In The (Local) News: Medieval Spectacles

Micah Erwin, a UT iSchool alumnus and fellow medievalist who now works at the Harry Ransom Center, has written this amazing blog post about the impression of a pair of medieval spectacles that was found on a bit of medieval manuscript waste that had been used to bind an early modern printed book:

Early printed book contains rare evidence of medieval spectacles

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).

What a fascinating and exciting thing to find in a book here in Austin!  Tidbits like these are what make medieval studies so exciting to me.  Medieval history can be so amazing because, as Barbara Tuchman noted in the title of her book, it is a distant mirror of ourselves and our own time. Taking away the specific issues of banking crises, global warming, and what have you, we’re still struggling with some of the same fundamental problems that they were 600 years ago: sickness, malnutrition, insufficient housing, poverty, ignorance, superstition, prejudice and governmental selfishness.

And yet in the midst of all the filth and horror they contemplated the divine in ways that we just can’t. In Lincoln Cathedral there are carvings and bosses so high up on the ceiling that they are almost inaccessible, even to modern scaffolding. Why are they there? Why did anyone go to all the trouble of making them when they couldn’t even be seen or appreciated? They were made for the sheer joy and love of making beautiful things, even if the only person that could see them was God. Perhaps especially if God was the only one who could see them. People just don’t do that any more. The medieval world created so much beauty, and so much of it has survived! What’s going to survive from our time? New buildings built on the UT campus are designed to last 50 years now. Paper’s gotten crappier and crappier and no one can know how well eBooks and eReaders and other electronic media is going to survive. Medieval people lived with such dignity and inventiveness, and I just don’t see anything like their creations when I look around me now. I think that’s why I love the middle ages so much.

I think the similarities between us and medieval people get lost in translation so easily, because people focus on all the cosmetics that make our time different from them. But nothing has fundamentally changed since then! We’re still doing a lot of the same things! I mean, Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes with a modern translation could so easily be marketed as the next big self-help book for corporate managers. (In fact… why hasn’t it? Hm.) We’re still wearing spectacles (and leaving them sitting on open books!) and we still have fingerprints.  For all our technology, we’re really not that different.


2 thoughts on “In The (Local) News: Medieval Spectacles

  1. Fascinating. I definitely agree with the lack of lasting things in the world. We, as a society, consist more of wasteful consumers than we did in the Middle Ages.

  2. Pingback: Medieval Manuscripts Fragments as Binding Materials, a New Project at the Harry Ransom Center « The Book Archaeologist

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