Glass story

December 15, 2010

In The Invention of Comfort, John E. Crowley writes that:

The English word story, for a horizontal division of a building, derived from the Middle English term storye, which came from the Latin historia and referred to the story told by a horizontal series of illustrations on glazed windows. (p.42)

Crowley illustrates this with a great example from Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess. William Camden mentions something similar in his description of Peterborough abbey (later Cathedral): ‘The forefront carieth a majesty with it, and the Cloisters are very large, in the glasse-windowes whereof is represented the history of Wolpher the founder, with the succession of the Abbots’ (p.513). Painted glass windows were often smashed by iconoclasts, but breaking windows in general could be part of persecution, as one bad priest does to his host in Foxe’s Actes and monuments:

This dronken priest sitting at supper, was so dronke that he coulde not tell what he did, or els feyned himselfe so dronke of purpose, the better to accomplishe hys intended mischiefe. So it followed that this wretch, after hys first sleep, rose out of his bed and brake all the glasse windowes in his chamber, threwe downe the stone, and rent all his hostes bookes that he founde. (p.893)

This malefactor destroys the frames of his victims stories and exposes him to the elements — something windows are supposed to block while allowing agreeable illumination. In essence, he destroys his victim’s reading environment as well as directly destroying his books.

Glass windows were part of the scientific imagination. In his Anatomical Exercitations William Harvey used the skills of a private detective to prove that chickens broke out of their shells when they hatched, as opposed to the shells being broken inwards by the mother bird:

And as when Glass-Windowes are broken, a man may easily discover whether they were burst from within, or without; if he do but take the paines to compare the bent and inclination of the fragments remaining: So also when the egge is pierced, by the erection of the splinters all along the circuit of the Coronet, it is manifest that the invasion came from within. (p.130)

As part of his researches into air, and as an extension of experiments already undertaken with small animals in airtight glass containers, Robert Boyle imagined a set of windows looking inward on the story of human asphyxiation:

I have also had thoughts of trying whether it be not practicable, to make a Receiver, though not of Glass, yet with little Glass windows, so placed, that one may freely look into it, capacious enough to hold a Man, who may observe several things, both touching Respiration, and divers other matters; and who, in case of fainting, may, by giving a sign of his weakness, be immediately reliev’d, by having Air let in upon him. (p.192)

As far as I know, Boyle never made this contraption, but it is interesting to follow his imagination of viewing a human specimen gesturing for air through a series of little glass panes.

*John E. Crowley, The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities and Design in Early Modern Britain (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)
*William Camden, Britain (1637)
*John Foxe, Actes and monuments of matters most speciall and memorable (1563)
*William Harvey, Anatomical exercitations concerning the generation of living creatures (1653)
*Robert Boyle, New experiments physico-mechanicall, touching the spring of the air (1660)


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