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It’s a shame that we will likely never know the name of the medieval person whose invention makes it possible for many of us to have normal lives today. I speak of eyeglasses, an innovation unavailable to my eighth-century characters.

Citing medieval manuscripts, New York Carver estimates spectacles were invented between 1268 and 1289. A 1306 sermon makes a reference to meeting the man who created glasses less than 20 years before and praising the invention’s profound impact.

How profound? Sandra di Popozo wrote in a 1289 Florentine manuscript: “I am so debilitated by age that without the glasses known as spectacles, I would no longer be able to read or write. These have recently been invented for the benefit of poor old people whose sight has become weak.”

On Medieval Technology Pages, Paul J. Gans writes that glasses helped only the farsighted. It would be another three centuries before the invention of lenses to help people like me, the nearsighted (my eyesight is so bad that if my glasses are misplaced I call on my husband to find them).

According Glasses Crafter, spectacles were two framed glass or crystal stones, held up to the face with a handle. In 1300, the crystal workers guild in Venice, famous for glass, adopted regulations for the manufacture of “discs for the eyes.”

When I am reminded that glasses were made of, well, glass, I feel like a wimp when I use the weight of my plastic lenses as a reason to wear contacts. Yet I think I would have tolerated the weight if it meant being able to function.

I have sometimes wondered how eighth-century people as nearsighted as I am lived in a world of blurs. The vast majority were illiterate, so they didn’t need glasses to read, but they could not have appreciated artistic details in murals and statues or known what they looked like (assuming they had a mirror). And hunting and war, already dangerous activities, would have been even more so.

So even as I enlarge the type on my screen and try to avoid bifocals, I am grateful to whoever invented glasses. Too bad he won’t get any credit.

Hugh de Provence

Detail of portrait of Hugh de Provence, 1352, the first known artistic depiction of glasses (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain image).

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