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History of asbestos - from the Middle Ages to the 18th Century

The first blog in our series of the history of asbestos, 'From the Stone Age to the Egyptians and Romans - the history of asbestos' detailed when asbestos was first dated by archeologists - the Stone Age some 750,000 years ago until its use by the Romans and Egyptians. This blog now looks beyond that timescale and up to the 18th century. We start by studying the Middle Ages, which lasted approximately from the late 5th to the late 15th century and began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. 

The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne of France

Due to accidental fires from the candles that were lit during celebratory events and feasts, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne of France had asbestos woven into a tablecloth so it acted as an early fire prevention method (around 800 AD). Not only did it not burn when thrown into a fire but it looked no different from when it went in. His guests subsequently believed that this was evidence of the Emperor’s own supernatural powers.

Charlemagne also deployed asbestos shrouds to envelope the bodies of dead generals. Despite the heat of the cremation process, the shrouds did not burn, thus keeping the ashes separate from those of the funeral pyre’s. Further uses of asbestos beyond cremation ceremonies were to be found in temples - mats and wicks for lamps and sourced from Cyprus (chrysotile asbestos) and northern Italy (tremolite asbestos).

What is the difference between chrysotile asbestos and tremolite asbestos?

Asbestos encompasses multiple types of minerals. According to the HSE there are 3 main types that were used in the UK, but we have listed the additional 3 below for completeness.

  • Chrysotile (white asbestos)

  • Amosite (brown asbestos)

  • Crocidolite (blue asbestos)

  • Anthophyllite

  • Tremolite

  • Actinolite

Chrysotile asbestos is today, the most commonly used form of asbestos. It is the most recognised form of serpentine asbestos with long and curly fibres. The other minerals including tremolite asbestos are forms of amphibole fibres and are shorter and straighter than the serpentine form. You may be interested to learn that it is amphibole fibres which are hard, brittle and less flexible which end up deeper in the airways and trapped inside tissue cells and are deemed more hazardous (refer to GOV.UK).

The Zhou dynasty of China

Similarly, during the Zhou dynasty (1046 - 256 BC) asbestos was used in the same way: woven into a fabric thereby rendering it fireproof. On learning of a mythological salamander-like creature that could live in fire and whose hair could be entwined in fabric, the intrepid Marco Polo debunked the lizard theory which he diarised after a visit to a mine and having seen for himself, the existence of asbestos.

The Middle Ages 11th Century - The Crusades

During the First Crusade (which began in 1096 and ended in 1099), asbestos woven into bags was used as weaponry and deployed against cities under siege. Within these bags, crusaders from France, Germany and Italy would put flaming bags of pitch and tar and hurl them over city walls in a framework called a trebuchet. Designed to crush walls, the machine was extremely effective and far more destructive than a catapult.

Use of chrysotile asbestos during the reign of Peter the Great

During the reign of Peter the Great, Russia’s tsar from 1682 to 1725, chrysotile asbestos was mined in the city of Asbest and production is still ongoing today. The website for the Uralasbest plant states that it produces 21% of chrysotile in the world, exporting 78% of it with an annual production volume of 450,000 tons.

Benjamin Franklin - from North America to London

Benjamin Franklin, (1706-1790) a leading intellectual of his time, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, described in his autobiography how in 1725: “I had brought over [to London] a few Curiosities among which the principal was a Purse made of the Asbestos, which purifies by Fire.”

He subsequently sold the purse to Sir Hans Sloane (later President of the Royal Society of London) and is now part of the Natural History Museum’s collection.

History of asbestos 5th - 18th Century

This blog has covered a huge period in history and details the many uses of asbestos and what we now know are the various mineral composites. Our next blog will look at a shorter time in history but is, at least, when its threat to health was finally recognised. 

Read our final blog in the series, 'From the 18th century to now - the story of asbestos.'