Pointy Shoes are Forever

Let’s finish tonight with something more prosaic… the continued ability of humans to hurt themselves in the pursuit of fashion and the fact that history is often cyclical. Women today have perhaps started to break free of the need to wear high heels but many still do. I can’t, I have bad ankles and a foot with damaged tendons so I’d simply hurt myself rather than look good in high heels. But women who wear high heels every day for years often do actual damage to their feet. But high heels are considered high fashion. It turns out that this isn’t the first time that western culture has decided to suffer in the face of foot fashion. And of course there was a form of this in the East as well, with the practice of foot binding especially. But tonight we’re interested in a short trend in medieval Europe of wearing extremely pointed shoes called crackows, because they were thought to have originated in Poland’s capital.  They were also called pikes or poulaines. Poulaine could also refer to the point itself, rather than the full shoe. (I’ve linked to an Atlas Obscura article with several pictures on the website.) But if you’ve ever seen the Rowan Atkinson show Blackadder, then you’ve seen examples of this type of shoe. “Most shoes in the 12th century were ankle boots that had round toe boxes,” said lead author Jenna Dittmar, an archaeologist now at the University of Aberdeen, in an email to Gizmodo. “Then, during the 14th century, shoes diversified, and in many styles we start seeing shoes with pointed toes (that grew longer and longer in some places).”

They came into fashion around 1382 when Richard II married Anne of Bohemia. The shoes were worn by both men and women but in this case, men wore the most extreme versions, with toes up to five inches long. The toes would be stuffed with moss, wool, or horsehair to help retain their shape. And we have literary, though no archaeological evidence, that the longest versions may have been tied up to the leg in order to aid in walking. “If you were a man of status and you had enough wealth, you wanted to show that off,” Rebecca Shawcross, author of Shoes: An Illustrated History says. “And to do that, you had to take the toe to the extreme.” Being hard to walk in was part of the appeal-the shoes pointed to the fact that the wearer was not someone who had to toil for their supper. “It’s a time when tunics are getting shorter and young men would have been showing off their legs,” notes Jackie Keily, senior curator at the Museum of London. “So low-cut shoes would have accentuated and elongated the leg, all down to that long point.” The fashion was actually quite controversial- mirroring some of the backlash against high heel wearing in the present but with a more authoritarian air. A 1388 English poem lamented that men could no longer kneel to pray because they’re shoes got in the way. Charles V banned poulaines within Paris in 1368. In England, Edward IV passed a sumptuary law that restricted them to no more than 2 inches unless one was nobility. Two years later the peculiar fashion was outlawed altogether in England and by 1475 the trend had been replaced by a much more foot friendly wide box- toed shoe. This trend emerged after the devastating Black Death killed off 30-60% of the population of Europe.  “It may have been a reaction to a type of austerity,” Keily says. “The plague left a landscape with a lot of people who had lost close family members, a generation of mourning. Suddenly there were less people who had more money to spend on clothing.” So why am I bringing this up today?

A recent study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology notes that skeletal remains from the Middle Ages show a distinct rise in bunions, almost certainly caused by the wearing of poulaines. University of Cambridge archaeologists studying area skeletons found far more bunions in remains from the 14th and 15th century than from those earlier in the age before the adoption of the poulaine. “We were quite fortunate that we happened to be studying a time period where there was a clear change in shoe fashion somewhere in the middle of our sample,” co-author Piers Mitchell told The Guardian. “People really did wear ridiculously long, pointy shoes, just like they did in Blackadder.” The clinical term for a bunion is hallux valgus and involves the joint connecting the big toe to the rest of the foot being deformed because the toe is being bent too far toward the other toes. We’re not sure all of the reasons that a bunion may arise, some people might have a genetic propensity but the condition can be exacerbated by tight shoes, high heels, and rheumatoid arthritis, among other reasons which have one thing in common- they affect how you walk, increasing pressure on the toe. Because the big toe is so important for balance, bunions can actually cause the person to develop an unstable gait.

A study in 2005 by archaeologist Simon Mays of two sets of british skeletons-one from the early and one from the late medieval period, found evidence of bunions only in the late medieval skeletons “consistent with archaeological and historical evidence for a rise in popularity, during the late Medieval period (at least among the richer social classes), of narrow, pointed shoes which would have constricted the toes.” The latest research builds on this find and wanted to see if the presence of a bunion might have led to more falls as a result of the uneven gait. They looked at 177 adults from four cemeteries around Cambridge. They found that 18 percent of all the skeletons showed evidence of hallux valgus. Among the later remains which could be specifically dated, 27% were from the late medieval era compared to just 6% in the early period. The highest prevalence was from a set of remains found at an Augustinian friary- 43% compared to just 3% of the parishioners. “Rules for the attire of Augustinian friars included footwear that was ‘black and fastened by a thong at the ankle,’ commensurate with a lifestyle of worship and poverty,” said Mitchell. “However, in the 13th and 14th centuries, it was increasingly common for those in clerical orders in Britain to wear stylish clothes—a cause for concern among high-ranking church officials.”

When they turned their attention to fractures, they also found evidence that bears out in modern times. Those with bunions were far more likely to have evidence of fractures, with the most common being in elderly bones as opposed to their counterparts with normal feet. “Modern clinical research on patients with hallux valgus has shown that the deformity makes it harder to balance and increases the risk of falls in older people,” said co-author Jenna Dittmar. “This would explain the higher number of healed broken bones we found in medieval skeletons with this condition.” Now there could be other reasons for the accumulation of fractures, especially in older adults who may suffer from bone loss and other complications. And when a fracture took place cannot be positively noted to have occurred after the adoption of the questionable footwear. However, the evidence is consistent with what you would expect, and still see today. “Overall, the findings… would be compatible with the hypothesis that foot problems caused by the adoption of fashionable footwear had an impact on mobility and balance that resulted in an increased risk of falls within the community of medieval Cambridge,” the authors concluded. Of course this didn’t stop the medieval wearers and most likely won’t stop modern afficianadoes of killer heels.

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