This paper analyzes how the Western concept of minerals evolved over time. Greco-Roman philosophers saw minerals as a form of plant that yielded useful metals or medicines. Most of their data came from mines and focused on ore minerals, but medicinal uses were more highly regarded and were the principal intentional focus of early mineral literature. As mining waned in the early medieval period, the focus of mineral literature shifted to emphasize gemstones rather than ores and mysticism rather than metallurgy, while medicine continued to be prominent. Descriptions from firsthand observation became rare.
Starting in the 9th century AD, an inorganic concept of minerals as chemicals began to arise from alchemical experiments in the Middle East. The alchemical mineral literature demonstrated that minerals differed from plants in being separable into constituent ingredients by chemical processes, focusing on ores. The sulfur-mercury model of mineral origin also reflects a strong emphasis on metal ores at the expense of other minerals. As mining rates increased again in Europe after the 10th century, this alchemical concept of minerals caught on. However, the alchemical model acquired a spiritual gloss, leading to a divide in the 16th century between a spiritualized organic model of minerals and an inorganic or mechanical alternative, both focused mainly on ores. Eventually the concept of spiritual or living minerals diverged from the mineral to the alchemical literature in the 16th century, as the mechanical model evolved into the modern chemical identification of minerals.