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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.”

In the Galleries: The Origins of WWJD

By Io Montecillo

In the 1890s, Kansas minister Charles M. Sheldon (1857–1946) turned to “sermon stories” to engage his congregation. In 1896, Sheldon began reading to the Central Church of Topeka a new series of stories called In His Steps. Like other Sheldon sermon stories, In His Steps ran as a serial in The Advance (Chicago) before being published as a book.

Sheldon and his publishers, who had failed to properly secure a copyright for In His Steps, were stunned at the novel’s success—and all of the pirated editions that emerged. In His Steps became a runaway bestseller in the United States and England.

Sheldon took his inspiration and title from I Peter 2:21 and used the newly revised King James Bible (1881/1885) as his source text: “For here unto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps.”

The 12 central characters in the novel take a pledge to live their lives guided by the question, “What would Jesus do?” As Sheldon was part of the larger Social Gospel movement that sought to improve social problems throughout the world, much of the novel centers on how characters used the pledge to minister to the needs of the urban poor and to fight the destructive effects of alcohol. The popularity of the novel waned, but it was “rediscovered” in the 1990s, and the question “What would Jesus do?” again swept the country, with the four letters “WWJD” appearing on bracelets, bumper stickers, and t-shirts.

Sheldon’s manuscript and pen holder, along with the works of other authors inspired by the King James Bible, are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

New David Foster Wallace materials to be on display during Wallace Symposium

By Megan Barnard

Letter from David Foster Wallace to Frederick Hill Associates, dated Sept. 28, 1985, containing a chapter from "Broom of the System." Bonnie Nadell collection.
Letter from David Foster Wallace to Frederick Hill Associates, dated Sept. 28, 1985, containing a chapter from "Broom of the System." Bonnie Nadell collection.

On Thursday, April 5, the Ransom Center kicks off The David Foster Wallace Symposium with a public event featuring Wallace’s literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, in conversation with Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin. The free, public event will take place at 7 p.m. (C.S.T.) at Jessen Auditorium, across the plaza from the Ransom Center on The University of Texas at Austin campus. Please note that seating will be limited. Registrants of the symposium will have reserved seating, and Ransom Center members will receive priority entry at 6:20 p.m. Doors will open to the general public at 6:30 p.m. Those unable to attend the event or the symposium can enjoy a live webcast.

Throughout the day on Friday, April 6, the symposium will continue with a series of panel discussions featuring esteemed writers, editors, critics, and journalists who will consider Wallace’s work, his life, and his contribution to contemporary literature. Registration is limited, and only a few spaces remain.

The Ransom Center acquired the David Foster Wallace papers and Wallace’s personal library in late 2009. Since that time, the Center has acquired several smaller collections related to Wallace, including:

  • Photocopies of Wallace’s completed “usage ballots” for the American Heritage Dictionary. Wallace was a member of the company’s board that governs decisions on usage, spelling, and pronunciation.
  • Items related to “Democracy and Commerce at the U. S. Open,” an article Wallace wrote for Tennis magazine in 1995, including correspondence with Jay Jennings, senior editor at Tennis.
  • A photocopy of a typed letter from Wallace to Brandon Hobson in which Wallace gives writing advice to the then-22-year-old Hobson.
  • Nine annotated drafts of “Host,” an essay Wallace published in The Atlantic Monthly in 2005, together with correspondence related to the essay between Wallace and Martha Spaulding of The Atlantic.
  • A small collection of correspondence, primarily from Wallace to recipients including collector Bernard Peyton Watson, who donated the materials.
  • An unpublished typescript essay titled Pearls & Swine by Wallace, written at the request of James Harmon, who wrote to well-known individuals requesting that they respond to the question, “If you could offer the young people of today one piece of advice, what would it be?”
  • A collection of correspondence and manuscripts Wallace sent to editor and literary critic Steven Moore between 1987 and 2004, together with photocopies of correspondence from Wallace to writer David Markson.

A two-case display of select items from these various collections will be on view in the Ransom Center’s lobby April 3–8.

Because of anticipated high demand for the use of the Wallace papers and associated collections during the symposium, all researchers intending to request access to these materials must inform curatorial staff of their research plans in advance of their visit, no later than March 30, 2012. To protect the materials, space and access will be limited. Walk-ins will not have access to the materials during this time.

We look forward to welcoming symposium participants, registrants, and other guests to the Ransom Center during the symposium to celebrate the life and work of one of the most creative and influential writers of our time.

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 Michelle Bennight updates the inventory of paintings in the Ransom Center’s art collection, which included documenting works and confirming measurements and other information. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Undergraduate intern Michelle Bennight updates the inventory of paintings in the Ransom Center’s art collection, which included documenting works and confirming measurements and other information. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
While visiting the Ransom Center on Tuesday, author T. C. Boyle signed the Center’s authors’ door. Photo by Pete Smith.
While visiting the Ransom Center on Tuesday, author T. C. Boyle signed the Center’s authors’ door. Photo by Pete Smith.
Visiting speaker, Shakespeare scholar, and Columbia University Professor James Shapiro views materials from the Ransom Center’s performing arts collection with Associate Curator for Performing Arts Helen Baer. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Visiting speaker, Shakespeare scholar, and Columbia University Professor James Shapiro views materials from the Ransom Center’s performing arts collection with Associate Curator for Performing Arts Helen Baer. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

New book explores origins of Watergate's Deep Throat

By Jennifer Tisdale

Cover of Max Holland's "Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat."
Cover of Max Holland's "Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat."

Author and journalist Max Holland accessed the Ransom Center’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Watergate Papers while researching his book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat (University Press of Kansas, 2012), which is now available. Holland describes his work at the Center:

The genesis of Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat began when I read a news item in 2007 about the opening of materials relating to Mark Felt in the Woodward and Bernstein Papers at the Ransom Center. Having done research in archives for years, one thing I’ve learned is that newly opened papers invariably contain new insights into a historical event, no matter how much it has already been written about.

I wasn’t disappointed after perusing the collection.

The single-most important documents, of course, were Bob Woodward’s typewritten notes from his encounters with W. Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat. Other Woodward notes from contemporaneous interviews with L. Patrick Gray III and Donald Santarelli were useful too. Early drafts of All the President’s Men, particularly those portions about Deep Throat that were excised from the published book, illuminated the Woodward/Felt relationship. Finally, an interview that Carl Bernstein and Woodward conducted with the late Howard Simons was vital for my book, since he was the only Post editor I could not interview myself.

Author T. C. Boyle’s archive acquired

By Elana Estrin

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of novelist and short-story writer Tom Coraghessan “T. C.” Boyle, author of such acclaimed works as The Tortilla Curtain (1995) and World’s End (1987). Spanning more than 30 years from the 1970s through the present, the archive covers the breadth of Boyle’s prolific career.

“I am very pleased and honored to have my papers safely ensconced at the Ransom Center so that they may be preserved and made available to scholars,” said Boyle. “With such an archive, there is always the danger of damage or even destruction, especially when the papers are stored in filing cabinets and cardboard boxes in the basement of a very old house. I am vastly relieved to know that they are now safe.”

Boyle is the author of 22 books of fiction, and his short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and The New Yorker. He was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Prize for best novel of the year in 1988 for World’s End and the PEN/Malamud Prize in 1999 for T. C. Boyle Stories (1998). Boyle is currently a professor of English at the University of Southern California.

The collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, professional files, and teaching material. Nearly every published title is represented by a binder of manuscript notes, research material, drafts, and proofs. Also included are about 140 short-story files.

If you’re in Austin, don’t miss the chance to see Boyle at BookPeople on March 19.

 

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