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


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

2 responses

  1. I have to say I do find modern eyeglasses annoying, and I try to wear contact lenses myself, but I believe in having access for all members and do not discriminate based on disability. If someone wanted to join your group that used a wheelchair, would you make them give up their mobility in order to participate? What about a diabetic, would you say they can only use historical forms of medication? Once you start discriminating based on physical attribute, it is tough to stop.

    July 20, 2011 at 10:14

    • As the High One says in the Havamal:

      “The halt can ride on horseback,
      the one-handed drive cattle;
      the deaf fight and be useful:
      to be blind is better than to be burnt:
      no one gets good from a corpse.”

      I guess that means we shouldn’t let the dead join… 🙂 But the lame and handicapped have been with us always!

      I am reminded of what Jim Townsend told me once: No one has aright to reenact. They might have to make modifications or choose specific tasks, etc. While it would be nice to be carried around on a shield by a few people–a period way of being a “wheelchair” for the important lame, look at Ivar the Boneless–I really don’t exp4ct that. I’d expect people to use canes and staffs if necessary, but not modern aluminum things, to hide any modern things like braces and, if needing a wheelchair, use the wheelchair while getting to the ropeline and then sitting on an appropriate chair inside with the wheelchair out of view. It’s been done many times before, in many different eras Medicines taken in private are just that; private unless they are shooting themselves up with insulin next to the ropeline, it’s none of my business (although as a laece, I’d sure love to bleed them…).If someone needs a breathing apparatus to live, cannot hide it and wants to join, then we had better discuss things.

      July 20, 2011 at 10:48

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