Until the late 13th century, there was virtually no cure for people who suffered from nearsightedness or farsightedness. In fact, it was a given that once a person grew old, he or she will suffer from a weak eyesight and since there was no cure, the victim of the condition had to give up reading and other eye-intensive activities.
It was only in the last decade of the 13th century that the earliest eyeglasses were invented. While the early models of the eyeglasses were more basic and needed to be held by hand in place, subsequent models towards the end of the medieval period made eyeglasses more widely available and easier to use.
The theoretical basis for the invention of eyeglasses had existed well before their invention. For instance, Roger Bacon in 1268 penned down how the appropriate use of different kinds of lenses could be used to enlarge letters.
He was preceded in theory by his teacher Robert Grossteste, an English bishop who in early 13th century described the use of optics to read small texts at great distances. The earliest known eyeglasses used in medieval Europe were invented in Italy in 1286.
A Florentine manuscript dated to 1289 mentions the use of eyeglasses. By the early 14th century, eyeglasses manufacturing had become an industry and had registered guilds in cities like Venice. Although the earliest innovations in the manufacture of eyeglasses took place in Venice, Florence had become the center of eyeglass production by the 14th century.
Early eyeglasses comprised of a very primitive design and were essentially meant to enable the user to read well. Such early models comprised of two pieces of glass or crystal stones which were occasionally framed and held together with a handle.
A user had to hold up the glasses by supporting it with his hands in order to keep it in place. Some early versions had the glasses riveted together so that the handle could grip the nose, relieving the user of the need to hold the glasses using his hands. Most early glasses comprised of convex lenses.
Developments in late medieval period
By the late medieval period, eyeglasses had become a popularly available instrument all over Europe. Although Italy remained the center of eyeglass manufacturing, other regions such as Germany flourished as notable centres.
A notable development in eyeglasses took place in the 16th century when concave lenses came into use. Concave lenses were essentially meant for nearsighted people and enable a nearsighted person to see clearly. By the end of the medieval period, innovations in the manufacture of eyeglasses included the use of bone, metal and leather mountings in the frame of the eyeglasses.
Eyeglasses in Medieval Art
Eyeglasses became a popular troupe for art and artists during the late medieval period. The earliest recorded depiction of eyeglasses in art is that of Tommas de Modena who painted a series of portraits with eyeglasses in 1352.
Before soon, other painters and artists also began using characters wearing eyeglasses in their works. Typically, a character wearing eyeglasses became the archetype for someone who was highly educated, sophisticated or elderly.