Handbooks & treatises – a brief history of metalworking texts

by Jamie Hall on February 12, 2015

If you are reading this, you already have access to the internet, and a vast pool of technical information. Not all of it is free, or accessible to the public, but clever use of a search engine can furnish you with an introduction to any area of human knowledge. As a result, our lives are enriched – perhaps too much. It is easy to undervalue information in the modern age; in a century, or a millenium, how much of our data will still be available? What legacy will we leave, and can that legacy represent the breadth of what we know?

Looking back through history, we can ask similar questions. In most cases, the legacy is a physical one – works of architecture, metalwork, and so on, and by discovering and catalogueing them, we can develop a picture of the technologies and materials that were used to create those objects. In a handful of cases, we have extant texts (treasures in their own right) written by scribes or metallurgists, offering a different insight into workshop practice in the past.

These texts cannot be fully relied on, for a number of reasons. The principle issue is that they offer such a narrow slice of the picture. It can be hard to attribute an individual author, but that does not make the ideas popular, or represent all of the methods used at the time. There are also questions of who wrote the texts, and why they wrote them. These issues vary between texts, and these should be explored before taking everything literally.

This is not a detailed list, by any means. I’m always looking for new examples, and there are several avenues worthy of exploration. Instead, this is a chronological description of the texts I have access to, with a bit of historical context thrown in. Most of these are available to purchase, or as free e-books.

Even in prehistoric times, people made things. Once they had written language, they started to describe things. The first relevant texts would need some crossover between literacy and practice – either a literate artisan, or a literate observer of their work. That might not mean a description of the methods – there is a wealth of cuneiform tablets relating to trade. Civilisation means administration, apparently, including metals and other workshop materials. For example, this one from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which is a promisary note for silver. Where there is a profit motive, there is an interest in recording the details, and this is a useful, if indirect, description of the resources available to ancient metalworkers. There are some fragmentary cuneiform recipes, and these might be the first technical texts.

Around 2,000 years ago, encyclopaedias appeared, such as those written by Pliny and Dioscorides. These continued to be used throughout the middle ages, and provide a catalogue of different materials and industries, with tantalising suggestions of the techniques required. But these are not written by practitioners, and it is breadth, not depth, that they offer. As we will see repeatedly, we cross paths with the history of chemistry, medicine, and many others, because the materials are shared between different trades, and medicine in particular might be responsible for the popularity of the encyclopaedias.

300 years later, the Leyden X and Stockholm papyri were written. They contain numbered recipes, including the alloying of metals, processing of reagents, and dyeing of textiles. They may represent an older tradition of recipes, or the emergence of a new way of thinking about them. These are genuinely practical texts, but we have to be careful – do not assume accuracy in the original recipes, or in the translations. We can’t even assume that they were written with the intention of being used!

Beyond that, from c.AD600, is the Mappae Clavicula, which is a family of manuscripts, once again listing recipes, much longer than Leyden X and Stockholm, with some descent from them. Copies were circulated for hundreds of years, presumably growing and shrinking as time passed.

These recipes contain useful instructions, but they are not instructional manuals. They assume that the reader has the equipment and expertise to make use of them. The next step is the treatise, which offers a comprehensive education.pirotechnia

The first example is the work of Theophilus, On Divers Arts, or Schedula diversarum artium, c.AD1100. It’s an inspiring book, describing in detail the way that a workshop should be established, tools made, and work undertaken. For the first time, it seems, we are being written to – the author is advising us on the way we should work, and the mistakes we might make. The text covers painting, glassworking and metalwork in seperate books. Around AD1400, Cennini releases The Craftsman’s Handbook or Il Libro dell’Arte. This is not directly useful for metalworkers, but has the same feel as Theophilus, with advice on becoming an artist, preparing materials and good practice.

In the mid-16th century, it really takes off. One hundred years after the introduction of the printing press, there is Biringuccio’s De la Pirotechnia, and Agricola’s De re Metallica, both lengthy texts, containing illustrations! The latter tends towards mining and refining, while Biringuccio is evidently a master of the foundry, and tends towards large-scale casting, refining and chemistry, rather than the ‘minuterie’ that Cellini describes in his Treatises on Goldsmithing and Sculpture. Cellini’s text is lively (like his autobiography), and informative. It seems simpler, and more archaic than his contemporaries, but it is likely the first book that is specifically about small-scale goldsmithing and jewellery manufacturing – all of the other texts are relevant to the subject, but this one is special.metallica

From this point on, the number of books grow and grow, but this is also where my period ends. Through the centuries, the texts become easier to read, and comparable to modern workshop practice, but likewise, they lack some of the mystery and adventure that their predecessors had.

I hope to expand this list. There are a few texts of particular interest, notably the work of Lazarus Ercker, which is too expensive for my budget! As I suggested above, there is crossover with other branches of craft and technology, and those are fertile areas to explore. If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment.

Whatever their faults may be, these texts are limitless opportunities for study, and provide a direct, and often personal, link to the past. I get a lot of pleasure from reading them, and I hope that you will too.

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