Programme and Registration: Encountering the Material Medieval

Excited to be taking part in ‘Encountering the Material Medieval’ later this week…

Medieval Materialities

You can register (and provide badge details) for second edition of the Medieval Materialities conference on the Eventbrite website. Note you can register your attendance to the dinner here as well; the venue is TBC, but I will try to keep it at £15-16/person.
We are also happy to announce the conference programme for the 19-20 January 2017. The Undercroft and the Old Class Library are both located in St John’s House, 71 South Street, St Andrews.
11:30-13:00 (Undercroft) Registration and Networking nibbles
1-2:30 (Old Class Library) Panel 1: Modern medieval made tangible
Guthrie Stewart, Independent, United Kingdom – Bringing the materiality of the medieval to the institution or the wider public
Dr Tomasz Borowski, Polish History Museum, Poland – Senses and Storytelling: recovering the ‘sense’ of medieval material in a constructed historic narrative
Nicole Kipar, PhD student, Edinburgh Heriot Watts, Scotland – Object Zero: materialising the…

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CALL FOR PAPERS: ‘For I am a woman, ignorant, weak and frail’: Feminising Death, Disability and Disease in the later Middle Ages

Victoria Baker and myself are organising a session on the feminisation of death, disability and disease in the later Middle Ages at this years International Medieval Congress (University of Leeds, 3rd-6th July, 2017). Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you are attending the Congress and would be interested in presenting a paper in the session(s) outlined below. 

Conference Details

The International Medieval Congress is the largest interdisciplinary medieval conference of its kind – attracting over 2,200 attendees from over 50 countries, and boasting approximately 1,700 individual papers within 580 academic sessions. Every year, the IMC chooses a special thematic strand which, for 2017, is ‘Otherness’. This focus has been chosen for its wide application across all centuries and regions and its impact on all disciplines devoted to this epoch.

For further information on the Congress, see:

Session Details

**Should this session attract enough interest it will become a three-part series, with each session focussing more deeply on the individual themes of death, disability and disease.

Within late-medieval society, to be valued was to look and behave according to the societal ‘norm’ – dependency was largely represented as a feminine trait, whereas to be independent was to be masculine. How then did medieval people respond to deviations from these gendered expectations as a result of death (or dying), disabilities and chronic diseases?

This session will consider the feminisation of death, disability and disease through an interdisciplinary lens, in order to answer questions about the perceived ‘feminine’ dependency of the marginal ‘third state’ between being fully healthy and fully sick (i.e. to be dying, diseased or disabled). It will hope to consider the contradictory nature of female disease and disability which both engendered an elevated sense of holiness and, conversely, a sense of physical monstrosity; the female response to death, disability and disease as elements of daily life which were (largely) out of their control; the effect of death, disability and disease on medieval constructions of masculinity; and whether – if death, disease and disability dehumanise the body – is it even important to consider the effect of these states on an individual’s gendered identity?

We welcome multi-disciplinary papers from all geographical locations, c.1300-c.1500, which engage with themes such as (but not limited to):Representations of death, disease and/or (dis)ability, Literature either for or by women dealing with the themes of death, disease and/or disability, The tradition of Memento Mori and/or the Danse Macabre, The gendering of ‘Death’, The Black Death’s impact on traditional gender roles, Obstetric death, Female piety and holy anorexia, Effect of chronic disease and/or disability on late-medieval constructions of masculinity, Women and disease (as the developers of cures, writers of recipes, carers or patients, etc.), Female use of disability aids and/or prosthetics, and Self-inflicted disfigurement.

Submission Guidelines

Please send a paper title and an abstract of 100-200 words to Rachael Gillibrand at the Institute for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds ( by 23rd September 2016.

#IMC2016: Hots and Nots

Seeing as it’s become a bit on an online trend to make a personal list of ‘hots’ and ‘nots’ after attending a festival, I’ve decided to do one for the 2016 International Medieval Congress.


  • Meeting incredible people: Spending a week surrounded by like-minded scholars, craftspeople and reenactors is just brilliant. It’s very rare that, standing at a bar, you can see ‘Vote Charlemagne’ t-shirts, ‘Embrace the FemFog’ badges, and hear conversations taking place about manuscripts and unicorns! I love medievalists.
  • #MedievalTwitter: It was wonderful to see so many medievalists taking to twitter to share the main points of certain sessions – especially when I had clashes with other interesting things.
  • Boydell & Brewer recipe books: This was such a good idea of Boydell & Brewer for a ‘food’ orientated congress. I was told they had 600+ copies and cleared the lot. Good work folks!
  • Brilliant papers: Without fear of exaggerating, I bet there were hundreds more brilliant papers, but my highlights included: Kathleen Walker-Meike’s ‘Swallow a Frog and Avoid Croaking’ (paper 137-b); Jan Cemper-Kiesslich’s ‘Famous Persons, Infamous Poisons’ (paCmhYi_OWIAAYKcEper 214-a); Hillary Burgardt’s ‘Looking for Epilepsy in the Medieval Record’ (paper 637-a); Carla Burrell’s ‘Focus on Paget’s Disease of Bone’ (paper 1614-a); and the Annual MAA Lecture ‘Manuscript Edges, Marginal Time’ presented by Elaine Treharne.
  • #IMCAntiBrexit: The general sense of solidarity at the IMC in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the EU was inspiring. I had been left heartbroken by the triumph of Brexit and the leave campaign, but the internationality and support at the IMC, coupled with the brilliant discussions in Tuesday night’s informal Post-Brexit chat were inspiring. Thanks go to Kathryn Maude and Kate Weikert for organising!
  • #Femfog: I don’t even know where to start with s1198 ‘Embracing the #FemFog’ – it was just so moving! Not only knowing that my own experiences are not isolated, but seeing so many people committed to combating the misogyny inherent in the academic system was reassuring – the future looks like one of solidarity and progress. I could say so much about this session, but think it would be best to direct you the the #FemFog hashtag on twitter for full coverage.
  • D-Art Francisca: Francisca Shilova is no stranger to exhibiting at the IMC’s annual Craft Fair and her work is completely stunning. Combining gold leaf, vintage watch-faces and manuscript marginalia, I first saw her jewellery at the IMC in 2015 and have been lusting after it ever since. You can find more information and some beautiful images on her website here!
  • Mankind: Directed by Matthew Sergi and Ara Glenn-Johanson, and performed by Poculi Ludique Societas, this free performance of a 15th century morality play combined medieval music, wonderful acting and improvisation to elicit laugh-out-loud moments and contemplative reactions from the audience. Mankind was spot on!
  • IMC Disco: Everyone knows that the disco is the highlight of the IMC – there’s nothing quite like seeing the author’s of your reading list dancing the Cotton Eye Joe. Although this year was super special, as Elaine Treharne briefly joined the band for a rendition of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. Fantastic!



  • Congress Ale stall opening at 5pm: It was a pity the Old Bar was closed to begin with, but not being able to get my medievalist mitts on a Congress Ale before 5pm was positively tragic! Don’t the Terrace know that ‘acceptable’ drinking hours are a lot earlier than normal during the IMC?
  • Pub Quiz’s ‘Latin goes POP!’: Translating Latin scares me at the best of times. Translating Latin in public, after a couple of pints?..*shudders*CmipgFTWgAAb1Hh
  • #FemFog: Yep, this one makes both the hots and the nots list. Although this session was completely brilliant and undeniably emotional, it is worth pointing out that the audience was overwhelmingly young and female. Where were all the older, white male scholars? This session took place at LUNCH – so there couldn’t have been any clashes?! Although inspirational regardless, it would have been nice if this session hadn’t just been a case of ‘preaching to the converted’.
  • Thursday morning: Waking up after the disco… Need I say more?
  • The ‘Sampling of Traditional Cheeses’ selling out: I am a fiend when it comes to cheese, and was consequently so disappointed when I saw that this event was fully booked. Hosted by Andy Swinscoe, this tasting of eight traditional cheeses was accompanied by a talk about the medieval history of cheese tasting. I’d love to hear some more about from someone who was lucky enough to bag a ticket!
  • Secondhand & Antiquarian Bookfair: More like ‘Book-unfair’! The Secondhand Bookfair simply had too many gorgeous things! I don’t think I’m alone in caving to temptation and spending more on books in one afternoon that I would spend on a whole week’s rent!
  • Eating dinner after ‘Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog’: Witchcraft, Cannibalism and other forms of Food Adulteration (s1325): Finishing with at 6pm with Irina Metzler’s paper ‘Waiter, There’s a Hair in my Soup’, I couldn’t help but question how much saliva, mucus, skin flakes or other ‘bodily unmentionables’ had made it into my dinner that night. Yum!

Okay, so aside from the FemFog audience (and maybe the cheese tasting) my ‘nots’ aren’t that serious. In fact, I had a completely fabulous (and exhausting) week and felt very honoured to be surrounded by so many of my academic idols. Looking forward to the International Medieval Congress 2017 now! 

Let me know your own highlights in the comments section.

What is the future of British Academia post-Brexit?


Over the past six months or more, I have been quite vocal about my desire for Britain to remain a member of the EU. I have engaged in so many conversations, debates, and even arguments with family, friends, colleagues and strangers (with varying results!). Unsurprisingly then, I was heartbroken watching the results of the referendum stream steadily in, leaving me feeling increasingly disappointed, frustrated and helpless. Unlike my other medieval-themed posts, this blog entry aims to work through one of my many concerns about the victory of Brexit…

As far as I can tell (both within and without the echo tunnel of Facebook), there seems to be an almost universal disappointment about the outcome of the EU Referendum within the academic community. In fact, I don’t think I would be making too much of a leap to suggest that scholars, researchers, students and scientists across Europe are feeling heartbroken by the Brexit outcome. Personally, as a young, female academic (currently engaged in doctoral research), I am seriously worried by the decision to withdraw from the EU and the repercussions felt over the last few days. I fear its effect on the economy; I fear Boris Johnson becoming PM; I fear for the future of Scotland and Northern Ireland; and more than that I fear that hate and xenophobia appear to be increasingly normalised by the leave campaign. However, as worthy of comment (and tears) all of those fears are, this blog post is going to focus on my anxiety regarding Brexit’s effect on the higher education system.

What, then, is the impact of Brexit on British universities? Of course, it is impossible to say for certain and we will have to wait and see how negotiations play out over the coming months to be sure, but I believe that the outcomes of Brexit will manifest as: Financial Repercussions, Reduced Access to Resources and Lessening of Quality. I should also point out that I am writing this as a concerned academic and a historian. I am not an economist or a politician and neither would I suppose to be. Consequently, although my views come from the standpoint of the liberal arts and humanities, it should not be forgotten that academics based in medicine and the sciences face their own unique set of difficulties as a result of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

Financial Repercussions

Earlier in the year, Universities UK (a ‘Higher Education Action Group’ made up of Vice Chancellors and Principles from leading universities) called for British universities to support the remain campaign. The organisation outlined how Britain’s academic success is undeniably tied to its relationship with the EU and explained how Brussels not only invests £1bn worth of research funding into British universities per annum; but that there are 125,000 EU students at British universities, generating 19,000 jobs and £2.2bn for the economy. When these statistics are considered alongside the fact that the UK contributes approximately 11% of the EU’s academic budget (but over the course of the last seven years Britain received 15.5% (£5bn) of European funding, and in 2015 alone, within the Horizon 2020 programme, successfully secured £687m of EU research funding) it doesn’t take much to work out that, with regards to research funding and grants, Britain receives far more in benefits than it contributes.

Britain’s exit from the EU ensures that universities and other institutions of higher education will no longer have access to these pools of money. However, this is just the proverbial ‘cherry on top’. The Brexit result is also likely to lead to fewer European students studying in British universities; will result in fewer research collaborations outside of Britain; will cause further uncertainty over student debts and fees; and is likely to lead to a withdrawal of funding for the Erasmus scheme, which will prevent British students from studying abroad as a part of their undergraduate degrees. Therefore, by voting to leave the EU, Brexit not only undermines the reputation of Britain’s higher educational facilities as ‘global leaders in science and innovation’ and limit opportunities available to British students, but would also deprive both Britain and its universities of valuable funding and financial benefits.

Access to Resources

Although Brexit will not prevent British researchers from accessing ‘major EU research-infrastructure projects’, as non-members we will lose both our status and priority access to this equipment and data. Although this won’t directly affect me as a historian, it could have damaging consequences for scientists who require access to the EU’s laser instruments, social science data sets and, of course, ITER – world’s largest nuclear-fusion experiment.


However, as outlined in an article written earlier this week by Dr Fabio Aricò of the University of East Anglia, concerns about money and access to resources are only the ‘tip of the iceberg’. The real threat of Brexit is going to be the decline in quality of British universities. The withdrawal from the EU will lead to a reduction in competition in the academic market, which in turn will cause a deterioration in the quality of teaching and output of research. Not only will this make British Universities less attractive to students, but it will lead to a loss of diversity within the student body. Students, lecturers, professors and researchers all know that cultural exchange is a crucial part of the academic process and, as Dr Aricò points out, ‘a diverse student population generates huge benefits in terms of learning and teaching for all’. Through a reduction in the quality of research and teaching within British universities (thereby making them less attractive centres to study) Brexit threatens to diminish cultural diversity within institutions of higher education.

So what then, as academics and remain voters, can we do now? As hard as it might seem, I believe the first step is to both accept and respect the decision of the UK electorate. The EU Referendum was an exercise in democracy – to lose sight of the equality of a Referendum would be dangerous (regardless of the current circumstances or one’s preferred result). Then, after taking the time to grieve for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, it is important that we take action. We need to reassure non-UK EU academics that their jobs and futures are safe and secure. We need to work together to maintain Britain’s status as an attractive place to work and study. We need to retain solidarity with EU universities, in order to overcome Brexit isolationist. And, perhaps most importantly, we need to ensure that the British government not only replaces, but also sustains, the lost EU funding.

Therefore, although the academic community might have lost the fight to remain, it seems as though the battle to preserve and improve British universities, teaching and research is just beginning – and it is only through solidarity and unity that we will overcome the difficulties imposed by Brexit.


Anon, ‘Majority of British academia against Brexit’, First Post <>

Fabio Aricò, ‘Higher Education and Brexit: It Is Not Just About the Money’, UEA Economics Blog <>

George Bowden, ‘EU Referendum Brexit Effect On Education, Universities and Learning’, Huffington Post <>

Daniel Cressey, ‘Academics across Europe join ‘Brexit’ Debate’, Nature <>

Katie Gleeson, ‘EU Referendum: UEA Academics from Different Subject Areas Unite in Disappointment at Brexit Result’, Independent <>

John Henley, ‘Leaving EU would be a ‘Disaster’, British Universities Warn’, The Guardian <>

‘To Flee a Snail’: The Recurring Image of a Knight in Combat with a Snail

This week, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of my time visiting medieval churches and cathedrals looking for any examples of disability aids hidden within their ‘margins’. Scouring the edges of stained glass windows, roof bosses, stone carvings and misericords I was actually surprised to turn up a few examples. So, whilst I gather my thoughts on examples of disability in northern English churches and cathedrals, I thought I’d post a slightly older article of mine (2013), looking at one of my favourite examples of marginalia – the knight fleeing the snail.

In the medieval period, the margins of illuminated manuscripts were a great place for expressing popular opinion. Usually the images were created after the text had been written, giving the artist a certain sense of freedom and allowing them the room for both creativity and subversion within their work. As a result, marginal art provides a valuable insight into the attitudes and humour of medieval laymen, whose illiteracy might otherwise have prevented them from expressing themselves through the written word. However, there is one particular motif within medieval marginalia which has attracted a lot of attention from historians – the image of a knight fighting a snail. While this concept has provoked many different opinions and theories, it remains something of an enigma for medievalists and art historians alike.

The image of a knight fighting a snail is believed to have first appeared in the margins of French manuscripts during the thirteenth century. However, as the century progressed, it soon started to show up in both English and Flemish marginalia too.


British Library, Gorleston Psalter (Suffolk), MS. 49622 fol. 193v., c.1310-1324

Before long, the knight and snail were featuring in all kinds of work, from tales of popular romance, to breviaries, psalters, decretals, books of hours, and even within cathedral architecture. As historians such as Lillian Randall have pointed out, the motif is especially interesting as, almost wherever it is depicted, it appears very similar in form. In most cases, the knight is armed with a sword or a lance; is situated astride a horse or battling on foot; and is, of course, faced with a snail as an opponent. The snail, whom you would probably expect to be gentle and unassuming, takes an unlikely stance of aggression, standing upright on its shell and lowering its eye-stalks like horns (or perhaps like a parody of the knight’s lance), leaving the knight with the decision to either stand and fight or to flee his tiny foe. But, for all its drama, what did the image mean?

The most common assumption is that the motif was a metaphor for cowardice, with the knight often choosing to flee (rather than face) what the viewer understood to be a harmless opponent. At this time, cowardice was believed to be a sin against God – consequently enabling the image to act as a criticism of a knight who felt fear when faced with such an innocuous enemy. However, this is not the only interpretation of the image and, over time, historians have presented a number of fanciful theories.

One of the earliest ideas was put forward by Jean de Dunois (c. 1402-1468). After finding the motif of a snail opposite a picture of the raising of Lazarus in a fourteenth century book of hours, he proposed that it was a metaphor for the resurrection of Christ due to the way in which it emerged from its shell. However, this saintly association was later discredited by Champfleury, a French realist, who felt that the snail had a more sinister connotation. Taking a much more pragmatic approach, he argued that the snail was not holy at all.


British Library, Brunetto Latini, Li Livres dou Tresor (Picardy), Yates Thompson MS. 19 fol. 65r., c.1315-1325

Instead, it was vilified in marginal art as a common agricultural pest, known for the destruction of French vineyards. He claimed that this is the reason why the knight should be shown in combat with it, as many agricultural workers faced a similar battle on a day to day basis.[1] Others, such as Otto Keller, have gone on to suggest that the snail was a sign of mistrust – as it never dared to leave its house behind (for fear of thieves and other misdeeds) and was constantly forced to carry it upon its back. Maeterlinck, a Flemish historian, similarly linked the snail’s shell to a home, feeling that it represented the well-defended fortresses of the medieval aristocracy. According to his argument, the image was a satirical attack, criticising those who remained safe within their sturdy castles (just as a snail might hide in its shell), and highlighting the animosity felt by the peasants who were excluded from this safety.

A number of more recent theories have been proposed by Lillian Randall and Roger Pinon. Art historian Randall suggests that the motif represented the Lombards – a group in medieval society who were disliked for their reputation as bankers and turncoats. She argues that the association of the snail with the Lombards existed in oral tradition long before it was transmitted via art.


British Library, Smithfield Decretals (Southern France), Royal MS. 10 E IV fol. 107r., c.1300-1340

The snail, slithering on its belly, was seen to be repulsive and spineless – mirroring the common people’s perception of this mistrusted group.[2] Roger Pinon, on the other hand, argues that the snail represented female genitalia, which was mirrored in the shape of the snail’s shell. This idea links back to the theme of mockery, as a medieval knight who fled in fear from a woman or sexual encounter, would likely have made himself a laughing stock.[3] Camille, on the other hand, believes this to be too sexual a connotation, particularly when considering the recurring use of the image upon both royal and religious charters.[4]

All in all, it seems that the knight and the snail motif cannot be pigeon holed into meaning just one thing. Used in different countries and in different manuscripts, it is very possible that its meaning altered in different situations. Although we may not understand the intended meaning of each individual case (be it humour, criticism of cowardice, an attack on suspected societal groups, or a subtle hint at the peasantry’s disapproval of the aristocratic lifestyle), it is certain to see from the extensive use of this visual trope, that it resonated with medieval society.



[1] Champfleury, Histoire de la Caricature Modern (Paris: E. Dentu, 1885)

[2] Lilian M. C. Randall, ‘The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare’, Speculum, 37:3 (1962), pp. 358-367

[3] Roger Pinon, From Illumination to Folksong ; the Armed Snail, a Motif of Topsy-Turvy Land, in Folklore Studies in the Twentieth Century, ed. by Venetia J. Newall  (Woodbridge, Sufflk: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980) p. 76-113.

[4] Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion Books, 1992)

‘Be Curious’: The Debrief

I can’t believe a whole week has passed since Leeds University’s ‘Be Curious Festival’ – time flies! As anyone who turned up will know, it was a fabulous, fun day with loads of interesting things going on across the university campus. Although my input was metaphorical drop in the ocean of the event, I had a really wonderful time talking to all of the people who came to visit my stall and, from the feedback I received, the visitors seemed to enjoy themselves too. However, for those who couldn’t make it, I thought I’d share some of my resources here with you…

Connecting to my research into medieval disability, my stall (Treating Eye Impairments: A Mini Medical Marketplace) aimed, as its title suggested, to create a ‘mini-medical marketplace’, discussing three ways in which people might try to cure eye impairments during the Middle Ages. The stall itself was a desk split into three, with each section presenting some information and activities about different kinds of treatments. The first section introduced the idea of saints through a colouring sheet of St. Lucy; the second considered secular surgery with the option of making an origami eye; and the third was ‘aids’, i.e. glasses, with a ‘make your own pair of rivet spectacles’ activity. You can see me briefly chatting about it below!

However, whilst my craft activities went down a treat with younger visitors, I wanted the opportunity to engage those who were interested that little bit further, and consequently designed three A3 posters, each relating to a different method of treatment. The posters were a great talking point and provided a wonderful opportunity to work some medieval imagery into my stall. Not surprisingly, one of the most discussed points was the later medieval narrative of St. Lucy’s self-mutilation in order to dissuade a suitor! I feel like, for the most part, the posters are self-explanatory, so I’ve included them in a slideshow below – if you do have any questions though, please don’t hesitate to drop me a message, a comment or a tweet!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All in all, my stall seemed to be successful with adults and children alike, primarily, it seemed, because many visitors had first-hand experience of needing glasses, contact lenses, or corrective eye surgery themselves. As a result, this led to a lot of interest from the public about how and when glasses were invented and how somebody like themselves might have fared in the Middle Ages.

For more exciting things happening at Leeds University, keep an eye on our events calendar!

Spectacles: A Truly Visionary Invention

‘I am so debilitated by age that without the glasses known as spectacles, I would no longer be able to read or write’. Sandra di Popozo, 1289.

With Leeds University’s Be Curious Festival less than a week away (click here for a full programme of events), I have been designing a ‘Rivet Spectacle Making Activity’ for children aged approximately 6-11. In this craft-based workshop, I hope to get children not only consider the invention of glasses, but also to think more broadly about society before glasses were widely available and affordable. Consequently, all this thinking about glasses has inspired me to write a blog post about the history of spectacles…

Although the use of crystal as a magnifying agent can be dated back to approximately 750BC with A. H. Layard’s discovery of the ‘Nimrud Lens’, it was not until the 13th Century that spectacles (as we might recognise them today) were invented. Unfortunately, as a result of conflicting claims, missing documentation and lack of material evidence, the person responsible for the creation of glasses remains unknown.

That said, a passage from the writings of Giodano da Rivalto (a Dominican friar and celebrated preacher from Pisa) offers a rare insight into the early history of spectacles. He stated that he had met the craftsman responsible for the creation of eyeglasses in 1286. Shortly afterwards his friend and colleague, Friar Allesandro della Spina, learned how to make these glasses for himself and began to widely disseminate this knowledge about their manufacture. On the 23rd February 1306, Giodano even praised spectacles in a sermon, stating that ‘eyeglasses which make for good vision, [are] one of the best arts and most necessary that the world has.’

As one might expect, the popularity of spectacles soared over the course of the next 200 years, with the necessity of the invention becoming increasingly apparent as literacy rates improved across Europe. By the latter half of the 14th Century, glasses were being imported all over the western world, with London alone receiving 1,151 pairs between July and September 1384. Soon, ‘spectacle pedlars’ became a common phenomenon. These salesmen travelled from city to city, buying glasses in bulk, before selling them onto the public for approximately 1d if they had leather frames, or 91/2d if they had gilt horn frames.

By the mid– 15th Century, France and Germany were becoming large scale producers of spectacles, however Italy remained at the forefront of manufacture, with the city of Florence leading in sale and innovation. Evidence discovered in a number of letters sent, c. 1462-66, between the dukes of Milan (Francesco and Galeazzo Maria Sforza) suggested that Florence was producing both convex lenses for presbyopes and concave lenses for myopes at this time. This shows an early awareness of different optical prescriptions, allowing spectacle manufacturers to construct lenses of different strengths to suit the needs of the individual. Between 1413 and 1562, it is estimated that there were approximately 52 different spectacle makers in Florence. However, despite this widespread production, limited material evidence for medieval glasses remains, and as a result, historians and art historians have had to rely largely on pictorial representations in order to discover what they looked like.

The earliest known image of spectacles can be seen in the Dominican Chapter House attached to the Basilica of San Niccolõ in Treviso.


Cardinal Hugh of Provence wearing rivet spectacles, Tommaso da Modena, Treviso, c. 1352.

Believed to have been painted by Tommaso da Modena c.1352, it shows Cardinal Hugh of Provence wearing a pair of rivet spectacles. Rivet spectacles consisted of two eyeglasses that were framed (commonly in wood, bone, iron, horn or leather) and connected with a rivet. Unlike today, glasses had no arms with which they could be secured to the face, and consequently it is believed that spectacles were often held up to the eyes by hand – much like a magnifying glass. However, it is also possible that some people attempted to balance their glasses upon the face, using the adjustable rivet to fasten the glasses to the nose.

Modena’s painting is also particularly interesting as Cardinal Hugh of Provence died in 1263 – long before rivet style spectacles had been invented. It is therefore believed that the artist chose to include glasses in this post-mortem interpretation of the Cardinal as a metaphor for wisdom and learning, even though Hugh of Provence was unlikely to have ever possessed a pair.


St. Jerome in his study, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Church of Ognissanti, Florence, c. 1480.

Another image of spectacles can be seen in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s 1480 depiction of St. Jerome. The painting shows St. Jerome sat at his desk, surrounded by a number of objects which were included in order to highlight his life’s achievements – a cardinal’s hat, pharmacist’s vases, and a pair of inkwells, etc. Seeing as St. Jerome was believed to have been the first person to have translated the Bible into Latin, Ghirlandaio also includes glasses as a representation of his scholarship and learning (much like Modena’s reason for including glasses in his depiction of Cardinal Hugh of Provence). As a result of his work on the Bible, St. Jerome became the patron saint of Librarians, Scholars and Translators. However, perhaps most interestingly, he was also adopted by the French as the patron saint of spectacle makers, thereby highlighting the association of spectacles with wisdom – a concept which still prevails to this day.

Since their early incarnation spectacles have become steadily more accurate and sophisticated, and have even evolved into visionary aids such as contact lenses – a far cry from their initial format. It is safe to say that without the pioneering invention of glasses, the progression of other elements of society, such as science, learning, art and crafts would have been severely inhibited. It is hard to imagine a society where people would be limited in their work or lifestyle as a result of visual imperfections, or a society where poor sight was an accepted fact of life. However before the invention of glasses this is likely to have been the reality. Consequently, it therefore seems safe to say that the medieval creation of spectacles was a truly visionary invention. Not only did eyeglasses improve the lives of individuals, but they also inadvertently contributed to the wider improvement of society, culture and science.


Antique Spectacles: The Online Museum and Encyclopaedia of Visual Aids,

Erwin, Micah, ‘Early Printed Book Contains Rare Evidence of Medieval Spectacles’, Cultural Compass: Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas,

Walsh, Glyn, ‘Spectacles through the ages and period inaccuracies’, Optometry Today, 41 (2001).

Sight and Sanctity: Curing Blindness in Healing Miracles

Recently I have been re-visiting some of my MA work on blindness in order to prepare for the upcoming Be Curious outreach event at the University of Leeds. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Be Curious Festival (19th March 2016) will be a free interactive event, designed to get both children and adults thinking about the theme of ‘health and wellbeing’. My stall at the event will be focussing on the treatment of eye impairments in the Middle Ages – although I’ll blog more about the festival and my contributions nearer the time! For now, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about St. Foy and the treatment of blindness in some of her healing miracles.

In his book, Medieval Civilisation, Jacques Le Goff suggested that ‘the medieval west was […] full of blind people with sunken eyes and empty pupils’.[1]  Although his claim appears to be an exaggeration of the truth, Le Goff was not wrong in pointing out that eye complaints were one of the most common ailments of the period. Brought about by nutritional deficiencies, occupational hazards, leisure pursuits and the nature of warfare, ocular impairments were a very real concern throughout the Middle Ages. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that in a survey conducted by John Theilmann, blindness healing miracles were discovered to be the second most popular healing miracle (topped only by paralysis), with saintly healing being responsible for 11% of blindness cures.[2]

However, the treatment of blindness in the miracle collection of St. Foy (an early Christian martyr whose relics were stolen by the monks of Conques, c. 866, in an attempt to boost the popularity of their monastery) exceeds Theilmann’s average, making her miracles an exceptional case study. Out of 42 healings recorded in her miracle collection, 15 are specifically about blindness. Despite the fact that her miracle collection seems to favour women more generally (for example, a widow’s daughter; Countess Arsinde who promised Foy gold in exchange for a child; wives acting on behalf of their husbands; a peasant lady who found an expensive broach and gave it to Foy, and a number of mothers who requested help for their sickly children) this pattern is not mirrored in the miracles related to sight. Instead, Foy can be seen helping widows, farmers, children, and warriors to name but a few, demonstrating that blindness was a problem faced by people of diverse ages and social backgrounds.

So why was it so important to have healthy eyesight in the Middle Ages? Not only was the ability to see well crucial for manual and close-up work in a period pre-dating glasses; but the power of sight also had an additional importance at this time. The things that a person saw could directly affect their humoural complexion, thereby governing the balance of bodily temperature, moisture, and fluids.


Reliquary Statue of St. Foy; late 10th – early 11th Century; gold, silver gilt, jewels, wooden core; 33 1/2 inches; Treasury, Sainte-Foy, Conques (Photo Credit: Holly Hayes (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For example, ‘gazing upon the colour red […] had a heating and drying effect on the body’, whereas looking at ‘disturbing images could corrupt the body, and, in extremis, threaten life itself’.[3] The eyes were believed to emit and admit ‘visual spirit’ which helped to regulate the bodily humours; consequently, if a person was blind, they could not regulate their humours in this way, resulting in an internal blockage and illness.

Similarly, the ability to meditate upon the image of Christ or the sight of the Host during communion was believed to have a profound and positive impact upon a person’s soul. However, the blind were cut off from the uplifting visual aspects of this ritual and were consequently forced away from the grace of God. Therefore, by blinding someone a saint not only affected a person’s humoural complexion, but also negatively affected a person’s spiritual wellbeing. Because of this, blindness was feared, and could be implemented by saints as both as a form of chastisement and as a tool for encouraging good Christian behaviour.

St. Foy made particular use of blindness as a form of punishment, which can be best seen in the first miracle with which she was credited – ‘How Guibert’s Eyes Were Restored’. Taking place in approximately 983, this miracle was directly related to blindness, and helped to both establish Foy’s power and to encourage a generous amount of donations to her shrine. The miracle tells of a man named Guibert, who had his eyes torn out by his Godfather in an act of jealousy. A year later, Foy visited Guibert in his sleep and ordered him to light a candle at her alter the following day. Guibert did as he was instructed and consequently found that his eyes (and eyesight) had been restored. After this he became arrogant and rich, and in retaliation, Foy partially blinded him. Guibert repented and regained his sight, but shortly after he returned to his sinful ways, and was once again punished by blindness. He continued to fall in and out of blindness in accordance with his sin for the rest of his life.[4] The success of this miracle (followed by the continual cycle of retraction and receipt), attracted considerable attention, thereby contributing to the later popularity of Conques as a pilgrimage destination.

However, the popularity of St. Foy and her shrine at Conques was not to last. In eleventh century France, four hospices for the blind were founded by William the Conqueror in Cherbourg, Rouen, Bayeux, and Caen.  It is interesting to note that the foundation of these institutions coincided with a decline in Foy’s blindness healing miracles. It seems that, if people were able to receive free care at a hospice, they were probably less likely to make the pilgrimage to Conques in order to ask Foy for assistance. As a result, Foy’s healing miracles might have appeared to have dried up, leading to a cyclical process of less requests, less miracles, and a subsequent reduction in Foy’s popularity throughout the eleventh and twelfth century.

Hopefully this short case study of St. Foy and her blindness miracles helps to explain why, in a society where religious devotion was increasingly focused on sight, blindness came to be very closely related to the saints. Acting as divine intercessors, saints could both harm and heal people, thereby encouraging good Christian behaviour and shaping an individual’s relationship with God.

If you’re keen to know some more about the treatment of blindness in the Middle Ages, keep an eye out (no pun intended) for future updates on my stall at Leeds University’s Be Curious Festival.


[1] Le Goff, Jacques, Medieval Civilisation 400-1500, trans. by Julia Barrow (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), p. 240

[2] Theilmann, John, ‘English Peasants and Medieval Miracle Lists’, The Historian, 2 (1990), 286-303 (pp. 291-92)

[3] Hawkins, Joy, ‘Sights for Sore Eyes: Vision and Health in Medieval England’, in On Light, ed. by Kenneth Clarke and Sarah Baccianti (Oxford: The Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 2013), pp. 138-155 (pp. 138-42)

[4] Sheringorn, Pamela (trans.), The Book of Sainte Foy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), p. 16; 43-50