St. Lucy & Eye Care through the Ages December 14th

Medieval Cataract Surgery – calling couching.

So, yesterday, you, being someone worried about your eyes, might have sought out an altar dedicated to St Lucy, the patron saint of eye health. (see December 13th’s Post on St Lucy) Although you may be disappointed that there has been no miraculous cure, you might have been encouraged to do something about it. So that’s what this post is about.

Cataract operations have been carried out since 800 BC using a method called ‘couching’.

The practitioner would sit facing the patient and pass a long needle through the cornea to impale the lens. “He would then forcibly dislodge the lens — rupturing the zonules — and push it into the vitreous cavity, where it would hopefully float to the bottom of the eye and out of the visual axis.”

Evolution of Cataract Surgery.

This was a last resort when the cataract was opaque and the patients nearly blind. It would mean they would need very thick lenses to see well again but, crude as it seems, it worked. But the operation, without anaesthetics must have been a considerable ordeal, and the recovery (still required today for those suffering from a displaced retina) means that the patient has to lie on their back for a week with supports on either side of the head to prevent movement. Of course, there was also a serious risk of infection, so prophylactic visit to a chapel of St Lucy would be called for.

The modern system was established in the 1940s and offers a great solution in 15 minutes surgery. Currently, the NHS has been having trouble dealing with all the cases required, and, before COVID-19, there was some talk about cataracts being, in practice, not readily available on the NHS. The average waiting time is approximately 10 months, and ranges from 10 weeks to nearly 2 years depending upon your postcode.

Pink Eye

The Perpetual Calendar of Folklore by Charles Kightly has dug up some other folk cures of interest.

For the redness of eyes, or bloodshot. Take red wine, rosewater, and women’s milk, and mingle all these together: and put a piece of wheaten bread leavened, as much as will cover the eye, and lay it in the mixture. When you go to bed, lay the bread upon your eyes calmer and it will help them.

Fairfax Household book, 17th/ 18th century.

There are many household books still, in existence, which show that much of medical practice was carried out in the home, and that men and women, more often women, actively not only collected useful recipes and cures, but also tested them out and improved them.

As a matter of curiosity, there is a very important document found at the Roman Fort of Vindolanda which lists the troops of the Cohort in occupation, which notes that of the garrison of 750, 474 are absent with 276 in the fort of which 38 are sick, 10 with ‘pink eye’, probably conjunctivitis

Prevention is better than cure

Things hurtful to the eyes. Garlic, onions, radish, drunkenness, lechery, sweet wines, salt meats, coleworts, dust, smoke and reading presently after supper.

Good for the eyes. fennel, celandine, eyebright, vervain, roses, cloves and cold water.

Whites Almanack 1627

Looking through Samuel Pepys’s eye

You will note, above, that it was considered bad for the eyes to read in low light. It is a myth and not true. Samuel Pepys was continually worried about his reading and writing habits ruining his eyesight. This is an extract from the poignant last entry in his famous diary:

And thus ends all that I doubt I should ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my journal, I being not able to do it any longer, having done now so long as to undo my eyes almost every time that I take a pen in my hand; and therefore, whatever comes of it, I must forbear: and therefore resolve from this time forward to have it kept by my people in long-hand. I must be consented to sit down no more than is fit for them and all the world to know; or, if they be anything, which cannot be much now my amores are past and my eyes hindering me almost all other pleasures. I must endeavour to keep a margin in my book open, to add, here and there, a note in shorthand with my own hand.

Samuel Pepys Diary, May 31st

The sad thing is that Pepys had another 38 years before he went blind, and what glorious diary entries have we missed because of his false fears of the effect of eye strain.

St Lucy

There are only two churches in the UK dedicated to St Lucy or St Lucia. One run by the National Trust in Upton Magna, Shropshire, but there must have been a few chapels in Cathedrals and Abbeys dedicated to her.

Yesterday, I mentioned that the Swedish Church in London (6 Harcourt Street. W1H 4AG) has services at St Pauls to celebrate St Lucia’s day but, in 2022, it was at the Westminster Cathedral. This is the Catholic Cathedral, working with a Lutheran Church. It was back in St Pauls for 2023.

St Lucy’s Festival of Light December 13th

Saint Lucy, by Francesco del Cossa (c. 1430 – c. 1477) (Wikipedia User:Postdlf)

The name Lucy is from the same Latin origin (Lucidus) as lucent, lux, and lucid. It means to be bright, or to shine. It is similar to the Ancient Greek λευκός (leukós, “white, blank, light, bright, clear”. Luke has the same origins (bright one, bringer of light and light of the sacred flame) and is very appropriate for the most literate of the evangelists. At this time of the year, we are in need of a festival with bright lights to cheer us up!

And St Lucy’s Day is the beginning of the winter festival that culminates with the Solstice, where the old sun dies, and the new one is born. December the 13th was the Solstice until Pope Gregory reformed the Calendar in the 16th Century, as nine days were lopped off the year of transition.

The festival of Sankta Lucia is particularly popular in Sweden, where Dec 13th is thought to be the darkest night. Every year, the Swedish community in the UK has a service to Lucia in St Pauls. I have several times tried to get tickets, but so far, have failed miserably. But if you look lower down, you will see a link to the beautiful procession and service at St Pauls.

I found out about Sankta Lucia from a Swedish choir who hired me to do a tour of the City of London some years ago. I took them into Christopher Wren’s marvellous St Stephen’s Church and, under the magnificent Dome, they fancied the acoustics and spontaneously sang. I recorded a snatch of it.

Swedish Choir singing in St Stephen’s London

Sankta Lucia at St Paul’s Cathedral (2011)

Recent medical research has shown the importance of light, not only to our mental health but to our sleep health, and recommends that work places need to have a decent light level with ‘blue light’ as a component of the lighting. It is also an excellent idea to help your circadian rhymes by going for a morning walk, or morning sun bathing, even on cloudy days.

St Lucy is from Syracuse in Sicily, said to be a victim of the Diocletian Persecution of Christians in the early 4th Century. She is an authentic early martyr, although details of her story cannot be relied upon as true. She was said to be a virgin, who was denounced as a Christian by her rejected suitor, miraculously saved from serving in a brothel, then, destruction by fire, but did not escape having her eyes gouged out. Finally, her throat was cut with a sword. Her connection to light (and the eye gouging) makes her the protectress against eye disease, and she is often shown holding two eyes in a dish.

St. Aldhelm (English, died in 709) puts St Lucy in the list of the main venerated saints of the early English Church, confirmed by the Venerable Bede (English, died in 735). Her festival was an important one in England ‘as a holy day of the second rank in which no work but tillage or the like was allowed’.[1]

Roman Hoodie ~Part two – the Sequani

Roman tombstone to Philus from Cirencester.

Yesterday I made a long digression which began with a discussion of Roman Winter clothing. Our picture of the hoodie from a tombstone in Cirencester, said it was of

Philus, son of Cassavus, a Sequanian, aged 45, lies buried here.

Roman Inscriptions of

One of our readers from France alerted me to the Wikipedia page on the Sequani which explains that the name comes from the Goddess Sequana who is a water goddess. The centre of the territory is Besançon which is on the Doubs River part of the Haute Saône Doubs and near to the springs that are the source of the Seine (west of Dijon). Here, the Fontes Sequanae (“The Springs of Sequana”) gave her name to the River Seine, and a healing spring was established in the 2nd/1st BC. Enlarged by the Romans, it became a significant health centre. as Wikipedia explains in the clip below:

Image of Sequana in a duck boat by Wikipedia FULBERT • CC BY-SA 4.0

‘Many dedications were made to Sequana at her temple, including a large pot inscribed with her name and filled with bronze and silver models of parts of human bodies to be cured by her. Wooden and stone images of limbs, internal organs, heads, and complete bodies were offered to her in the hope of a cure, as well as numerous coins and items of jewellery. Respiratory illnesses and eye diseases were common. Pilgrims were frequently depicted as carrying offerings to the goddess, including money, fruit, or a favourite pet dog or bird.’

First Posted on December 13th, 2022, updated on December 13th 2023