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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 35 (2003) 129-153

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"The Possibilities of the Land":
The Inventory of "Natural Riches" in the Early Modern German Territories

Alix Cooper

In 1728, the court physician Franz Ernst Brückmann published a "Subterranean Thesaurus of the Duchy of Braunschweig," or, as he subtitled it in German, "Braunschweig with Its Underground Treasures and Rarities of Nature." This work, a survey of the mineral world of the Braunschweig area, was far from unique; from the late seventeenth century onward, such localist mineralogical works had begun to appear with increasing frequency from German presses. But Brückmann's "Subterranean Thesaurus" is of special interest because of an intriguing congratulatory poem that opens the volume. This poem, penned by Albrecht Ritter, administrator of the gymnasium at Ilfeld and a fellow devotee of the mineral world, displays a striking preoccupation with issues we might term economic and with the concept of natural wealth in particular. The poem begins: "Mortals often squander their treasuries [thesauros], for when they decide what to gather up, they find poverty in riches" (Brückmann 1728, 11). Here Ritter invokes a trope that, by the time he wrote, had become a commonplace in local mineralogies: namely, the contention that many lands possessed natural "riches" that had, up until then, [End Page 129] been neglected or seen as worthless, but that could be redeemed if their true nature were recognized. In his poem, however, Ritter gives this theme a surprising twist. He enumerates various different ways of seeking wealth—alchemy, mining, and trade, among others—and dismisses them all as problematic and uncertain. In contrast to these popular Renaissance and Baroque modes of wealth-seeking, Ritter argues that Brückmann's project of describing natural riches is far more simple and sound: "You act far better and more prudently, most experienced man, when you reveal treasures to mortals that are true and beneficial, that are constant, that are true and beneficial, since they lead us to the recognition of God" (11–12). For Ritter, Brückmann's undertaking of documenting his territory's possession of natural riches, of a different kind than men at court had previously looked for, would lead not only to a sound natural theology, but to a better understanding of the true "value" of nature.

The goal of this article will be to explore the connection between ideas of political economy and the emergence of new forms of natural description in the German territories of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. This period saw the origins of several new genres of writing in natural history that crossed the boundaries, in various ways, between the new sciences and statecraft. The late-seventeenth-century emergence of local mineralogies, such as that of Brückmann, provides an example of one such development; another may be seen in the early-eighteenth-century arrival of works purporting to provide the complete "natural history" of a territory in all of its dimensions, animal, vegetable, and mineral. An examination of these genres shows that, while drawing on the model of the local floras, or lists of "indigenous" plants, that had begun to appear several decades earlier (Cooper 1998), they reveal a new and considerable preoccupation on the part of their authors with ideas of "natural wealth." It will be the purpose of this article to examine the origins and implications of this concern with "natural wealth" and to show the ways in which, while expressing clear affinities with central European politico-economic literature of the time, authors of these new localist inventories of the natural world came to develop their own distinctive interpretations of the "value" of nature.

Over the course of the past several decades, scholars of the Scientific Revolution and those of early modern Europe have moved closer together. Historians of science no longer focus entirely on "pure knowledge," on the internalist discussion of abstract ideas, though this remains an extremely important part of the history of science. But what has been...


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pp. 129-153
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Archived 2005
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