Thursday, January 29, 2015

Four medieval firsts

Inventions we still use today. 

Detail of Visit of the Angel by Master Bertram, from the Buxtehude Altar, Hamburg, 1400-1410. Notice that the Virgin, who is knitting, wears a dress with tight set-in sleeves while the child wears an older-style robe, with buttons.

Knitting seems to have begun around 1000 A.D. in Egypt. Evidence of the first knitting in Europe comes from Moorish Spain in 1275, and it quickly spread around the continent. Central heating was still centuries away, so warm clothing mattered.

In about 1280, the first eyeglasses for reading came into use in Italy, but no one knows who invented them. Although they were useful for monks and scholars, there wasn’t much to read, so they didn’t take off until the printing press made books more available in the late 1400s – and soon Amadis of Gaul had become the Europe’s first best-seller.

Around 1330, the set-in sleeve came into use in Europe, discovered by some brave little tailor. The top of this kind of sleeve is rounded and set into a round armhole, and it’s the way most clothing is made today. Previously, sleeves were straight, often cut at the same time as the garment in a T-shape. This new kind of sleeve allowed both the bodice and sleeve to be fitted more closely, which created a fashion revolution because, at the same time, buttons and buttonholes came into wide use. Combined with the new sleeve design, they allowed garments to be tailored to fit snug to the body. Suddenly clothing got much sexier.

In 1402, Jean de Béthencourt led an expedition to conquer the Canary Islands for the King of Castile. A small yellow-green finch there had an amazingly beautiful song, and the natives had the custom of keeping the birds in cages to enjoy their singing. He brought the birds back to the royal courts of Spain and France. Soon the canary caught on and has since been bred into a variety of colors. They’re still popular pets here in Spain, and it’s common to hear one singing on a balcony as you walk down the street.


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