Did people really believe the Earth birthed minerals?
May 16, 2014 10:46 AM   Subscribe

After browsing John Comenius' Orbis Sensualium Pictus (per this fine Mefi post), I came across this curiously worded statement in the The Fruits of the Earth section:

Metals, Stones, and Minerals
Grow under the Earth.

Sub terra nascuntur
Metalla, Lapides, Mineralia.

My question: did people really believe that rocks and minerals "grew" (nascor translates as begotten, as in born or generated) in the earth lie a plant grows on it? Or is this a kind of just-so explanation Comenius is using to illustrate a point? If people did believe that the Earth "generated" rocks and minerals, where can I find other medieval or Early Modern texts which might discuss this concept?
posted by Chrischris to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Are you familiar with the phenomenon of frost heaving? It pushes stones upwards, from year to year it really looks like they're "growing" out of the ground.
posted by Tom-B at 11:05 AM on May 16, 2014

Mandeville on diamonds (although better read as wild extrapolation from other crystals): "they grow together, male and female. And they be nourished with the dew of heaven. And they engender commonly and bring forth small children, that multiply and grow all the year."

More on lapidiaries.
posted by holgate at 11:07 AM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, basically. It was an idea that stretched back to Aristotle, like a lot of pre-modern science.
posted by jedicus at 11:09 AM on May 16, 2014

Yes, this was believed by some (and contested by others). There was a lively debate in the later seventeenth century about whether "figured stones" (which we would call fossils) were the petrified remains of formerly living creatures, or whether they were lapides sui generis (stones of their own kind), possibly formed when the seminal virtue of an animal or plant was mistakenly embedded in stone. Martin J. S. Rudwick's book The Meaning of Fossils has an accessible discussion.

(Fossilia, by the way, originally just meant "things that have been dug up.")
posted by brianogilvie at 11:18 AM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

It seems surprising to us but in context of that time, it can be understandable.

Consider that mineral crystals do grow, consider also that fossils with very complex forms were found miles above the sea level in rocks, and that fossilized trees were also found which appeared to be growing inside and out of the rocks.

One of the arguments used in support of this point of view was that fossilized trees were never found with branches (the real reason for that being that branches are thinner and degrade much quicker and aren't likely to be preserved); another argument was that fossilized tree trunks sometimes appeared not as a separate formation but gradually changing into a rock, without any visible boundary.

If you don't know how the fossilized trees are formed, exactly, these observations would be very suggestive.
posted by rainy at 11:50 AM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

The greatest* scientific minds of the ancient world thought salamanders were born from fire, and newts from mud - not in those substances, but from them.

Diamonds being born of the Earth is rather less of a stretch.

*Well, according to the people who wrote books back then, anyway.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:10 PM on May 19, 2014

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