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Pollution in the Middle Ages

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Yesuel
Term Paper, Medieval History Class, June 2013

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
I.1 Definition
I.1.1 Pollution
I.1.2 Clothing Culture
I.1.3 Higher Social Classes
I.2 Boundary
II. Clothing Material of the Nobility in the Middle Ages
II.1 Leather
II.2 Textiles
II.3 Metal
III. Pollution Caused During the Processing of Each Material
III.1 Leather
III.1.1 Liming and Deliming
III.1.2 Tanning and Tawing
III.2 Textiles
III.2.1 Process
III.2.1.1 Finishing
III.2.1.2 Dying
III.2.2 ii. Textile industry as portrayed in the movie Brother sun, sister moon
III.3 Metal
III.3.1 Mining
III.3.2 Metalworking
III.3.2.1 Smelting
III.3.2.2 Forging
IV Comparison betweem types of Pollution
V. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            These days, pollution is threatening humankind and worsening the environmental destruction. A significant part of modern environmental pollution was caused by the certain industries such as agriculture, mining and factory industries. Similarly, since particular industries have already emerged in the medieval time, the environmental pollution due to the medieval industries is strongly suggested to have existed. In fact, environmental pollution already existed due to the certain industries. One of those industries is possibly a clothing industry. Clothing culture began to flourish in the Middle Ages as the Crusades brought new kinds of technology and culture to European society and the nobility started to crave more and more fancy and costly clothes. Clothing used to be the indicator of social hierarchy as well as the way of expressing their wealth, so, to satisfy the higher social classes, the pollution was inevitable. This paper will mainly focus on how the clothing culture of the higher social classes contributed to the pollution in the Middle Ages.

I.1 Definition
            Before going into main points, definitions of some terms will be provided.

I.1.1 Pollution
            According to the, pollution refers to the addition of any substances or any form of energy to the environment at a rate faster than it can disperse, diluted, decomposed, recycled, or stored in some harmless form. Pollution (environmental pollution) covers the air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, and noise pollution.

I.1.2 Clothing Culture
            Clothing culture in this paper is defined as tendency or inclination relevant to things made of materials such as fabric, leather, or metal which people wear on their bodies to protect or express them.

I.1.3 The higher social classes
            The higher social classes refer to the group of people like the nobility, knights, and vassals. Unlike peasants, they mainly gave order to the peasants, let the peasants work, and governed various sizes of land.

I.2 Boundary
            To sustain the quality of this paper, and prevent false expectations, limits in region and chronology are set in advance. As a regional limit, since the Medieval History class of this term only deals with the European countries, this term paper will also focus on Western Europe countries. Furthermore, the term ¡®middle ages¡¯ indicate that the paper will aim to prove that clothing industries from 6th century to 15th century are relevant to the environmental pollution.

II. Clothing material of the nobility in the Middle ages
            There are several kinds of clothing material for the higher social classes, but here are three main materials relevant to the pollution in the middle ages; leather, textile, and metal.

II.1 Leather
            Leather refers to an animal skin or hides that have been treated to preserved them and make them suitable for use. In the middle ages, leather was uncommon material for clothing among the peasants or not wealthy family due to its long tanning and tawing process which made leather costly. According to Das Leben auf der Burg (Manfred Reitz, 2004), the nobility and the knights used leather as clothing material, while the peasants mostly wore clothes made of fabric. (1)

II.2 Textiles
            Textile is any filament, fiber, or yarn that can be made into fabric or cloth and the resulting material itself. Though humble peasants could also wear dyed clothes, vivid colors were not allowed. (2) Furthermore, textiles dyed with more fancy, vivid color required more effort in the dyeing process. There were even some dyers who only dealt with those colors. (3) If people were to dye textile into bright, vivid color, they need more mordant, more expensive dye to prevent color from fading. Thus only the wealthy nobility or knights could afford vivid clothing. Furthermore, certain colors were only for certain people. For example, purple was the color symbolizing the royal family. Some noblemen sought after clothes of certain colors to express their wealth and high social status.

II.3 Metal
            Metal is hard substance such as iron, steel, gold, or lead. Due to its weight, metal was barely used as main material of peasants' clothing in the middle ages. Instead, metal was used for making the protective armor of knights and glittering accessories such as necklace, bracelet and belt. Gold and silver were used for expensive accessories. According to Costume 1066 to the present (John Peacock, 2006), as the time went by, the metallic accessories became detailed and there had always been ones in clothes of higher social classes from 11th century to 16th century. (4)

III. Pollution caused by each material
            Each material mentioned above created the pollution in the Middle Ages in the industrial process.

III.1 Leather
            Leather is made of animal skin or hides. When the skin or hide are prepared, they are stiff and dirty with animal flesh and fat. Since they are unsuitable for products, series of process were needed.
            First, workers got rid of animal flesh and fat on the skin through the liming. They put the leather in the water, pounded and scoured them. To eliminate hair fiber on the skin, they used urine, alkaline lime mixture, or salt water. After setting the rawhide in the liquid for several days, tanners used curved knife to scrap the loosened hair off. Then, they applied acidic matter like animal feces to bring the pH of hide lower. After deliming(bating) the leather, they started the tanning and tawing process. Both of them prevent the skin from decaying and make them smoother. The tanners dealt ox, cow or calf hides with tanning agent from oak bark. The tawyers used alum or oil to make the pig skins or goat skins smoother, and produce white leather. The hides were stretched and left in the liquid for several weeks while the concentration of tannin is increasing. The last step was finishing process in which the tanners applied finishing material on the leather. Then, the leather was ready for daily products.

III.1.1 Liming and Deliming
            In the liming process, use of urine, alkaline lime mixture caused water pollution when they were let into the stream. Also, leaving the leather in the liquor containing alkali substances such as urine and alkaline lime mixture let the ammonia gas in the air, causing minor air pollution. In fact, the combination of urine, animal feces, and decaying flesh of animal made the tanneries so odoriferous that most of the tanneries located themselves at the outcast of the city.

III.1.2 Tanning and Tawing
            Tanning and Tawing process lasted long time. Tanners used tannin which is a powder chemical collected from the oak bark. Tannin is soluble in water, and causes the changes in the protein structure. Tawyers used alum. Alum is an acidic, astringent chemical. Along with the oil they used, chemicals such as tannin, alum, and caused water pollution when they released to the stream after all the processes ended.

III.2 Textiles

III.2.1 Process
            Textile industry bloomed in the middle ages owing to the great demand of fancy colored textile by the higher social classes.
            First, the wool had to be combed to make it suitable for weaving. Wool from long haired sheep was combed with metal comb, while the others were usually dealt with wooden cards. Then, the workers weaved threads into the textile.
            Next, the finishing process was conducted to raise the quality of the textile. Commonly, the fullers used the fuller's earth to eliminate wool wax or oil with which wool are dealt. Another book introduced that they also used stale urine from animals and humans. Decomposition of the urine produced ammonia which made soap by partial saponification when combined with wool fat (5). By beating the textile, they could also increase the density of the textile.
            In some kinds of material such as linen, cotton and silk, the finishing process was followed by bleaching. One book states that the traditional method of linen and cotton bleaching in the England involved soaking the textile in sour milk and cow's dug for weeks. Silk was bleached by spreading it over a cage in which lamp sulfur was burned. (6)
            Dyeing process was not required, but since the nobility wanted colored textile, fair quantity of textiles went through it. They boiled the textile in the big pot with mordant which helps the dye to be absorbed. Then rinsing and dipping were repeated to get rid of the chemicals on the textile.
            After the textile was dyed, the workers raised the pile with teazles and cut off the loose threads. According to a book, shearing was extremely skilled work, since the surface quality of the cloth depended upon the worker's dexterity.

III.2.1.1 Finishing
            Fuller's earth is a clay-like earthy material used in the finishing process. Through the adsorption which takes place in the water containing fuller's earth, impurities such as oil or wax are eliminated. Then, the water containing fuller's earth was released into the stream, causing the water pollution and stream to be acidic. The alternative, stale urine also led to a similar situation of water pollution.

III.2.1.2 Dyeing
            Both the dyeing process and the dye making process caused serious pollution in the middle ages. First of all, the dye making process required pollutants like urine or alum. For example, according to Mappae Clavicula (Anonymous, 12th century, 1847 translated edition) explaining the clothing culture from 8th century to 11th century, green dye needed dung of dog, dove, urine and alum. Innsbruck Manuscript (Anonymous, 1330) which describes clothing culture in 13th century explains that green dye requires urine, alum and vinegar. In short, materials such as urine and alum used in dye making process led to water pollution.
            Dyeing process also accompanied environmental pollution. In the dyeing process, mordant is used to enhance the ability of dye. Alum was usually used for mordant, and was boiled with the dye and the textile. After the textile was boiled with dye and alum for enough time, it was taken out of the pot and rinsed. After the dyeing process, the liquid containing mordant, dye and other chemicals was released into the stream. The textile was occasionally dyed several times in order to make the color more vivid. Thus, it could go through rinsing and dipping many times, causing extra water pollution.

III.2.2 Textile industry as portrayed in the movie Brother sun, sister moon
            In Brother sun, sister moon (1972), filmed by Franco Zeffirelli, Francesco's father owns a textile factory. The movie portrays the life of Saint Francis of Assisi in 12th and 13th century. In the movie, a stream makes its way between the boiling pots on the wooden board across the stream. The factory is full of toxic gas, and the boiling liquid occasionally fell into the stream, definitely causing water pollution
            This scene in movie is partly portraying the possible scene in middle ages. Regarding weaving process, finishing process, and the dyeing process which all require water, the textile industry in middle ages are considered to have used large amount of water. Hence, the scene in the movie which shows the stream flowing by the boiling water can be considered to have reflected the reality in the middle ages.

III.3 Metal

III.3.1 Mining
            Mining refers to any activity extracting useful minerals from the surface of the earth. In the middle ages, the miners sought for iron, gold, silver, coal, and various jewels. As mentioned in II-C, gold, silver and jewels were used for minor accessories, metal was used for armors of knights, and coal was mined from mining site or picked up at the sea shore, used as firewood in smelting process.
            Mining was usually done in a form of bell-type mining. The miners dug the land to make a pit at quarry. The metal equipments occasionally hit the bedrock, creating a noise.

III.3.2 Metalworking

III.3.2.1 Smelting
            When the miners dug out the ore of iron or silver, those ores could not be used right away because they contained impurities. The ore went through a process called smelting to extract pure metal out of ore.
            In the case of iron ore, the ores were firstly washed in coarse sieve, and then burnt in the kiln with coal or sea coal. When the ores became breakable, the ore was brought to furnace which surrounded the bowl-shaped hearth to be burnt. The metal workers piled up the ores and during the smelting process, the ores settled into the bottom of the bowl. When the metalworkers conducted the smelting process, large amount of coal was required in order to keep the fire. The incessant burning of coal released VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds), CO (Carbon monoxide), PAH (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) into atmosphere, thus causing air pollution. (7)
            Silver smelting was also one of the main causes of pollution. Pure silver was extracted from the ore through mercury amalgamation. Silver ores were mashed in stamp mills with salt, water, the impure form of copper sulfate, and mercury. After this mixture was spread under the sunlight, the silver emerged into native metal with mercury amalgamation. Mercury derived from the patio process is one of the deadliest heavy metal on earth. It contaminated the soil and water, and caused several health problems such as mercury addiction.

III.3.2.1 Forging
            The metal smiths could increase the durability of metal, and shape the heated metal into a particular shape. To shape the metal, the metal smith heated the metal until it glows yellow or orange, then hit the metal with sledge-hammer to shape it. While the metal smith conducted forging process, the coal continued its burning, creating air pollution as the smelting process. Furthermore, the noise created by the metal smith was disturbing to neighborhood. In fact, metalworkers were not popular in towns for the noise they made and the danger of fire. According to records, in 1394, the city of London forbade blacksmiths to work at night. (8) When the metal smiths located themselves near the residential area, the neighbors used to make complaints because of the noise, vibration, smoke, and smell created during the metalworking process. To make it short, the forging process caused air pollution, and noise pollution.

IV. Comparison between types of pollution
            The clothing industry flourished in Middle Ages, meaning that the pollution exacerbated. However, in this part, the paper will explain the severity of pollution in terms of influencing range and degree of pollution.
            It is thought that only the people who lived near the industries were aware of the pollution caused by the industry. In Middle Ages, the industry could not grow large because of the lack of technology. So, the factory remained middle-sized or small-sized in local area. The pollution was the local problem. (9) However, most of the industries had a local influence, the dyeing industry and tanning industry had larger influential area. Both industries needed a lot of water, so it is thought that they located themselves near the stream as it is shown in Brother sun, Sister Moon. When the factory was located at the upper region of rivers, the water pollution started from the upper region and quickly spread out to much broader area. In fact, the whole river became unsuitable to use when the leather industry located itself at the upper region.
            In III. Pollution caused by each material, the paper states that water pollution, air pollution, noise pollution and soil pollution were mainly caused by leather, textile, metal industries. Among them, the water pollution is considered to have the biggest effect for it was caused by most of the industries. With its broad influential range and huge effect on human lives, water pollution also caused health problem. On the other hand, the air pollution is described as to cause least amount of pollution. Mining wasn't a common industry in the middle ages due to the lack of technology. When the miners dug the land to 20m deep, the groundwater would emerge and fill the pit. Since the miners couldn¡¯t pump out the water fast enough, mining industry couldn't strive as much as other industries. Thus, the much coal was used in middle ages. In short, the water pollution had the most severe while the air pollution had the least effect.

V. Conclusion
            This term paper aims to prove that the clothing culture of higher social classes contributed to the pollution in the middle ages. Leather, Textile and metal were the main source of clothing for higher social classes. During the process of liming, deliming, tanning and tawing, leather industry generated air pollution and water pollution. Textile industry engendered high level of water pollution while the textile went through finishing and dyeing. Lastly, the metalworkers caused noise pollution, soil pollution, and air pollution dealing with iron, silver or gold. Comparing between each type of pollution, the water pollution is thought to have broadest influence and most effect while the air pollution and mining industry are considered to have less influence.
            Pollution in the Middle Ages was hardly a main stream in the historical study compared to other topics. Thus, from the research to constructing the paper, this paper had to cope with difficulties. Books dealing with clothing culture occasionally didn't contain enough details to draw a conclusion or information of what kind of pollution the industry generated. Many internet websites were found, but not all of them contained correct information. In fact, the websites and books occasionally displayed opposite opinions on the same topic. Despite hard situation, this paper could include necessary information.


(1)      Reitz 2004 p.227
(2)      ibid.
(3)      Robinson 1969 p.28 Medieval dyers could be categorized in three groups. Firstly, the black or plain dyers tackled black or other simple colors. However, there were some dyers who dyed clothes into high colors on expensive materials using rare dyestuff. They were the outstanding masters of the craft and relatively few in the number. The final group was a specialist one for the dyers of silk, particularly strong in France and Italy; they were regarded as individual artist and not of a guild.
(4)      Peacock, 2006, throughout the book Showing the sketches of Medieval costume in chronological order, there had always been metallic accessories in the medieval costume.
(5)      Wilson 1979, p.82
(6)      ibid. p.83
(7)      VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) cause the air to smell bad, and have malignant effect on human through the skin or respiratory system. CO (Carbon Monoxide) hinders oxygen to be supplied, while PAH (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon) is a carcinogen and organic pollutants.
(8)      Basing, 1990, p.63
(9)      People distant from the industrial region didn't know much about the pollution. However, there were attempts to alleviate the pollution. London forbade black smiths to work at night in 1394, and according to A history of dyed textiles Robinson 1969, the dyers in the middle ages tried to prevent the particular dye industry of a town from acquiring a bad name.

Bibliography 1.      Franco Zeffirelli, Brother sun, Sister moon (1973)
2.      Patricia Basing, Trades and Crafts in Medieval Manuscripts, The British Library, 1990; This book contains the basic information of various industries such as textile, leather, and metal industries. More specific information needed extra research.
3.      Irene M.Franck & David M. Brownstone, Manufacturers and Miners, USA, Facts on File, 1989
4.      Manfred Reitz, Das Leben auf der Burg (2004), Korean translation, Seoul, Planetmedia, 2006 This book provides the general idea of how the Middle Ages were based on the theme, 'castle'
5.      Piponnier, Françoise & Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages, Yale university books, 1998
6.      John Peacock, Costume 1066 to the present, Thames & Hudson, 3rd edition, 2006 This book consists of the sketchs of medieval fashion in chronological order.
7.      Anonymous, Innsbruck Manuscript, 1330
8.      Anonymous, Mappae Clavicula (12th century), English translation, 1847
9.      George Holmes, The Oxford illustrated history of Medieval Europe, Oxford university press, 1988
10.      Stuart Robinson, A history of dyed textiles, Great Britain, The MIT Press, 1969 This book provides detailed information of textile, dye and dyers from prehistoric times to now.
11.      Kax Wilson, A history of textiles, California, Westview Press, 1979 Specialized in textile industry, this book contains how the textile industries were according to the chronology and the regional difference.
12.      C. Warren Hollister, Joe W.Leedom, Marc A.Meyer, David S.Spear, Medieval Europe : A short sourcebook, McGraw-Hill, 3rd edition, 1997
13.      Eileen Power, Medieval People(1924), Korean translation, Yeesan Publishing Co., 2007
14.      Jerome O.Nriagu, Mercury pollution from the past mining of gold and silver in Americas, Department of environmental and industrial health, School of public health, the university of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA, 1993 It wasn't quoted in the paper, but was used to get a general idea about pollution caused by the mining industry.

The following websites were visited in April/June 2013

Encyclopaedia Britannica
15.      Jerry A.Nathanson, Article : Pollution,
16.      George B. Clark, William Andrew Hustrulid, John Lawrence Mero, Article : Mining,
17.      Article : Leather,
Collins Dictionary
18.      Article : English Clothing,
19.      Article : English Textile,
20.      Article : English Metal,
Elizabethan Costume
21.      Dyes : Mappae, Provides recipes of medieval dyes from 8th century to 12th century
22.      Dyes : Innsbruck,, Provides recipes of medieval dyes in 13th century.
23.      Melissa Snell, Clothiung and Fabric : Medieval Clothing
24.      Melissa Snell, Clothing and Fabric : A Cloth Manufacture, Explains the process of wool manufacturing
25.      Rebecca Evanhoe, Metal Pollution From Medieval Mining Persists, C&EN 2006, An article deals the heavy-metal contamination in Southern France.
26.      Article : liming
16.      Article : tanning
17.      Article : fuller's earth
18.      Article : tannin
19.      Article : leather,
20.      Article : Alum,
21.      Article : Lanolin
22.      Article : Mordant
23.      Article : Silver Mining
24.      Article : Slag,
24.      Article : History of Clothing and Textiles.

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