How Coal Played a Part in Medieval Air Pollution

By Eoin Connolly

Many believe that environmental problems resulted from the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries but the basic problems of disposing of waste and finding adequate food, water and fuel are as old as civilization itself. Pollution was a problem long before the Industrial Revolution and complaints of air pollution and its association with fuel can be traced back over seven hundred years.

The air pollution first surfacing in the 13th century can be linked to coal burning. Originally known as sea-coal because it was shipped from Newcastle to London as ballast, it was originally imported into London into modest quantities by the beginning of the 13th century; however, annual records of imports of coal into London are not recorded until 1580.


The early coal trade was primarily used by smiths and lime burners and other industries on a small scale in London and English coastal towns. It is thought that it was not used widely in other industries due to the clouds of smoke and fumes when burnt, but also the harmful side effects of using it in the industrial processes. Iron smiths found the high sulphur content of coal made the iron brittle. Brewers who also tried using coal found that the beer or ale was affected by the smoke in the brewing process.

Medieval smith – BNF Français 24364 fol.61r

Fuel Choices

Initially the first choice of fuel was wood or timber, but it is possible that there were shortages of these fuels even with England’s extensive forests. For those living in London, the woodlands outside of the city were the first option; however, the costs of transporting the material long distances overland proved costly and prices for firewood steadily increased. Eventually those living in London looked for cheaper alternatives. Sea coal, which could be easily transported by water from Newcastle to London, was more affordable. Supplies of wood fuels did become more attainable and affordable in the late 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, and it was used again as the preferable fuel over sea coal.


Although the preference of wood over coal was present throughout the medieval period, the use of coal did spur on new technological innovations. The home underwent significant changes to accommodate the burning of coal and during the 12th and 13th centuries, the widespread installation of fireplaces, flues and chimneys in the home was adopted throughout all classes of society. The purpose was to carry away the smoke and fumes but also to disperse it enough so that it did not affect the surrounding area.

Opinions of Coal at the Time

Conditions in a medieval city were unpleasant, especially for the poor. With a lack of sanitation and refuse, there must have been quite a stench, particularly during the summer months. However, it was not the smell of organic waste that were complained about in the 13th Century but the burning of sea coal.

The majority of the complaints seems to have come from the noblemen and upper-class, but it is possible to find records of how the burning of sea coal was viewed by average people. A resistance to the change in the environment could have been a factor, as the environmental quality, particularly in cities, was at the time low.

13th century drawing of London – British Library MS Royal 14 C VII f. 2

The smoke from sea coal fires was considered a nuisance in London and it was remarked that “the air is infected and corrupted to the peril of those frequenting … and dwelling in those parts.” A commission of inquiry was appointed in 1288 following complaints of those living near lime kilns. It is not clear whether their complaint was due to health concerns or for another reason. At the time, lime burners were known for setting prices extremely high so the pressure applied to them citing pollution may have been an excuse for trying to keep prices down. In 1307, Edward I issued a royal proclamation prohibiting the use of sea coal in kilns due to the smell affecting the air but also due to its impact on health.


Medieval Attitudes to Hygiene

The late medieval period marked a change in peoples’ attitudes towards pollution recognizing the need for hygiene. People living in London, in particular, reacted strongly to the introduction of coal as a fuel concerned it would be detrimental to their health. There was already a large amount of pollution from decaying organic material and with it a high mortality rate due to poor sanitation. Up until the introduction of coal, the air would likely have been quite clear, and initially, it was thought that it was the new sight and smell that caused concerns over health.

A change of attitude did occur as the coal trade continued and in the years of the Black Death, in 1347 to 1351, it was remarked that the smoke from the coal actually drove away the plague because of its cleansing action of the sulphurous smoke.

Nonetheless, a theory was present in medieval times, Miasma, suggesting that disease was linked to corruption of the air. Strong odors and smells from decomposing matter found in the water and air were therefore associated with illness.


So even in the 14th century, it was prohibited to deposit dung, offal or entrails into rivers or waters as it was believed that it would infect the air and cause illnesses. Provisions were made for water to be kept clean so that it could be used for drinking water; however, industries at the times such as the dyeing trade and tanneries also needed use of the water, so there was a considerable amount of risk of infection due to polluted water.


The introduction of coal as a primary fuel does seem to have a significant impact on the air pollution during the Middle Ages. It was recorded as causing thick smoke when burned, accompanied by a strong stench which was unfamiliar at the time it was introduced. It is difficult to assess the level of pollution, because even with industrial processes at the time, it can be assumed that the air would have been quite clear. However, it can be assumed that the widespread burning of coal as opposed to wood caused air pollution.

There were initially reservations or even fears over being in the vicinity of burning coal and residents complained of the use of it particularly with the lime burners. The complaints may have had other motives and it may have been an excuse to put pressure on the lime burners in order to keep the prices down.

Regardless of politics, there were certainly concerns over whether the coal could cause health problems but due to the already high mortality rate from poor sanitation it is difficult to gauge if there were any valid causes for concern. This was a new material being brought in and there is likely to have been some resistance over the introduction of the new material. The belief that strong odors were linked to disease probably contributed to the health concerns over coal.


Although predominantly thought of as an upper-class complaint, the air pollution was something that affected all the classes. The medieval period was a time of change in a lot of ways, but one of those changes was the recognition of pollution and a connection to health and wellbeing. It is apparent that measures were put in place and efforts were made to tackle the pollution problems, not just for the nobility but for all the classes.

Eoin Connolly is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. When he’s not researching, he enjoys walking, reading, and supporting Manchester United (difficult though that is at the moment).

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Top Image: BNF Nouvelle acquisition française 5243 fol. 71v