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Gold During the Middle Ages

"Gold is of the metals the most precious."

The fall of the Roman Empire in the west during the latter part of the fifth century was followed by widespread political and economic chaos that existed in Europe for more than four centuries (the Dark Ages) and was only slowly terminated by the institution of the feudal system in the ninth century. This social order passed into decline near the end of the thirteenth century and was gradually replaced during the next three centuries by nation-states with monarchical and nobility systems, coteries of salaried civil servants, and rudimentary parliaments.

The social chaos, incessant warfare, plagues, and general economic instability during the Early Middle Ages (fifth to the eleventh centuries) resulted in a marked reduction in mining and placering operations for gold. With increasing stability in the High and Late Middle Ages (eleventh to the sixteenth centuries) mining activity increased, and gold was widely sought and won from many of the auriferous regions of western and central Europe, the Middle East, and Middle Asia. Gold mining and placering in China are very old occupations that were pursued extensively in medieval times, judging from the records noticed by Needham (1959). Gold mining in Korea began in the year 1079, but placers had been worked as early as 1122 B.C. (Mills, 1916); in Japan gold mining and placering probably began on a small scale about the beginning of our era, increasing only slowly during the Middle Ages. By 1601 gold mining on Sado Island (west coast of Japan) was well advanced, as witnessed by a unique scroll some 6 meters long and 1/3 of a meter wide illustrating the technique of mining and refining of gold (Bromehead, 1942). During the last centuries of the Early Middle Ages, the Muslim Arabs opened or reopened many of the gold placers and mines under their suzerainty in Spain, Africa, and the Middle East. Much gold also reached the Arab caliphates of North Africa over the trans-Sahara caravan routes through Timbuktu to Fez, Tunis, and Tripoli (Barbary) from the golden land of Wangara (Bovill, 1958). Wangara can probably be equated with the placer belts in the ancient kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, specifically the Bambuk-Buri, Lobi, and Ashanti gold-fields. The auriferous Hausa states (in northern Nigeria) may also have been part of Wangara. The secret of the source of the gold in Wangara was guarded for centuries; the Arabs (Moors) and those who followed in the Late Middle Ages and in modern times, the Portuguese, French, British, Dutch, and Spanish, all sent expeditions southward from their lands to find the fabled golden land of Wangara.

In central Europe the pagan Avars, Czechs, and Saxons mined gold in Bohemia, Transylvania, and the Carpathians. This particular mining revival, led mainly by the Saxon and other Germanic peoples, flourished during the High and Late Middle Ages, particularly in central Germany (Harz Mountains and Bohemia), France, Italy, and Britain. Events of this period included the emancipation of the miner from slavery and serfdom as the Saxon miner became a free agent whose services were in demand from Britain to Transylvania. In addition, during this period there were major advances in mining technology, mining geology, and metallurgy, subjects recorded by Calbus (physician and burgomaster of Freiberg), Biringuccio (master founder of Siena), Ercker (superintendent of mines at Annaberg), and Agricola (physician of Joachimsthal and Chemnitz) during the Renaissance.

During the Middle Ages gold placers were worked in much the same way as in Roman times, but considerable improvements in the methods of booming, hydraulicking and sluicing were introduced, especially the use of "long toms" and rockers. Similarly in bedrock gold mining numerous innovations and improvements of methods and machines utilized by the Romans for centuries were introduced, particularly in underground drainage by employing better Archimedean screws, waterwheels, and force pumps and in ore crushing and grinding by the introduction of waterwheels and windmills. Improvements were also made in the miner's tools and in the techniques of open-cut mining, shaft sinking, drifting, stopping, timbering, ventilation, lighting, mine surveying and so on. Hoisting up shafts and inclines was made less onerous by improved versions of the windlass, often employing horses rather than men. However, rock and ore were still mainly broken by hand by chipping, wedging, or grubbing, generally after fire-setting. The technique of making black powder reached Europe, probably from China, in the Late Middle Ages, but it is doubtful if the explosive was extensively used for blasting rock until much later. All these various improvements in underground mining permitted exploitation of many bedrock gold deposits below the oxidized zones and in some mines, where drainage audits could be driven or where improved pumps could be installed, well below the water table.


Intellectual activity in much of Europe during the Early Middle Ages (fifth to the eleventh centuries) and High Middle Ages (eleventh to the fourteenth centuries) was confined principally to the cloister and consisted mainly of theological speculations. The only glimmer of scientific progress during this long dismal period came from the Arabic schools founded in the ninth and tenth centuries at Baghdad, Damascus, Alexandria, Cordova, and Seville after the Moslem conquests of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. The greatest and most influential philosophers, alchemists, and physicians at these schools were Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber) (c. 721-815), Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya Ar-Razi (Rhazes) (c. 865-932), and Abu-Ali al-Husayn ibn Abdullah ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-tO37). All held views on certain geological subjects and on the origin of metals and veins in the earth; those of Geber and Avicenna merit brief mention.

Geber's writings appeared only in the thirteenth century and have been variously ascribed to Geber himself and to a number of classical Latin writers who assembled various Arabic alchemical works. Geber's writings show a keen interest in chemical methodology and in natural chemistry. In the latter context, his musings on gold are of interest. The translation given here is by R. Russell from his Works of Geber, re-edited by E. Holmyard in 1928 and reprinted in Schwartz and Bishop (1958, p. 190).

Of Sol, or Gold.

"We have already given you, in a General Chapter, the Sum of the Intention of Metals; and here we now intend to make a special Declaration of each one. And first of Gold. We say, Gold is a Metallick Body, Citrine, ponderous, mute, fulgid, equally digested in the Bowels of the Earth, and very long washed with Mineral Water; under the Hammer extensible, fusible, and sustaining the Tryal of the Cupet, and Cement. According to this Definition, you may conclude, that nothing is true Gold, unless it hath all the Causes and Differencies of the Definition of Gold. Yet, whatsoever Metal is radically Citrine, and brings to Equality, and cleanseth, it makes Gold of every kind of Metals. Therefore, we consider by the Work of Nature, and discern, that Copper may be changed into Gold by Artifice. For we see in Copper Mines, a certain Water which flows out, and carries with it thin Scales of Copper, which (by a continual and long continued Course) it washeth and cleanseth. But after such Water ceaseth to flow, we find these thin Scales with the dry Sand, in three years time to be digested with the Heat of the Sun; and among these Scales the purest Gold is found. Therefore, We judge, those Scales were cleansed by the benefit of the Water, but were equally digested by heat of the Sun, in the Dryness of the Sand, and so brought to Equality. Wherefore, imitating Nature, as far as can, we likewise alter; yet in this we cannot follow Nature.

Also Gold is of Metals the most precious, and it is the Tincture of Redness; because it tingeth and transforms every Body. It is calcined and dissolved without profit, and is a Medicine rejoycing, and conserving the Body in Youth. It is most easily broken with Mercury, and by the Odour of Lead. There is not any Body that in act more agrees with it in Substance than Jupiter and Luna; but in Weight, Deafeness, and Putrescibility, Saturn, in Colour Venus; in Potency indeed Venus is more next Luna than Jupiter, and then Saturn: but lastly Mars. And this is one of the Secrets of Nature. Likewise Spirits are commixed with it, and by it fixed, but not without very great Ingenuity, which comes not to an Artificer of a stiff neck."

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This document is in the public domain.

March, 2011