Medieval Spectacles

At the launch of my novel The Reluctant King an actor friend of mine, Justin Aylmer, who was dressed in medieval costume and reading extracts from the book, apologised that he had to wear glasses because they would be somewhat incongruous with his costume.  I was happy to inform him that, contrary to what many people might think, glasses or spectacles are not a modern invention.

The concept of magnification by using a lens is mentioned as far back as the 1st Century A.D.  when Seneca the Younger mentions the magnifying effects of using a  globe to read small text.

Much later, in his seven volume Book of Optics, Alhazan, born in Basra, Iraq in 965, investigated the magnifying power of the lens. Al Hazan was one of the great Arab experimentalists and a pioneer of optical science.

By the 13th Century spectacles were being manufactured in Italy. The invention of spectacles would have been an incredibly significant technological advance because it enabled scholars to continue their studies undimished by the natural deterioration of eyesight with age. Petrach, who was born in 1304 wrote: “I had … a vision that for many years was sharp. (But it failed me unexpectedly when I was over sixty, so that I was forced reluctantly to the use of spectacles.)”

We also have concrete evidence of these early spectacles in medieval paintings. It is interesting to note in these paintings that it is mainly monks and religious who wear spectacles. This is not surprising since reading and writing were almost exclusively within the competence of the church.

Panel from the Wildunger Altarpiece by Konrad von Soest (1365 – 1425) with Glasses Apostle.

Love’s Loss

Woman Crying by Fernando Botaro


Mrs Kelly in her morning flannel

Ducks out into icy air to grab the milk

Then slams the door of her cosy detached

Double glazed, heavy curtained, neat house

With heat saving sash.

The Kettle burbles on the spotless alabaster top

She starts another day like all her days

Receding into a pale imprint

Soon forgotten, of no consequence

No moment, no import, nothing

To record except a line of dazzling clothes

A clean worktop, a shining floor,

Gleaming brass on her proud hall door.

Once, she planned to be a scientist

Her dad, he said, she’s good enough,

But somehow, between this and that

She ended up with three children

A man, a dog and an elegant cat.

It does niggle her now and then

Like this cold morning between nine and ten

Instead of cups and dirty spoons

She might be in her lab till noon.

Discovering cures and finding ways

To counter time and assuage it’s ravages.

Alas she’s traded charts and hieroglyphs

For soap and bills and shopping lists.


In the long nectar-sweet grass

She relinquised all, gave everyting

To the swooning sky and her lover.

Take me she whispered

Take me, you are all I desire

I am yours she gasped, spreading

Soft thighs to quench the fire

I am yours he sighed.

And the whirling  syrup sun

Seared the moment forever

In her mind, forever rememberd

As now when it’s pale morning

Light inclines through her crystal

Windows, recalling the throb

And hectic heat of loves brave time.


And later, married, when the first

Passion was forgot, she wondered if ever

The blood would tumble in

Torrents till she could not think

Till she surrendered to the swarming fever

Once more, just once more

To feel young, to feel irrisistible.

Then he devoured her with his hot look,

The stranger

Which she pretended not to see

But sustained the love thread

With a timely glance that lingered longer

Than casual interest.

The frequent chance encounters till

It was easy to believe that destiny

Could not, would not, allow them to deceive

Their true hearts.

They flew into the love frenzy

Ravished each other ‘til

The crude odour and sweat of reality

Smashed the fantasy and they saw

The lie and shamefaced pretended

It was too fierce a fire

To last and she was once more

Mrs Kelly wondering in her shiny

Kitchen what it all meant,

Was passion now forever spent.


But no, the ache continued, the void

That yawned blackly when her guard was down

“She is good enough, a clever child” her teacher said

“She has choices, anything she wants”

Her mother gloated, her father read

The syllabus for medicine and higher maths,

Science, engineering, not art, no jobs in that.

“The world is her oyster” her uncle said

“We should all be proud, she has brains alright

Runs in the family, she’ll astound us yet”

Stupid man, he thought he was the family sage

Thought wisdom guaranteed with age.

But still, yes still, she had hoped despite

The shallow words, the prophesy was right

And even now at forty eight

After love’s dissappointment

Is it too late?


Children, home, these are wondrous works

The holy priest was suave and spoke

In pious tones.

Think of Martha’s work at home

But what about me, me she cried

God sees all, your reward is great

Humility is the way, serenely he replied.

The cross is heavy but must be borne

Seek Jesus, he’ll show the way, the light

Pray, repent, renounce the sinful flesh

Learn purity from the Virgin blest.

And for a while the balm of prayer

Eased the pain and quelled the fear.

Novenas, masses, benedictions

Scapulars and holy water

Incense, rosaries and deprofundis

She gave everything once more

To a new lover, Jesus, her chaste paramour.

But like before the passion waned

Until the empty rattle of her beads

No more anaestetised the pain.


She lies, love-spent, upon her back

Her once young lover, old and slack

Toiling to reclaim the past

And force a sultry climax ‘til at last

She moans, not in joy, but tired relief

Her body once again her own

To nurse the ancient grief.

Does he not remember

The honey days

When words made them weak

With longing

Does he not remember the love look

That made them breathless

And the singing

Deep inside,

That sundered heart and body

Till joyously she opened wide

To the hot spew of life.

Mrs Kelly in her morning flannels

Sighs and pours another cup of tea

God, if there is a God she thinks

Is this the way that life should be?

Love Reigns

Woman with a Parrot by Eugene Delacroix

When windows rattle in the rain
When grey winds shriek through trembling door
When gloom would be your chatelaine
Go find redemption in your paramour.

When grey winds shriek through trembling door
This is no time for solitude
Go find redemption in your paramour
Seek warmth in love’s sweet pulcritude

This is no time for solitude
Abandon all to your lover
Seek warmth in love’s sweet pulcritude
In wind and rain you will discover

Abandon all to your lover
A healing balm and blessed potion
In wind and rain you will discover
Submerged in loves warm sultry ocean.

A healing balm and blessed potion
Caress your lover,every portion
Submerged in loves warm sultry ocean
Close the blinds and draw the curtain.

Caress your lover every portion
Explore her north and sunny south
Close the blinds and draw the curtain
Taste the sunshine of her mouth.

Explore her north and sunny south
Her gentle hills and fragrant valleys
Taste the sunshine of her mouth
Pluck the roses and the lillies.

Her gentle hills and fragrant valleys
Languish there and do not hurry
Pluck the roses and the lillies
Vanquish sadness, gloom and worry.

Lanquish there and do not hurry
When windows rattle in the rain
Vanquish sadness, gloom and worry
When gloom would be your chatelaine.

© Dermot McCabe

This poem is written in the form of a pantuom


Quinsboro Road April Morning

Quinsboro Road -- Bray, Co. Wicklow

Quinsboro Road bristled with morning light

Dazzling concrete paths, street, walls, windows and doors

Were all singing and cheering, people were completely ignored.

The street tapped the soles of my feet and called up to me

Hey man, dance its party time, get with it, let yourself go

Brilliant I said, but what’s the occasion, a wedding or a feast.

No occasion, we do this every morning, thought we’d let you know!

Shop windows were flirting with the sun, inviting him to come

In and then rejecting him, but he played the game and tried

Every one, what fun, sometimes he lost, sometimes he won.

The lampposts were all marching up and down shouting Hey

You paths there, cool it, stay off the street, keep in line.

The paths ignored them and continued running up and down

This is our town they shouted we’ll do what we damn well like.

A Georgian door was singing 0 Sole Mio, pure tenor backed

By a quartet of Georgian windows that joined in the chorus.

Christ he’s just as good a Jussi Bjorling I remarked to a cherry tree

That was crying it’s petals off in a well heeled garden. Pretty lady

Why? She blushed and said ‘for love for joy’. Don’t mind me

I’m so happy, it happens every time he sings, he really knows

How to pull my strings. Go for it I called to the Georgian halldoor

You’ve got it, flaunt it, they’ll come begging for more. His notes

Soared clean and sweet in the sparkling air, I walked on and I

Could hear a magnolia singing ‘One Fine Day’ so exquisitely and I

Like the Cherry Tree cried for pure love and joy, don’t mind me

I said, I’m just a boy, who wants to let it all hang loose, who wants

To know the tender pain of something lost, some sweet pale

Memories from the past, don’t mind me, these tears won’t last.

Two dustbins, neat, on wheels, a bus stop and a wrought iron gate

Were really rocking it and it seemed the whole street was

Gathering round to hear these cool dudes, boy what a sound.

The bus stop played the double base, the gate was on the drums

One bin played sax and the other, how he sang, let it rip, till

Everyone was dancin’ and wow when he flipped head over heels

And ended with the splits, the street just went crazy and screamed

More! More! And I could still hear the beat as I moved on towards

The railway crossing, down to the sea where the waves were wavin’

Up at me. I waited at the crossing while the DART whistled by

I’m off to Howth she laughed, hate to leave the party but hey

I’ll be back this afternoon and I’ll see you all then, the street said

Go baby, we’ll be rockin’ here till ten. The gate lifted and I made for

The sea,. It said rest your bones brother, we’ll play some sweet harmony

I lay on the beech and let it roll over me, over this brilliant day

On the Quinsboro Road when I walked down to the dancing sea.

© Dermot McCabe

I was feeling pretty good when I wrote this poem. It was one of those bright sunny mornings in April when everything seemmed alive and exuberant. I was footloose with nothing to do but enjoy  the inconsequential magic of ordinary things in an ordinary town.



 I am captain here

Passenger and crew.

I sail strange oceans

Land-locked, I construe

The explorations of the master

Mariners of inner space,

Their cartography of words

I trace.

I am captain here

I navigate through storm

Braced against the whip

And sting of hail

I taunt the wind

The raging gale.

I sail into the teeth

Of Winter,

Shout for joy,

For pain.

I defy fear.

This is my ship

My journey

I am captain here.

Demetrius Tancredi


Demetrius Tancredi, Chancellor of Dredgemarsh


“Tancredi relished the political arena, and if, for some reason, Dredgemarsh were free of political intrigue, he, Demetrius Tancredi, would create it. It was the game itself, and not the goal that completely dominated his every waking hour. Now, late into the night, like a grand chess master, he explored the possibilities that that momentous day had brought. He wrote out his priorities for the following day and then turned to his supper of oaten cake and vernage. He took his time eating at a small stone table set in a bay window, which looked out over the northern side of the castle and its surrounding territory. The bright moon etched a stark checkerboard of black shadows across the silver domes, spires and rooftops.”  The Reluctant King Chapter 12

‘Do you think I will allow your daughter to destroy everything I have worked for?’  Chancellor Tancredi was shouting, as he stormed into Arnulf Beaufort’s dining hall
‘What? What are you talking about?’  Beaufort, seated alone at his dining table, spluttered, as he tried to swallow a mouthful of doucette, a favourite late afternoon indulgence of his.

‘Have you any control over her or is this a plot against me?’  Tancredi was white-faced.

‘Plot? There is no plot. We have set a day, St. Sigbert’s Day! For the marriage. It is all arranged.’

‘Arranged, ha! Have you any idea of what your daughter is up to?’”
The Reluctant King Chapter 21

At that moment in time, he was once again the wretched child who was forced into slavery in a fuller’s yard after his father and mother died of plague. He felt again the awful shame of his ragged clothes, impregnated with the wash of piss and fuller’s earth. He could hear the jeering of other children; ‘piss pot, piss pot, greasy Tancredi’s a piss pot.’ The muscular spasm under his left eye pulled his face into a grotesque rictus of hatred and he sank to his knees in the foul water.”
The Reluctant King Chapter 21

‘My hour has come, Dredgemarsh’s hour has come,’ he whispered into the night air. ‘He must die, for all our sakes. There is no other way.’ He mounted and turned towards the castle. Over and over he rehearsed the details of the plan he had been incubating all that day. When it all fell into place, he gave a little gasp of delight at his own cleverness. As he approached the portal gate he felt he could sense the very walls, stones and paths of Dredgemarsh welcoming him, their new master.”
The Reluctant King Chapter 22




Litchfield Cathedral


Litchfield Cathedral with a history dating back to the Middle Ages.


In this holy place

Where prayers are built with stone

We summon Christ the saviour

To walk among us

Blood and bone.

We summon heaven’s multitudes

Unravelling time, unwinding history.

I am here with Cromwell, Newton

Unnamed saints and holy men

Prince and peasant.

I stand with the ploughman

Who has lovingly embraced

These ancient Litchfield downs

I hear his hymn of hi and ho

Against the jangling tackle,

The song of the polished iron

Opening the sacred ground.

I am with him now, casting wide

The seed like prayer. I hear

The singing of mason’s hammers

Like bells of an Eastertide.

                                   Dermot McCabe

Francis Burstboil, Scullery Boy

Francis Burstboil - Dredgemarsh Scullery Boy

“Verm Bludvile had tied him to one of the decaying pillars in the storeroom of the Hall of Echoes. The empty crates that once held an abundance of candles were strewn around the floor. Bludvile sat on one of them, directly in front of Burstboil, observing him with unnerving curiosity. The petrified boy could not meet that terrible gaze, and tried to look elsewhere. His stomach churned. There   beside the crate, on which this monster sat, were the grisly remains of Sling, tail and head. The boy spewed. The contents of his bowels turned to liquid and flowed down his trembling shanks.”

The Reluctant King
Chapter 6

“It is impossible to fathom the human spirit; its amazing force, and equally, its amazing weakness and susceptibility. Verm Bludvile epitomised the force, the fanatical focusing of every facet of being on a single purpose, while the bedraggled and terrified scullery boy was, as it were, a blank page, upon which Verm could imprint anything he wished. It was a strange and fortuitous accident for Verm that this pathetic and weak-minded boy should fall into his clutches. It was stranger still that Verm, only recently come to self-awareness himself, could exert so much influence on another  human, even of the calibre of  Burstboil. Yet, that is what happened. Perhaps it was that the boy never got over the fright of that first terrifying encounter. Suffice it to say Verm had found himself a willing disciple and a slave.”

The Reluctant King
Chapter 7

‘Oh Mistress Crumble I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ he began to mumble. He wished himself back in the Dredgemarsh kitchens, scrubbing floors and being ordered about by everyone save the kitchen cat. He longed for the reassurance of a stinging slap across the ear from Bella Crumble. The image was bliss and his mind focused and froze on that image. Thus he remained, only dimly conscious of the shadows that pressed and converged in an ever-tightening circle around him. The puny kitchen boy was suspended in a crucible of terror that threatened to shatter his mind like glass. His only means of defence was physical and mental paralysis. Somewhere deep within him, these primitive mechanisms were triggered.

The Reluctant King
Chapter 15

The Reluctant King available in eBook format at :



Washing Day

The poem, Washing Day,  by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, was written well over a century ago. It describes perfectly that frisson of irritability that invades a household on a wet washing day. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, was a remarkable woman who  wrote, poetry, essays and text books for children as well as writing pamphlets of serious social and political issues of the day. She was strongly in favour of the abolition of slavery and  was highly critical of the war between England and France. She predicted that England would not maintain its position of dominance in the world, a very unpopular view which resulted in her rejection by the establishment and abandonment by many literary friends who were initially great admirers of her writing.

Washing Day (partial)
by Anna Lætitia Barbauld 1743–1825

Come, Muse, and sing the dreaded washing day.

Ye who beneath the yoke of wedlock bend,

With bowed soul, full well ye ken the day

Which week, smooth sliding after week, brings on

Too soon; for to that day nor peace belongs,

Nor comfort; ere the first grey streak of dawn,

The red-armed washers come and chase repose.

Nor pleasant smile, nor quaint device of mirth,

Ere visited that day; the very cat,

From the wet kitchen scared, and reeking hearth,

Visits the parlour, an unwonted guest.

The silent breakfast meal is soon despatched,

Uninterrupted, save by anxious looks

Cast at the louring, if sky should lour.

From that last evil, oh preserve us, heavens!

For should the skies pour down, adieu to all

Remains of quiet; then expect to hear

Of sad disasters — dirt and gravel stains

Hard to efface, and loaded lines at once

Snapped short, and linen-horse by dog thrown down,

And all the petty miseries of life.

Saints have been calm while stretched upon the rack,

And Montezuma smiled on burning coals;

But never yet did housewife notable

Greet with a smile a rainy washing day.

But grant the welkin fair, require not thou

Who callest thyself, perchance, the master there,

Or study swept, or nicely dusted coat,

Or usual ’tendence; ask not, indiscreet,

Thy stockings mended, though the yawning rents

Gape wide as Erebus; nor hope to find

Some snug recess impervious. Shouldst thou try

The ’customed garden walks, thine eye shall rue

The budding fragrance of thy tender shrubs,

Myrtle or rose, all crushed beneath the weight

Of coarse-checked apron, with impatient hand

Twitched off when showers impend; or crossing lines

Shall mar thy musings, as the wet cold sheet

Flaps in thy face abrupt. Woe to the friend

Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim

On such a dav the hospitable rites;

Looks blank at best, and stinted courtesy

Shall he receive; vainly he feeds his hopes

With dinner of roast chicken, savoury pie,

Or tart or pudding; pudding he nor tart

That day shall eat; nor, though the husband try —

Mending what can’t be helped — to kindle mirth

From cheer deficient, shall his consort’s brow

Clear up propitious; the unlucky guest

In silence dines, and early slinks away.

I well remember, when a child, the awe

This day struck into me; for then the maids,

I scarce knew why, looked cross, and drove me from them;

Nor soft caress could I obtain, nor hope

Usual indulgencies; jelly or creams,

Relic of costly suppers, and set by

For me their petted one; or buttered toast,

When butter was forbid; or thrilling tale

Of ghost, or witch, or murder. So I went

And sheltered me beside the parlour fire;

There my dear grandmother, eldest of forms,

Tended the little ones, and watched from harm;

Anxiously fond, though oft her spectacles

With elfin cunning hid, and oft the pins

Drawn from her ravelled stocking, might have soured

One less indulgent.

At intervals my mother’s voice was heard,

Urging dispatch; briskly the work went on,

All hands employed to wash, to rinse, to wring,

Or fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait.

Then would I sit me down, and ponder much

Why washings were; sometimes through hollow hole

Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft

The floating bubbles; little dreaming then

To ee, Montgolfier, thy silken ball

Ride buoyant through the clouds, so near approach

The sports of children and the toils of men.

Earth, air, and sky, and ocean hath its bubbles,

And verse is one of them — this most of all.

Verm Bludvile, The Candle Lighter

Verm Bludvile swears vengence on Cesare Greyfell, King of Dredgemarsh

“Verm could not remember why, but he hated “them above”. It was in his blood, some old long-forgotten grievance or dreadful wrong done to him. ‘Degenerates and fornicators,’ his father, old Wat Bludvile, used to fulminate at the mention of the royal household and its staff, never explaining, even on his deathbed, the reason for his obsessive hatred. He had also been the Candle Lighter. Verm knew nothing of his mother, but in his grim world of flickering candlelight, the only kindness he had ever experienced was from old Wat. Now, the passing years had almost extinguished that trembling flame of affection and left in its place an emptiness that, on occasions, even the hard armour of bitterness could not repel. But as long as he had his candles to light, the squalor of Verm Bludvile’s existence could be endured.”
Chapter 4 The Reluctant King

“Now in the autumn of the fifth year of Cesare’s reign, something startling and strange began to happen to Verm. He was beginning to feel some vaguely unsettling emotions. Ideas, totally alien to him, began to hover and flash indiscriminately across his mind. It took him some time to realise that his unease was growing as the stock of candles, in the storeroom below the Great Hall of Echoes, was diminishing. It was unprecedented; the supply of new candles to the storeroom had ceased. These emerging feelings grew, and changed to fear, and finally terror. It was as if the candles were burning away the hours and minutes of his life.”
Chapter 4 The Reluctant King

“… he cursed and howled with rage, until a deadly calm took hold of him and he began to plan his revenge on Cesare Greyfell, the author of his misfortune.”
Chapter 4 The Reluctant King

“Verm could smell the hateful pursuers now, could hear the excited baying of the lymers. He turned sharply right through a small opening in the tunnel wall. There was nowhere else to go. The way forward was blocked by the massive granite blocks of Dredgemarsh’s outer wall. He was trapped at last, in a dismal chamber in the very pit of Dredgemarsh. He crouched down in the furthest corner of the room.

Poor Vermie, poor Vermie. He was experiencing an incredible dislocation in time and place. He was a small petrified boy, trying not to cry, not to give himself away and the terrifying unctuous voice saying, poor Vermie, poor Vermie, I’m coming, coming, won’t hurt Vermie…be nice to your…no harm, no harm at all…our little secret, Vermie. The smells came back, rich perfume, nauseating, the sweet comfits, and the soft white insistent hands. Verm Bludvile wailed in anguish. His pursuers stopped, appalled by the sound. It was not anger or defiance they heard, but a cry of unfathomable desolation and loss. Then the lymers gave voice again and the spell was broken. ”
Chapter 19 The Reluctant King

The Reluctant King at: