Macfarlane & Martin — Glass: A World History

Macfarlane, Alan/Gerry Martin Glass: A World History, U. of Chicago Press, 2002
(available in the UK as The Glass Bathyscaphe: How Glass Changed the World)

[cross-posted at Albion’s Seedlings]

Readers of this blog will already have seen occasional references to the work of British social anthropologist, Alan Macfarlane. While Macfarlane’s writing on the origins of modernity offer a great deal to Anglosphere discussions, he is also an author with much wider interests. With co-author and historian Gerry Martin, he’s written a fascinating book on glass. More specifically, the history of its adoption by cultures across Eurasia, its particular uses in each region and time period, and the ultimate impact which it had on thought and society.

Glass is such a omnipresent part of our modern lives, supplemented now by various kinds of transparent plastics, that most of us would struggle to imagine life without it. Light bulbs, windshields, beer bottles, test tubes, computer screens. It turns out, however, that Western culture is unique in its use of glass in the last 2,000 years … in ways which were to have a profound implications for images of the individual self, the response to authority, and the development of technology. Glass is a book which reads well, reads quickly (250 small pages), is inexpensive (under US $20 on the used market) and is unusually thought-provoking. By skipping the details that would only fascinate the physicist or art historian, Macfarlane and Martin instead provide insights into cultures that will fascinate the rest of us and lead us into a greater understanding of the substance and its impact. The authors provide an introductory chapter or two on the nature and early history of glass before looking at the deeper cultural issues and contrasts in the use of glass between East and West.

Originating in the Middle East sometime before 2000 BC, glass was initially used as a glazing element for pottery. It was always coloured in some way and not transparent. Small bottles appeared by 1500 BC moulded during manufacture around small clay cores. Egypt was particularly engaged in glass manufacture and trade between elite rulers focused on its distinctive red glass. By 500 BC, the practical understanding on how to make glass seems to have reached most of “civilized” Eurasia. And by 100 BC, glass-blowing had been developed in the eastern Mediterranean, permitting vastly more sophisticated glass containers. In its earliest settings, glass was often seen as a cheap substitute for precious gems and as a novelty in itself.

For most of its history, and across most of the glass-making regions, glass remained a novelty in the second-tier of craft arts. In several places and times, glass-making actually regressed or disappeared. Jewellery, counters, religious items, and small toys were the kind of items created by cultures which didn’t place much emphasis on the substance.

In fact, Macfarlane and Martin, for purposes of clarity and explanation prefer to adopt a series of French terms for glass which better distinguish its uses. In the process, the authors distinguish five major categories of glass usage.

verroterie – glass beads, toys, counters, jewellery
verrerie – glass vessels, vases, bottles
vitrail/vitrage – window glass

It was to be the Romans who adopted glass as a favoured substance. They raised the glass-making art to a degree unsurpassed until the 19th century. For them, glass was a high-end replacement for ceramics and they were the first to emphasize the transparency of glass in many applications. Thus glass and glass makers were given great prestige in Roman culture. The Romans took glass-making in the first three categories (trinkets, vessels, windows) very far, and dabbled with mirrors and primitive lenses (hollow glass balls filled with water). Several things contributed to this emphasis on glass in Roman culture. The Romans were lovers of wine, a cool drink shown off to best effect in glass containers and drinking vessels. The Romans were rather fastidious by ancient standards and glass offered a medium that could both be cleaned, and be seen as clean. Roman funerary traditions of cremation also made use of glass vessels for the ashes. The Roman empire’s expansion north of the Alps also encouraged the use of window glass (cast rather than blown) rather than the horn or shell formerly placed in small windows.

Macfarlane and Martin make the case that the collapse of the Roman Empire reduced the glassmaker’s art in Europe but certainly didn’t eradicate it nor, recent historical evidence suggests, reduce the appetite for it. Glassmaking continued throughout northern Europe and Syria, and Egypt. The Byzantine Empire continued high levels of craftsmanship. In fact, it was to be Venice which was to introduce or re-introduce glass virtuosity to the rest of Europe half a millennium after the fall of the western Roman Empire. By 1000 AD, the use of painted and stained glass in Church windows was driving an increased demand for high-quality glass and technological excellence. The prominence for this use of glass re-established the status of glass as an elite product, which was nonetheless far more affordable than the rock crystal objects created for richest nobility.

By the late 1200s, Venice was influencing all of Europe with its glass technology. Spectacles (designed to correct for presbyopia or far-sightedness) appeared at this time in northern Italy and had the dramatic effect of increasing the productive lives of craftsmen, scholars, and administrators by several decades. Part and parcel of such discoveries was the use of lens and prisms to explore the properties of light itself. In this endeavour, artists and natural philosophers were getting their first tastes of Greek writing on the subject from Islamic sources, who also were active in research on optics.

Prosperity was increasing across Europe. The silver mines of Bohemia led to a demand for more and more high-quality glass products in southern Germany between 1100 and 1400. In 1400, the destruction of the great glassmaking centre of Damascus by the Mongols sent a wave of craftsmen to Venice and Europe. Soon after, we see the first hints of the Venetian glass innovation called “cristallo” … glass of unparalleled clarity, thinness and consistency. The capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 sent another wave, this time of Byzantine craftsmen, west.

By the mid-point of the 16th century, crystal glass and glass mirrors (glass with silvered backing) were being made in Antwerp adapting Italian technology. The religious conflicts of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation triggered emigration of Protestant glassmakers to the northern periphery of Europe. England in particular saw an increase in its glassmaking competence from these immigrants. The adoption of coal in the furnaces of the glassmakers was to give Britain an advantage which culminated in the development of “lead glass” in the last quarter of the 17th century. This glass was tough, clear, and possessed optical qualities (in tandem with cristallo glass) which were to revolutionize both microscopy and astronomy (areas in which the British were to play a notable role).

The discovery of lead glass by George Ravenscroft was an ideal historical moment in the book to pause and consider two questions. Firstly, what was the subtler impact of glass on European culture from the medieval period onward, and secondly, what became of glass in the Middle East, India, Japan, and China?

In answering the first question, Martin and Macfarlane spend considerable time tracing the impact of glass on pre-Renaissance revolutions in architecture and art. In this, to the reader’s great surprise, it turns out that glass was to have a major impact on the development of artistic perspective … the three-dimensional, photo-realistic artwork that we’ve come to associate with Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt. Lens and prisms were the instruments by which both craftsmen and philosophers sought to refine their understanding of how light works, and its properties. And silvered glass mirrors, of far greater clarity than the polished metal mirrors of Roman times, were to dramatically change the methods by which artists reproduced objects from the world around them. Artists were explicitly told to train their eyes and their hands by noting how the image of the real 3-D item was portrayed on the 2-D silvered surface of the mirror. In a sense then, much of our Western artistic tradition in the last 800 years is literally a “reflection.”

It is in these chapters, on glass and the origins of science and the Renaissance, that the profound role of the substance starts to dawn on the reader. At every step, this book offers gee-whiz moments without burying the reader in distractions. From the profound impact of accurate drawing and drafting, to the development of telescopes, spectacles, and microscopes, the authors make the case that glass extended the one human sense most powerfully able to disrupt social authority — vision. The ancient authors of Greece and Rome, the books of received Biblical wisdom, were perfectly mute on the new world being opened up with the glass implements of the day. Whether in the flask of the alchemist, or through the spectacle of the clerk, there was a new world available to ordinary people, unmediated by the elites who controlled the written word.

At this point, the authors introduce the term “reliable knowledge” as a stock phrase to represent how glass was to play a role both in the development of the scientific/experimental method and in the extension of the human visual sense beyond common everyday experience. Glass after all is uniquely transparent to observation, resistance to heat and pressure, chemically neutral, and capable of both polish and cleanliness.

The role of glass in later European science (say 1600 onward) is unimpeachable. Martin and Macfarlane demonstrate that a vast array of technological achievements were based on initial experimentation and discussion triggered by glass-mediated experiments. Apart from the revolution in natural philosophy triggered by prisms and lens, there was the role of the glass vacuum chamber in identifying the constituents of air and developing the gas laws which founded steam engine development. Glass faces on clocks and compasses were critical to effective timekeeping and navigation. Without the “reliable knowledge” generated indirectly by glass, industrial development would have been halting and mired in theoretical confusion.

At this point in Glass: A World History, one might say that the story is amazing, fascinating but still rather predictable, perhaps even Whiggish. It is in the final half of the book (addressing the second question about the fate of glass in the East) that the authors engage in comparative history and inject some healthy speculation into their writing.

The story of glass east of Venice is counter-intuitive. As in the West, one might expect the great cultures of the Middle East and Asia regrouped after dynastic disruptions and elaborated their use of glass. Perhaps not identically to the West, but at least in a similar or progressive way. The Islamic conquering of the Sassanian Empire (224 – 651AD) did not seem to destroy the traditions of elaborate glasswork and vessels in what is the modern Middle East. While not as interested in flat glass as Europe (glassed windows being less critical in the climate), the Islamic world was a font of technical expertise. Yet in the space of several hundred years, glassmaking virtually disappeared under two waves of Mongol invasion (first by the Khans, then by Tamer the Lame). Just as Europe was starting to push hard into new and revolutionary uses for glass, the Middle Eastern glass tradition was collapsing.

In India, glass was known for several thousand years before Christ but only as decoration. Trade exchange with the Mediterranean transferred both products and technology … we know the Indians were aware of glass-blowing, and glass traditions there seemed to have reached a peak by 450 AD. There was no reason to assume that they would not continue to develop. Yet a thousand years later, when the Europeans were first able to reach India directly by ship, the continent barely had a glass tradition to speak of. “Bangles and bowls” to summarize. One must ask why. Explanations range from a lack of natural constituents for glass to the low caste associations for glass-makers. Another explanation is that substitutes for glass in ceramic or metal were available and in a tropical climate, uses such as window glass weren’t pressing.

Turning to China, again we find advanced glass manufacture for glass jewellery and ritual objects by 600 BC, glass casting by the Han period and glass blowing by 500 AD. Examples of Roman, Islamic, and European glass trade goods have been found which suggest a general interest in glass but overall, no real evolution or national tradition/style of glass manufacture appeared. Like India, it has been suggested that the Chinese substitutes for glass, particularly porcelain, effectively halted development or elite interest. The emphasis on hot tea (rather than wine) placed no premium on the transparency of glass. Oiled paper served through much of China as an adequate inexpensive window. As a result, glass craftsmanship and the glassmakers themselves were held in low regard by the elites, and had no incentive to develop or elaborate their craft. Thus China was familiar with all the major innovations of glassmaking by 800AD but apart from a small burst of interest in glass triggered by the Jesuits in Beijing in the 1600 and 1700s, little was done with the medium until the 19th century.

In Japan, glass was known several thousand years ago, and a bead and religious relic-making tradition continued for many centuries yet by the time the European appeared in late 1500s, even knowledge of the origins and nature of glass were lost. European interaction led to a modest resurgence in ornamental glass manufacture but by 1850, window glass and mirrors were still not being manufactured. The reasons for the lack of interest seem likely to be shared with China. High-quality ceramics were superior to glass vessels by and large. With no aesthetic tradition of transparent glass and/or the consumption of cold wine, glass offered no practical benefits. And window glass, in a temperate and earthquake-prone land, was an expensive and dangerous idea.

The contrast between West and East in glass use is dramatic and extends back as far as the Roman period. The Romans found uses, high-status uses, for transparent glass containers and window glass that were not shared by elites in Asia or the Middle East. Similarly, the abundant natural ingredients necessary to create porcelain in Asia meant that glass could not fill a role as drinking or storage vessel, had few unique uses, and fewer elite sponsors. As the authors say, “Rome, and through her medieval Europe, opted for pottery and glass, China and Japan for ceramics and paper.”

The contrast between West and East in the use of glass is highlighted by a “Clash of Civilizations” chapter in this book. What happens when a glass-filled culture meets a ceramic-dominated culture in the 1500s? As mentioned earlier, the Chinese showed a modest and temporary interest in glass during the period that the Jesuits were influential at the Imperial court. The impact of this glass manufacturing activity did not reach Japan however. What is clear is that when the Europeans (especially the Dutch and English in the 1700s and 1800s) began to trade or demonstrate telescopes, spectacles, and microscopes, the technical skills to work with glass (e.g. lens grinding) were by and large already in place in Asia.

The authors make the case that glass in the West emphasized vision of the natural world over memory of the written word or cultural dictate. The practical result of this was a virtuous circle of innovation and development that was both built on glass and elaborated glass technology. Those elaborated uses were entirely comprehensible to the cultures of the Middle East, India, China, and Japan. As the situation allowed, they in turn began to manufacture glass implements without adopting the cultural values which underlay Western glass development.

Macfarlane and Martin do offer us one rather speculative chapter on the nature of Asian art and science which revolves around the prevalence of myopia in Asian cultures. Inherent or acquired, or perhaps a bit of both. Scholars still argue about that. Until the development of specialized lenses to correct the problem (a later event in Western spectacle history), vast numbers of the elite literati in Asia were constrained in their ability to see distant objects. The authors suggest that this had both an impact on artistic temperament (a rejection of realism and perspective in art and calligraphy) and elite sensibilities (a diminishment of the professional craftsmanship that might have led to more effective artillery or perspective drawing). Through skilful use of illustration, they make their case well. Something as simple as eyeglasses, when mixed with elite prejudices, may have shaped the attitude of entire civilizations toward the natural world.

Glass: A World History can be read on its own as a wonderful slice or transect of world history from the perspective of a single, profoundly influential, material. In that, it offers a great complement to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel from several years ago. From an Anglosphere perspective, however, Macfarlane and Martin offer something far more useful. In the story of glass, we can see a grand sweep of history where many cultures seemed to have the same basic information at the same time. How they responded to that information differed dramatically. In light of how post-1500 world history turned out, with the domination of the planet by European technology, Glass offers us a practical constrained experiment in identifying proximate and ultimate causes, sufficient and necessary causes for why Hong Kong was settled by the British rather than the Isle of Wight settled by the Chinese.

Apart from its many other virtues, Glass: A World History leaves one with a real appetite to learn more about this substance: its chemistry, manufacture, and artistic history. The role of glass in world history is so profound that reading Macfarlane and Martin leaves a touch of historical vertigo that takes some time to pass. And this book is perfect preparation for those toying with reading Macfarlane’s meatier works on how modernity appeared on planet Earth.

Table of Contents
1 Invisible Glass [1]
2 Glass in the West — from Mesopotamia to Venice [10]
3 Glass and the Origin of Early Science [27]
4 Glass and the Renaissance [51]
5 Glass and Later Science [79]
6 Glass in the East [99]
7 The Clash of Civilizations [122]
8 Spectacles and Predicaments [144]
9 Visions of the World [175]

1 Types of Glass [204]
2 The Role of Glass in Twenty Experiments that Changed the World [208]

Further Reading [214]

1 thought on “Macfarlane & Martin — Glass: A World History”

Comments are closed.