1. Ben Tiller
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    Ben Tiller Member

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    Medieval Mirrors?

    Discussion in 'Research' started by Ben Tiller, Jan 2, 2011.

    Did the medieval people, such as peasants, have some kind of mirrors so they could look at appearance? I know that glass was somewhat expensive (?) during the medieval times, since I googled it and this is what I got:

    -In medieval times, windows were usually left open and no glass was filled in simply because it was too expensive.

    -glass was invented sometime early In B.C. So why isn't it in use in medieval times? Is it just because the process of glass-blowing was very difficult and expensive? Or was it not even invented?

    -did peasants at least carry around a pocket mirror, something lightweight and small so they could check their appearance? Would it at all be possible for peasants or townspeople to have a large mirror in their room so they could look at their entire body and clothing reflected in the mirror? Would only nobility have access to glass mirrors?

    -Was there an alternative to glass? Some other semi-transparent metal substitute perhaps?
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Doesn't seem likely, Proyas. The glass-making would be costly, and I suspect the metal backing would be as well. I doubt peasants would have them. It wasn't until the 19th century that mirrors became used much more frequently in the general population because they could be made more cheaply.
     
  3. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    midish 1800s was the start of silvered glass mirrors as we know today. Before that they tended to be ornate specialty items a peasant may have had if they had been descended from nobility or worked as a servant in the house for someone. As a very precious gift - Queen Victoria I know gave luxury items to servants on her Balmoral Estate we have some in local museum. They would then be passed down as a treasured item.

    In late renaissance times a technique was discovered with I think tin-mercury amalgam coated glass. Before that it was silver-mercury. Very, very expensive items.

    What a peasant may have had is a polished bit of metal like had been used for thousands of years.
     
  4. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    Short answer: No, peasants did not have mirrors.

    Medium answer: Holy cow, you need to do research. That you would ask a question about a European peasant, anytime from 600 to 1400 A.D., having a mirror, shows you really really do not know much about that time period. It's like asking whether Neanderthals ate Stegosaurus or if they preferred Triceratops -- just asking the question shows you're off to the wrong start.

    Longer answer: Mirrored glass was an export of one of the Italian peninsula's principalities. (I can't remember if it was one of the islands off the peninsula's coast, or if it was Milan.) Since mirrored glass is difficult to make, it was expensive. Also, the whole "glass" thing means it was hard to transport over very long distances or over mountains.

    Peasants are poor. I mean, one or two sets of clothing was the norm. They would not have either a full-length mirror nor a hand mirror. If they did somehow have a hand mirror, they could be accused of theft, because peasants just wouldn't have the money for a mirror.

    The closest you'd come to a peasant with a mirror would be someone in the family of a journeyman glassmaker. I mean, if a glassmaker messed up and cracked a mirror, he might give it to his apprentice for a discounted price, and the apprentice might gift the cracked mirror to a family member. But the odds are long, because it's easy enough to just re-heat the cracked mirror and re-shape it.

    Also, peasants are very different from an artisan-class family during the Renaissance. The people in Italy were doing very well indeed when a good portion of the rest of the continent was embroiled in wars or otherwise badly off, so you can't really call the Italian folks "peasants" since being a poor farmer in Italy was loads better than being a poor farmer in Burgundy or Castille or the Holy Roman Empire.

    Appearance didn't matter to most medieval people, particularly when we're discussing the poverty-level folks. We're talking lice, here. Nits. Dirt. Mud. Pockmarks from smallpox or measles; withered limbs from polio; marks from poorly treated injuries. The people didn't bathe -- remember, taking a bath meant drawing hundreds of pounds of water from the well or river, then heating it over a fire. Many families wouldn't really have had their own tub; they would have washed from the bucket, or in a convenient barrel or trough.

    Now, it's possible for a flat metal "mirror" to be made of polished bronze or steel or such, but the problem is that peasants wouldn't own that, either.

    A possible solution:

    Why not move the time your story takes place to, say, the 1700s or the 1800s, when more people had more resources? If your character lives in the medieval period, it's hard to argue that their life is much more than work and poverty, with festivals and feasts to break up the monotony. (And the festivals and feasts weren't usually impressive, either, except in wealthier areas like towns and cities and the farms close to those.) But if they live in the 1800s, they can be on the up-and-up, with more clothing and shoes, an artisan job rather than the peasant-farmer livestyle, and even a (small, treasured, and carefully maintained) mirror for the wife of the house.
     
  5. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    They might not have a glass mirror - however polished metal is a possibility. Also mirrors are much older I think it was the Chinese or Eqyptians that managed the silver-mercury mirrors. Maybe I should google.
     
  6. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    Allegro Van Kiddo Contributing Member

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    I've seen them in museums and they were polished silver or bronze sheets. I suppose a poor person could have something like that if they found it or constructed it themselves.
     
  7. WastelandSurvivor
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    WastelandSurvivor Member

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    Would a peasant have a glass mirror? Not without stealing it or being given it by someone very rich, and it would likely be stolen as the peasantry of the time would certainly not have had the means to protect it from theft. I suppose a polished metal mirror would have been closer to the realm of possibility, but metalwork was also expensive and it would probably have been the most expensive possession that a peasant would have. Even that would probably still have to come from someone with substantial amounts of money.
     
  8. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Listen to HeinleinFan.

    Especially about the research thing. There's way too many kids who think the middle ages were somewhat like World of Warcraft.

    Why not have the peasant look at their reflection in a lake? If it's necessary for your story that the character sees their own reflection, this would be a reasonable solution. But like HeinleinFan writes, vanity wasn't a big passtime among poor, hardworking peasantry.
     
  9. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    certain types of stone, copper and even iron can be polished. Depending on the peasant they could work with iron, copper etc. Should imagine tin as well.

    Ptolemy used polished metal mirrors in his experiments. Sure peasants would be/could be as vain as their circumstances would allow. They may have at least been curious.
     
  10. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    Allegro Van Kiddo Contributing Member

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    Neat fact about Ptolemy there.

    That made me think of a recent Mythbusters episode where they tested a Greek story about using polished bronze shield to light ships on fire. They said it wasn't possible, but we do know that the Greeks had polished mirror like bronze.
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    who said it wasn't?... you really do need to learn how to do research... google makes it so easy you don't even have to work at it very hard...

    h-fan... i'm sure the island of murano in the venice lagoon is what you're thinking of... it's where glass has been made continuously, since the 9th century... i've been there and seen it still being made by hand... it's mind-blowing to see the glassblowers at work... they're virtually all members of glassmaking families that have been at it for countless generations, handing down their art and secrets from one to the next...
     
  12. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    Murano! *snaps fingers* That was the place! Thanks, mammamaia.

    Wikipedia's article on mirrors may prove useful. Among other things, it specifies that the Venice / Murano mirrors of the 1500s and later were considered extremely expensive luxuries. The rich could afford to buy them and pay for the transportation costs and skill that went into their production, but other people did without. After 1835, a new way of mirroring glass was discovered, and the price went down.

    The article is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror
     
  13. Ironwil
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    Ironwil Member

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    So, which did they prefer? Sorry, had to do it.

    Actually, you mentioned a few things I had no idea of, such as the relatively better living conditions of Italian peasants. Are there any books you've read that have some of this material in a fairly condensed form? I don't have endless time to read (such a pity), so this would be preferred. If not, what are some of your favorites books that illustrate these things?
     
  14. R-e-n-n-a-t
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    R-e-n-n-a-t Contributing Member

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    They didn't even really use glass back then; only the nobility and upper class posessed mirrors, and I'm not sure that they used glass for them. Possibly something like silver, polished.
     

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