The Story of Eyeglasses from the Middle Ages to my Face this Week
My Personal Encounter with a Medieval Invention
In Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Brisbane the main character, Gleb, visits a Byzantine chapel. Inside, an elderly priest recites his prayers. Gleb, afflicted with Parkinson’s, finds peace in the moment as he and his wife “cheat the future that awaits us outside the doors.”
The old priest finishes and turns to talk with Gleb, who then notices the priests’s antique round eyeglasses. “The glasses are vintage,” says the priest. “I got them from a certain monk.” He then adds, “You were thinking about the future just now, weren’t you?”
“Are you clairvoyant, father?” asks Gleb.
“No,” says the priest, “just voyant—thanks to the eyeglasses. Your hand is shaking. I suspect you’re seriously ill.” Clairvoyance would be wonderful, but sometimes mere voyance is all you need. And nothing reminds you of that so much as your own eyesight beginning to fail you. That’s what happened to me earlier this year.
In March or April I was working on a project early one morning. It involved some graphics, and I was far too close to my screen for far too long. When I finished and looked up, I noticed it was hard to focus. It took a couple of hours before my eyes felt okay.
I attributed the trouble to the proximity of my screen and the intensity of my effort. And, sure enough, after I let up it got better and seemed to stay better. Until it happened again under less strenuous circumstances. And again. And . . .
“You should have your eyes looked at,” my wife Megan advised.
I was reluctant—as I usually am about seeing doctors and specialists. I don’t know where my aversion comes from, but this one was easy. I’ve had twenty-twenty vision my entire life. I’ve aced every eyesight exam I’ve ever had; I figured all the optometrists and ophthalmologists out there should probably hang my picture in their lobbies.
My twenties, thirties, forties—the years passed by, but my ocular power reigned undiminished. Between my brow and cheekbones I was He-Man—until, that is, I started having trouble with fatigue and slipping focus. As I passed people on the sidewalk I wondered: People’s faces aren’t supposed to kaleidoscope like that, are they?
I’ll be forty-eight any day now. I thought, maybe Megan was right (she usually is). I went to the eye doctor.
“The problem is,” he said, “you’re old.” The fact he was a decade younger than me didn’t improve his delivery. Besides, I thought I did great on the exam. But no. The test revealed some problems. By far the biggest? My age. “The older you get,” he continued, “the stiffer your lens, which means the muscles responsible for focusing the lens have a harder time doing their job. You experience that as strain, fatigue, and struggle focusing.”
“What’s the solution?” I asked. Surely, I could do some exercises, eat some carrots, something, right?
“Glasses,” he said.
A medieval invention, eyeglasses have been around about eight hundred years or so. In his book The Medieval Machine, historian Jean Gimpel explores the inventiveness and mechanical ingenuity of the era’s craftspeople. The age was marked by innovations in clocks, mills, and tools of all sorts. And our medieval forebears eagerly expected more such inventions and developments.
“Not all the arts have been found,” homilized the Dominican monk Giordano of Pisa in 1306; “we shall never see an end of finding them. Every day one could discover a new art.” His evidence? The recent invention of eyeglasses:
It is not twenty years since there was discovered the art of making spectacles which help one to see well, an art which is one of the best and most necessary in the world. And that is such a short time ago that a new art which never before existed was invented. . . . I myself saw the man who discovered and practised it and I talked with him.
Giordano’s sermon provides the first mention of glasses and dates their invention to the 1280s. There were predecessors. A few hundred years prior, according to Duke historian and engineering professor Henry Petroski, people found they could use a lump of glass to magnify documents. “Scribes, illuminators, and scholars held such [glass] stones directly over manuscript pages as an aid in seeing what was being written, drawn, or read,” he says.
Subsequent developments in optics and engineering allowed the innovation of true lenses fitted in a frame and worn over the eyes. Images of monks and others wearing glasses begin appearing in manuscript illuminations after the thirteenth century. In some cases—as in that of Hugh of Saint-Cher or even the apostles, who died before their invention—artists retroactively fitted their subjects with spectacles as way of indicating studiousness.
The immediate beneficiaries of the invention were readers. As medievalists Frances and Joseph Gies point out in Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, these first glasses had convex lenses, which aided those who struggled focusing on elements up close—such as letters on a page. Concave lenses for focusing at a distance came a couple centuries later.
The impact of this invention was immense. In their narrative, the Gieses immediately transition from eyeglasses to a discussion of medieval universities, which, as we’ve seen here already in Seb Falk’s history The Light Ages, were responsible for an explosion of natural philosophy and science. Eyeglasses enabled a revolution.
“How is it that the importance of the late thirteenth-century Italian invention of spectacles has not been more generally appreciated?” asks Lynn White Jr. in his fascinating essay collection, Medieval Religion and Technology.
Anyone familiar with the crescendo of intellectual life in the later Middle Ages would challenge that enthusiast who has ascribed the Renaissance to the discovery of eyeglasses; but surely no one in the bespectacled academic world will be sufficiently discourteous to doubt that this technical development does much to account for the improved standard of education and the almost feverish tempo of thought characteristic of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. People were able to read more, and to read in their maturer years.
“Maturer years.” Thanks.
I’m generally happy about getting old. But I’m inconsistent. I’ve also been a bit prideful about not needing glasses. Perhaps I saw it as a mark of my youth, my vigor, despite my approaching fifty. Getting glasses was like an admission of defeat.
Besides, I’m a minimalist who mostly avoids buying new clothes and other accoutrements. I’m like Erasmus: “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” But Erasmus only had half my troubles. With the dizzying range of options available nowadays, I put off the purchase even after I discovered I needed them; I struggled with what Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice.”
Eventually, I figured it out. It boiled down to something roughly this simple: Seeing was better than not. I never worried about clairvoyance, but now mere voyance was eluding me. So, a couple of weeks ago I went into our local Warby Parker and tried on four thousand pairs, finally landing on one. I knew I’d need another pair, so, having broken the ice, I ordered a pair online from another shop. They both came earlier this week, and I’ve been wearing them ever since. It’s amazing! I once was blind, but now. . . .
I’m late to the party, of course. After their invention, eyeglasses were enthusiastically adopted all over. Writes Lynn White Jr.,
They were a boon to the presbyopic[!!!—JJM], and their use spread rapidly. Any contemporary, if he had thought about it, could have seen that this would enable aging men in teaching, the book trade, law, bureaucracy, banking, commerce—indeed, in any occupation that demanded frequent reading—to keep actively at work longer than otherwise would have been possible.
And, per Fra Giordano‘s comments, the developments kept coming. The original spectacles were held in place by string tied around the head. Later, when steel was used for the frames, the pince-nez style came into vogue, which allowed users to clamp the glasses on the bridge of the nose.
Designers continued making improvements, resulting in the antique pair worn by the priest in Vodolazkin’s novel and eventually the shapes and configurations we have today, like the pair bridging my nose right now—not to mention those augmented by additional technologies. And, also per Giordano, who knows what’s coming next? We are, if nothing, endlessly inventive.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please hit the ❤️ below and share it with your friends.
Not a subscriber? Take a moment and sign up. It’s free for now, and I’ll send you my top-fifteen quotes about books and reading. Thanks again!