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There’s an old saying: to understand your enemy, you have to walk a mile in his shoes. Then if he’s still your enemy, he’s a mile away and he’s got no shoes on. To build a fully-realised re-enactment impression or a fantasy character, we have to do the same! Building an impression from the ground up can often be the way into the medieval psyche: it was as true in the medieval period as it is today that someone’s shoes tell you everything you need to know about them. They encompass social class, wealth, gender roles and changing identities, as well as shedding light upon the material cultures which produced them. If you can incorporate those hidden cues into your impression, then you’re on the fast-track to authenticity.
A Brief History of Shoes
Perhaps some of the earliest shoes we can point to in the historical record belonged to Early European Modern Humans, better known as the Cro-Magnon people. These hunter-gatherer residents of Europe lived during the last Ice Age (c. 20,000 BCE), and as anyone who has ever been to Yorkshire knows, chilly feet are no fun. They were astonishingly prolific crafters: their surviving rock art and decorative objects show us that even though they had not mastered tanning animal hides into leather, they shaped and sewed skins that would soften into comfortable, warm boots over time. In warmer climes, shoes were only occasionally worn, though from ancient Egypt we have functional flip-flops woven from papyrus reeds – all the way up to intricately plaited papyrus shoes of great status. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has a jaw-dropping pair of solid-gold sandals which accompanied Thutmose III, one of Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs, into the afterlife.
Mediterranean Antiquity is where we begin to see something more closely resembling medieval shoes. Everyone could tell you what a ‘Roman’ sandal looks like – a hard sole, usually leather-covered wood, secured by thongs and laces up the leg. Romans did not split footwear by gender - both wore sandals – but they were differentiated by status. For example, the thinner the sole and the more laces up the calf (indicating finer craftsmanship), the higher the status. The demand for footwear, particularly the heavy caligae military sandal, kickstarted the cobbling trade across the Empire. Greek footwear was also heavily loaded with social meaning: only freemen were permitted to wear Hellenic sandals. Outside of the Classical world’s borders, ‘barbarian’ peoples were busy creating their own astonishingly beautiful footwear: for example, the stunning bog-preserved Irish leather shoe found in a Co. Leitrim bog. In Occitane (Northern Spain & Southern France), peasants had perfected manufacturing the espadrille from local wood and readily available plant fibres by late Antiquity – imagine them watching the Roman legions passing through whilst disapprovingly sipping espresso and stroking their hipster moustaches.
All of these influences and manufacturing techniques – Classical hobnailed sandalmaking, Celtic leatherwork derived from earlier styles, and rustic slipper manufacture, all met and melded into a melange of magnificent medieval shoes over the following millennium.
Types of Medieval Shoes
The Turnshoe – The Shoe of the People
By far the most common method of constructing leather medieval shoes was the ‘turnshoe’. This involves sewing the ‘vamp’ (the leather upper) directly to the sole inside-out on a ‘last’ (a shoemaker’s form), and then turning the shoe right-side-out. This means all of the stitching is hidden inside, making a waterproof seal and a generally much sturdier shoe. Turnshoes could be ankle-height for casual wear, or tall for military or work use, or delicate ladies’ slippers, and they were widely worn by every stratum of medieval society. Turnshoes were usually unlined due to their method of construction, so in cold climates one would often stuff one’s turnshoes with grass or straw as a kind of early medieval GoreTex.
In the early medieval period, turnshoes were made out of one piece of leather (or sometimes semi-tanned or untanned animal skin, like those chilly Yorkshire Cro-Magnons) in order to be as efficient as possible with available materials – this was usually goatskin, or soft cow leather if you were lucky. But as the medieval period progressed, tanning techniques became more advanced with the perfection of new treatments and processes, and new higher quality leathers became available with burgeoning trade with the rest of Europe and beyond. This meant that finer, more comfortable and more complex turnshoes were able to be made, with double soles, multi-part vamps and reinforced construction – but they had significant limitations. Since the vamp was always sewn directly to the sole, repairs or sole-replacements from extended everyday use were time-consuming and expensive, and they were flat-soled, there being nothing to attach a durable heel to. The invention of the ‘welted’ shoe – more durable shoes that did not have to be inverted, made wholly on the last with a replaceable outsole – would have to wait until after the medieval period.
Because turnshoes had to be flexible enough to be inverted, they were comparatively soft, and did not offer the same degree of protection to medieval feet as even the most basic of cheap shoes do today. It seems strange to imagine, but medieval people might therefore have walked with a significantly different gait to us. We are used to placing our feet down in an efficient heel-first manner, since we can be pretty sure that whatever we step on won’t be sharp enough to go straight through our plastic or toughened leather soles. But when wearing soft turnshoes, much closer to a kind of moccasin, it behooves you to pad softly, leading with the toe so as to be able to adjust where you place your foot without adding your entire weight from the leg behind it. This utilises a whole different set of muscles, which may partly explain why depictions of people’s legs in medieval art seems so odd: they could have literally had differently proportioned muscle-groups from walking in a wholly different manner to us all of their lives, and the slightly camp, toe-first gait depicted on medieval figures was not merely an artistic affectation, but may have been a realistic depiction of a common adaptation to the limitations of medieval shoes. This video (and its follow-up post) dive into this debate in more detail. This is absolutely something to bear in mind when choosing genuine modern turnshoes for full authenticity, but there are also cheaper replicas which will look right without having so many of the drawbacks.
The Poulaine – Foot Lingerie For Men
At some point in medieval history, a dandy-about-town must have looked at his mate’s very pointy shoes and told his cobbler to make him shoes even pointer than that, dude. By the high-medieval period, the latest craze in medieval men’s shoes were ‘poulaines’ or ‘crakowes’, so named because they were thought to have originated in Krakow, Poland. They consisted, simply, of ridiculously pointy shoes. I know what you’re thinking – Paul Weller had pretty darn pointy winklepickers in the ‘60s, right? Your average poulaine-sporting medieval cad would have made the Jam look like rank amateurs. At their height, crakowes could be as much as two feet (half a metre) long, and had to be “tied to the shin with chains of silver before they could walk with them”. Yet a gent showing off this cracking pair of purple silk poulaines which wouldn’t look out of place in the psychedelic era would have been the very darling of fashion.
The poulaine craze, like most things, was driven by two things: money, and sex. The ridiculous impracticality of the poulaine was exactly the whole point – they said, loud and clear: I can afford bright colours and expensive fabrics, and I don’t have to be able to walk properly, because I have staff to do things for me. Sumptuary laws even set down maximum lengths for your toe-pikes dependent on your social class, with the very longest (and silliest) reserved for medieval royal shoes. This remains an artifact in the French idiom, “vivre sur un grand pied”, literally ‘to live on a large foot’, meaning to be an important or wealthy figure. Furthermore, they were definitely designed to make the wear desirable – the 12th-century Benedictine monk Orderic Vitalis railed against the accompanying fashion for “long luxurious locks like women,” and “over-tight shirts and tunics”, and the long, pointy shoes were a mucky allusion to other long, pointy objects. Poulaines proclaimed a libertine attitude, and even hinted at transgression of gender roles. However, because of this, they drew significant attention from authorities: throughout the high-medieval period, various rulers attempted to crack down on crakowes, legislating to curtail their length. Charles V of France banned them completely in 1368, as did Edward IV of England in 1463. Which is frankly no fun.
Modern reproductions of poulaines and other medieval pointy shoes, fortunately, are not stiffened by being stuffed with moss or horsehair, as some surviving originals are, but they are a strong statement to add to your medieval ensemble. But remember: sumptuary laws might dictate how long your pikes should be!
The Chopine – Stealthy Stilts
Though height-augmenting shoes were originally almost exclusively male before this period, and they would remain so until almost the 20th-century, it is during the medieval period that women’s high-heels first make an appearance, in the form of the chopine (pronounced sho-peen, but definitely not the origin of the phrase, ‘get in loser, we’re going chopine’).
Oddly, the history of medieval public sanitation plays a key role in the high heel: the emergence of large early-medieval towns full of people and animals without sewerage systems, and the associated agglomerations of muck in streets and public spaces, necessitated the creation of wooden overshoes, called variously trappes, clogges or pattens. These were utilitarian platforms strapped onto the underside of your turnshoes, which would allow you to sail gracefully through the mix of straw and waste that lined most public thoroughfares without getting gack on your hosen.
In Renaissance Venice, however, they took on a leading role in fashion. In a liberal atmosphere free from restrictive sumptuary laws, wealthy merchants with links to the East and their families could dress as they pleased: chopines began to be heavily decorated, with fine fabrics such as silk, delicate piercing-work and tooled embossing – such as this exquisite pair of Venetian chopines from the end of the Renaissance period. These medieval women’s shoes were art objects in their own right, even though they would rarely if ever be seen, hidden beneath voluminous flowing skirts and petticoats. As well as keeping one elevated from the muck in the physical sense, they also did the same in the social sense: heightening and increasing the stature of the wearer so that they dominated the social occasion, showing off her magnificent clothing to best effect. The success of this elevation can be seen reflected in the attitude of Venetian courtesans, who can be seen in the historical record imitating the chopines of the wealthy, and who were eventually banned from wearing luxuriant clothing.
If you want to add extra gravitas to a royal or mercantile women’s outfit, you could much worse than pairing it with a pair of reproduction chopines, or other shoes designed to add height and stature. Shoes maketh the man, they say – this is clearly also very much the case for women, whose role in many medieval societies remains tragically obscured from our full historical gaze. When examined alongside poulaines, we can see how chopines, with their appropriation of male height, were as much a transgressive and groundbreaking innovation as their pointy-toed cousins.
It’s a Shoe-In
We have seen how medieval shoes came to be – how they evolved from pre-medieval footwear, their manufacture and the many crafts involved, we’ve looked at some examples of medieval shoes (24-inch toe points, oh my), and we have found dozens of useful ideas and perspectives to incorporate into your own choice of medieval shoes. By now, you will be fully armed (or footed) to make informed choices about which modern reproduction medieval shoes are right for what you want to say with your impression.