Goblins and Demons
Goblins and Demons
The belief that there were no more than seven metals persisted for hundreds of years, and it was not until the seventeenth century that the inconvenient, inescapable realization came that there were probably many more. I’ve already mentioned Barba’s report from 1640 about the new metal bismuth; it was one of a number of metals or metal-like species that began to be noticed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In his History of Metals from 1671, Webster begins Chapter 27: ‘Having now ended our Collections and Discourse of the seven Metals, vulgarly accounted so; we now come to some others, that many do also repute for Metals; and if they be not so, at least they are semi-Metals, and some of them accounted new Metals or Minerals, of that sort that were not known to the Ancients.’ In the chapter Webster speaks of antimony, arsenic, bismuth, cobalt, and zinc. While we now understand these as distinct elements, earlier on there was great confusion, with the names being used for compounds rather than the elements themselves—and, furthermore, the different compounds and elements often being mistaken for each other. This makes unravelling their history all the more complicated. We’ll start with Barba’s ‘Mettal between Tin and Lead, and yet distinct from them both’: bismuth. The first mention of bismuth predates Barba’s reference by more than one hundred years. The name appears in its variant spelling, ‘wissmad’, in what is probably the very first book on mining geology. This was published around the turn of the sixteenth century and attributed to one Ulrich Rülein von Calw, the son of a miller who entered the University of Leipzig in 1485. Ulrich mentions in passing that bismuth ore can be an aid to finding silver, since the latter is often found beneath it. Consequently, miners called bismuth ‘the roof of silver’. As Webster later put it in his History of Metals, ‘The ore from whence it is drawn . . . is also more black, and of a leaden colour, which sometimes containeth Silver in it, from whence in the places where it is digged up, they gather that Silver is underneath, and the Miners call it the Cooping, or Covering of Silver.’
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