There’s no question that the prevalence of myopia (nearsightedness) was much lower in the Middle Ages than today. No, we have absolutely nothing even remotely resembling statistics, and just because in the past century or several there’s been a noticeable increase in myopia doesn’t itself say anything about medieval western Europe (what I’ll be talking about here). However, medieval popular Christianity relied on *visuality* in some pretty basic ways I’m not sure it would have if 50% of some such of people couldn’t see their own shoes. “Art is the book of the illiterate” was a basic philosophy of religious instruction. Church sculpture, mosaic, decorated rood screens, stained glass were meant to glorify God but also to instruct (hence the popularity of Last Judgment scenes over the tympanum). And watching the priest consume the Eucharist (bread and wine) could substitute for the person doing it themselves–even in the case of a saint like Nicholas von Flue.
But we also know that some people were indeed nearsighted, and obviously eyesight deteriorated in various ways (presbyopia/farsightedness, AMD, cataracts, etc) with ageing. I want to briefly introduce a distinction that scholars of disability and medicine make between “impairment” and “disability.” Impairment *in this sense* is used as a deviation from the normative (not from the normal! lots of things are normal); disability refers to when an impairment affects someone’s functioning in the world. Here, I’m going to talk more on managing visual impairment to minimize (not necessarily eliminate) disability.
This being the Middle Ages, obviously the first way people tried to cope was by praying for miracles. And indeed, miracle stories attached to saints and shrines offer some really interesting cases of the extreme end of visual impairment that’s “not quite blindness,” although we should keep in mind that “blind” is a subjective term that means different things in different contexts.
Two important themes that arise from miracle stories are the effect on mobility and on ability to work. One of St. Elisabeth of Hungary’s miracles concerns a girl who, it’s clear, has some vision but only a little; the story emphasizes that she can’t even see well enough to find her way on a path. (Medieval “roads” could just be a trampled line through fields). There’s a similar miracle concerning a middle-aged man who developed possibly cataracts (*macula*, stains) and similarly couldn’t find his way on a path; he reported being ridiculed for it.
In these cases, the key was to lean on the support of other people. We read a lot about blind and otherwise visually impaired people being “led” to shrines. That’s probably the single most common theme in anecdotes of people with disabilities in the Middle Ages–the ad hoc, case-by-case reliance on friends and family, or in a few cases monastic charity.
With respect to work, it seems that in a lot of cases the key was to find a task a person could perform. The miracles of St. Bertin tell of one evidently nearsighted man who couldn’t see well enough to perform outdoor manual labor, but up very close could still see well enough to do needlework. So he sat with the women of the duke’s household all day, working on embroidery and weaving!
The later Middle Ages did have knowledge of and practice rudimentary cataract surgery, sometimes even successfully. In 1351, aging abbot Gilles le Muisit of St. Martin’s in Tournai had his cataracts removed only to find that behind them, he was farsighted:
> I saw not as in my young age but as my age demanded, because I was
already an octogenarian, and I saw the sky, the sun, the moon, the
stars, though not perfectly recognizing people, and I saw everything at
a distance from me very well, but I was not able to write or read.
The first “glasses”, which were designed to be held rather than worn, were for reading (i.e. for farsightedness). [Here’s a photo](https://imgur.com/a/7KRHt) I took in the Dominican church museum in Eisenach of a 1510 altarpiece relief from Thuringia–the scene is the death of the Virgin Mary, and the man with the book and glasses is probably supposed to be a physician. Glasses were one type of iconographic shorthand for physicians (another being a flask filled with urine. You do you, Middle Ages.)
Ronald Finucane and Irina Metzler have both pointed out that we are much less likely to read about nobles with disabling conditions. There was then as there is now a stigma attached to disability, even more so because of the stronger link between sin (moral failure) and impairment. So even in miracle stories that *do* involve knights and other nobles, the recorder will allow the healed to express a sense of shame–even to the point of feeling suicidal, in one case–a consciousness of emotion denied to lower classes.
That was the case with the knight Gilbert, whose story is told in the miracle of St. Foy. *Twice in a row* he received a head injury in combat–once while, apparently, breaking up a barfight–that caused vision problems. And he was, given the source, miraculously healed in several stages. (Draw your own medical conclusions.)
But one of the most interesting cases hops way above the others. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century–the one who looked at the Crusades, said “I got u, fam” and *negotiated* his way into taking over Jerusalem from Muslim control–actually dealt with developing myopia over the course of his life. This could have been a hardship for him, as his true love was hunting. (He embarked on very few building projects over the course of his reign, but these included several hunting lodges, which is also where he preferred to spend much of his time). What did he do? He still hunted with great enthusiasm, apparently. But then, hunting in the Middle Ages wasn’t about food (unless you were desperate and poaching), it was about power and masculinity and status and probably blowing off some steam. So even in the parts where humans didn’t rely on their dogs and birds to do the work for them, perhaps there was not as much pressure to perform.
But then, of course, there’s the ultimate solution. Can’t fight like a knight, can’t hunt as well as you want to?
Write a book about it.
And Frederick did.