A History of Asbestos Part II: Asbestos through the Middle Ages

by Sokolove Law

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be separated into long, flexible fibers. For years, asbestos was used widely across a range of products, due to its durability, abundance, and resistance to fire. Mined from underground rock across the Americas, Asia, and Europe, asbestos’ wondrous properties were valued for thousands of years. However, long before people knew of the health risks associated with asbestos exposure – it is, after all, the only known cause of mesothelioma, a rare and deadly cancer – the mineral gained a lot of attention, especially in the Middle Ages, when its use became the center of fodder and fascination.

Infamous Exploits of Asbestos

The medieval king, Charlemagne — referred to by some as Charles the Great or the “father of Europe” — controlled the majority of the West from 768 to 814. The first Holy Roman Emperor ruled his territories and his people with an iron fist, and is known in history for being engaged in constant battle throughout his reign. So, what does Charles the Great have to do with asbestos? A little known fact is that the king allegedly provided after-dinner entertainment with an asbestos-woven tablecloth. Charlemagne would throw the tablecloth into a fire to dazzle guests and win bets that the cloth would not burn. At the time, napkins and table runners were also made with asbestos; an important attribute when castles, homes, and storefronts were still lit by candle light.

Perhaps the most well-documented case to prove how little to nothing was known of the dangers of asbestos occurred in the 11th century. Leo Marsicanus, a monk of Monte Cassino, wrote about a group from his monastery who brought back a piece of cloth from Jerusalem. Allegedly, the cloth was the original towel that Jesus of Nazareth used to wash the feet of his disciples. As proof of its “authenticity,” the monks were shown that the cloth was fire resistant. When exposed to the fire, the cloth not only stayed fully intact, it also became whitened by the flames. The monks then referred to the cloth as having been “cleansed,” and its authenticity was made even more convincing.

More Pre-Industrial Uses for Asbestos

Widespread use of asbestos continued during the Middle Ages, and the mineral was found extensively in suits of armor for knights and horsemen. Similar to ancient times, asbestos was also still being used in cremation cloths, mats, and wicks for temple lamps. In 1280, Marco Polo — who once believed that asbestos was the hair of a wooly lizard — returned from China and wrote The Travels, in which he described clothing made in Mongolia that could not be destroyed by fire.

“When the cloths are first made, they are far from white. But they are thrown into the fire and left there for a while; and there they turn white as snow.”

Asbestos was also known in other parts of the world. Abu Ubaid Al-Bekri, a Moorish Spaniard, mentioned the use of asbestos in North Africa for twine and animal collars. The material was also found in an 11th century Byzantine monastery in Cyprus where monks used asbestos in plaster coatings in their wall paintings. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, who made the discovery, say that asbestos gave the paintings a smooth, mirror-like surface.

Evidence of Asbestos as a Health Risk

Once hailed as a “magic mineral,” the deadly side-effects of asbestos exposure started to be observed over 2,000 years ago. Among the ancient observations, slaves who mined, sewed, and worked with asbestos were found to develop lung diseases. Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder also reported that asbestos caused “sickness of the lungs.” Once asbestos fiber becomes airborne and inhaled, it can cause serious damage to organ tissue – and this is a fact that has remained steady throughout all of history.

Unbeknown however, to people who lived through the Middle Ages and pre-industrial times, the smallest and most dangerous asbestos fibers are invisible to the naked eye. They are usually less than one micrometer in width. To put this in perspective, a single strand of human hair is no less than 17 micrometers in width.

Asbestos Use Today

While the harmful effects of asbestos exposure were only starting to be detected during the Middle Ages, today they are widely known and documented. Men and women who were exposed to asbestos can develop diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, among many other asbestos-related illnesses.

The most commonly used type of asbestos is chrysotile asbestos, which comes from serpentine rock. The Asbestos Building Inspectors Manual from the EPA states that chrysotile asbestos represents about 95% of the asbestos found in U.S. buildings. It was most commonly used as part of:

  • Roof sheeting and shingles
  • Joint compound
  • Plaster
  • Texture coatings
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Adhesives
  • Brake linings
  • Brake pads
  • Pipe insulation and wrap
  • Roofing tar
  • Rope seals for boilers

There is no safe type or safe level of asbestos. Exposure to all asbestos can lead to cancer, resulting in death. It has been classified as a carcinogen (cancer causing substance) by the EPA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

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