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The Limits of Matter

Chemistry, Mining, and Enlightenment

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Europeans raised a number of questions about the nature of reality and found their answers to be different from those that had satisfied their forebears. They discounted tales of witches, trolls, magic, and miraculous transformations and instead began looking elsewhere to explain the world around them. In The Limits of Matter, Hjalmar Fors investigates how conceptions of matter changed during the Enlightenment and pins this important change in European culture to the formation of the modern discipline of chemistry.
Fors reveals how, early in the eighteenth century, chemists began to view metals no longer as the ingredients for “chrysopoeia”—or gold making—but as elemental substances, or the basic building blocks of matter. At the center of this emerging idea, argues Fors, was the Bureau of Mines of the Swedish State, which saw the practical and profitable potential of these materials in the economies of mining and smelting.

By studying the chemists at the Swedish Bureau of Mines and their networks, and integrating their practices into the wider European context, Fors illustrates how they and their successors played a significant role in the development of our modern notion of matter and made a significant contribution to the modern European view of reality.

248 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2014



Earth Sciences: History of Earth Sciences

History: European History, History of Ideas

History of Science


“[I]f alchemy was not simply delusory or charlatan, why and how did it ‘go under’ in the eighteenth century? And in what ways was its demise connected to those of related supernatural convictions and activities like magic, astrology and the belief in activities and influence of angelic or devilish creatures? And how was the demise of this constellation of associated supernatural beliefs related to/caused by the new epistemic cultural configuration associated with the Enlightenment, in particular, knowledge as public, rational and useful? And how were Enlightenment views of knowledge, in turn associated with/caused by the hegemony, in the eighteenth century, of the bureaucratic, cameralist state and its institutions of learning and industry? Fors gets at all of these issues and questions through the detailed study of a number of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century administrators and advisors at the Bureau of Mines.... Many scholars of eighteenth-century chemistry will now have their work cut out for them. All in all, this is a complex, stimulating and important study."

Seymour Mauskopf | Lychnos: Annual of the Swedish History of Science Society

"Hjalmar Fors’s The Limits of Matter is an erudite and absorbing book. Its general, ambitious aim is that of tracing and delineating a major transition in early modern European culture: the construction and establishment, in the first half of the eighteenth-century, of the “modern notion of materiality.” By the term 'materiality,' Fors identifies a wide intellectual territory, generally comprising sets of beliefs, worldviews and theories about the nature of matter. This is of course a daunting task, which Fors wisely approaches by considering the case of Sweden, in the period between the end of the seventeenth-century and the first half of the eighteenth-century."

Cesare Pastorino | Bulletin for the History of Chemistry

"Fors moves in a fascinating way from the details of the Bureau of Mines and its developments during 100 years to the political and societal situation in Sweden in the late 17th and early 18th century to a general discussion of how the modern notion of matter emerged, and how these men made an important contribution to European views of reality and the development of the Enlightenment. The book should be of interest not only to specialists in its field but to a wider range of economists, geologists and mining engineers who want to ground their specific knowledge on a wider understanding of the present discourse among historians of science."

Magnus Ericsson | Mineral Economics

"In the history of chemistry, so often focused on work with gases in England and France, Swedish mineralogists have long been characterized as peripheral, if overachieving, innovators. Through its detailed exploration of the establishment of mineralogical chemistry at the cosmopolitan Bureau of Mines, Fors’s book foregrounds the rich intellectual milieu of eighteenth-century Sweden and reestablishes Swedish chemists’ collective contributions and influence within our understanding of early modern natural philosophy."

Charlotte A. Abney Salomon | Endeavour

"Hjalmar Fors offers us an intriguing and powerful account of the origins of chemistry as exhibited in the practical, economically driven concern of the Swedish Bureau of Mines with the identification, purification and profitable extraction of metals in the middle decades of the eighteenth century....there is little doubt that Fors’s thoughtful and innovative analysis helps to provide a foundation upon which a new history of the origins of chemistry in the eighteenth century can be built."

David Philip Miller | Annals of Science

"[A] very interesting contribution to the history of chemistry in that it fully considers several neglected aspects of chemical science in the Enlightenment."

Ferdinando Abbri | Nuncius

"The origin of the concept of the chemical element has been a topic of historical debate since the beginning of the history of science. Hjalmar Fors has written a fascinating book, which places this debate within the context of eighteenth- century Swedish mining culture....This is a well researched and a subtly argued book that I highly recommend to anyone interested early modern chemistry, mining, or materials in the European Enlightenment."

John Powers | Early Science and Medicine

"Mapping the social dynamics within and around the Bureau of Mines in eighteenth-century Sweden, The Limits of Matter contributes to a new image of Enlightenment chemistry."

Francesco G. Sacco | The British Journal for the History of Science

"It is unusual for a book on the history of chemistry to open with an account of a witch trial, but this is only one of a number of original ideas mobilized by Hjalmar Fors in his history of the Swedish Bureau of Mines (the Bergskol- legium) in the 17th and 18th century. Indeed, the author’s desire to engage the reader and get his message across makes the book a much more enjoyable read than most contributions to this field....while the 17th and 18th century constitute a well-explored period in the history of chemistry, by his choice of subject and his way of dealing with it, Fors breaks new ground. Thus, he offers us an accessible and informative book centered on the Swedish Bureau of Mines that represents not only an excellent contribution to the field of the history of chemistry but also a noteworthy contribution to the history of early modern science in general."

Jonathan Simon | Centaurus

"In the early part of the 18th century, the rise of rational thinking in Europe was marked by a cultural shift that gave voice to the Enlightenment, as the world of the 17th century changed from mysticism to mechanics. There were no 'chymical miracles,' no transmuted lead, no dragons or trolls, no witchcraft or malevolent magic—only the drudgery of experiments done for the nth time, producing reason based on evidence. Base metals were no longer change agents for making gold but, like gold, metallic elements in their own right. Leading the way were Sweden and its Bureau of Mines, an early agent of economic and social change driven by mineral wealth. However, this book is not just about Sweden. Fors offers readers a concise, informed, and scholarly case study in the history of science. In seven crisply written chapters, he describes how these newly inquisitive artisans and engineers pushed the limits of knowledge into unmapped territory. Please be sure to note the elegant dust jacket, subtle and sublime. Kudos to author, publisher, and designer! Highly recommended."


"Fors has written a meticulously researched study of chemistry and mineralogy in Sweden, especially at the Bureau of Mines in Stockholm, in the period from 1680 to 1760. The Limits of Matter is grounded in a thorough exploration of the archives of the bureau and such other institutions as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the University of Uppsala. His bibliography and endnotes also provide ample citations to the secondary literature on early modern chemistry in several languages."


“In this excellent book, Hjalmar Fors explores the changing domains and deployments of chemistry from roughly 1670 to 1770. While Sweden is central to his account, Fors deftly reintegrates Scandinavia into the wider European scene, such that the book is revelatory also of linked developments in Germany, England, France, and elsewhere. Institutional structures such as the Bureau of Mines and governmental entities play an important role in this story as do key figures such as Urban Hjärne, and Fors compellingly details the intersections of commercial and political interests with the technical, scientific, and social. Fors’s study is a significant contribution to the literature, and one that will certainly provoke discussion and further exploration. The Limits of Matter will be of interest not only to historians of science but also to those of Scandinavia, industrialization, mining, commerce, and of the Enlightenment generally.”

Lawrence M. Principe, author of The Secrets of Alchemy

“Fors has produced a clever and perceptive study of the chemists working at the seventeenth and eighteenth century Swedish Bureau of Mines, one of the most important centers of technical expertise and administration in early modern Europe. He uses this study to propose a remarkably ambitious and effective reinterpretation of the transformation of the European worldview: the discredit of notions of spirits, witches, and mutable nature, and their displacement by a mechanical and utilitarian system of material elements and technological systems. Fors’s study shows how these fascinating changes were intimately linked with the reorganization of the institutions in which chemical experts plied their trade. As laboratories and government ministries allied themselves in the name of economic development and state power, so the places and the groups amongst which traditional beliefs about magical and occult powers flourished were simultaneously changed. Nor, so Fors urges, was this ever confined to a matter of local concern: rather, his study dramatizes the Europe-wide networks that linked chemical expertise, mining folklore and administrative policy in vividly characterized systems of exchange, debate, and controversy. This brilliant essay establishes itself as a major point of reference for future historical understanding of the relations between knowledge, culture, and society in the early modern world.”

Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge

“While philosophers for two centuries have asked what the Enlightenment could be, Hjalmar Fors here excavates it from the files of the Swedish Bureau of Mines and puts it on display. Gnomes and trolls and alchemical transformations, considered still in the early eighteenth century as part of everyday mining experience, were not at first the victims of logical or experimental demonstration, but began to be excluded as impractical, and then as undignified. Modern chemistry was shaped in critical ways by the bureaucratic mobilization of technical knowledge. Fors’ history of this important topic is not merely instructive, but passionate and paradoxical.”

Theodore M. Porter, University of California, Los Angeles

In this path-breaking study, which examines an astonishing range of knowledge practices—from witchcraft, magic, alchemy, assaying, minerology, and mining—at the dawn of European modernity, Hjalmar Fors masterfully demonstrates the decisive role of the officials of the Swedish Bureau of Mines in defining the nature of reality, of matter and the imagination, of science, and who was authorised to practice it. His command of primary and secondary sources and languages is awe-inspiring. This is a learned, original, and important work that is bound to be a game-changer in 18th-century studies, both in terms of historiography and geography.

Kapil Raj, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

Table of Contents

1 Introduction: The Edges of the Map

2 Of Witches, Trolls, and Inquisitive Men

3 Chymists in the Mining Business

4 From Curious to Ingenious Knowledge

5 Elements of Enlightenment

6 Capturing the Laughing Gnome

7 Conclusion: Material Reality and the Enlightenment


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