Updated: Jun 23, 2021
According to recent discoveries, our medieval ancestors were as obsessed with footwear that deformed one’s feet as we are today with toe-pinching high heels.
Researchers in the UK have recently found that a love of pointy shoes during the 14th century led to bunions and deformed toes, as the shoes tended to pinch one’s feet. In fact, they found that 27% of the deceased in one burial ground showed evidence of bunions.
Most of the sufferers were men, many of whom were members of the clergy. Despite the fact that priests of the time called the shoes "Satan's claws," their popularity amongst ecclesiastics suggests that the clergy had as much of an interest in fashionable footwear as the average lay person.
They also found that most bunion sufferers were wealthier individuals, who could afford the outlandish (and more expensive) shoes.
According to archaeologist Piers Mitchel, new styles of clothes and footwear were most likely introduced in Poland around 1340, when shoemakers moved from the more comfortable boxy shoes to pointy footwear that was stuffed with moss, wool, or hair to maintain a pointy shape. Called crackowes or poulaines, these shoes became such a powerful status symbol that by the end of the century, almost every type of shoe was at least somewhat pointed.
Eventually the fashion became so extreme that, in 1394, a monk noted that some shoe points were so long that they had to be “tied to the shin with chains of silver before [a person] could walk with them.”
Poulaines soon became a symbol of sexual prowess. An obvious phallic symbol, young men would wiggle their belled shoes suggestively at passersby to indicate they were available for sex.
In 1362, Pope Urban V, who believed that pointed shoes not only contributed to deviant sexual activities but also prevented parishioners from being able to kneel in church, banned their use.
A few years later in 1368, the city of Paris also banned their use. Finally, in 1463, Edward IV restricted the length of the points to less than two inches for any Londoner below the rank of a lord, as noblemen were regarded as less susceptible to the kind of “sodomitic filth” the shoe was believed to encourage.
Yet such restrictions may have had a positive impact on the health of the wearer. People often tripped over the poulaine’s ungainly points so had a greater likelihood of sustaining an injury. In fact, graves from the time show that many of those who suffered from bunions, and therefore were most likely to have worn pointed shoes, had also once broken a bone.
For more info on the infamous poulaine, check out this video.