SPEX THE FIRST
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!
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
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