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.


The Alaunt: Hunting Dog of the Middle Ages

Alaunts at the kill of a wild boar from The Grimami Breviary 1490

In the Middle Ages the warrior-class when not engaged in war spent a great deal of their time and resources hunting.

The hunting dog used to seize a running beast was the alaunt. The alaunt, originally a herd and war dog of the Alani warriors of central Asia was cross bred with sight and and scent hounds in the west to produce the alaunt gentil and the bulldog alaunt. The alaunt gentil resembled a greyhound but were heavier and their their heads were broader and shorter.  In his Book of the Hunt, Alfonso of Castile (1311 – 1350) describes the alaunt’s head as being broader than that of the greyhound and more like the conger eel’s head. The bulldog alaunt was heavier again and and looked more like a mastif.

The other important aspect of the alaunt was its temperament. The quarry pursued by hunters of the middle ages and later was large and dangerous. Wild boar, bear and wolf were particularly fierce and the alaunt needed to be fearless and aggressive when it came to the kill. Some of the modern day bull terrier breeds look like smaller versions of the bulldog alaunt and they certainly manifest a fearlessness that is unfortunately exploited by some unscrupulous people.

In the Middle Ages the dog handlers, were very important members of the aristocratic household staff. They were called fewterers.

We can get a good idea of what the alaunt looked like from paintings of the period. There are also modern versions of the alaunt being bred.


Modern Alaunt Gentil

American Alaunt Mastif

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?

To A Dead Fox

You should be singing at the moon

Serenading your vixen lover

Not cast aside like jetsam

White teeth frozen forever

Snarling helpless at the inexorable

Fume and rumble of morning traffic.

In the noise and bristling heat

You are a bronze illumination

The coil of your neat body and delicate feet

Like an intricate swirling beast

Emblazoning the word in antique psalter.

You etch this morning in flame

Herald this very day a glorious day

Suspended in the move and flux

Of all the every days

In your stillness

I see graceful running

In your silence

I hear joyful singing

In your death

A sermon for life and living.

I will sing at the moon

Sing to your vixen lover

Because your song is in me

Now and forever.

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

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