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  • Divining Science: Treasure Hunting and Earth Science in Early Modern Germany
  • Ernst Hamm (bio)
Divining Science: Treasure Hunting and Earth Science in Early Modern Germany. By Warren Alexander Dym. Leiden: Brill, 2011. Pp. x+216. $141.

From the classic De Re Metallica (1556) of Agricola, with its numerous detailed illustrations and its extensive texts, to the Freiberg Mining Academy and its numerous students who went on to illustrious careers across Europe and the Americas, there is much evidence showing that mining was particularly important in central European history. Dowsing was widely practiced throughout this period (the divining rod can still be found among those who drill wells and look for buried pipes), but it had an ambivalent status. Thus, while Agricola described the use of the “rod” in detail and left no doubt that dowsing was a widespread practice among pious and trustworthy miners, he also was concerned that the rod was sometimes used in sorcery. Warren Dym is not concerned with questions of the efficacy of dowsing, and instead adopts David Bloor’s symmetry principle, seeking to explore “similar causal factors” (p. 3) behind the development of both dowsing and mining science. Divining Science wears its theoretical approach lightly and builds on a solid foundation of published works as well as archival and manuscript sources, using the divining rod as a guide for exploring the culture and science of mining in early modern Saxony.

Divining Science begins with a case study of prospecting for salt brine (salt was the “white gold” of a number of German principalities) in 1713–14, with the aim of showing that there was no epistemic or social distinction between mining surveyors and dowsers. Both were considered part of the business of finding and mining salt. This story is followed by a consideration of the divining rod’s relation to magic, witchcraft, and the forces of confessionalization that swept across sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Here, dowsing occupied no clearly defined position: it was sometimes associated with black magic, but not usually byminers and those who wrote about mining. Notable among the latter was Johann Thölde, aka the alchemist Basil Valentine, whose explanation of dowsing in terms of the [End Page 925] theory of mineral vapors (Witterungen) persisted well into the eighteenth century. The Scientific Revolution, the subject of another chapter, saw Cartesian corpuscular explanations of dowsing, but these gained little traction. Gottfried Leibniz was more important for his views on the bureaucratic management of mines, a masculine ideal, than he was for his dismissal of the “feminine” principles of mining spirits and those who, in his view, were gullible enough to be taken in by dowsers (p. 164).

All of this does not mean there was no “science” associated with dowsing. On the contrary, the core of Dym’s argument and the part of his book that is likely to be of greatest interest to readers of Technology and Culture is his discussion of mining science (Bergwissenschaft) as “vernacular knowledge” (pp. 77–103). While Dym acknowledges the importance of bureaucratic reforms and scholarly attention to mining during the period between the Thirty Years’ War and the Seven Years’ War (1648–1756), he argues, convincingly, that mining officials at this time advanced an experienced-based or “vernacular” science that incorporated mining lore of all sorts: alchemical concepts of mineral generation, the mathematics of mine surveying, and “craft skill and tacit knowledge such as dowsing” (p. 78). Contra those historians who have downplayed the importance of miners’ beliefs in the history of mining science, Dym makes the case that Bergwissenschaft encompassed an “artisanal epistemology” (p. 79) along with learned sources and more popular kinds of knowledge. The mining officials whose books Dym considers, and the eighteenth-century dowsers at Freiberg whose practice he examines in another chapter, all were part of Bergwissenschaft, a pragmatic body of knowledge that was close to the crafts, highly systematic, and professional. The founding of the Freiberg Mining Academy in 1765 represented a new chapter in the history of mining, but it did not do away with Bergwissenschaft and was unable to end dowsing and so, instead, sought to explain it with reference to electricity and magnetism.



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