Styles of Medieval Eyeglasses

Marvels of Sight: Medieval Glasses

Glasses today are ubiquitous – they correct vision, serve as fashion statements, and even offer protection. But have you ever wondered about their origin? The intriguing history of eyewear dates back to the medieval era. Let’s embark on a journey to uncover the story of medieval glasses – a tale filled with innovation, culture, and the perpetual human desire to improve our senses.

The Origins of Eyewear 

The development of eyewear is not just a tale of technological advancement but also one of cultural exchange and scientific curiosity. This story is set against the backdrop of various civilizations that made remarkable strides in understanding the intricacies of the human eye.

The Discovery of Convex Lenses

The journey of eyeglasses began with the understanding of lenses. Ancient manuscripts reveal that as early as the 5th century BC, magnifying glasses made of spheres filled with water were used to enlarge objects. However, it was the discovery of convex lenses that truly revolutionized vision aids.

By the end of the 13th century, Italian craftsmen began refining the art of making solid glass lenses. These early versions were primitive by today’s standards. The lenses, round and convex, were mounted on frames made of leather, wood, or bone. These ‘rivet spectacles’ were balanced on the bridge of the nose or held manually before the eyes. An example of such early spectacles can be found in the works of Tommaso da Modena, an Italian painter. His 1352 portrait of Cardinal Hugh of Saint-Cher is notable for depicting the cardinal with a pair of these early glasses, hinting at their spread and use in clerical and scholarly circles.

Early Glasses in Islamic Civilizations

While Europe was making strides in the creation of eyewear, the Islamic world too had a parallel, vibrant history. The Islamic Golden Age, a period between the 8th and 14th centuries, saw an unparalleled focus on science and medicine.

Scholars like Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham) made significant contributions to the field of optics. He wrote the ‘Book of Optics’ in the 11th century, a seven-volume treatise that delved deep into the nature of light and vision. While he didn’t invent glasses, his research laid the groundwork for understanding how lenses could be used to correct vision.

There are records from the 11th and 12th centuries, suggesting that glass reading stones, convex lenses used to magnify text, were prevalent in the Islamic world. These reading aids would serve as precursors to the more structured eyeglasses that would be developed in Europe.

The Rise of Medieval Eyeglasses

Eyeglasses, as we know them today, are a product of countless advancements over centuries, and their origins lie in the medieval period. As societal and economic structures grew more complex, the need for a tool to improve vision became more apparent. This demand was primarily driven by scholars, monks, and artisans whose work required intensive use of their eyes.

The First Eyeglass Makers

The rise of eyeglasses would not have been possible without the pioneers who took the first steps in this field. In the 13th century, Italy, particularly the city-states of Venice and Florence, became the hub for the early manufacture of eyeglasses. The glassblowing industry in these regions was already well established and boasted skilled craftsmen.

An important breakthrough came from a document dated 1286, often referred to as the ‘Rivet Spectacle Anonymous Manuscript.’ This note from a friar in Pisa mentions an anonymous man, “almost seventy years old,” who was reading the smallest letters using a device made from glass and lead, much to the astonishment of onlookers. This anecdote is the earliest known reference to eyeglasses, marking a turning point in the history of vision aids.

By the end of the 14th century, the production of eyeglasses had become a well-established trade, with eyeglass guilds such as the ‘Fondaco dei Tedeschi’ in Venice, and the ‘Guild of Crystal Workers’ in Florence. These guilds set standards, trained apprentices, and facilitated the spread of eyewear throughout Europe.

Fashion and Function: Styles of Medieval Eyeglasses

The initial eyeglasses were more about function than fashion, and comfort was secondary to their purpose of correcting vision. Early eyeglasses, often called ‘rivet spectacles,’ had a simple design with two convex lenses mounted in frames made of bone, wood, or leather. These glasses didn’t have earpieces, so they were either held up to the eyes or perched on the nose.

As technology progressed, so did the design of eyeglasses. By the late 15th century, ‘Pince-nez,’ French for ‘pinch nose,’ came into existence. These glasses clung to the bridge of the nose and were considered a step forward in terms of convenience.

It was in the 17th century that eyeglasses similar to what we use today were developed. These ‘arm spectacles’ had rigid sidepieces resting over the ears, making it easier for users to wear them for extended periods.

The style of eyeglasses also reflected the wearer’s status. For instance, frames of gold or silver were used by the nobility, while the clergy and the common folk used simpler materials. Despite these differences, the advent of eyeglasses marked an important milestone in improving the quality of life for many individuals across different walks of life in medieval society. 

Cultural Significance of Medieval Glasses

The evolution of glasses didn’t just improve vision; it impacted society on a deeper, cultural level. Medieval glasses, much like today, conveyed status, became symbolic, and influenced art and literature, serving as a window into the broader societal fabric of the Middle Ages.

Symbolism and Status

Medieval glasses, beyond their practical use, became a marker of status and identity. Possessing a pair of spectacles was often associated with literacy and scholarship. They became a symbol for the educated, the clergy, and the affluent, given their importance in reading and the cost associated with their manufacture.

Glasses also carried religious symbolism. Some religious texts and artworks depicted saints and religious figures wearing glasses, signifying wisdom and enlightenment. For example, St. Jerome, often depicted with glasses, was considered the patron saint of spectacle-makers.

The material of the frame was a clear indicator of a person’s social status. The elite and nobility used spectacles with frames of gold or silver, sometimes encrusted with precious gems. In contrast, the less affluent used frames made of bone, wood, or leather.

Influence on Literature and Art

The impact of glasses can be seen in the art and literature of the time. Medieval and Renaissance paintings began featuring characters with glasses. Artists like Tommaso da Modena painted ecclesiastics wearing glasses, indicating their scholarly status.

In literature, the existence and use of glasses were often woven into narratives. An excellent example is Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” where the character ‘The Reeve’ is described as a skilled carpenter who carries a “Persian pair of spectacles” on his cap.

The cultural impact of glasses in these fields demonstrated a shift in societal perceptions towards vision and clarity, marking the beginning of a journey that would lead us to the myriad forms of eyewear we see today. 

The Science Behind Medieval Glasses

As commonplace as they may be today, the mechanics behind eyeglasses are rooted in complex scientific principles. Delving into these concepts not only enriches our understanding of medieval glasses but also offers insights into the ingenuity of the craftsmen who pioneered them.

Understanding Refraction and the Human Eye

At the heart of eyewear functionality lies a fundamental optical concept – refraction. Simply put, refraction is the bending of light as it passes from one medium to another, say, from air into the lens of an eye or a piece of glass.

The human eye, in its natural state, is an exceptional optical instrument, capable of focusing light onto the retina at the back of the eye to produce clear images. However, due to aging or inherent conditions, the eye’s lens can struggle to focus light appropriately, causing blurred vision.

Two common vision problems that eyeglasses address are hyperopia, or farsightedness, and presbyopia. In both cases, the eye is unable to focus on objects close to it. Here is where convex lenses, the type used in medieval glasses, come into play. These lenses bend light rays inward, ensuring they meet right on the retina, which in turn improves the clarity of up-close vision.

Understanding and utilizing these principles was a groundbreaking achievement for medieval craftsmen and scholars. They used their knowledge of optics to design the earliest eyeglasses, setting the stage for future developments in vision correction.

Progression in Lens Making Techniques

The development of eyeglasses is deeply intertwined with the evolution of lens-making techniques. The rudimentary spectacles of the 13th century were made from rough, unpolished lenses. But with time, improvements in technology allowed for better lens crafting.

In the early days, the process involved blowing a glass sphere, cutting it into two hemispheres, and then grinding the flat side to create a convex surface. These lenses, while far from perfect, marked a significant advancement in optical aids.

The 15th century brought more sophistication to lens crafting. Venice, a city famed for its glass-making prowess, was at the forefront of these developments. Lenses became thinner, lighter, and clearer due to advancements in glass composition and grinding techniques. The introduction of lead glass, or cristallo, allowed for better clarity and less distortion, further improving the effectiveness of eyeglasses.

The progression in lens making techniques was crucial in shaping the future of eyewear. Each development brought eyeglasses closer to their modern form, enhancing their efficacy, and paving the way for their widespread acceptance.

The Spread and Acceptance of Eyeglasses in Medieval Society 

The advent of medieval glasses marked a significant development in the history of human innovation. Yet, like all technological advancements, the widespread adoption of eyeglasses was a process, one that was deeply influenced by the socio-economic factors of the time.

Trade Routes and the Expansion of Glasses

Italy, being the birthplace of eyeglasses, was naturally the first to see their use. However, the significant invention didn’t stay confined to this region for long. The trade routes of the Middle Ages played a crucial role in transporting this new vision aid to various parts of Europe and beyond.

The Silk Road, a network of trade routes connecting the East and West, was instrumental in this expansion. Eyeglasses, among other goods, traveled along these routes to reach distant lands. The renowned Venetian merchant and explorer, Marco Polo, is often credited for introducing glasses to the Far East during his travels in the late 13th century.

In Europe, the expansion was facilitated by the well-established trade fairs, such as the Champagne Fairs in France and the Flanders Fairs in Belgium. These gatherings served as important commercial hubs where merchants from different regions would exchange goods, including the increasingly popular eyeglasses.

Societal Attitudes Towards Eyewear

As eyeglasses began to permeate different societies, they were met with varying attitudes. For some, glasses represented an invaluable tool for better vision, especially for those involved in detailed work such as manuscript transcription, craftsmanship, and even coin minting. Among these groups, the invention was largely welcomed.

However, societal acceptance wasn’t universal. In some circles, needing glasses was seen as a physical weakness or a sign of old age. Wearing glasses could also be perceived as vanity, especially when frames made from precious materials were flaunted by the wealthy.

Over time, as the utility of glasses became more evident, attitudes gradually changed. The invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century led to an increase in printed material, which in turn heightened the demand for eyeglasses. As their use became more common, glasses started shedding their stigma and began to be seen as an indispensable tool rather than a sign of weakness.


The story of medieval glasses is a journey through time, from the discovery of convex lenses to the craftsmanship of the first eyeglass makers. These small pieces of glass reshaped society, defining status, influencing art, and aiding scholarship. As we wear our modern spectacles, let’s remember that these functional accessories carry with them centuries of human innovation and cultural evolution, reflecting the clear vision of our ancestors from the Middle Ages.