Eyeglasses’ Arrival: How Immigrants Transformed Medieval England’s Vision

Eyeglasses can be considered one of the most important inventions of the Middle Ages. A recent study shows that by the 1440s people in England could buy their own spectacles, thanks to a group of immigrants living just outside of London.

An article by Joshua Ravenhill on the earliest recorded spectacle makers in late medieval England suggests that Peter Camur, as an immigrant from the Low Countries, was living and working in Southwark as a ‘Spectakelman’. This information comes from a document at the Court of Chancery in Westminster from somewhere between 1433 and 1443.


There were also other immigrants working in Southwark, the town on the south end of London Bridge, as eyeglass makers: Matthew Spectakelmakere, Guy Spectakelmaker, and Paul Spektaklmaker all appear in records from the 1440s.

The creation of eyeglasses dates to the 1290s. Invented in Italy, the technology and know-how to create the lenses spread slowly across Europe. By the fourteenth century, artisans were working in the Low Countries who could make eyeglasses, and these items were being exported to England. However, Ravenhill notes “the increasing rates of lay literacy in fifteenth-century London, with an expectation that apprentices would be literate, the introduction of printed books, and the proliferation in the number of grammar schools, would have increased the need for devices which aided failing eyesight.”


This demand seemed to have prompted people to move to England to ply their trade in eyeglass making. Ravenhill believes that it would have been logical for them to settle in Southwark for a few reasons:

Southwark was a popular location for alien artisans because it did not lie within the jurisdiction of the city of London, which meant that aliens could set up their trade and sell by retail without having the freedom of the city. Habitation in Southwark also ensured that most alien craftsmen were not subject to the regulations of the London craft guilds. The proximity of Southwark to high concentrations of literate clerks connected to the royal bureaucracy, who were centred around Westminster, also meant that Southwark was close to a group who would purchase spectacles.

The research sheds light on the influx of immigrants from the Low Countries, their impact on the luxury goods market, and their contribution to the importation of new technology and skills in England. It highlights the significant role of immigrant artisans in introducing and enhancing various industries, emphasizing the broader impact of immigrant expertise on the economic landscape of late medieval England.

The article, “The Earliest Recorded Spectacle Makers in Late Medieval England: Immigration and Foreign Expertise,” by Joshua Ravenhill, appears in Notes and Queries in 2018. You can access it through Oxford University Press.


You can also read Joshua’s PhD Dissertation, The Experiences of Aliens in Later Medieval London and the Negotiation of Belonging, 1400 -1540, through his page.

See also: Medieval Eyeglasses: Wearable Technology of the Thirteenth Century

Top Image: Reconstruction of medieval glasses – photo by Ziko van Dijk / Wikimedia Commons