Asbestos in the Middle Age and Beyond

Around 755 AD, King Charlemagne of France ordered a tablecloth made of asbestos to prevent it from burning during the accidental fires that frequently occurred during feasts and celebrations. Like the ancient Greeks, he also wrapped the bodies of his dead generals in asbestos shrouds. By the end of the first millennium, cremation cloths, mats and wicks for temple lamps were fashioned from chrysotile asbestos, from Cyprus, and tremolite asbestos, from northern Italy. In 1095, the French, German and Italian knights who fought in the First Crusade used a catapult, called a trebuchet, to fling flaming bags of pitch and tar wrapped in asbestos bags over city walls during their sieges. In 1280, Marco Polo wrote about clothing made by the Mongolians from a “fabric which would not burn.” Polo visited an asbestos mine in China to disproved the myth that asbestos came from the hair of a wooly lizard. Chrysotile asbestos was mined during the reign of Peter the Great, Russia’s tsar from 1682 to 1725. A purse made of fireproof asbestos, now part of London’s Natural History Museum collection, was brought to England by Benjamin Franklin during his first visit there as a young man in 1725. Paper made from asbestos was discovered in Italy in the early 1700s. By the 1800s, the Italian government was utilizing asbestos fibers in its bank notes. The Parisian Fire Brigade in the mid-1850s wore jackets and helmets made from asbestos.