Blog, History, Mines

How Romans, monks and Saxons changed the mining world

Romans were known for their mastery to channel water via aqueducts into the cities for their public baths. This technology was useful as well to harness water power to run mills making flour or extracting olive oils. They also learned how to use these devices for pumping ground water out of mines using norias or Archimedes screws. This dramatically improved their access to deeper mine levels. This knowledge came in especially handy when the Romans conquered the Spanish peninsula from the Carthagians. Extracting Iberias’ rich deposits for tin, silver, gold and copper catapulted the Roman Republic onto a path of military glory. At the height of its power it was the home of 130 million people or 40% of the world population. It reached from England in North to Egypt in the South, Spain in the West and to Syria in the East. 

The extent of the Roman Empire and mines in its possession

However, mining was then, as it is now, a very capital intensive enterprise. The many water mills, pumps and aqueducts that were needed to mine minerals, required stability and knowledgeable personnel. When Germanic tribes started to intrude the now Western Roman Empire, this stability ceased to exist. Not only did the Vandals literally vandalized the Roman possessions, but they also drove off or killed the competent people that were necessary to run sophisticated mining operations. Once a mine is abandoned and becomes flooded however, it is very hard to reopen it, especially in these times. So when the Romans lost their assets in Iberia, they not only lost mining expertise, but more importantly its related revenues to fight wars. Hence it did not take long that the Western Roman Empire succumbed to the barbarians and so it fell in 480 AD. The knowledge of how to harness water power and build and operate mines was not entirely lost, though. It was maintained in the Eastern Roman Empire which was still going strong for quite some time. 

Uniform of a Roman soldier

In the remains of the Western Roman Empire however, literacy of the populace declined sharply and the Dark Ages arrived. The only solace were the sermons read by the clergy of the Catholic Church that found its home in Rome. To do so required literate people, and so this institution would become the educated elite of its time. To spread the gospel though, religious texts needed to be replicated such that they can be shared extensively. For this, many Benedictine monasteries were founded in Western Europe. They thereby not only accumulated religious texts, but in the fashion of “knowledge is power” also enormous wealth. 

Especially this latter aspect was objectionable to some of the clergy and led to the foundation of the Cistercian order in 1098, at the monastery in Citeaux. The Cistercians saw their path to enlightenment differently from the Benedictines in a number of ways. Unlike the latter, their path was rooted in the believe that the further they settle from populated areas, the closer they can be to god. For this however they needed to be self-sufficient, and needed to use more machinery. So they did think hard about the productivity of humans versus that of capital. When the Crusades brought back Roman and Greek knowledge from the retreating Byzantine Empire, including that of water management and the harnessing of water power, their time had come. After all, employing water mills would reduce the amount of human work necessary to become self-sufficient and allow for more time to pray. This model became a resounding success and Cistercian monasteries popped up quickly all over sparsely populated Western Europe.

Selected Cistercian monasteries and mines of Central Europe during the Middle Ages

When they founded the Walkenried monastery at the foot of the Harz Mountains, the Cistercians finally encountered an opportunity to apply their water management knowledge to mining. They did so in the close-by located Rammelsberg mine shown at the cover image. Using their expertise they improved its productivity tremendously. In time they became 25% shareholders of it, and the monastery became thereby one of the wealthiest in the German realm. Their involvement in mining was a win-win situation for all involved parties though. So did the local Saxon miners pick up on the transferred knowledge and built and developed it further. Mining became a well-respected vocation. When in 1168 silver was discovered in Freiberg at the edge of the Ore Mountains, word got around quick (Berggeschrey), and miners from the Rammelsberg area were quick to start mining operations there. They settled at a place that is known up to this day as the Sachsendorf. The Cistercian monks from Walkenried also founded monasteries close by and it can be assumed that their monasteries transferred their knowledge in dewatering, mining and even smelting also. 

Water powered machines (stamp mill & mechanical bellows used for smelting copper ore)

By the 1200s the reputation of the Saxon miners had grown to such a degree, such that their expertise was sought after in places as far away as the Kingdoms of Sweden (e.g. Falun) and Hungary (e.g. Banska Stiavnica). In what is now part of Romania they were thereby actually involved in the reopening of the old Roman gold mines of Transylvania (e.g. Rosia Montana). Later they also brought their expertise to places in Tyrol (Schwaz), and went as far away as Russia and even Venezuela.

During the late 1400s more silver (as well as tin and lead) was discovered in the western part of the Ore Mountains. It led to another Berggeschrey and resulted in the foundations of many new towns. One of the most famous of them was probably Jachymov, also known in German as Joachimsthal (Joachim’s valley). The mine of the town was so rich in silver that a mint was quickly set up in 1519. It produced the Joachimsthaler which started to circulate in huge quantities. The word Thaler became thereby so common that the word was adapted into other languages, such as the Dollar. This Bohemian town will also be remembered for its famous medical doctor and scientist – Georgius Agricola. As a Saxon he lived there for four years, right at the peak of mining in the Ore Mountains. He gained intricate knowledge of those activities and started to document them. His famous and posthumous work DE RE METALLICA was published in 1556. In it he described for the first time all different aspects of mining, all in an expansive twelve volume book series. His work became the basis for future generations of mining engineers, geologists and metallurgists.

Ore prospectors in Agricola’s DE RE METALLICA anno 1556 (wikimedia)

It was thereby certainly part of the curriculum of one of the earliest and still existing mining schools in the world, which turned mining as a vocation into a professional degree. The university in question was founded in 1765 – The Royal Saxon Bergakademie of Freiberg. People like the inventor of the still used scale of mineral hardness, Friedrich Mohs, another Saxon from the Harz Mountains, taught at this school. Two metals, germanium and indium were discovered at the university, as well. Moreover ores from the region were the source rocks for other metal discoveries such as tungsten, uranium and radium. Famous graduates such as Alexander von Humboldt, Mikhail Lomonossov, Waldemar Lindgren, Juan Jose and Fausto Fermin Delhuyar, as well as Andres Manuel del Rio spread Saxon mining terminology across the globe, as much as did various translations of Agricola’s work (e.g. quartz, feldspar, basalt, bismuth). The translation of his work into English was thereby done by none other than Herbert Clark Hoover, the only mining engineer who ever became president of the United States.

The Bergakademie Freiberg

The impact of Saxon mining was not only limited to the growth of science and the spread of mining knowledge and its professionalization, however. The economic impact was probably much more significant at the times. So did the acquired riches not only allow the Saxons to establish Dresden as its new capital and make it a cultural center of Europe. Its miners also helped traders and investors accumulate vast fortunes in Nuremberg and Augsburg. The Welsers and Fuggers, who lived in these cities respectively, created enormous financial empires that reached from Europe to the New World and India. Jakob Fugger is up to this day credited as the richest person that lived in modern times. His immense wealth and influence catapulted the Austrian Empire onto the world stage and thereby changed the course of European politics. 

Dresden, the capital of Saxony

There is another aspect where the influence of Saxon Mining is felt up until today. Mining, and especially underground mining, which was most common in the Middle Ages, is by default more dangerous than surface mining. Many miners perished in the primitive shafts and stopes back then, many more than nowadays. To help injured miners or help grieving families when their mining breadwinners died, an institution was set up to care for them financially. Such a Bergbruderschaft (mining brotherhood) was set up first at Rammelsberg in 1260. It thereby became one of the oldest forms of non-religious social security systems in the world. Many such systems in Germany and the rest of the world were ultimately modelled on it ever since. 

800 year old mining tools from the Ore Mountains in Saxony (shovels, pick axe, hammers)

And yet there is one more innovation that resulted from all these mining activities. Jakob Fugger who turned a bit philanthropic at the end of his life, created a housing complex for poor people at the Augsburger Fuggerei in 1516. He thereby unwittingly started the concept of social housing. It is self funded up to this day, more than 500 years after its inception. It is also a testament that social services can have a lasting impact on society. So did it for instance house the great-grandfather of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the musical wunderkind of the 1700s. Would we listen today to his beautiful music without the Fuggerei in Augsburg, and all the mining that made it possible?

The Augsburg Fuggerei – social housing, Renaissance style

So after all the direct and indirect consequences of mining, one might wonder what happened to those monks that most likely triggered many of these developments. Since its inception in 1098, the Cistercian order blossomed for about a quarter of a millennium between the 1250s and 1520s. In time the order became wealthy and sluggish, just as did the Benedictines before. Their acquired wealth and that of the Catholic church was once again not much appreciated within the society and some clergymen.

Locations of Cistercian monasteries in 1470

So it was another monk, born to a copper metallurgist and smelter owner in Eisleben near the Saxon town of Hettstedt, who would change the church forever. His name was Martin Luther. When he posted his 95 theses on the reformation of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg in 1515, the Church would never be the same. Like minded Protestants gained popularity in the Saxon lands, resulting in the abandonment and confiscation of plenty of Church properties, including monasteries. In a very short span of time, Cistercian clergy converted or were driven out of the Nordic countries, Northern Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The second major blow to the order came with Napoleon, who through his military campaigns and the political reforms he initiated, reduced the number of monasteries down to levels not seen for 700 years.

Martin Luther (wikimedia)

Since this time the number of monasteries recovered slowly again, and one religious offshoot of the Cistercians is of particular interest. To return to more strict religious principles a new order was founded in 1664. They took their name from the original monastery La Trappe, France and are called the Trappists since. In good tradition of self-sufficiency, some of these monks started to brew beer and are now known especially for their strong ales. The Belgian Trappists are thereby the most prolific ones and probably also the best! So when you like to reminisce what the Romans, Cistercian monks and Saxons contributed to the mining industry, a Trappist ale would be a good choice! So lets finish with a German Prost, a Saxon Glück Auf, all of that to the tune of the German mining song – the Steigerlied! .. well maybe this is a bit too much…! 🙂

A delicious selection of Trappist beers


  1. astrid marechal

    April 23, 2020 at 5:18 am

    Very interesting read. Thanks for putting it together!

    1. Jan Pfeifer

      April 23, 2020 at 11:51 pm

      Thanks Astrid, and nice that you liked it. It took some time to research and put the maps together, but I think it was well worth it. We should never forget our roots, and where all that what we take for granted these days came from originally. Cheers, Jan

  2. Marcus Apel

    May 7, 2020 at 9:27 pm

    Great, exciting thread from the Romans to us! And continuing 🙂
    Glück Auf!

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