other moments in which the illustrator of De Re Metallica sought to represent the daily life of his subjects. Throughout many of the images, playful dogs pepper the scenes, following humans or just supinely sprawling about. The text never mentions the use of canine labor, so the reader is left to assume that these are companion animals, early modern pets that, even if they were acknowledged for some utility – perhaps notifying other humans if a miner is injured, or sniffing out more hostile beasts of the woods – were cherished for their company. The more recumbent dogs also contrast the laborious humans, with depictions of their contentedly slumbering forms throwing into painfully sharp relief the physically exhaustive work to which the miners’ bodies are subjected.

The text does treat – however briefly – the deleterious effects of mining on the human body, momentarily expanding on the potential risks of subterranean drudgery to vulnerable organic beings.  In Book VI, the book most dedicated to discussing the tools of the trade, Agricola acknowledges the harms to a human life spent underground: icy water freezes joints, dust devastates lungs, slips from ladders shatter bones, and arsenic produces swollen limbs, ghastly pallor, and death (Agricola also acknowledges the stygian demons the lurk underground in a rare moment of superstitious credulity). The ecological impress of the earth upon humans must be acknowledged, although the text quickly concludes that all of these potential harms are easily avoided with caution and a certain amount of protective equipment. Arriving at the end of the most heavily illustrated book of the entire collection, what is most shocking about this description of the dangers of mining is that these last pages are left without visual accompaniment. Was the illustrator asked not to depict the violence of mining on humans?

If such is the case, if our illustrator (well, likely a team of illustrators working in tandem) was encouraged to leave off carving images of broken limbs and poisoned corpses into the wooden blocks, he nevertheless craftily works in a few moments of affective sympathy for the overworked miners. Hidden – as we now expect of this clever artist – within two richly detailed pictures of laborious undertakings, are singular figures in disparate displays of suffering. The first image is less surprising, for it accompanies a passing reference to the fetid vapors of the underground and shows a subterranean man palming his face in a gesture of pain. The image serves as a warning, for clearly this foolish human failed to evacuate the tunnel as his compatriots light fires above to smoke out the offending fog. The second image, however, catches the reader unawares, for it depicts a laborer absconding from his toil and huddled upon a giant stone in a position that communicates not only exhaustion, but existential despair. The heavily closed eye, accompanied by the shadow on the cheek, suggest a melancholic gravity, an excess of black bile resulting as much from grief as from exhaustion. This miner knows his marginal status, that his subjectivity is forged in this sacrifice of his body to the greater good of the polity.[i] There is no escaping this back-breaking, lung-infecting, pallor-inducing work for the man pressing his pain into the boulder – and yet we, the readers, continue to hope that the stone lends some of its strength back to the weary worker.

This anguish-drenched figure troubles my reading of the final affective image of the text, the very last illustration to Book XII of De Re Metallica. Here, amidst a discussion of the final stages of the matter hewn from the earth, its being shaped into new objects – in this particular case Agricola discusses how rarified sands become sculpted glassworks – we find a particularly refined object shaped from the labors of these toiling humans: an infant! It would seem that the furtive embrace illustrated earlier engendered more than a moment of intellectual curiosity in this reader. Foregrounded amidst the skilled tradesmen preparing the glass for blowing, a mother cradles her naked newborn child as she surveys the men practicing their crafts. The image reminds us that, until recently, living communities arose in proximity to the places of employment – and here, where these laborers work with raw materials at the site of their excavation, we see an entire ecology of forest and log cabin, tools in use and discarded, the kinetic energy of smoke and fire and the breath that blows molten glass into functional tableware. Even the broken items radiate with the same vibrant energy as the men in congenial conversation in the background and the intoxicating beverage, likely fueling their chatter, flowing from the barkeeper’s hands into their next pint.

But what does the image suggest about the futurity of a child raised in such an ecosystem? Will he take pleasure from those secret amorous meetings in the woods, or will he too quickly succumb to his vulnerability, will he crumple under the weight of his own precariousness? If this lively image is concerned with the ways that time and work give shape to raw material, with methods of production and the many potential becomings of matter, the broken pot to the left of the mother’s fore-foot reminds us that all bodies are precarious and unpredictable. As humans, we might hope that our breath transforms molten glass into marketable goods – that our labor will impress the quality of utility upon senseless matter – but such a Freudian desire for control, for sovereignty, is foolish. The will of the bios is only supplemental to the unpredictable activity of the zoe: the physical manifestation of flesh and matter is so thickly entangled in manifold networks and governed by wholly inhuman atomic forces that the will of the human to determine the destiny of any other object is proven, at every moment, with every broken tool’s defiant resistance, only a pipe dream.[ii] Thus the proximity of the mother and her infant to this shattered vase need not suggest a future of broken hopes – and bones – for posterity, but narrates instead the endless possibilities open to their embodied futurity, the freedoms afforded, and not foreclosed, by the agency, the forces, the flows, and yes, even the precarity, of matter.[iii]

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Alan S. Montroso is a third-year PhD student at The George Washington University. His work brings medieval literature into conversation with contemporary ecocriticism and theories of the posthuman in order to counter the traditionally anthropocentric readings of nature and non-humans in medieval texts. His dissertation, tentatively titled “Subterranean Impress: Reading Caves in Medieval Literature,” investigates the inhuman agencies, imaginative possibilities, and mutual transformations engendered by representations of caves throughout various genres of premodern writing.

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Notes 

[i] This line is clearly indebted to Rebecca R. Scott’s thinking about Appalachian mining regions as sacrifice zones, and the subjectivities formed therein,  in Removing Mountains: Extracting Nature and Identity in the Appalachian Coalfields (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2010). See Chapter 1, “Hillbillies and Coal Miners: Representations of a National Sacrifice Zone.”

[ii] Rosi Braidotti brilliantly reverses the Western tradition of privileging the conscious zoe over the material bios in “The Politics of ‘Life Itself’ and New Ways of Dying,” New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, eds. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham: Duke UP, 2010): 201-220.

[iii] Although this short essay is intentionally sparse in citations, I would be remiss and rather irresponsible if I did not acknowledge the brilliant scholars whose many essays and monographs informed my thinking with these inspiring illustrations. Of course Rebecca R. Scott’s work on the marginal identities of miners is pivotal, but I also am indebted to – among others, I am sure – Jane Bennett’s work on vibrant materiality, Stacy Alaimo’s articulating a transcorporeal intersection of environmental justice and identity politics, the Posthuman ethics of Rosi Braidotti, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s enlivening of inorganic matter, the object oriented onticology of Levi R. Bryant, Timothy Morton’s enmeshed approach to thinking ecological systems and scales, and David Abrams’s phenomenological approach for honing awareness of the interconnectivity of our richly sensuous and biodiverse world.