London, England, United Kingdom
A medieval miniature showing St Mark reading a book and holding spectacles to his eyes. From Jean Poyer, The Tilliot Hours (c. 1500), The British Library.
On January 1, 1660, a young Londoner named Samuel Pepys began to keep a diary. Over the next nine and a half years, he recorded both events of national significance—the Restoration of King Charles II, the Great Plague, and the Great Fire—as well as the minutiae of his private life, including intimate details of his many ailments. Sadly for him, but happily for medical historians, he suffered from several recurrent problems, and in particular was often “much troubled in my eyes.”1 Throughout the 1660s, his diary entries include increasingly frequent references to pain, watering, redness, and dislike of bright light. On one occasion, after working late at his office, he complained that “my eyes did ake, ready to drop out.”2 Fearing that his difficulties were caused by “overworking of my eyes by Candlelight,” he gave up writing his journal when he was only thirty-six, “I being not able to do it any longer, having done now so long as to undo my eyes almost every time that I take a pen in my hand.” He fully believed that he was losing his sight, although his fears turned out to be misplaced.3
Whilst Pepys’ exhaustive recording of his own life marked him out as something of a literary pioneer, there was nothing novel about his belief that a person’s behavior could damage his eyesight. Medieval medical texts mention a whole range of factors that could endanger sight, from looking at the sun to experiencing intense emotions (especially anger and sadness), and from having sex too frequently to wearing one’s shoes in bed. Too much study, and especially too much reading of small letters, was identified as a particular problem.4 Scribes, who wrote for a living and who often worked in poor light, were thought to be extremely vulnerable to eye problems. The English poet and civil servant Thomas Hoccleve (c. 1368-1430) complained that the poor conditions in which he worked and the white parchment at which he was forced to stare had ruined his vision, leaving him with tired eyes and blurred vision.5 For this reason, medieval monks often worked in the cloisters where the light was better and they could periodically rest their eyes by gazing at the grass (looking at green things was thought to strengthen, soothe, and preserve the crystalline humor of the eye).6 For patients like Hoccleve, the physician John of Gaddesden (1280-1361) recommended a “special water,” which he prescribed to the elderly but also for physicians and scribes. He claimed that it produced a notable improvement in vision after only two days of treatment, and that it would preserve the patient’s sight for the rest of his life.7
Such concerns persisted even after the invention of printing. Ein Newes hochnutzlichs Buechlin (1538), one of the earliest printed ophthalmological treatises in German, included a list of things harmful to the eyes, including “reading new books with small letters.”8 Similar ideas are found in the autobiographical writings of the poet John Milton (1608-74). He believed that his intense childhood studies (by the age of twelve, he frequently stayed up studying past midnight) were “the first cause of injury to my eyes, whose natural weakness was augmented by frequent headaches.” By his mid-thirties, he felt “immediate pain” when he began to read, and he eventually went blind.9
Many famous Victorians faced similar problems. William Wordsworth’s chronic eye complaints often left him confined to a dark room for days at a time, unable to work. According to his nephew, Chris, writing in 1834, “My uncle’s eyes . . . would be much better, indeed they would be quite well, if he did not write verses: but this he will do, and therefore it is extremely difficult to prevent him from ruining his eyesight.”10 A few years later, the future British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone was similarly afflicted; his biographer, George Russell, claimed that the problem was caused by “hard reading. He had eschewed lamps and read entirely by candlelight, and the result was injurious.” As a consequence, he had to spend a winter in Rome, listening to sermons.11 Charlotte Brontë, who was short-sighted from childhood, took a more responsible approach (perhaps because her father, Patrick, was blind), despite the unhappiness this caused her: in a 1844 letter she complained to her former teacher Constantin Heger that she was miserable and idle because “at present my sight is too weak for writing—if I wrote a lot I would become blind.”12
For many centuries, fears about the dangers of reading and writing had been the domain of a literate elite. But two nineteenth-century developments transformed them into a widespread phenomenon. As many countries introduced compulsory schooling, several eminent physicians publicly argued that too much studying would ruin children’s eyesight. According to Arnold Lawson, Surgeon-Oculist to Queen Victoria, writing in The British Medical Journal, “defective vision, especially as regards myopia, is frequently said to be on the increase, owing to the strain of the present system of higher education.” There were particular concerns about the safety of homework completed in poorly-lit dwellings, and many medical practitioners opposed it on these grounds. Germany, an early adopter of universal education, was widely thought to have the worst eyesight in the western world.13 The danger continued even once one left the classroom, thanks to the increasing popularity of reading as a leisure activity. In March 1885, The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review fretted that “through dense jostling crowds, in jammed omnibuses, in dimly-lighted underground railway carriages, you may see men of all conditions with a book in hand, trying to read, risking their eyesight.”14
The twentieth century saw the emergence of medical skepticism about the dangers of reading and writing, as scientific studies increasingly suggested that any resultant strain or discomfort was likely to be temporary. In the 1940s, for example, the American psychologists Leonard Carmichael (1898-1973) and Walter F. Dearborn (1878-1955) carried out a study in which they took detailed measurements of the eye muscles during hours-long reading sessions. Although their participants reported increasing eye fatigue, the muscles continued to perform well, and reading speed and comprehension barely changed.15 More recently, however, it has been argued that there is indeed a causal relationship between prolonged education and increasing levels of short-sightedness in many parts of the world.16
While scientists have now spent many decades debating the causes of myopia, the general public has remained consistently concerned about the risks of reading and writing. The English novelist Penelope Lively (b. 1933) remembers that her beloved grandmother discouraged reading; it was usually allowed only after tea, and always in moderation, because “You’ll ruin your eyesight.”17 In contrast, an anonymous Englishwoman, recalling her own mid-twentieth-century upbringing, reported that her grandmother (a supporter of girls’ education) read aloud to her, because her mother believed that reading was bad for her: her eyes would be ruined, and thus she would have no hope of marrying.18
Although twenty-first century parents are mostly unconcerned about their children’s matrimonial prospects, they continue to warn their offspring about the dangers of reading, especially in the dark. Additionally, in recent years, a new enemy has emerged: the computer screen. The 1986 edition of the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook warned would-be secretaries that “If they spend a lot of time at a video display terminal, they may encounter problems of eyestrain, musculoskeletal strain, and stress.”19 The events of the past eighteen months, which have forced millions of people around the world to spend more time both working and relaxing in front of a screen, have only exacerbated concerns about the detrimental effects of overexerting our eyes.20 Although centuries have passed since Samuel Pepys abandoned his diary, and the technology on which we now depend is beyond his wildest imaginings, our deep-seated fears about the risks of reading and writing, and our consequent determination to protect our precious eyesight, remain unchanged.
- Robert Latham, ed., The Shorter Pepys (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 191.
- Latham, Shorter Pepys, 392.
- Latham, Shorter Pepys, 702, 1023.
- Luke Demaitre, Medieval Medicine: The Art of Healing, From Head to Toe (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013), 170.
- Charles R. Blyth, ed., Thomas Hoccleve: The Regiment of Princes (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999), ll. 1016-29. https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/blyth-hoccleve-regiment-of-princes.
- Joy Hawkins, “The Blind in Later Medieval England” (PhD diss., University of East Anglia, 2011), 128.
- Demaitre, Medieval Medicine, 175.
- Bianca Frohne, “Blindness: Diverse Approaches to a Complex Phenomenon in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries” in A Cultural History of Disability in the Renaissance, ed. Susan Anderson and Liam Haydon (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 83-100.
- Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg, ed., John Milton: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 320, 722.
- Heather Tilley, “Wordsworth’s Glasses: The Materiality of Blindness in the Romantic Vision” in Illustrations, Optics and Objects in Nineteenth-Century Literary and Visual Cultures, ed. Luisa Calè and Patrizia Di Bello (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010), 51.
- Simon Eliot, ‘Reading by Artificial Light in the Victorian Age’ in Reading and the Victorians, ed. Matthew Bradley and Juliet John (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), 15.
- Claire Harman, Charlotte Brontë: A Life (London: Viking, 2015), 185.
- Gemma Almond, “Enhancing Vision in Nineteenth-Century Britain” (PhD diss., Swansea University, 2019), 40-7.
- Almond, “Enhancing Vision”, 37.
- Leonard Carmichael and Walter Dearborn, Reading and Visual Fatigue (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1947).
- E. Mountjoy et al., “Education and myopia: assessing the direction of causality by mendelian randomisation”, British Medical Journal 361, no. 8156 (09 June 2018): 1-11.
- Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time (London: Penguin, 2013), 180.
- Helen Taylor, Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 61.
- “Occupational Outlook Handbook (1986-87 edition)”, Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 2250 (April 1986): 282.
- Zhong-Lin Lu, “Computer screen time is damaging eyes- especially for children”, The Washington Post, April 25, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/kids-computer-eye-strain/2021/04/23/2f4ca928-988c-11eb-a6d0-13d207aadb78_story.html.
KATHERINE HARVEY, BA, MA, PhD, is an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. She holds a PhD in Medieval History from King’s College London and has published widely on historical topics, especially medieval sexuality, gender, emotions, and the body. Her new book, The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages will be published by Reaktion in October 2021.