In our last post on the history of asbestos, we explored how ancient civilizations made use of this seemingly unassuming fibrous mineral. We saw how evidence of asbestos mining could be traced back thousands of years to before the construction of the Great Pyramids and how records of its many health hazards could be found as early as the Roman era.
For most of that ancient history, though, asbestos was used for one of two purposes — to isolate ashes in ceremonial cremations (due to its fire-resistant properties) or to wow visitors from foreign lands as a party trick.
There were other uses, of course, but as the ancient era entered the medieval and renaissance eras, some of those records got lost. It was the European dark ages, after all — a time of civilizational decline.
Asbestos in the Middle Ages
One thing that is well known about asbestos in the Middle Ages is its use in the court of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor who is often referred to as the “Father of Europe.”
One legend tells of how Charlemagne would host luxurious banquets on a white tablecloth woven from pure asbestos. After the feast, he would toss the tablecloth into the fire to amaze guests when it refused to burn. Afterward, the cloth would be laid back out on the table, clean as ever.
Similar stunts were pulled in China. One story tells of a Han Dynasty emperor who used asbestos cloth to clean wine stains, much like a modern stain-resistant fabric. But, in most cases, it seemed like this toxic mineral was still primarily used for party tricks — until the Crusades, that is.
In the 11th century, knights and conscripts from all over Christian Europe marched on the Byzantine Empire to reclaim the holy lands that were then occupied by Muslim forces. Some of those armies were equipped with a new weapon called a trebuchet, which was essentially a giant catapult that could fling missiles over the walls of besieged cities and castles.
According to some reports, in the year 1095, at the outset of the First Crusade, French, German and Italian knights used a trebuchet to hurl flaming bags of tar wrapped in asbestos. It’s likely the asbestos was used to contain the fire until the tar splattered over any enemies or buildings unfortunate enough to be in the bags’ paths. The carcinogenic nature of the substance, after all, still wasn’t well known at this point. But its use in siege weaponry still offers a very frightening image of medieval warfare.
Asbestos and Marco Polo
In the late 13th century, the famed Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo traveled along the Silk Road to China, Persia, India, Japan and much of the Mongolian Empire. His writings about his experience provided Europe with an early account of the inner workings and cultures of Asia.
In one anecdote, Polo told of a Mongolian practice that involved a fire-proof material, which was attributed to the skin of a magical salamander. Polo wrote:
“He said that the way they got them was by digging in that mountain till they found a certain vein. The substance of this vein was then taken and crushed, and when so treated it divides as it were into fibers of wool … These were then spun, and made into napkins. When first made these napkins are not very white, but by putting them into the fire for a while they come out as white as snow. And so again whenever they become dirty they are bleached by being put in the fire.”
Often one to refute the marvelous claims of other travelers, Polo offered a more simplified explanation. It’s reported he visited an asbestos mine in China to disprove claims that asbestos came from the hair of a lizard and was, in fact, a naturally occurring mineral.
Nonetheless, these murky anecdotes about magical lizards lasted until the age of enlightenment and the scientific revolution. In 1642, the English physician Sir Thomas Browne properly attributed those fire-resistant properties not to a lizard but a mineral known as asbestos.
By this time, civilization was entering an era of reason, logic and science. Yet, for all the wisdom of the Enlightenment, the same scientific principles that gave rise to the industrial revolution triggered an era of incredible economic greed. It was in the 19th century when asbestos began to be mined and put to use on a truly globe-spanning, commercial scale.
Civilization was, once again, undergoing a massive change. Capitalism emerged as the dominant economic system, and with it the ruthless dictates of supply and demand. When it came to asbestos, those laws would usurp any concerns about its long-term effects on public health.
In our next installment on the history of asbestos, we’ll look at asbestos during the industrial era, and how its many profitable uses transformed asbestos into the widespread, insidious substance we now know it to be.
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