The Myopic Scribe

Illuminated manuscripts have the tiniest strokes details. They’re so intricate I don’t see how they were made without a visual aid. Unless….they were created by someone who could naturally see with precision.

Even in the ancient world magnification was technically possible. Crystal or glass lenses were known. But no deliberately created lenses have been found from then. And Pliny didn’t write about them.
During Greek times you do get a glimpse of lenses in Aristophanes’ play Clouds. One person talks about destroying a paper using a “burning glass” saying 

When a summons is sent to me I will take this stone and place myself in the sun, I will at a distance melt all the writings of the summons.

Do you think a craft-worker could hold a burning glass lens in one hand and create tiny strokes with the other? To me, it would be awkward, but possible. I suppose it would work because you can find hands-free magnifiers today. Some are mounted on legs and others on a neck-cord.  

Image-enlarging lenses were described in Ptolemy‘s Optics. They were also commented on by Ibn Sahl (10th century) and Alhazen (Book of Optics, ca. 1021). Eventually – in the 12th century – their Latin translations appeared in Europe.

You find the first eyeglasses made in Northern Italy about 1290 AD. We know because they were described in a sermon delivered on February 23rd, 1306. The Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa noted it writing: 
Tommaso da Modena’s portrait
of Cardinal Hugh de Provence

“It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision”

And by 1301, they spread enough that guild regulations governing their sale were enacted in Venice.
The earliest picture of someone using eyeglasses to read is a 1352 portrait by Tommaso da Modena. After that you find many pictures with eyeglasses.

There’s even one of Simon Bening, my persona workshop master’s son. It is a self-portrait he painted in 1558 with him holding them in his hand like a saint’s attribution symbol.

From pictures, you can’t tell how effective eyeglasses were. How were they worn? How well did they stay in place? And did they distort?

The earliest surviving glasses date to about 1400 AD. They were found under the floor of Kloster Wienhausen in Germany. They are framed-lenses riveted together by handles so the joint rests on your nose. They don’t have temples and work sorta like pince-nez glasses.
Besides magnification another way you might create intricate details is if you’re nearsighted. This excellent close vision today is termed “myopia“. If you are shortsighted the closer you bring an object to your eye the larger it seems.

The tendency to be nearsighted is inherited, but the condition is also affected by how you use your eyes. If you spend major time doing intense, close visual work you may develop myopia.
Simon Bening self-portrait,
Flemish, 1558

In the Middle Ages guilds and workshops encouraged myopia’s hereditary and environmental benefits. Being nearsighted aided both a scribe’s ability and learning progress. In a monastery or workshop, better sketchers would naturally become scribes, the best rising to become masters. Workshops also tended to be inherited by qualified sons, keeping the craft and the gene in the family.

I was blessed with myopia. My Mother and Aunt had it too. I started wearing glasses for it at age 9.  I still take off my glasses to read, paint and letter scrolls.

When I look further away I see things in a hazy fuzz. In High School my friends seeing me down the hall thought I was ignoring them. Unless I know your clothing I might not recognize you across the room if I’m not wearing my glasses.

I admit I use my weakness to benefit my art. I love painting illumination’s every intricate stroke. All the steps needed to get to the shading, whitework, and diapering are just a drag. My myopia may even be the reason I implore scribes to look at an abundance of illuminations. I want you to see the fine details clearly too.

Related Prior Post:
 5 Tips To Train Your Artist Eye
Tip To Seeing Like An Artist

Related External Article:
Close Work Without Magnifying Lenses?
Myopia (Nearsightedness)

Categories: History, Musings

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  1. That was a very interesting read!

    I wonder if this tradition of nearsighted people becoming scribans and such makes us modern nearsighted more “nerdy” even now so to speak 🙂

    In my case, sadly, mi myopia is so strong that I can’t use it to my advantage with intricate details. Because that would mean 5cm from my eyes.


    • I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I haven’t read anything on ” inherited nerdiness”. That would be a deep subject to research.

      You do bring up an important point. Not all myopia is beneficial for detailed works. There are measured limits to its benefit.


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