Evidence for spectacle manufacture on the European mainland goes back to the island of Murano in the Republic of Venice – at least as far back as 1284. The term ‘roidi da ogli’ (standard Italian: ‘vetri da occhi’) is found for the first time in 1300. A person wearing spectacles seems to have been depicted for the first time in 1352 by Tomasso da Modena (1325 – 1379) in which Cardinal Hugh of Provence was depicted reading in the Chapter House (traditionally, the place of reading – hence the name) of the Monastery attached to Treviso’s Basilica of San Niccolo. We know that in fifteenth century Florence spectacles were easy to come by and that greater quantities of manufacture in the city were making them relatively cheap. The dissemination of glasses seems to have been closely associated with locations were reading was considered to be of great importance. In England, Charles I granted an Incorporation Charter to the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers. Regrettably, their own records were destroyed during the Great Fire.

The tinted lenses, such as were sold to quality customers at Foster’s, became very popular in England during the seventeenth century. They actually produced a ‘cloudy’ effect, very possibly worsening long-term eyesight. However, given the limited availability of suitable light sources, almost everyone aged over forty (considerably less of a share of total population then than it is these days) had a need for them. See the website: http://www.antiquespectacles.com/history/ages/through_the_ages.htm.

Foster’s was actually a highly successful stationer and bookseller outlet between at least the spring of 1572/73 and 1616, situated in a street called ‘Bookbinder’s Alley’ or ‘Bookland Road’ over various different points of time (now ‘Minster Yard’).  In 1572/73 it was described as a ‘new builded shoppe’ run by the ‘Stacioner’, Anthony Foster – see J. Barnard, D. F. McKenzie and M. Bell – ‘The Cambridge history of the book in Britain’ (Vol IV, 2002) after Mortimer’s work.

By 1585 it was thriving enough to be selling the likes of the Vicar of Kirk Deighton (later the Dean of Ripon) books such as a 1564 Basel edition of Athanasius of Alexandria. And by the time of Brierley’s arrival at Grindleton, Foster was evidently selling a wide range of books with retail prices marginally higher than they would have been in London and in a range of languages too. He was also trading in reading aids and instruments – certainly including green glass spectacles.

We know all this because John Foster (presumably Anthony’s son although I have not actually been able to confirm this) had an inventory done after his death – see J. Barnard and M. Bell – ‘The early seventeenth century York book trade and John Foster’s inventory of 1616’ (1994). There is no doubt that a very substantial proportion of Foster’s trade came from ministers. A quick count suggests  that over forty percent of the debtors to John Foster at his death were amongst the clergy and the names included none other than the Vicar of Escrick – and Tennant’s theological enemy in the making – Thomas Squire, as well as the Chancellor of York Minster, Matthew Dodsworth.

In spite of the money owed to him, Foster was not exactly going short: in his will he dispensed out some £131 10 shillings. However, book reading cannot have been exclusively the pastime of ministers in York. David Palliser – ‘Tudor York’ (1979) suggests that as early as 1600, the literacy rate for the city was probably hitting fifty percent. For a thorough grounding in all the issues, see Andrew Chambers’ doctoral thesis, ‘Godly reading: print, manuscript and godly cultures in the North of England, c. 1600 – 1650’ (D.Phil., York University, 2003).


11 thoughts on “Buying glasses in early seventeenth century York

  1. I glanced over to him – once and then again. My mind gave me no choice about the second occasion. He appeared as he had never done before. There was something badly wrong with his face. I stopped completely motionless. It did not perturb him though; it was a long while until his gaze (such as it was) came to settle upon me. It seemed wholly incapable of being able to fix upon me anyway. I stared at him – not too hard because I did not know whether he could still see me or not. Even that much was not obvious to me.

    —What is that you have in front of your eyes?

    Well, I was not blind. Quite evidently, they were pieces of green glass, almost like glass from the panes of a chapel window – not our chapel window, I should add ! – set in some kind of metal frame. They made Brierley appear as some mythical beast. He took whatever the implement was away from his eyes and, readjusting his gaze a little – something which actually required a matter of a second or two, stared at it closely himself at close quarters, fingering the sides of the frames slightly critically, even rather contemptuously.

    —They are not for me, Matthew! I purchased them on behalf of someone else – another cleric friend – at a shop, primarily a stationer’s within the ecclesiastic complex at York. [He shifted his gaze back to me, moving his head slightly backwards at the same time as though he was genuinely having some difficulty seeing me without the instrument suddenly.] No, I was simply testing them out for him in such conditions. It is very hard for me to assess whether they are any good or not but they should be, given the sum with which I parted for them…

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  2. Fascinating. My sister did some genealogical research on our family and we found one ancestor listed in the earliest census (1851) listed as a “lens grinder”. I suppose that by that time the ability to craft lenses to a prescription was more advanced than in the early C17

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  3. Grindleton near Clitheroe, I assume 🙂 ? I love Murano glass, but I’d never thought of it being used to make spectacles, but logically it Murano would have been the main place for making them.


  4. I love York – it’s my favourite city. That’s where I’m hoping to do an MA in Medieval Studies in a couple of years’ time. Now I know something about the place that I didn’t before, so thanks for the introduction to the bespectacled ministry of York. 🙂


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