Buried alive, but free
For thousands of years, mining skills were transferred from generation to generation as a secret science. Those who mastered it were assured an exceptional social position. You may be asking now, “What could have been so exceptional about toiling in mines ‘for peanuts’?” The answer is: freedom.
The unbearable lightness of miners’ being
Although miners were heavily tested by inhuman working conditions, famine and disease in past centuries, these people were better off than others. Mining and related professions were sources of wealth for the aristocracy and merchant classes. Therefore, miners and people in related professions did not have to enlist as soldiers and go to wars; they were not restricted by serfs’ and villeins’ responsibilities, and they could move wherever they wanted, without seeking their lords’ approval. Miners even had “brethren treasuries” as collectively owned financial reserves to be used in cases of accidents causing injuries or disabilities. The other side of the coin was the miners’ unbelievably hard work and short life. The sound of knocking on a special wooden board (the klopačka), which summoned miners to work every morning, was also their death knell, accompanying them on their way to the grave with almost equal frequency.
Equal and more equal
In medieval Štiavnica, you could easily say who belonged to what social class, according to people’s wealth and the size of their houses. The richest class of mine owners (called waldburghers, from German) was not easy to enter. They lived in the most beautiful houses in the town centre, sat on the town council, ruled the market, and enjoyed tax and other benefits. The middle class consisted of craftsmen, small mine owners and merchants. Miners, employees of mining facilities and day labourers made up the poorest class. But they were free, with a right to spend their hard-earned money in waldburghers’ shops. And then there were the peasants. Unlike miners, peasants worked in the fresh air, but were the town’s serfs with a number of unpleasant duties.
Enough is enough!
Although miners could endure almost anything, in the course of the 15th to the 20th centuries, they let the nobility know that even miners had their limits. In 1525, the largest mining uprising broke out in the central Slovakian mining region. The Queen threatened the miners, who had refused to work, with death and property loss, although they barely owned anything. Riots, which lasted until 1526, were regularly and cruelly supressed; but they did bring some slight improvements to miners’ living conditions. Miners regularly expressed their discontent, even in the face of punishment by death. But in other corners of the Monarchy, the oppression by the feudal nobility was even greater. Therefore, prospering Štiavnica became an attractive place, and many people from distant locations were willing to go through the complicated process leading to being allowed to live in the town. In the 1780s, more than 20 thousand people lived here, and Štiavnica was, after Pest and Pressburg, the third largest city of the Hungarian Empire.
Gold moves mountains
Before more progressive methods (fire and, later, gunpowder) began to be used in mines, hundreds of kilometres of tunnels deep into the earth were carved out of the rock by hand, using only hammers and chisels. Tens of millions of tonnes of rock to be broken and moved, the choking darkness of underground tunnels, constant life-threatening danger… And still, mining continues to fascinate people.
Tens of thousands of men worked belowground, and from an early age; boys as young as 7 years old used to help in the mines. Gradually, several categories of miners were created, among which were those who excavated tunnels and shafts, and those who worked on the surface, transporting the ore. Then there were the suppliers of materials, clothing, and food. About the quality of these supplies, let us only say that miners often suffered from malnutrition. And, although they were able to extract great amounts of silver every week, you could hardly find a miner who owned even one silver coin. Miners were neither serfs, nor villeins, but the mine owners knew how to chain the miners down. The mine owning waldburghers ran the food, beer and wine businesses, too. So, the little money they paid to the miners simply went back into the rich men’s pockets. As if this were not enough, in 1608, the miners were paid a two-week salary for three-weeks’ work. The working hours kept being extended. In addition, as described by the English doctor Eduard Brown in his travelogue from the 17th c., the miners of Štiavnica often did blind digging – meaning on the basis of random decisions on direction by the mine owners. It is said that once the miners dug for six years without any results, yet all the time only about 3.5 metres from a gold-bearing site. Or, in a different case, they reached a gold vein only after 12 long years of toil. And all this was happening in darkness, in just the dim light of tallow burners. By the way, the greatest tallow-making plant was located where the stairs to the Chemistry High School are today – next to the side entrance to the Botanical Garden.
Glory and misery of the mine owners
For the fact that, today, we can admire the facades of the splendid palaces on Holy Trinity Square, Radničné Square or Andrej Kmeť street, we can be grateful to people who were not among the favourites of the mining public. The luxurious houses belonged to mine owners, those responsible for the miners’ servitude. But – as you can soon read – even wealth did not guarantee the mine owners a long and contented life.
The mine owners of medieval Banská Štiavnica came mostly from German Saxony and Thuringia. They owned all the operations, including the smelters, stamp mills, and grinding mills. They also controlled the food market and owned the right to sell alcohol. They sold wine, transported from Dalmatia, and beer, brewed directly in town, in shops on what is today Andrej Kmeť Street. Some of the mine owners even foresaw a better future in selling alcohol than in mining. That truly upset King Mathew in 1481. The waldburghers who neglected mining were banned from selling wine because drunk miners were of no profit to the royal treasury. The mine owners joined together to build the mines and mining facilities. They had family connections, as well, because they did not want strangers in their closed groups. If you looked at the addresses of the mine owners on the main square, you would find that all of them were somehow related. Men did not live long in those times, and their widows and property enjoyed the interest of other men of short life expectancy. In the stormy 17th c., these families gradually died off or were scattered all over the world. However, the mining companies survived. The most powerful one in the central Slovakian region was the Geramb Mining Union. It was founded by Ján Jozef Geramb in 1743, and was still prosperous at the end of the 19th c. However, after the price of silver collapsed, the Union fell into decline and finally went bankrupt in 1906.