Sunday, September 27, 2020

When Asbestos Was a Gift Fit for a King

From JSTOR Daily:
File under: “don’t try this at home.”
According to legend, Charlemagne liked to lay out his lavish banquets on a sparkling-white tablecloth spun from pure asbestos. After his guests had eaten their fill, the king would pluck the tablecloth off the table and fling it into the hearth. In the blaze, the cloth turned fiery red, but did not burn. When it was plucked out, it was cleaner than ever, with the debris of the meal roasted away.

Long before asbestos was recognized as a health hazard, it was a near-mythical wonder material, a gift fit for kings and emperors. One Han dynasty general apparently put on an even better show than Charlemagne: he would wear an asbestos jacket to dinner and “accidentally” spill wine over it. Feigning a fit of rage, he would rip off the garment and throw it into the fire, only to pull it out moments later, perfectly clean and unharmed.

Nobles were cremated in asbestos shrouds, so that their ashes would not mix with the cinders of the fire. The eternal flames that burned in the temples of Vesta, watched over by the Vestal virgins, were kindled on asbestos wicks.

But asbestos was also turned to less scrupulous uses. The wondrous properties of the material made it a prime tool for the creation of false relics: its incombustibility served as proof of authenticity. Scammers passed off chunks of asbestos as fragments of the True Cross, and the monks of Monte Cassino bought an asbestos towel under the impression that it was the cloth Jesus had used to wash his disciples’ feet....

People are so creative.