Medieval Footwear

Shoes were worn by all classes of woman, even the very poor. Only the quality of the materials and fine details varied. The purpose and basic design of the shoes remained the same. Margherita Datini's wardrobe in 1339 lists among her footwear, wooden pattens with leather laces and one pair of backless leather slippers with thick soles called pianelles. Her regular shoes are not mentioned.

Leather shoes
Shoe styles changed a little over the medieval period but the general shape and features remained more or less the same.

The fashionable shoe was made to fit the foot with an elongated piece over the big toe side of the front. The shoes were known in England as crackows and the shaped fronts poulains, although many times the shoes are simply listed as poulains, particularly by the French where it word indicated the country of the origin of the style- Poland. This term also indicates they are the shoes with the pointed toes. The Museum of London have excavated a large number of these shoes and one has been recovered complete with the moss stuffing inside the toes. It is assumed that this stuffing provided a certain amount of rigidness to the shoe and helped the toe retain it's shape. The image at right shows the shoe and it's stuffing.

There were two basic methods of shoe construction in the middle ages. The first comprised a shoe which stitched it's upper directly onto the sole with the stitching visible on the outside. The other, known as a turned shoe is constructed inside out and then turned the right way out after the sewing was completed. A further sole could be added, but was not a necessity. In order to turn the shoe once the stitching was completed, it was soaked in a bucket of water until it softened enough to allow maneuvering. Care was needed not to stretch the shoe out of shape or tear the leather. Once it was dry again, the leather returned to it's original stiffness.

Many medieval shoes have been excavated from the river in London. Most are of similar shape- some with less pointy toes and others with decorative embossing, cutwork or tooling on the uppers. Some of these can be seen at left. In 1313, Anicia atte Hegge, a widow from Hampshire made a will made on the surrendering of her holding to her son included the stipulation that, among other things, would be provided with various items including a pair of shoes worth 6d each year.

Leather shoes could be decorated with cut outs and decorative tooling or stamping. Stamping was done after the leather had been soaked in hot water to make it soft. Finds show several leather slippers with the same identical Tristan and Isolde stamp showing that they were mass-produced and not restricted to just the elite upper class.

There is no record that I have seen of women owning or wearing long boots similar to those worn by men in the 14th century. Certainly townswomen and noble ladies did not seem to. Ankle boots were possibly worn by country women. In the 12th to 14th century, heavy shoes of undressed leather were worn by English peasants. These were called revelins or riveling or slops and were constructed of raw hide with the hair on the outside.

Embroidered Fabric Shoes
An existing sample of embroidered fabric ecclesiastical shoes shown at right, is those belonging to the Holy Roman Emperor dated from approximately the 1200s.

Although this sample is 200 years before the high medieval period, it demonstrates the high level of skill utilized in the construction of the shoe itself. The shoe appears lined and has a drawstring around the ankle. The sides seem quite rigid and a separate sole is evident. Gold thread embroidery can be seen and gemstones have been stitched on.

It would appear that shoes made for special occasion which were highly embellished could also possibly be worn by ladies of high status who also had the ability and the funds to do so.

There are limited existant samples of medieval sandals but it is certain that they would have been worn during the warmer times of the year just as we do today.

Shown at right is a 15th century sandal from a London excavation made from leather. The sandal has a bronze buckle and a strap between the toes and over the forefoot- the design which persists today.

Slippers were worn the same as we wear them today- as a light indoor shoe. The pinson was a 14th to 16th century light, indoor shoe which was often furred.

The detail at the left is taken from the 1485 Memling painting of Bathsheba. It shows a naked woman getting out of her bath and stepping into some household slippers which would not look out of place in any modern household today although it it not possible to ascertain the material of the slippers themselves.

In the household accounts of King Edward III, there is listed a gift of clothing to a lady of Brittany, which included eighteen pairs of leather gloves and eighteen pairs of slippers.

Wooden Pattens
The image detail at right, The Aldolphini Wedding painted by Jan Van Eyck in 1434, shows a pair of wooden overshoes called pattens. They were worn over the top of regular shoes or footed hose to protect them from the elements and muddy streets. The pattens shown here are typical of those described during the middle ages, some having a hinged heel part, to assist with greater mobility. The lowers were usually made of wood or cork and the upper strap of leather.

Margherita Datini, the wife of a wealthy Italian merchant, in her 1339 household accounts, lists among her footwear, wooden pattens with leather laces.

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