Poor Eyesight Affecting History
January 18, 2023 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Are there any accounts of how poor eyesight may have affected history?

We were talking the other day, and the subject of “When did you start wearing glasses?” came up, which eventually led to someone wondering what life was like before corrective lenses were invented. Which led to those of us taking our glasses off and realized how freaking different life would be without them.

This got me to wondering how, or if, world events were affected by the reality of many, many people having poor eyesight? Generals who cannot clearly see troops on the battlefield, soldiers for whom everything was simply a blur, and all sorts of activities, jobs, and pastimes that would seemingly require relatively clear eyesight.

Thus, I’m asking if anyone knows of any writing/study/research into any possible ancient documentation that would infer an effect on someone’s actions because of their eyesight?

posted by Thorzdad to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The World through Blunted Sight

Book by Patrick Trevor-Roper
posted by librosegretti at 8:57 AM on January 18 [6 favorites]

Since myopia is exacerbated by reading and indoors work, I wonder how much less common it was before mass literacy?
posted by bendybendy at 9:28 AM on January 18 [5 favorites]

(Presbyopia in the "elderly" was still a well-known phenomenon, though. Kong Shangren wrote in the late 17th century:

"White glass from across the Western Seas
Is imported through Macao:
Fashioned into lenses big as coins,
They encompass the eyes in a double frame.
I put them on—-it suddenly becomes clear;
I can see the very tips of things!
And read fine print by the dim-lit window
Just like in my youth!")
posted by praemunire at 9:47 AM on January 18 [8 favorites]

Strangely enough, blindness and poor eyesight was the only disability the Romans didn't make fun of/consider an issue in terms of ability, probably because it was so common. The Appian Way was created thanks to Appius Claudius Caecus, who even after he went blind took part in political life.

There's an article on visual impairment in Rome by Lisa Trentin in the collection 'Disabilities in Roman Antiquoty'.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:57 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]

You may enjoy this (freely accessible) ophthalmology article "Myopia: its historical contexts".

Also myopia was not uncommon in antiquity, it is not unique to modernity, though its prevalence has been increasing sharply worldwide since the mid 20th century.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:14 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]

In one particular case, selective blindness had geopolitical consequences. At the naval Battle of Copenhagen (1801), a British fleet under Admiral Parker attacked the Danish navy as a pre-emptive strike against them forming an alliance with the French. At a critical point Parker ordered his subordinate Admiral Nelson to retreat, but Nelson, putting his telescope to his blind eye (shrapnel at Corsica 1796) said "I see no signal" pressed home the attack and prevented the loss of the Danish fleet to the French.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:39 AM on January 18 [10 favorites]

There used to be a common disability which was called a squint. Basically in order to try to see anything at a distance you tighten the muscles around your eyes to change the shape of the lens. Squints were considered ugly. but even worse, our ancestors also knew that they were the result of having poor distance vision, and it seems were concerned that squints could be hereditary.

When some powerful person was thinking of making a power marriage with a person in another country they would have an emissary report on what they were like personally. There was often a portrait painted. Here is a picture of Henri IV falling in love with Marie de Medici that Marie had commissioned because she was so chuffed about the success of the original portrait. She's an absolute beauty as you can see, with the little cupid's bow mouth and the adorable double chin, so it is no wonder it worked.

But sometimes the report would come back, "... she hath a squint.." and that, as well as reports about unattractive laughs, false teeth, bad breath, and filthy moustaches, might torpedo the prospective marriage, no matter how nice they looked in the portrait.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:40 PM on January 18 [2 favorites]

It is unlikely that many battles were lost because one side could not see the other due to too many men on that side having poor distance vision - People who live and work outside from a young age, whose livelihood depends on being about to make out detail at a distance, have what most of us would consider phenomenal distance vision.

My father in law was a salmon fisher and could make out minute dark dots in the water half a mile away and even tell if they were moving or stationary amid all the waves. If they were mobile they were the little round heads of seals, or shag resting on the water. If they never moved in relation to waves they were rocks. This kind of visual discernment was critical. Seals or shag might indicate the presence of fish below, whereas in a heavy sea you wanted to leave a lot of room between you and the rocks, especially if it was getting dark and the direction of the wind was shifting...

There were probably some significant wrecks in history because the lookout did not have vision that was good enough. The White Ship Disaster happened when a ship struck a rock and sank attempting to cross the English channel, drowning numerous nobles including the heir to the English throne and causing a succession crisis and a civil war. The ship was a galley which meant a large part of the crew was rowing and not able to see where they were going. They struck a rock and capsized. It was November and approximately 300 people drowned. Disasters like this one could easily have occurred when the lookout's vision was too poor for the job. It has been suggested that the helmsman was drunk, but as there was only one survivor we will never know the definite cause. And that's the problem. "Why the hell didn't you see it??!!" is not something we will know the answer to, because any inquiries done then would almost certainly not thought to have done a vision test on the helmsmen or lookouts even if they had survived. If the course of history was changed because someone failed to see something critical - such as the standard that was carried into battle to be a rallying point, how are you going to tell if it was their vision at fault?

Hunters, fishers and other sailors, and archers would likely have excellent distance vision. People who spend their lives in rooms looking at details, such as artisans would be more likely to have bad distance vision than those who had trained all their lives looking at the horizon; of course when they conscripted or impressed men to join the navy or a military force they prioritized getting the ones with the kind of experience that had required good distance vision. They did do vision tests on their best archers, but as far as I know they didn't do formal vision tests on anyone else.

At the Battle of Cowpens, the British mistook strategic movements made by Americans for a rout and rushed forward, only to be decimated. Was this the result of poor vision? It might have been. But the expression "the fog of war" exists for a reason. It is notoriously difficult to tell what is going on on a battle field, and used to be much harder when the smoke from hundreds of muskets going off periodically completely concealed the troop that was firing, and made it impossible for them to see anything out of the smoke bank they had created. They would often pause between volleys because otherwise they were firing blind. Sometimes they slipped away after firing and re-positioned. When the smoke cleared they were gone.

Samuel Swett, writing in 1818, wrote, "General Putnam rode through the line, and ordered that no one should fire till they [the British soldiers] arrived within eight rods, nor any one till commanded. “Powder was scarce and must not be wasted. They should not fire at the enemy till they saw the white of their eyes, and then fire low, take aim at their waistbands. They were all marksmen, and could kill a squirrel at a hundred yards; reserve their fire, and the enemy were all destroyed. Aim at the handsome coats, pick off the commanders.” The same orders were reiterated by Prescott at the redoubt, by Pomeroy, Stark, and all the veteran commanders. "

This was the Battle of Bunker Hill, which was fought in 1775. That's over thirty-five years later. How much of that was boastful hyperbole, and how much was living memory? 8 rods is just over 40 metres. Being able to see the whites of anyone's eyes at that distance is actually phenomenal vision. In that passage Swett is praising the American troops both for their vision, but also their discipline. It was imperative to be able to judge if the enemy were in range or not. A mistake could be catastrophic.

This definitely happened a lot in this type of battle. Massed ranks would be marching towards you. You stood in a similar rank and held your fire until they were in range, and then let loose in formations and with luck took out enough of them that they would be forced to retreat. But if the sight of all those advancing guns scared you so much you fired too soon, you'd need to reload. Reloading under fire is terrifying, and musket troops who fired too soon frequently broke and ran while reloading.

There was ferocious discipline to keep them from firing too soon. Men were sometimes flogged nearly to death for firing too soon during training. One man firing could trigger the entire troop to fire prematurely. If you realised you had fired too soon, it took great courage to stand and reload knowing that the other side had taken minimal casualties and was going to open fire themselves while you were still reloading. Men made good targets once they broke and ran.

But at the same time human nature being what it was, there were many battles where one side opened fire too soon, and the other side, instead of advancing, also discharged their muskets. At that point both sides were reloading, and it was much easier for the troops holding their ground to reload than for the ones advancing. For these reason sometimes a troop was ordered to fire before they had much hope of hitting an advancing troop. If the attacking troop fired back and didn't see the enemy ranks break, they might stop advancing, or retreat. You even had complete battles where both sides fired away like mad until they were out of ammunition - all while still out of range. Such battles were often reported as a victory by both sides but really of course the winner was whoever ended up controlling the field of battle after it was over.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:50 PM on January 18 [7 favorites]

It's not a single dramatic incident, but nearsighted artisans may have been responsible for some of the incredibly fine detail work from ancient times. When you visit a museum with ancient artifacts, it's amazing how tiny and carefully worked some inscriptions and jewelry can be. As an extremely nearsighted person, I can attest to the quality of close vision I had when I was young. Nearsighted craftsmen who became successful would presumably pass that trait to their heirs. But this remains largely hypothetical.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:07 PM on January 18

Love this question.

One issue you may be running into: when you miss information because you can't see it, you may not even realize you missed anything, so history may never reflect that your vision affected anything.

- Milton (considered how his light was spent)
- Nelson (used his blind eye as a pretext for failing to obey an order to retreat)
- Washington (used his failing vision to embarrass staff officers who wanted him to lead them in a military coup: asked them to hand him his glasses, since he had "grown old and blind in the service of my country", before he could read their written request to subvert it)

If your definition of "history" encompasses oral history / myth:
- Isaac (gave his entire patriarchal blessing to the wrong line of descendants because he couldn't see which son he was blessing)
- Tireseas (powers of prophesy as a divine reparation for making him blind)
posted by foursentences at 7:40 PM on January 18 [5 favorites]

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