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  • Writer's pictureAlana Bartol

I Found a Muse in Martine

Since I began working with dowsing in my artwork, my research introduced me to the life and work of Martine de Bertereau (dob estimated to between 1578-1589), also known as the Baroness de Beausoleil, a mining engineer and the first recorded female mineralogist who lived and worked in France.

Martine's story is a complex one that points to the history of dowsing in connection to mining and resource extraction rooted in colonial violence that she both participated in and was killed by.

Alana Bartol, With A Finger To Her Lips (Descending), 2020. Performance documentation, archival inkjet print, 55.88 x 81.28 cm ed. 1/5. Photo by

Working with her husband, Jean du Chastelet, also a mineralogist and mining engineer, they traveled throughout various parts of Europe, discovering mineral ore deposits. Bertereau and her husband employed various techniques and types of knowledge as mining prospectors including divination and the use of dowsing rods. Together, they uncovered ore veins and bodies of gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, and coal, as well as other mineral pigments and stones. Accused of witchcraft, she died in prison along with one of her daughters.

Martine has become a muse of sorts. Her story is a complex one that points to the history of dowsing in connection to mining and resource extraction rooted in colonial violence that she both participated in and was killed by. I have often returned to her story and have drawn inspiration from it when constructing and designing dowsing tools (the sixteen holes for test tube samples in my sculpture Pendulum I (the Dowser's Pendulum) correspond to the sixteen instruments and sixteen sciences and arts of the mining engineer that Bertereau wrote about. Since beginning this residency, I have been visiting abandoned coal mining sites near the Crowsnest Pass in southwestern Alberta, embodying Bertereau through performances and interactions as 'we' examine the remains of coal extraction. Perhaps it only makes sense that creating artworks about fossil capitalism would lead me to collaborating with the dead. And after finding so many illustrations of dowser's disembodied hands, I thought it appropriate that Martine inhabit mine.

Johann Gottfried Zeidler & Christian Thomasius, Illustrations from Radiästhesie & Wünschelrute (How to Hold the Divining Rod), 1700, copper engraving on paper, 16 x 9,5 cm. Source: Deutsche Fotothek.

Alana Bartol, With A Finger To Her Lips (Core Calculations), 2020. Performance documentation, archival inkjet print, 55.88 x 81.28 cm ed. 1/5. Photo by

Martine de Bertereau wrote two texts on mine prospecting: Véritable déclaration faicte au Roy et à nos Seigneurs de son Conseil des riches et inestimables thrésors nouvellement descouverts dans le royaume de France (1632) and La Restitution de Pluton (1640). In making my way through the texts (admittedly, my French translation skills are not great), and through the work of scholars such as that have written about Bertereau, I have been given a glimpse into her working methods and the circumstances surrounding her imprisonment. Initially, I was interested in learning about the dowsing rods Martine and her husband employed in her work, the form of the tools, how they were used, and the materials they were made of. Although she writes of the use of metallic and hydraulic instruments as well as metallic rods as part of her methods to discover metal ores, Martine does not reveal the form of the tools or exactly how they were used, though she writes of their value in her work:

Now, in addition to these five rules and sixteen instruments, there are still seven metallic rods whose very practical knowledge and practicality, which our ancients used to descend, from the surface of the earth, the metals which are inside and in their depths, and if the mines are poor or rich in metal. As also to descend the source of the waters before opening the earth, if they are abundant. (Bertereau 1640)

The seven rods and sixteen instruments corresponded to the seven known alchemical metals (gold, silver, mercury or quicksilver, copper, iron, tin, lead) and what were considered the seven planets (the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). Astrology played a key role in determining when the rods and instruments should be created. Included in Restitution de Pluton (1640) are seven different astrological diagrams or astral charts with information on when the fabrication of the instruments and rods should take place. The instruments were divided into seven groups each given a name (which may provide clues about their form), corresponding to the seven planets and their corresponding metals (including zinc with tin and antimony with lead). The tools would be used to find specific minerals (or stones) under the influence of each 'planet'. Bertereau believed that certain In this scenario, I imagine the planets as wanderers and the metals creating a celestial connection or offering a moment of pause as they wander through the universe. Other scholars speculate that two of the horoscopes belonged to Bertereau and Chalet to demonstrate that they were destined to their profession as if was a common assumption that "those that searched for mines should have been born under zodiac signs and under certain astrological conditions" (Pascual-Valderrama & Pérez-Pariente 1). Whatever their intent, the diagrams offer interesting possibilities of how the tools might have been used.

Astrological diagrams from Martine de Bertereau's Restitution de Pluton, 1640.

How the instruments were used and what they each looked like seem to be unknown according to my research to date although there are some clues. Bertereau describes her use of an instrument to discover mineral spring waters at Château-Thierry, by mounting a "mineralogical compass onto the astronomical hinge" (Bertereau 1632). Kölbl-Ebert illustrates how Bertereau's text is "almost direct borrowing from the first-century (BC) Roman writer, architect and engineer, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio" (213), providing a comparison chart of site tests of sorts to show where Bertereau inserted her use of divining rods into the process and adjusted information to reflect the climate and landscape of France (214). From the descriptions Bertereau provided, the instruments (and possibly also the rods) were mounted onto some sort of support. I will have to read further into the text and may do some research on surveying tools and instruments of the time to imagine what this might have looked like.

Regarding the form of the rods, Bertereau describes the use of the Moon rod, indicating that there was a place in the rod in which metals or materials could be inserted, "if you apply the Moon rod and that of Mercury within and if they incline themselves halfway towards the east, west, north or midday, it is certain that there is water close to where they incline themselves & if they go down less than half way, it signifies but little water" (1640). This may be similar to the divining rod design by Athanasius Kircher, who famously wrote Mundus Subterraneus (1665). As Pascual-Valderrama & Pérez-Pariente write that Kircher, like Bertereau, "believes in "sympathy” between different metals or substances and natural bodies and in the actual presence of exhalations coming from mineral deposits" (8). He envisions a new type of divining rod, made by connecting a piece of wood with a piece of another material (such as gold), that when held by a string at the point of equilibrium (both parts must be of the same weight), will activate the rod when it is above a sympathetic metal or material.

Illustration from Athanasius Kircher's Mundus Subterraneus, 1665. (Taken from British Library item

Bertereau did not divulge many secrets when it came to the shape, form or use of these instruments. As scholar Martina Kölbl-Ebert observes, "But for most of the text, Madame de Bertereau seemingly chose to guard her art as a craft secret, covering it in a veil of astrology and other occult practices" (209). Was divination, astronomy, and alchemy employed to obscure her true methods or were they components of a holistic working method? Alongside astrology, alchemy, and the use of the instruments, Bertereau notes the importance for those engaged in mining engineering to possess sixteen knowledge sets in chemistry, architecture, drawing, perspective, medicine, surgery, arithmetic, geometry, labour and mining legislation, hydraulics, languages (Bertereau spoke French, Italian, German, English, Spanish, and Latin), theology, lapidarie (in this case meaning petrography rather than the art of lapidary), pyrotechnics, and botany (Bertereau 1640).

Martine de Bertereau's Restitution de Pluton, 1640. Lyon Public Library, Digitized 28 Nov 2011.

Bertereau was imprisoned shortly after she wrote La Restitution, a text directed to Cardinal Richelieu, a representative of the King’s court. In this text, she requests financing for the work she and her husband had undertaken asking for financing to develop mines. Along with one of her daughters, she was imprisoned at Vincennes. Her husband was arrested and imprisoned in Bastille. Most accounts place her death around 1643, though it is not clear how and exactly when she died. Although Bertereau, her husband and daughter were charged with crimes of casting horoscopes, chiromancy, and practicing astrology (Kölbl-Ebert 208) it is speculated that the real reason for their imprisonment is connected to her final text.

Illustration of underground "matrices of metals" from Athanasius Kircher's Mundus Subterraneus, 1664.

As for Bertereau's five rules to find ore veins or bodies, the first was digging but she notes that this is the least important. There is much to be learned at the surface that can indicate what lies below. Now I am digging, digging up the past to bring it into the present but I haven't had to go very far. I came to the Crowsnest Pass to investigate mining history and the surface remains of abandoned coal mines and suddenly I find myself at the foot of a road leading to an open pit coal mine site set to begin operations in 2021.

Benga Mining Limited, a subsidiary of Riversdale Resources Limited, is proposing the Grassy Mountain Coal Mine, an open-pit metallurgical coal mine near the Crowsnest Pass in southwest Alberta. Photo: Alana Bartol.

Works Referenced

de Bertereau, Martine. La restitution de Pluton, H. du Mesnil, Paris, 1640.

Kölbl-Ebert, Martina. “How to find water: the state of the art in the early seventeenth century, derived from writings of Martine de Bertereau (1632-1640),” Earth Sciences History, vol. 28 no. 2, 2009, pp. 204-218.

Pascual-Valderrama, Ignacio Miguel and Joaquín Pérez-Pariente. "Alchemy At The Service of Mining Technology in Seventeenth-Century Europe, According To The Works of Martine de Bertereau and Jean du Chastelet," Bulletin for the History of Chemistry, vol. 37, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-8.


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