Here's something I thought I blogged last year but evidently didn't. It's fairly well-known that in the Middle Ages people thought salamanders were lizard-like creatures which could tolerate the heat of a fire, and indeed lived in them. Polo sheds some light on how this myth arose, and why (I'm going to quote out of order here, for my own purposes). Polo writes about how fibres made from salamander are:
made into napkins. When first made these napkins are not very white, but by putting them into the fire for a while they come out as white as snow. And so again whenever they become dirty they are bleached by being put in the fire.Have you figured out what this is yet? Here's some more clues from Polo:
At the northern extremity of [Chingintalas] province there is a mountain in which [...] there is a vein of the substance from which Salamander is made. For the real truth is that the Salamander is no beast, as they allege in our part of the world, but is a substance found in the earth; and I will tell you about it.Figured it out yet? I am ashamed to confess I hadn't, until I read the explanation in the commentary, but I told my father and he got it immediately, as he's had to deal with these white fibres himself: they're asbestos! (Which cures me of all desire to have a napkin of my own which I can clean by throwing into the fire, cool though it would be.)
Everybody must be aware that it can be no animal's nature to live in fire, seeing that every animal is composed of all the four elements. Now I, Marco Polo, had a Turkish acquaintance of the name of Zurficar, and he was a very clever fellow. And this Turk related to Messer Marco Polo how he had lived three years in that region on behalf of the Great Kaan, in order to procure those Salamanders for him. He said that the way they got them was by digging in that mountain till they found a certain vein. The substance of this vein was then taken and crushed, and when so treated it divides as it were into fibres of wool, which they set forth to dry. When dry, these fibres were pounded in a great copper mortar, and then washed, so as to remove all the earth and to leave only the fibres like fibres of wool. These were then spun, and made into napkins [etc, as above].
Now this, and nought else, is the truth about the Salamander, and the people of the country all say the same. Any other account of the matter is fabulous nonsense. And I may add that they have at Rome a napkin of this stuff, which the Grand Kaan sent to the Pope to make a wrapper for the Holy Sudarium of Jesus Christ.
"The fable of the Salamander," says Sir Thomas Browne, "hath been much promoted by stories of incombustible napkins and textures which endure the fire, whose materials are called by the name of Salamander's wool, which many, too literally apprehending, conceive some investing part or integument of the Salamander.... Nor is this Salamander's wool desumed from any animal, but a mineral substance, metaphorically so called for this received opinion."
Those who knew that the Salamander was a lizard-like animal were indeed perplexed as to its woolly coat. [etc]