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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Fire and Brimstone - The Uses of Sulphur, Real and Imagined

Five lumps of sulphur found in Montfort (courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem)

Among the objects discovered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art expedition to Montfort Castle in 1926 were a number of pieces of sulphur. Five of these are now located in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem and have not undergone analysis as yet. A sixth piece was among the finds relinquished (somewhat reluctantly) to the Metropolitan Museum in New York by the Palestine Antiquities Authority. These appear to have been recovered from the floor of chamber K, a basement vault located under the Great Hall. They were apparently considered insignificant and received no mention in the report published by the expedition organiser Bashford Dean in 1927.*

Sulphur is used today in the manufacture of batteries, detergents, fungicides, fertilizers, gun powder, matches and fireworks. But what might this material have been doing here, in a thirteenth century Teutonic castle? This question has intrigued me and ignited my imagination.

One possibility is medicine. The Teutonic brothers were, after all, members of a hospitaller order. All living things need sulphur, in particular humans, for whom it is an essential dietary requirement. The average person takes in around 900 mg of sulphur per day, primarily in the form of protein, and after calcium and phosphorus, sulphur is the third most abundant mineral present in the human body. Consequently, it is not surprising to find it used in a variety of medical applications. Sulphur is taken internally as a laxative. It is applied in topical use for skin disorders. In the Middle Ages sulphur, in powder form, was ingested as a vermifuge, a de-worming agent. Recent studies based on microscopic analysis of archaeological material taken from the latrines in the Hospitaller compound and from a cesspool in Acre have shown that people in that city suffered from three types of parasitic intestinal worms,** and that may well have been the case with residents of castles such as Montfort, many of whom had formerly been residents of Acre. Sulphur was also believed to alleviate phlegmatic or melancholic illnesses and the purifying effect of sulphur dioxide fumes was applied in order to stop the spread of infections by disinfecting contaminated premises and objects.

Another possible explanation for the presence of this material at Montfort is a rather more enticing one: that it was perhaps used in the preparation of Greek Fire. Sulphur is believed to have been a basic ingredient in the manufacture of this incendiary material that was frequently used in medieval warfare, thrown by catapult in large containers or barrels, as well as in small, hand-held earthenware bottles - the medieval equivalent of Molotov Cocktails - or attached to arrows or arbalest spikes. Raymond of Aguilers, describing the siege of Jerusalem in 1099, refers to the incendiaries thrown by the Muslims at the approaching Crusaders as including pitch, wax, sulphur and tow, and William of Tyre mentions “tela ignita sulphure, pasta et oleo” (darts set on fire with sulphur, paste [or dough] and oil’.*** The various references to the ingredients of Greek Fire almost always include sulphur along with other substances such as quicklime (Calcium oxide), bitumen, pitch, resin and naphtha.**** In a more primitive use, powdered sulphur, which was toxic and blinding, could be thrown at the attacker or perhaps dropped from hoardings or through murder holes and machicolations. Sulphur, together with saltpetre (Potassium nitrate) and charcoal was a basic ingredient in the earliest recipes for gunpowder, the knowledge of which had reached the Arab world and the West by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, although there is no evidence for its actual use in warfare between Muslims and Crusaders.

A perhaps even more enticing use of sulphur is in that most medieval of medieval arts - alchemy. The possibility that the sulphur recovered at Montfort was in any way related to alchemic activities is, to put it mildly, highly remote. It is for my own pleasure that I have allowed that improbable use, combined with the more plausible military one to take me on a flight of imagination in the form of a novel that will be published this coming spring.

* Bashford Dean, The Crusaders' Fortress of Montfort, reprint (Jerusalem 1982) of The Exploration of a Crusaders' Fortress (Montfort) in Palestine, Part II of The Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 1927.

** Piers Mitchell and Eliezer Stern, "Parasitic Intestinal Helminth Ova from the Latrines of the 13th Century Crusader Hospital of St. John of Acre", in eds. M. La Verghetta and L. Capasso, Proceedings of the XIIIth European Meeting of the Paleopathology Association, Edigrafital, Teramo, Chieti, Italy, Teramo, 2001, pp. 207-13; Piers Mitchell and Yotam Tepper, "Intestinal Parasitic Worm Eggs from a Crusader Period Latrine in the City of Acre (Israel)", Levant 39, 2007, pp. 91-5; Piers Mitchell, Eliezer Stern and Yotam Tepper, "Dysentery in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: an ELISA Analysis of Two Medieval Latrines in the City of Acre (Israel)", Journal of Archaeological Science 35, 2008, pp. 1849-53.

*** Raymond of Aguilers, Le Liber de Raymond d'Aguilers, eds. J. Hill and L.L. Hill, Paris, 1969, p. 148; William of Tyre, Chronicon, ed. R.B.C. Huygens, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, LXIII, Turnholt, 1986, 8:13.

**** J.R. Partington, A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder, Cambridge, 1960, p. 28.

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