By Sandra Alvarez
Shoes. Our love affair with them has spanned the ages. They get us from point A to B, help keep us fit, make us feel sexy and are symbols of prestige and status. So what were medieval shoes like? What dictated medieval shoe styles? This article looks at shoes in the High and Late Middle Ages.
Medieval shoe styles varied from England to the European continent, with many of the changes in fashion as a result of the political climate. It comes as no surprise that shoe styles were often set by powerful rulers.
In the early thirteenth century, however, medieval shoes did not vary much in style; they were mainly “turn shoes”, that is, leather shoes that were made inside out and then turned for use. Children and adult shoes were very similar during this period. The ‘lasts,’ the moulds used to make shoes, were wooden up until the twentieth century and were a carpenter’s work.
Women’s shoes changed the least during this period and were rarely seen because they were covered by long gowns. Ankle boots were worn mainly for work and heavy wear. After the Black Death, ankle boots were laced up at the front, and both men and women used laces and buttons to fasten boots.
Prior to the Black Death, there was a wide range of shoe styles, as well as more embroidery. The decoration of the period showed the influence of Byzantine style with the best examples of this dating to around 1200. Some shoes even had runic inscriptions or more commonly, Latin, and many embroidered shoes were worn by royalty. Shoes were upturned and pointy until the early sixteenth century when pointed shoes fell out of fashion and shoes became more rounded.
After the Black Death ravaged Europe, reactions to fashion from those who had survived verged to the extreme. The Black Death impacted fashion and style immensely; with the former variety of styles disappearing because skilled shoemakers had died in the plague. There was also a redistribution of wealth and changes in occupation, and with these changes, survivors demonstrated their new social status through new styles. The toes of the shoes became much more pointed.
This particular style, known as “Cracow” for the then capital of Poland, Kraków, or “Poulaines” for Poland itself, became increasingly popular. The style gained rapid popularity in the fourteenth century but fell out of favour by around 1490. Cracows were worn by both men and women, but the male versions were much longer. In fact, the shoes became so long and distracting that they obstructed the wearer’s ability to walk! In some cases, a string was attached below the knee to assist in moving the toe points to enable walking. The string was occasionally depicted in the art of the period.
England’s King Henry IV disliked this style and tried to regulate the practice of wearing excessively long, pointy shoes. Sumptuary Laws, laws that regulated consumption, extravagance, and attire, were regulations of social status and attempts to restrict movement outside of established social ranks. In terms of shoe wear, these laws dictated the length of shoe one could wear based on their social status, i.e., nobility was permitted two-foot lengths, merchants one-foot length and peasants, half.
Around the late fifteenth century, the rounder toe came into fashion beginning in Italy. Boots during this period became full and baggy with an excess of leather being used in their construction. Boots made of leather were worn during winter to protect from the cold and rain. The wealthy would decorate and colour their boots and might have also had them lined with fur. Overshoes began initially as a separate trade by the mid-fourteenth century and were worn mainly by women.
Medieval fashion, like modern fashion, was a way in which to signal your place in the world. What you wore impacted how you would be treated – and little has changed over the centuries in this regard. Medieval shoe styles, while quite different from modern-day fashions, and more regulated, were dictated by similar issues: politics, popular and powerful figures, economic changes, and climate.
Medieval or modern, we all still sending a message every time we walk out that door. This a little something to think about when you tie up your sneakers, slip your foot into a sandal or buy a pair of expensive heels. Happy shopping!
Top Image: British Library MS Add. 35313, fol. 57