The Oddest Accidents We Have Found in Medieval Books

The imprint left by eyeglasses in this book
Someone forgot their eyeglasses! Image by The Harry Ransom Center via Ransom Center Magazine

But Doodles and Pawprints weren’t the only things left behind

Evidence suggests that the first eyeglasses were invented in the 13th Century, and people have been forgetting them in strange places ever since. Including in the middle of books, perhaps to be used to mark one’s place, only to wind up being lost to history. Illustrations in some medieval books show people wearing glasses, and some books even contain physical evidence of the use of spectacles.

The eyeglasses above were nestled between two flyleaves of a book that was printed in Venice Italy, most likely during the 1500s. Micah Erwin, writing for Ransom Center Magazine, notes that spectacles were probably invented during the latter part of the 13th Century by a friar living near Pisa, Italy.

These earliest eyeglasses usually consisted of two convex glass discs enclosed in rims made of bone or metal that connected just over the nose thanks to a centrally located rivet. These could either clamp onto the nose or the wearer could just hold them up to their eyes. In later versions, glasses had leather or wire rims. We know this thanks to surviving specimens, and also thanks to paintings. An artist working on a 1352 fresco that adorns a Dominican monastery in Treviso, Italy, offers us the earliest depiction of spectacles. And there have been numerous depictions of a bespectacled St. Jerome, the famous scholar-saint who translated the Latin Bible.

By the end of the 15th Century, eyeglasses were commonplace throughout much of Europe, most scholars believe. Countries like England imported thousands of pairs. Florence became the hotspot for manufacturing spectacles, producing some that were of the highest quality.

This book also contained these fascinating eyeglasses
Another example of someone using their spectacles for a bookmark and then forgetting them. Image by Erik Kwakkel via Erik, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 1003 (late 11th century)

But actual evidence of these early spectacles is quite rare, despite the fact that they were being mass-produced. Archaeologists have found only one pair of rivet spectacles in this ancient city. Even in the U.S., where libraries contain thousands of medieval manuscripts and early printed books, evidence of eyeglasses is still very rare, Erwin notes. One pair was found at the Folger Shakespeare Library inside Folger Copy 46 of the First Folio (the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays, which was printed in 1623.) And one 16th Century volume at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. contains the carved-out outline of a pair of spectacles inside the wooden boards that comprised the cover and back of the manuscript. These are just a couple of examples, but one medieval scholar, after surveying 3,000 manuscripts in the U.S. told Erwin he’d only found one example of a pair of ancient spectacles being left behind in a book.

But when it comes to medieval books, we really have the back page to thank for all of these fascinating discoveries.