The Fantastical Shoemaker and the Head of Death

By Danièle Cybulskie

This week, I came across one of those great medieval stories that is just too good not to share: “The Fantastical Shoemaker of Constantinople”. This twisted tale comes from Walter Map’s twelfth-century miscellany De Nugis Curialium or Courtiers’ Trifles, and all quotes you’ll find below come from Richard Sowerby‘s reader-friendly translation in the great collection Early Fiction in England from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Chaucer. Without further ado, let me give you the five-minute version of this weird and wacky story.

Detail from list of shoemakers by Niccolò di Giacomo da Bologna

Detail from a list of shoemakers by Niccolò di Giacomo da Bologna

In Constantinople lived a shoemaker who was so incredibly talented that he could make the perfect shoe for anybody, just by looking at his or her foot. Naturally, this gift made him very popular, especially with the rich. One day, a noblewoman came to him to ask for a pair of shoes, and the shoemaker became utterly smitten – in a bad way – “imbibing a noxious evil which consumed him utterly” (p.188). Realizing, of course, that noble ladies just don’t go for shoemakers, the shoemaker gave up everything he had to make himself a better catch, turning his mind to becoming a knight. Fortunately, he had already been the local champion in pretty much everything, “whether in throwing, wrestling or other such manly arts” (p.188), so it may come as no surprise to us that, “with constant training accompanied by success, he became among knights what he had been among shoemakers” (p.189). That is, the best. Ever.

Unfortunately for the shoemaker, this wasn’t enough to impress the lady’s father, and his marriage proposal was refused – after all, you can’t just become a noble by being the best shoemaker/wrestler/knight ever. This infuriated the shoemaker, who decided to make another huge career change: he became a pirate. Not just any pirate, though. He was the best pirate ever.

In the meantime, the lady who was the object of the shoemaker/wrestler/knight/pirate’s affections died. Needless to say, the shoemaker was distraught. He rushed to her grave. But, apparently, the only thing this shoemaker wasn’t good at was not sleeping with corpses, as “he tunneled into the tomb and went into the dead woman as if she was alive” (p.189). The story then gets weirder. As the shoemaker prepares to leave, he hears a voice which tells him to come back in nine months to collect what is born from his awful crime. He does, and it turns out that the fruit of his awfulness is not some sort of zombie baby, but “a human head, which he was forbidden to show to anyone, except to an enemy who was to be killed” (p.189). That’s right: it’s the medieval version of Medusa’s head.

Naturally, having a death-bringing head makes the shoemaker a pretty darned successful pirate, which really irks regular knights and pirates who were doing things the hard way. As Map says, “all chivalry grieved to be plundered so cheaply, and with such little effort” (p.189). Oddly (and this story is already pretty odd), the emperor of Constantinople betroths his heiress daughter to the shoemaker/wrestler/knight/pirate/death-head-wielder upon his death. So, they live together for a while, until one day, the empress asks him what’s in the mysterious, head-sized box he always carries around. He doesn’t tell her, but it seems she must already know because one day he wakes up to find her holding the death-head right in his face. And he never wakes again.

Early Fiction in England

The empress, “avenger of many crimes” (p.190), doesn’t decide to keep this “Medusa-like prodigy” (p.190) for her own devices, but orders that it be thrown into the sea, along with the shoemaker/wrestler/knight/pirate/death-head-wielder/emperor. The sea initially rejects this gruesome gift in a flurry of descriptors of vomiting (enough that it makes me wonder if Map tended towards seasickness), but then the site becomes a vicious whirlpool, “a danger for which there is no remedy” (p.190). The story then finishes with a little flourish of exposition: “And because the maiden’s name was Satalia, it is called the whirlpool of Satalie (in the common tongue, Gouffre de Satalie). It is shunned by all” (p.190). With that, you can picture Map dusting off his hands in a neat gesture and moving onto his next story.

Check out Danièle's New Book!

Check out Danièle’s New Book!

“The Fantastical Shoemaker of Constantinople” is an incredible mishmash of story elements that medieval people loved: romance and an unhelpful father; a common man being excellent, but punished if he aims too high; pirates; supernatural stuff; classical references; emperors of Constantinople; and little nuggets about why things are named what they are. It’s gruesome and epic, and highly entertaining, and it reminds me of Elizabethan theatre, as well as some of the offerings on Netflix or cable these days. Medieval readers and listeners loved jaw-dropping stories as much as the rest of us.

Walter Map wrote more of these stories, and they’re certainly worth a read to find out more about what medieval people found entertaining. You can find this and a few of Map’s other tales – also translated in Sowerby‘s lively prose – in Early Fiction in England From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Chaucer, along with many more awesome medieval stories.

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