The Medieval Shoes That Pushed The Limits Of Common Sense
Season 1 episode 5
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A medieval shoe so extravagant they had to be fastened with metal chains and lace. Shoes that eliminated the usefulness of feet. Shoes that had to be altered in the midst of battle. These were shoes that pushed the limits of common sense.
Hi friends and welcome back to Seams Fabricated. I’m your host Lilli and today we will be exploring the most ludicrous and impractical shoes to be worn by high society dating back to the 1300’s.
The Krakow shoe was named after the Polish city Krakow where it originated from. It also became known as the Poulaine or Pike shoe. For the purpose of this episode I will be referring to them as Pike shoes, because it’s the easiest to pronounce.
The Pike shoe was a staple fashion piece in Polish wardrobes from the mid 1300’s. Made from leather and many other fabrics, it was a slimline ankle length shoe, so picture those just below the ankle sport socks, now make them out of leather… but these shoes had one defining feature… a minor detail… a large long point on the ends, and I mean long. The points were often stuffed with moss or horsehair to keep their shape, and were sometimes bedazzled with silver or gold chains, but we will expand on that later. The shapes varied slightly with a strap across the top similar to a Mary Jane or a long tongue at the front and back reaching up above the ankle while the sides would dip down to show the ankle bone. They seem like a stylish and practical shoe, until we reach the toes, that look more like a claw, and I think were very accurately described in the Eulogium Historiarum “more suitable as claws... for demons than as ornaments for men.”
So what on earth would possess a person to wear such an outlandish shoe in every day life?? Death and Politics of course!
After the first world war the roaring 20’s changed the name of fashion in a huge way. Most commonly known for the scandalous flapper dress, this was a time to be alive, celebrate life and all of it’s pleasures.
In a similar way the wildly flamboyant Pike shoe emerged just after the Black Death plague that killed millions of people. Families mourned their loved ones, but also began celebrating life in a new and euphoric era. Inspired by life itself men’s clothing became more extravagant, from head to very long toes.
Much like high heels are used to elongate women’s figures today, The Pike shoe was used to make a man look taller and more elegant, even streamlined perhaps. The young men of the time were shortening their tunics to show off their legs, and their buttocks. By adding in a cheeky flash of ankle and an elongated toe, the sex appeal was apparently irresistible. While the fashion was mostly worn by Lords, the Ladies also wore these statement shoes occasionally.
This Polish shoe quickly became popular and wide spread throughout Europe being described as “one of the most distinctive and stylish shoes of the medieval period.” We have seen the comical appearance of the shoe in films such as Rowan Atkinsons Blackadder. Because the shoe was so impractical for everyday chores, only the rich had the pleasure of wearing them. As their servants flittered around them in their poorly mended foot coverings, the rich stood still admiring each others feet. The impracticality of the shoe gave the idea that the person wearing it was too wealthy or important to be exerting themselves with chores and other frivolous things.
It’s thought that Anne of Bohemia who married King Richard II had a big influence on the polish shoe making it’s way to England when they married in 1382. In many artworks depicting the coronation and the royal family of that time, little sharp pointed toe ends can be seen peeking out of the floor length garments worn by the officials and even the king himself. Through many artworks these shoes are a staple piece worn by those of high society, even waiters at parties were dressed in the lavish footwear.
It was thought that the length of the points indicated wealth and masculinity. So naturally over the years the lengths grew longer and longer, like an unspoken game of mine is bigger than yours. “My dear sir, have you come into some monetary misfortune, or perhaps you’ve mistaken your footwear for last years! hahaha”
According to multiple literature sources, by the late 1300’s the shoe points were so long they would have to tie them to their shins to stop themselves from tripping over. The use of silken laces, gold and silver chains were attached to the shoe and tied to the shin. Although there is no archaeological evidence to back up this claim it really is not a stretch of the imagination, especially when shoes as long as 45cm in length have been found in London with points ranging up to 5 inches.
Thousands of Pike shoe remains have been found throughout Europe, while mainly only leather ones have survived, there is evidence of many different fabric types used as well as embellishments such as embroidery and ribbons. Some rare finds have been preserved by the mud in the Thames river, London.
While the rich were laying about in their castles in their embellished footwear, the knights were not forgotten, wearing their masculinity on their feet as they charged into battle, Pike spikes were made into quite a terrifying fashion statement. Soldiers would charge into battle with elongated leather points on their feet. While riding the shoes proved to be okay but as soon as riders had to dismount they had a lot of trouble running. This lead to soldiers chopping off the tips of their shoes while in the midst of Battle. The Battle of Sempach is depicted in a painting where a pile of shoe tips can be spotted on the hillside next to quite a bloody battle.
Now we have come to the most terrifying pair of shoes I have ever and hopefully ever will see. So what I’m looking at is a pair of sabatons worn by Maximilian I the Roman Emperor of 1486 to 1508. These are what I can only describe as toe weapons. I will have a photo of these particular battle shoes on my Instagram I strongly advise you take a look. My handle is @seamsfabricated. These are riveted metal plates that cover and protect the top of the foot and are secured on top of your shoes. Typically these were heavy and hard to run in so were only worn when riding into battle to protect the feet from a stray sword. However this pair that belonged to Maximilian I are the most horrifying, gothic, medieval skewers that I have ever seen. The point on those toes are deadly and they are literally weapons for the feet. The skewer on the end is so thick, and almost double the length of the foot part of the sabaton. There is absolutely no way you could even take a step in these and I imagine all that metal would be very heavy. It would be like walking in huge weighted deadly flippers.
Trends lasted much longer back in medieval times than they do today, because of what we would call ‘snail mail.’ And the only ones who really had an influence on style were the royals. Individuality in clothing was not really top priority when you’re a peasant trying to survive a deadly winter while only the elite class was able to afford the latest fashions. The trend of the Pike was quite short lived, especially by those in Paris, when the city banned them in 1368.
While King Richard the II was obviously a huge fan of the Pike shoe fashion, King Edward IV was not. Following the ban in Paris, King Edward IV made a sumptuary law in 1463 that made it illegal to wear Pike shoes longer than 2 inches past the toe and that tunics must be made the cover the buttocks.
As fashion does, after the ban the next trend went completely the opposite way, with the introduction of wide shoes. It seems a little like malicious compliance to me. The King formed an team of shoe checkers who would literally go around measuring the width of peoples shoes and enforcing penalties if they were found to be too wide. What a time to be alive.
Thankfully we are not still walking around in comically long shoes. King Edward IV may have put a dampener on fun for the feet, but it turned out to be a good thing.
A study was done on 177 bodies dug up in Cambridge, examining the state of their feet. Bunions, breaks and fractures were commonly found among those who most likely wore Pike shaped footwear. The tight restriction on the toes shaped the foot and created bunions for the wearers. The breaks and fractures were found to be consistent to an injury you would get from tripping over. This information isn’t surprising, but it was obviously a common enough occurrence. Why did it take over 100 years for someone to realise these shoes were not just ridiculous but also dangerous?
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s history lesson, I’m not sure that we learnt much other than common sense was not just lacking in our time but all throughout human history. If you have enjoyed this episode I have a challenge for you! please share it with a friend! People have bonded over much stranger things I’m sure. You can also find me on Instagram and now Facebook as Seams Fabricated Podcast. This podcast is available on Spotify, google podcasts and Apple. Thanks so much for listening and I hope you have a lovely day.