Glasses for the Ages

Eric Lis

Last week, I discussed some of the complexity that can go into assigning prices to fairly simple herbs and medicines, if one chooses to overthink things. This week, I thought it might be interesting to illustrate this a bit by picking one item from Insults & Injuries and breaking down some of the factors which could affect its price. Even this discussion is going to be fairly simplistic, but it ought to illustrate the way that a storyteller could have a lot of fun – or drive themselves crazy – imagining all the cultural factors which can affect what things cost in a campaign setting.

Although almost every item and drug in Insults & Injuries could have a fascinating economic history to it, let’s pick one example: corrective lenses. Glasses are an important part of modern human culture; these simple devices can make for a huge difference in someone’s life, influencing their academic performance and education, social life, spending habits, and perception of their own health. They’re a great example because they reflect something which was available during many eras throughout history, but which required vastly different amounts of labour to produce and so logically have very different availabilities. As adventuring equipment or equipment for an NPC, they offer anything from a memorable affectation (can the PCs identify a disguised villain by spotting the characteristic way he polishes his monocle?) to a piece of critical equipment with its own inherent risks of complications and malfunctions (what does a sniper do when the glasses that he uses to enhance his vision slip off in combat?).

The essential principle of corrective lenses has been noted for over two thousand years, and there’s some evidence that technology such as the magnifying glass has been around since perhaps the year 1000, but corrective glasses have been available since at least the thirteenth century. The principles of magnifying glasses and vision-enhancing lenses, like many great scientific advances, probably came to Europe from the Arabic countries, but we think it was the Italians who first got the idea to grind small, portable lenses calibrated to correct a single individual’s eyesight. Reading glasses, to help scholars with aging eyes read more easily, probably predate myopia-correcting glasses by quite some time, which might tell us something about what the market was for the devices. The manufacture of corrective lenses quickly became big business to the point that it fell under the control of guilds and other forms of regulation.

Glasses remained difficult and costly to produce for many centuries. In addition to being laborious and requiring a certain skill, being a glass-grinder was a risky field. People who ground corrective lenses were known to be at high risk of developing tuberculosis, pneumonia, and restrictive lung diseases (where the lungs slowly lose their ability to expand, causing shortness of breath); even though the Ancient Greeks knew that inhaling dust could damage the lungs, it still took a few hundred years and an unknown number of dead artisans before people clued in to the fact that minute amounts of glass dust, inhaled over a period of years during the grinding process, caused pneumoconiosis.

Let’s put some of this together and come up with a scheme for pricing glasses. First, let’s say that glasses are probably just plain unavailable before a certain level of cultural evolution; with all respect for our stone- and bronze-age ancestors who made amazing advances in the sciences using the limited tools available to them, they probably couldn’t produce personalized corrective lenses. If a campaign setting mirrors out history, glasses likely don’t become available until the Renaissance era, but if the setting has some more advanced anachronisms, and most do, then glasses might reasonably be available well into the medieval period, although probably not so far back as the Dark Ages. Even then, lenses are probably prohibitively costly; they might be available to important merchants and scholars, and certainly readily available to the nobility and the moderately wealthy, but probably beyond the dreams of serfs, peasants, and farmers. As technology advances, glasses undoubtedly become more common; better tools are invented and more people becoming glass-grinders leads to there being more competition and more supply. Settings rich in magic probably speed this up considerably, since low-level magic items can almost certainly be created which aid in the shaping of glass or the measuring of eyesight. The evolution of a middle class also increases the market for eyeglasses, which may increase or decrease their price depending on a number of factors. Glasses transition from being a novelty of the wealthy to commonplace tools, which in turn leads to more advances in their creation: lighter frames, smaller screws, and almost certainly rules regarding what is or isn’t fashionable, which might be the moment at which we start seeing differences in the price of two pairs of glasses.

So, if we were to consider some of these factors, we might suggest that eyeglasses would be worth a king’s ransom in early societies – perhaps they exist only as mysterious relics left behind by a fallen advanced civilization, and entire tribes go to war just to capture one cracked lens – become available as a civilization enters its early scientific era, reach the peak of their cost during the days of guilds when ever lens has to be ground by hand by one of the few artisans who know the secret, and finally fall in price to become affordable and commonplace as the power in society slowly shifts from the nobles to the merchants and society approaches the Enlightenment and the dawn of the modern era.

All of this doesn’t even take into account the impact of masterwork versus “regular” glasses, and the associated possibility of enchanting them. Nor does it consider the availability of magic which might render eyeglasses obsolete; will glasses be cheaper than curative magic, and become the affordable option for the poorer classes, or still more expensive for being the non-magical option? These are the questions which might determine whether every member in an adventuring party owns a pair of glasses or whether an entire campaign centers around stealing a single pair of glasses from the only person in the land to own one. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on October 18, 2015. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system