Navigate / search

Early printed book contains rare evidence of medieval spectacles

By Micah Erwin

 

Many scholars rank the invention of eyeglasses among the most important contributions to humankind in the last 2,000 years. Yet, the inventor of this now thoroughly quotidian piece of technology remains anonymous. Indeed the inventor (or inventors) will almost certainly never be known, given the numerous conflicting claims, lack of specificity, and scarcity of surviving documentation.

What scholars do know about the history of eyeglasses is that they were probably invented at the end of the thirteenth century by a craftsman living near Pisa. The evidence originates from a passage by Friar Giordano da Pisa who recounts having met the anonymous craftsman in 1286. A friend of Giordano named Friar Allesandro della Spina learned how to make them shortly thereafter and shared the secret with the public. A number of other possible inventors of eyeglasses have been posited over the centuries, all of which have finally been proven spurious in recent scholarship.1

 

During the early period of the production of eyeglasses, they were referred to as vitreos ab oculis ad legendum (eyeglasses for eyes for reading) and oglarios de vitro (spectacles with glass lenses). Eventually these rather clunky terms were shortened to occhiali and ocularia. Either way, the evidence indicates that spectacles were probably invented in Italy at the end of the thirteenth century, and by the early fourteenth century, they were being produced and sold in Venice.

Scholars believe that by the end of the fifteenth century, spectacles were probably being sold and produced throughout most of Europe, with countries like England importing them by the thousands. Florence led the way in manufacturing and apparently produced some of the highest quality spectacles. Despite this widespread production, there are relatively few surviving specimens. Indeed, although Florence was known to be a major producer, archeologists have found only one pair of rivet spectacles in that city.

It is with this in mind that it becomes all the more significant to find evidence of a pair of medieval spectacles anywhere at all. One can imagine why the recent discovery of what appears to be an impression of a pair of medieval rivet spectacles in one of the Ransom Center’s early printed books was cause for excitement. While conducting a survey of manuscript waste found in early printed books I noticed a faint reddish-brown impression of a pair of spectacles on the rear parchment endpapers of a copy of the Opera of Fr. Luigi di Granata. The endpapers in this book comprise a piece of parchment taken from a page in a medieval manuscript (it was a common practice in the hand-press period to reuse old disbound parchment manuscripts for endpapers, pastedowns, stubbs, or spine linings).

A discovery like this is fairly uncommon. Among the many thousands of medieval manuscripts and early printed books in U.S. libraries, only a handful of similar discoveries have been made: a pair of spectacles found in the Folger copy 46 of the First Folio at the Folger Shakespeare Library; the outline of a pair spectacles carved into the wooden boards of a sixteenth-century volume in the rare books department at Catholic University of America and in a fifthteenth-century Breviary at the Fribourg, Bibliothèque Cantonale et Universitaire (seen in Christopher De Hamel’s History of Illuminated Manuscripts, fig. 193); and an impression in a manuscript at the Walters Art Museum. One medieval scholar who has conducted a survey of more than 3,000 manuscripts in the United States informed me that he had encountered only one such example.

The earliest spectacles comprised two convex glass disks enclosed in metal or bone rims with handles centrally connected by a rivet and could either clamp onto the nostrils or be held before the eyes. Later specimens had wire and even leather rims. We know this not only from surviving examples but also from artistic depictions. A painter from northern Italy working in 1352 provides us with the first depiction of spectacles. It appears in a fresco that adorns the Chapter House of a Dominican monastery in Treviso, Italy. The Cardinal Hugh of St. Cher can be seen hard at work in his study with quill, parchment, and a pair of early spectacles on his nose. St. Jerome, the famous scholar-saint and translator of the Latin Bible, also was frequently depicted wearing spectacles in his study.

Advanced scientific methods for dating aside, we can get a good estimate of the age of the eyeglasses that left the impression on the parchment by first examining the script on the parchment (to establish the earliest possible date) and then by looking at the shape of the impression itself. The text is what is known as Southern Textualis or Rotunda. Southern Textualis was popular in Italy and Southern Europe between the late 1200s and the late 1400s. Alternately, the 1568 publication of the printed text provides us with a possible later date. Regardless, the spectacles conform to the physical features and rough time period for early medieval leather-framed spectacles.* But dare we hope for more? Because the book was printed in Venice, Italy, the tantalizing possibility exists that the wearer who deposited his spectacles in between the parchment leaves may have been using a pair of the earliest eyeglasses ever made, because Florence, where eyeglasses were invented, is less than 165 miles from Venice. Although we may never know exactly how (or when) these spectacles left their mark on the parchment, their faint impressions nevertheless offer an intriguing glimpse into the early history this important invention.

1This topic, and the history of spectacles in general, is thoroughly summarized in Vincent Ilardi’s Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes (Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 2007).

*The author now concludes that the shape of the spectacles is closer to that of leather-framed spectacles, not rivet spectacles, as this post originally stated. Consequently, a better date range would be late 1400s and circa 1500s. Thanks to David Fleishman for his assistance with identification. For an example of leather-framed spectacles, see those of Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530).

Please click on thumbnails for larger images.

Image: Rear flyleaf: It’s difficult to tell exactly how the spectacles left their impression, but they must have been sandwiched between the two parchment endleaves for an extended period of time. Photo by Pete Smith.

Christine Brooke-Rose, experimental fiction writer

By Io Montecillo

Manuscript for Christine Brooke-Rose’s 'Xorandor.' ©Carcanet Press.
Manuscript for Christine Brooke-Rose’s 'Xorandor.' ©Carcanet Press.

“With news of the death of Christine Brooke-Rose, the world of letters has lost a significant and courageous writer,” said Karen Lawrence, President of Sarah Lawrence College and author of Techniques for Living: Fiction and Theory in the Work of Christine Brooke-Rose.

A writer known for her unorthodox and experimental style, Christine Brooke-Rose died on March 21. Her archive is housed at the Ransom Center.

Christine Frances Evelyn Brooke-Rose was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 16, 1923. She was the youngest of two daughters of Alfred Northbrook Rose and Evelyn Brooke Rose. After the dissolution of their marriage while Brooke-Rose was quite young, both became Anglican Benedictine monastics.

During World War II, Brooke-Rose served as an intelligence officer in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, where she met her first husband, Rodney Ian Shirley Bax. They married in May 1944 and divorced four years later. In February 1948, she married Polish poet and novelist Jerzy Pietrkiewicz. When Pietrkiewicz became ill in 1956, Brooke-Rose began to write novels after publishing Gold (1955), a metaphysical religious poem based on the anonymous fourteenth-century English poem Pearl.

After her own illness in 1962, Brooke-Rose’s fiction changed dramatically. Her next novel, Out (1964), discarded the traditional ideals of character and plot and began the play with language and form that has marked her work ever since. Some of her more famous works include Between (1968), which centers around the experiences of a professional translator and is written without the use of the verb “to be” in all its forms. Another, Xorandor (1986), is a science-fiction story about the discovery by two children of a silicon-based civilization that feeds on nuclear radiation. The story is written in the form of dialog and computer printouts by the children, who use an invented technological slang.

“As she herself pointed out, Christine Brooke-Rose escaped most would-be canonic labels,” said Lawrence. “She was a narrative theorist, literary critic, and novelist for whom new fictional techniques were necessary to represent the increased ‘unreality’ of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her fictions are rehearsals for living under the constraints of a new world, yet with comedy, nuance, and toughness, they draw creative vitality and moral inspiration out of the very limitations they evoke.

“In different modes, Brooke-Rose’s overtly valedictory last books (Invisible Author: Last Essays and Life, End of), as well as her brilliant novel Textermination, dramatize the ‘death of the author’ and the fragility and tenacity of the connection between language and being. In doing so, they offer what she has called ‘techniques for living,’ new forms for telling the human story within the unreality of contemporary life.”

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Undergraduate intern Bethany Johnson reads, reviews, and summarizes correspondence for inclusion in an upcoming exhibition about the centennial of World War I. Photo by Pete Smith.
Undergraduate intern Bethany Johnson reads, reviews, and summarizes correspondence for inclusion in an upcoming exhibition about the centennial of World War I. Photo by Pete Smith.

Registrants of The David Foster Wallace Symposium view a case of materials related to Wallace in the Ransom Center’s lobby. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Registrants of The David Foster Wallace Symposium view a case of materials related to Wallace in the Ransom Center’s lobby. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, literary agent Bonnie Nadell, and Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch gather before their public program, “"Everything and More: A Conversation About David Foster Wallace." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, literary agent Bonnie Nadell, and Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch gather before their public program, “"Everything and More: A Conversation About David Foster Wallace." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Pete Smith photographs a costume that Robert De Niro wore in “Raging Bull.” Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Pete Smith photographs a costume that Robert De Niro wore in “Raging Bull.” Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Decades later, current headlines echo controversies addressed in Morris Ernst collection

By Nicole Davis

Through a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a team of archivists and student interns has been working to organize and catalog the papers of attorney Morris Leopold Ernst since September 2009. The collection is now open for research, and a finding aid is available online.

Morris Leopold Ernst (1888–1976), who earned his law degree 100 years ago, may not yet be a household name, but his legal career has had a lasting impact on American society. Ernst dealt primarily with civil liberties cases in a variety of areas, including censorship, obscenity, and first amendment rights. In addition to his busy legal career, he was a prolific writer, authoring more than 30 books and hundreds of articles, essays, and short works on legal topics and other social issues like big business and divorce.

Ernst is probably best known for his work in literary censorship cases. His influential fights include the defense of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Arthur Schnitzler’s Casanova’s Homecoming, and most famously, James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Though the majority of Ernst’s work took place in the early and mid-twentieth century, as our team of archivists sifted through his papers and processed the collection, we couldn’t help noticing how timely the collection seemed. Over and over again the subjects we read about in Ernst’s archive were echoed by stories in the recent news.

The case United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce, which Ernst and his colleagues carefully orchestrated, won Ernst much fame and set a precedent for arguing and trying “objectionable” literature. Banned in the United States for more than a decade before Ernst won the case in 1933, Joyce’s masterpiece has had to overcome other more recent hurdles. In 2010 the work was in the news when Apple tried to censor a graphic novel version by Rob Berry and Josh Levitas. Before allowing the Ulysses comic to appear as an electronic book for the iPad, Apple requested that the illustrators remove all nudity from their images. Apple eventually rescinded its demand and allowed the original illustrations to appear.

In the 1930s, Ernst was also a prominent figure in the early birth control movement defending the Birth Control Federation of America and the Clinical Research Bureau, predecessors of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. As these organizations printed and distributed educational materials on reproduction and contraception, they were charged with obscenity. In cases such as United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, Ernst exonerated the movement’s leaders from indecency and in so doing, helped promote women’s rights and the freedom of choice. Contraception and women’s rights have continued to be newsworthy topics.

Ernst was also well known for his work with labor unions, famously defending first amendment rights in Hague, Mayor, et al. v. Committee for Industrial Organization et al. This conflict arose in the 1930s when Jersey City, N.J. mayor Frank Hague tried to suppress many of the Committee for Industrial Organization’s (CIO) activities and decreed by city ordinance that laborers could not assemble in public. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court where the workers’ rights were upheld. Though Ernst won that case in 1939, politicians and labor unions have often been at odds with each other. For example, beginning in February 2011 headlines were populated with reports about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to curtail union bargaining rights. The AFL-CIO represented workers in these disagreements as well.

Ernst published his book Too Big in 1940, one of the many books he wrote. The title is echoed by the phrase “too big to fail,” with which we all are familiar, as it has been frequently used in the media since the market crash in 2008. Monopolies and the danger of big business were of real concern to Ernst, and he wrote about it not only in that volume, but in numerous magazine articles.

Censorship, birth control, labor unions, and monopolies were only a few of Ernst’s many interests. As a tireless worker he involved himself in many other issues, such as reducing postage rates for books and promoting literacy around the world. His papers provide insight into his legal practice and writing career and could also provide a new perspective on issues in contemporary society.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Recommended Reading: The King James Bible: Its History and Influence

By Io Montecillo

Cover of Joseph Heller's "God Knows," a recommended reading pick by exhibition co-curator Danielle Brune Sigler.
Cover of Joseph Heller's "God Knows," a recommended reading pick by exhibition co-curator Danielle Brune Sigler.

The Ransom Center’s current exhibition The King James Bible: It’s History and Influence tells the little-known story of one of the most widely read and printed books in the history of the English language. Exhibition co-curator Danielle Brune Sigler offers a list of recommended reading that traces the history of the influence of this translation.

Ransom Center members receive discounted membership for Austin Film Society

By Christine Lee

Austin Film Society Discount

Membership to the Ransom Center just became more valuable! We are pleased to announce that Ransom Center members can now receive a $10 discount on a membership to the Austin Film Society (AFS). AFS promotes the appreciation of film and supports creative media production.  Combine a Ransom Center membership with a membership to AFS, and you’ll enjoy year-round access to film-related activities and events.

Become a member of the Ransom Center.

If you are already a member and want to receive a discounted membership to AFS, download and mail a membership form along with your payment or credit card information to AFS, 1901 E 51st, Austin, TX, 78723. Please write “Harry Ransom Center Member” at the top of the form and enclose a photocopy of your Ransom Center membership card. Alternatively, you can email a scanned copy or image of your Ransom Center membership card to membership@austinfilm.org. If you prefer to speak with someone about becoming a member of the Austin Film Society, please call 512-322-0145.

Cover of "Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects" by Tom Smith.
Cover of "Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects" by Tom Smith.

Upcoming Ransom Center Film Lecture

Join us on Thursday, April 19 at 7 p.m. for a lecture with special effects pioneer Tom Smith, who recently donated his archive to the Ransom Center. Smith discusses his work on films including Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and Return of the Jedi (1983).

Members of the Ransom Center receive complimentary parking and priority entry at this Harry Ransom Lecture. Doors open at 6:20 p.m. for members and at 6:30 p.m. for the general public. Members must present their membership cards for priority entrance; one seat per membership card. Members arriving after 6:30 p.m. will join the general queue. Complimentary parking for members is available at the University Co-op garage at 23rd and San Antonio streets.

The event takes place in KLRU’s Studio 6A in Communication Center B.

Photo Friday

By Alicia Dietrich

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Mary Alice Harper, head of photography and art cataloging, shares new David Douglas Duncan materials with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Mary Alice Harper, head of photography and art cataloging, shares new David Douglas Duncan materials with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Undergraduate intern Rachel Platis selects photographs for a forthcoming exhibition. Photo by Pete Smith.
Undergraduate intern Rachel Platis selects photographs for a forthcoming exhibition. Photo by Pete Smith.
Visiting educators learn about the history of the King James Bible during Saturday's teacher workshop. Photo by Lisa Pulsifer.
Visiting educators learn about the history of the King James Bible during Saturday's teacher workshop. Photo by Lisa Pulsifer.
Multimedia Coordinator Lee Tran videotapes the First Photograph for an ongoing kiosk project. Photo by Daniel Zmud.
Multimedia Coordinator Lee Tran videotapes the First Photograph for an ongoing kiosk project. Photo by Daniel Zmud.