partially sighted understanding and the Lutrell psalter

I meant to post this during the week, but I wasn’t really in the right state of mind. still not sure I am, but anyway…

I’m very short-sighted. The other morning I looked in the bathroom mirror, but I didn’t look in it the way I normally do – by peering in it from about six inches away, which is about my focal distance – but from a few feet away. Things blur at that distance, but they can also change shape.

obviously all my wrinkles disappeared, which is always nice, but which is also not the point.

The point is, that without my glasses and with a bit of distance, my face looked more medeival. My nose became just a flat two dimensional outline, and my eyes blurred and got bigger, more exaggerated (being short sighted doesn’t always mean that something out of focus is smaller). Almost but not quite like this…


Obviously MY halo is bigger and shineir *cough*

But then as I drove to work I began to think about the wierdoes from the Lutrell Psalter, and I began to see how someone shortsighted could see two cows standing heads together in a faraway field and see this…

double cow

becauseif the light was right then the back legs would bulk out whereas the front legs might disappear altogether.

I can also see how a man carrying a heavy sack could morph into this…

ammonite shell beast

So maybe the scribes weren’t just stoned when they did these illustrations, maybe they were short sighted?

~ by opusanglicanum on January 17, 2015.

14 Responses to “partially sighted understanding and the Lutrell psalter”

  1. you’re probably spot on 🙂

  2. Being chronically short sighted myself, then I can completely identify with this and I think you’re probably right!

  3. I hadn’t thought of that, but when you consider that a lot of people wouldn’t have known what they looked like themselves because mirrors were hard to make, there’s a good deal about ordinary perception that is very different for us!

  4. Wonderful hypothesis!

    Also, bear in mind that current research shows that doing lots of close-work can cause short-sightedness, **if it is done whilst also not giving the eye much time to do long-distance work**. I.e. it is about the ratio of short-distance to long-distance work in your life that can cause it. This is the explanation for the incredibly high rate of shortsightedness (approaching 80% of the population) in some Asian countries – long school hours, culture of lots of after-school work, long office hours when working and much of the rest of life lived indoors due to the scale of Asian cities.

    So, scribes would have greater potential to be short sighted than other people in the population (though perhaps similar to other people who did a lot of close-work, e.g. embroiderers?).

    Addendum: genetics determines how short-sighted you are in the absence of any close-work stimulus, and how quickly and badly you become short-sighted in response to a given ratio of close-work to distance.

    Apologies… you appear to have set of my science brain…

    • it’s ok, am used to the “poke the science nerd” phenonomem with gareth, although it’s usually plants with him. Last year I read a post about dyeing with eucalyptus and now he’s planning to try and grow the right tropical eucalyptus in the conservatory…

      I’ve been a glasses wearer since I was 12 or so, and although I was a big reader as a kid I also come from a family where everyone wears glasses (and don’t think my granda ever read a book that wasn’t about gardening in his life)

      • I pretty much fit the hypothesis. Each time I’ve upped my studies and reduced my outdoor activity, I get worse eyesight. When my study:outdoor time ratio plateaus, my eyesight stops getting worse. When I start to increase studying / reduce outdoor time again, my eyesight starts getting worse again.

        *sigh* It’s somewhat irritating.

      • mines been pretty stable for twenty years, there is the theory that some opticians will adjust your prescription just to sell you new glasses, which then makes your sight deteriorate. I’m always fairly assertive about not wanting an increased prescription. but then I do spend my working day not wearing any glasses at all when I’m performing for four hours straight ( if I can see an audience I get stagefright, if they’re just blurry lumps I’m fine. Also when I can see them laughing it sets me off)

  5. This is a good theory. I like your squinting scribes thinking people really looked like that. (Keep them short of sleep and give them some ergot in the bread and who knows what they’d see around them.)
    I was taught that the large hands, feet, eyes and bold gestures were so the images could be seen at a distance (in the smoky atmosphere of candle-lit rooms), and this style comes up in both Coptic and Orthodox images, as well. You can shrink the rest of the figure to save space (and paint) without losing the important bits.
    Another thought: your monks would learn the words by heart. If you have a dozen or more monks literally singing from the same hymn sheet, because they can’t all have a precious volume, then those weird little pictures become memory-joggers for where they are and what comes next, while they are too far away to read the words.

    • Judging by the amount of colour in the marginalia, I don’t think saving paint was much of an issue in the Lutrell, but you are right that there must be more tham one source of creative influence

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