I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Archive for July, 2011


Working Around the Problems of Inappropriate Eyeglasses for Reenactors

Surgical Correction

One should never enter into any sort of surgery lightly. Before any non-emergency surgery, be certain that you exhaustively confer with your physicians! Laser eye surgery—commonly known as Lasik—and the implantation of permanent lenses are both available. The former is still expensive and probably not covered by most insurance. It is has not been around long enough that we know the long-term effects of Lasik, so no one knows how long the beneficial results may last, and there may even be long-term side effects. The implantation of lenses is usually to correct cataracts or other eye ailments and should not be approached lightly.

Contact Lenses

The most obvious remedy are contacts. Contact lenses, which are small corrective lenses that are placed directly upon the eye, convey the illusion of using no device at all. Since all good living history—with the exception of practical archaeology—is, at its base, illusion, this a very suitable remedy.

There are people who are familiar only with the more primitive forms of contact lenses—heavy, uncomfortable glass or hard plastic appliances that could only be worn for a short time—that were invented in the nineteenth century. They had become relatively comfortable to wear for short times by the 1930s and had attained great popularity by 1940s. Rigid plastic lenses became available at this time, and soft plastic lenses were developed into the 1960s, although they did not became commercially available until the 1970s.

These lenses all did not breath and could not be worn for extended periods of time. Disposable extended-wear and gas-permeable lenses only became available in the 1980s and 1990s. A new generation of disposable, extended-wear gas-permeable lenses was introduced just before the turn of the millennium.

If you attempted without success to wear contact lenses prior to this time, see your optometrist for sample lenses. You might very well be surprised that your ancient prejudices were for naught.

Getting Accustomed to Going Without Eyeglasses

Most folk can go without spectacles. In an era with low rates of literacy, people of our period were much less concerned about perfect eyesight than we are today. Continued reliance on corrective devices has in some cases weakened the eyes and has increased our reliance on spectacles for convenience and comfort. There is, however, a great distance between convenience and necessity.

Practicing going without spectacles should not start at an event. Do it first at home, and do not try to overdo it. Do not be too active at first, and stay away from dangerous activities. You might find that there are certain things you cannot do; please accept these limitations so that you do not endanger yourself or others. Reenacting should not be run by egos!

Hints for Going Without Spectacles

Much about living history is, to modern sensibilities, inconvenient and, perhaps, uncomfortable. However, if you are willing to compromise, you will find that it is not impossible! Here are a few hints for not using your eyeglasses at living-history events:

A. Realize that spectacles must be abandoned only during public hours (within the confines of the ropeline if your organization uses such a thing). Outside, the use of spectacles are allowed, although you might find that continued use of no spectacles may make the transition more easy.

B. Before public hours begin, police the area in which you plan to stay to make certain there are no dangers that you might not see.

C. Find a pursuit that does not require good vision. These are pursuits to be practiced in public at events. You can, of course, wear spectacles when practicing a craft in a non-public setting.

D. Move slowly without your spectacles. Even if you are accustomed to striding quickly about, you will find that taking your time is safer. After all, your ancestors did not have tv programs or professional soccer games to rush to!

E. Allow fellow reenactors to guide you about if necessary.

F. Use a walking stick to help walk around if necessary.

G. Be careful around weapons, tent stakes and fire!

H. Request—and expect—that your campmates will keep the area relatively clean of debris and dangers, even as you expect them not to leave unsheathed steel around!

I. On walk-abouts, keep your spectacles convenient—I used to slide them up a sleeve—so that they are relatively accessible if you desperately need them.

J. Acquire a magnifying globe or crystal that is acceptable to the Authenticity Officer. It is presumed that these were also used as jewelry.

K. If absolutely necessary, put your spectacles on again when public hours are over or when leaving the ropeline. Some persons in your situation, however, prefer to go without spectacles whenever they are in period kit. As my wife said after a recent weekend event, “Oh, the green blobs have leaves…”

You will also often find that you have compensated so well that putting your spectacles back on after an extended period without will leave you slightly confused and dizzy.

Try it before rejecting the idea. You may find it easier to do than modern life has made you believe!

If Wearing No Spectacles Leave you Unsafe, Nauseous and Debilitated

If you are not capable of nor willing to go without spectacles and cannot otherwise correct your visual disabilities and you will not abide by the limitations imposed, find another hobby. Don’t expect the whole hobby to change its principles for you.

TW Moran of eighteenth-century reenacting posted the address for a site about Antique Spectacles and Visual Aids (http://www.antiquespectacles.com/) in February of 2009, and I found it incredibly useful and its creator, David Fleischman, incredibly helpful. It is filled with useful essays, wonderful period illos and photographs of extant artifacts and replicas. Highly recommended. I want to thank Doctor Fleishman for reading and commenting on this essay!

© 2006, 2009 Folump Enterprises


On one mailing list, what shouldn’t be a questionable matter became a long thread, with people wanting to wear spectacles at events—”They’re not the same as jewelry or sneakers”—going on against their AO’s correct admonition (“No spex at any time at events.”)

Micel Folcland decided early on that we wanted quality over quantity. We have refused some potential members who wanted a variance to the rules because such a variance would be more convenient for them. We held firm, and our AO—whose eyesight was pretty poor—did not wear contacts to an event just to show that it could be done without the world ending. Some years ago, I wrote an article regarding the appearance of spex in reenacting (of all; eras, though it concentrated on the early middle ages), and I figured to reprint it here.

Let me state that I find the appearance of anachronistic spex just as disruptive as any other anachronism. I can cite a number of comedies which realize this well, though I can almost imagine some of the complainers going, “I don’t get it. What’s so funny?” Here is a modest exploration why anyone who is not the member of a fantasy LARP should find it funny!


Copyright 1934 RKO


One of the most controversial parts of any serious living history endeavors are eyeglasses.

It is untrue that early man possessed no way to correct his eyesight. From ancient times, magnifying lenses—generally crystals or curved transparent goblets filled with water—were probably used to help with fine work, to start fires and to cauterize wounds. Workshops manufacturing these lenses have been found from Gotland to Constantinople. However, these were large, heavy, unwieldy and only minimally transportable. The modern concept of spectacles was invented in the later thirteenth century and, unlike many technological advances through the ages, were at once widely adopted. By 1290, only a few years after their development, spectacles were being praised as essential. Two monks from the St. Catherine’s Monastery, Giordano da Rivalto and Alessandro della Spina, provide the earliest primary documentation to support this fact. On 23 February, 1306, Giordano mentioned them by stating in a sermon “it is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses which make for good vision, one of the best arts and most necessary that the world has.” He coined the word “occhiale” (eyeglasses) and its use began to spread throughout Italy and Europe.

For the portrayal of impressions from post-13th-century eras in Western Europe, the use of simple frames are often acceptable, even though there are very real physical differences in the size, shape and construction between period and modern spectacles. In addition:

A. spectacles were designed to correct far-sightedness, and other corrective lenses date only from the fifteenth century (a mention is quoted at http://www.florilegium.org/?http%3A%2F%2Fwww.florilegium.org%2Ffiles%2FDISABILITIES%2F15C-Eyeglsses-art.html,). Bifocals, famously, from the eighteenth.

B. Even though early optics were often crystal and frequently tinted, relatively transparent, purposeful sunglasses were not invented until the eighteenth century. Any sunglasses—whether they are eyeglasses or even transitional eyeglasses—are immediately inappropriate. (Early sunglasses were a protection against the sensitivity of light caused by venereal disease by the way)

C. Early spectacles were often difficult to wear because rigid ear pieces were not invented until the eighteenth century. Early spectacles were kept on the face by unwieldy straps, braces, ribbons, spring nose pieces and sometimes by balancing them on the nose itself. Sometimes, they were even kept on a stick or otherwise held up to the eyes.

C. Spectacles were a sign of old age and infirmity, and worn by many Europeans only in private.

D. Spectacles were a sign of learning and, in painting, often used as shorthand for portraying the subject as educated and literate. Unless there was a reason to brag about literacy—and this was scarcely so in pre-Industrial revolution Europe—there was no reason to make such an ostentatious display of the ability.

However, for persons portraying pre-thirteenth century eras, such as our own, even this controversial work-around is unavailable. A Viking wearing spectacles is comic and inappropriate. Although inappropriate eyeglasses have often been a part of burlesque and comedy, and although Robert Wooley’s black Harry Potter-like frames were hilarious in films such as “Cockeyed Cavaliers,” hopefully your intent is more educational and less humorous.

There are, however, ways to work around the problem.

For notes on the history of spectacles, see http://www.teagleoptometry.com/history.htm

—To Be Continued

© 2006, 2009 Folump Enterprises

Shopping Guide

The chances are that most people of the era we attempt to re-create not only did not have any books but could not read them even if they did have them! (That latter is not particularly historically unique since Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why tells of some professional scribes who only duplicated pen strokes and who were not really literate!) Our display—in the literate area—has a number of leech books, a copy of the Bible (vulgate with Old English glosses in many areas), homilies and a few other books. Most are translated into modern English, since MoPs love to read medical recipes of the time, but they have period binding, are printed on vegetable parchment that simulates real parchment and are typeset using fonts that effectively mimic period calligraphic styles in formats seen in period manuscripts. Although they are not on chains, I point out proudly to visitors that I am literate unlike most of the camp* and these books and am proud that I possess these books.

The insides of some of the books are shown to the MoPs, but many are not. One is a “commonplace book”—alas, not quite period, since the first appeared a few hundred years later—that answers many questions we might have, and one holds a camera that may be brought out when MoPs are not about and used quickly during an event but which is routinely camouflaged. But the most useful book is a shopping guide that I use when going around to vendors.

Vendors are, in almost any era, there to make a buck. Even when there is a conscious desire to make the presentation better, often the vendor will carry goods that are not, strictly speaking, period accurate. In some cases, it might be a legitimate difference in interpretation. In some, it is just availability or safety. Sometimes, it might be to fulfill a desire by reenactors or to cater to the MoPs. In a few, unfortunately, it is just a desire to move merchandise. How else can you justify cast-pewter sewing-machine charms at a RevWar event? Two decades ago, I was the commander of Baldswin’s unit in the NWTA, a RevWar reenactment group. Baldwin’s was a unit of sutlers—vendors—and most of my time seemed to be spent handling complaints from fellow members seeking accuracy, policing the wares displayed and trying to convince unit members not to sell or to display inappropriate merchandise.

Some reenactment groups force the vendors who set up at their events to take back anything that is later not approved by an authenticity officer (AO), at least when they have that control. Certainly, many groups never give a blanket okay for anything produced by a supplier to be used on the line, although they might recommend members look at the wares of a certain vendor. Even wares purchased from such a vendor, who has sold appropriate material before, must be approved by an AO. Above all else, a reenactor—old or new—must keep in mind what Steve Etheridge, formerly the AO of Regia Anglorum, notes, that most vendors are “ operate under the provisions of ‘buyer beware.’ ” And the buyers must, indeed, beware!

The shopping guide was first accumulated a few years ago when shopping for myself and other members of my unit at a large event which has only moderate control over what the vendors offer for sale. It featured photographs of actual artifacts, diagrams from archaeological books and so forth. It enabled me to pick up something, look at it, look at what “inspired” it and make a decision as to how appropriate it would be at an event. I handed out copies to members from other Regia groups but did not sell it. Although some illustrations are taken from out-of-copyright sources or were taken by myself, most are not. Getting permission to reprint all the photos would have been difficult if not impossible! It is a fair-use research tool that, over the years, has been weeded, added to and reprinted.

Micel Folcland recreates the Danelaw in the early eleventh century. The York Archaeological Trust has done a magnificent job excavating and cataloging artifacts, and I have cheerfully exploited their labors, thanked them profusely and have recommended their books. In assembling the book, I have followed four guides: First, that the artifacts portrayed were from York (or at least available in York, since it was a metropolitan port with objects from Scandinavia and beyond were commonly seen). Second, that things not found in the York records were used but carefully listed (such as the rich supply of items from the Oseberg burial such as looms and other textile artifacts). Third, that items were roughly dated (with “pre-period” prominently listed if necessary).** And fourth, that originals are mostly displayed, and any reproduction is noted as such.

As better  illustrations are found, old ones are replaced. As new discoveries are made, they are included. As York versions of items represented by foreign versions are discovered, a change is made. Although we do not include complete bibliographic references, we try to make note of an artifact’s time, country and/or culture of origin. Is it perfect? Probably not. Is it exhaustive? Certainly not. But it is certainly helpful, and it is certainly hated by many vendors who are trying to push anything that will make the weekend profitable. There are many books, articles and such that fulfill the exact same purpose, but this book has the advantage of being easily transported and is made up in a period style that is not immediately disruptive. I certainly recommend such an effort for any unit or group that is interested in a more accurate portrayal in living history!

For a good and informative look at what is suggested and available for inclusion in such a book, you can look at the books published by YAT (see the free downloads at http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/resources/pubs_archive.htm) or at the photographs of artifacts held by YAT at http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/piclib/photos.php).

*A younger member was around when I did this once, and he proudly said, “My dad is literate!” “He just looks at the pictures,” I returned to the delight of both him and the MoPs.
**This did not mean that they can not be used, since the Norse and others of that day had a great tendency to use things until they wore out and not be governed as we are today by what is currently fashionable. However, they must be approved by the AO, and they should not by over-represented on the line!