A number of basic considerations should be set out in advance in order to give an overall picture of the various factors which influenced footwear production in the Middle Ages.
The early or high medieval climate optimum had far-reaching consequences for the development of agriculture and population growth. According to dendrochronological studies from southern Germany, summers became continuously warmer from about 1080 to 1146 AD.
Until about 1320 AD, this so-called high medieval climate optimum continued, with an increasing annual average of 1.5 ° C compared to today, interrupted by colder periods and pronounced heat waves. From about 1360 to 1485, interrupted by individual short periods, decreasing summer temperatures can be observed.
The longer vegetation periods in the 12th and 13th centuries, the improved fodder supply due to the development of the long-stemmed Grassense, the increased use of low-yield soils for livestock farming and the spreading three-field economy not only favoured population growth. While until the middle of the 13th century shoes were mainly made of goatskin, the use of calf and cattle skins became more common after that. Because of its strength and resistance, cowhide was always used for shoe soles. However, in the Middle Ages the cattle was about half as small as today. The average live weight was probably no more than 250 kg, compared to today's fattening cattle of 450-500 kg.
At many sites worn shoes from the High Middle Ages have been found in an unrepaired but repairable condition as far as the wear on the soles is concerned. Due to the high number of found, gutted shoes, it is assumed that usable material was used for making new shoes rather than for repair. A written source from the late Middle Ages gives information about a family, which "used up" 103 pairs of shoes from October 1410 to April 1411 with relatives and servants, the exact number of persons is unfortunately not mentioned. There are no significant differences in design between women's, men's and children's shoes, apart from the difference in shoe size. The only exception to this is knee-high or hip-high boots worn by men.
Due to the population growth within the cities and the associated social differentiation, a stronger specialisation developed in the occupational profile of the shoemaker, who was often also a tanner until the 12th century. The shoemakers, also known as Corduan or black shoemakers, if they mainly worked with Corduan or black leather, were mainly engaged in the new production after the separation of the tanning trade. There is an interesting decree from London, where the shoemakers were also called "cordwainer", dating back to 1409: Repair shoemakers, so-called "cobblers", are only allowed to use new leather in the toe and heel areas of shoes that are worthy of repair and have been purchased for the purpose of repair.
The full soling was exclusively reserved for cordwainers. The name "cordwainer" is derived from the use of red dyed goatskin, the corduan leather, which was imported from Cordoba in Spain and processed for luxury footwear. Since resoiling is very time-consuming - after all, the shoe has to be provided with a new sole and then turned over - the two-part sole with a seam in the joint area has become common practice in more expensive shoes, especially pointy shoes.
Less elaborately worked worn shoes of simple people were patched by the mending cobbler or bought up by the Altmacher or Altreisser, as he was called in our country, often with irregularly shaped sole pieces and resold. In this way a pair of shoes could have two or three owners. Their customers were probably poorer citizens and socially disadvantaged people.
It is a widespread opinion that poor people walked barefoot in the Middle Ages. The fact that especially in the Middle Ages nobody liked to be scorned and ridiculed because he or she could not cover his or her bodily nudity, so preferred to walk around in torn clothes and shoes rather than with unclothed body parts, speaks against this. When walking barefoot, the high risk of infection through injuries should also be considered. Barefoot walking is therefore probably more religiously motivated, such as on pilgrimages or penitential walks.
Depending on the climatic conditions in Central Europe, higher and more closed shoe shapes are more common towards the north and east, whereas towards the west and south they are more open and lower. In general, the half-height shoe form reaching over the ankle is most common.
The most widespread type of closure is by means of circumferential poker straps, less with buttons or gags and from the 14th century also with buckles. This rough schematization only shows generally identifiable trends.
Leather preparation is characterized as the process by which the animal hide is modified by tanning agents in such a way that it does not break when dry and does not rot when wet. The salt preservation of the freshly removed hide, which is common practice today, has probably been used only in very rare cases due to the high costs involved. Probably the preservation by freezing over the winter. Before the actual tanning process, the epidermis with the hairs and the subcutaneous connective tissue must be removed in order to obtain a so-called pelt ready for tanning. In the contract tanning process, the skins are alternately layered with oak bark (tan) in tanning pits and placed under water. This process, which has to be repeated until the leather is completely tanned, gives a light brown leather, which becomes black if iron gallate or iron sulphate is added.
Another type of tanning used in the Middle Ages is the shammy tanning process, in which a very soft leather was produced using fish oil or brains, strong mechanical treatment and heat. This is light to pale yellow in its undyed state. Leather produced by alum tanning is white in colour, but requires intensive processing in order to serve as utility leather.
The principle of tanning = dyeing applies to leather colour. In addition to the colours already mentioned, sumac also plays a role as a tanning and dyeing plant, which provides green leather, and madder, with which leather can be dyed red. Madder has been cultivated in Zeeland since the 12th century.
For shoe uppers, cow, goat, sheep and, more rarely, deer leather is used.
This study deals with trends in shoe fashion in urban environments from the mid-12th century to the end of the 15th century AD.
To speak of a real fashion in the shoe sector in the middle of the 12th century is certainly somewhat exaggerated. The production of particularly artistically designed footwear was in any case reserved for representatives of the higher nobility and clergy. However, a certain need for jewellery can also be observed among wearers of simpler shoes.
A number of shoes from the Thames find in London have three decorative seams embroidered in parallel from the toe of the shoe to the instep or, more rarely, in the back of the foot on the quarters. These shoes are dated from the early 12th century to the end of the 12th century and, based on the find situation, suggest that they were worn by city dwellers. With decorative seams, they are mainly found as half-height shoes, but also as half-boots, which were held on the foot with one or more laces that ran all the way around the shoe. Often the laces run in loop eyes, which are worked into the inside and outside of the shoe uppers. This type of fastening is typical for the period indicated. Occasionally slip shoes can be proven, which have a conspicuously pointed shape at all sites (London, Schleswig, Konstanz), which suggests noble wearers, but the fragile design rather suggests a use as slippers.
With the transition to the 13th century, a rounded toe and a joint on both sides became more and more common. As an innovation, edge strips are now sewn in either partially at the toe or heel or all the way round between the soles and upper leather. These edge strips had the function of a piping, which should guarantee a better tightness at the transition from sole to upper leather. They were also intended to prevent the upper leather from chafing through in the lower heel area, which is very easy to achieve in reversible sewn shoes that have become damp.
During this period, models appear which are no longer closed with a lace strap running around the ankle, but rather directly in front or sideways mainly inside.
The models with a strap over the instep are laced on the outside of the shoe or closed with a buckle. The increase in low shoes is striking in the findings of the 13th century. Occasionally, in the second half of the 13th century, artistically open-worked and additionally embroidered low shoes are found, which were probably worn by representatives of the nobility.
The incorporation of eyelet reinforcing strips, lateral reinforcing strips and other inserts to reduce wear and tear now became common practice. A typical type of fastening that appeared during this period is the toggle or button-bolt fastener, which can be found throughout Europe (Oslo, Schleswig, London, s'Hertogenbosch, Leiden, Konstanz, Payerne).
Noble people especially retain the popular fabric leg warmers with sewn-on pointed leather soles, which entails the use of simple wooden ribs to protect the feet from wetness in damp weather.
The earliest find of such triples from London dates back to the early 13th century: an alder triplet with a bridge in the ball area and an iron "heel" construction.
The shoe was held in the bunion area by two overlapping leather straps, which were fixed to the sides of the wood with iron nails. The legwarmers, often depicted in black, could only have been made of fabric or thin leather, because the pointed shape could not otherwise have been produced using the reversible stitching technique commonly used at the time (see, for example, Manessean song manuscript). In contrast, pointed shoe shapes are comparatively rare in the high medieval findings of the cities.
In the first half of the 14th century, the toggle fastener is slowly going out of fashion. Shoes with straps laced around the ankle are now only worn by children and occasionally by women. In the time of the great plague waves, from the middle of the 14th century onwards, low shoes with more or less long toes appeared. These beak shoes, called "cracowers" or "poulaines", remained in fashion until around 1400.
As studies on the London shoe finds show, the beaks of shoes were always stuffed with moss, elsewhere possibly also with other materials such as hay or tow. Legwings remained popular, in keeping with fashion, with beaks under which wooden or multi-layered leather ribs were worn outside the home.
For shoes, too, it was very useful to wear triplets in bad weather, because it significantly increased their durability. The unavoidable kicking of the heel over the edge of the sole in wet shoes and the resulting chafing of the upper leather was noticeably counteracted.
Probably due to the deterioration of the climate, half-height shoes, half-boots and boots were again preferred at the end of the 14th century. Half-height shoes are laced at the front or sides with button or buckle fastenings, half-boots laced at the front with button or buckle fastenings. For the urban population of the late Middle Ages, these shoe types are the most common.
At the beginning of the 15th century a change to rounder shoe tips can be observed. However, higher and better placed people retained the beak-shaped shoe fashion, probably for reasons of permanent demarcation. New features are lace flaps, additional insoles, half soles sewn on from the outside and leather stains in the heel area. Soft slip boots or hip-high heels made of chamois-tanned (deer) leather, as well as knee-high boots with buckle fasteners have also been proven for the Late Middle Ages.
From about the second half of the 15th century onwards, beak-shoe fashion experienced a revival. This time obviously with a wider effect, as numerous dress codes, e.g. from London in 1465, show. These decrees stipulated that shoemakers in and around London were not allowed to make shoes with a toe longer than two inches, except for people of the highest rank. Similar intentions were also pursued by dress codes on the continent (Zurich 1473 and others), but without being able to assert themselves effectively. This fashionable phenomenon came to an end at the end of the 15th century.
A pair of simple shoes cost six pence in London around 1320, which at that time corresponded approximately to the daily wage of a good worker. In contrast, the price of a pair of royal shoes is said to be five shillings, or 60 pence. From 1480 A.D. onwards, the cow-mouth shoe appeared, gradually replacing the beak shoe, which had been widely used in Europe until then. The cow-mouth shoe was welted, with this design the upper and inner sole are first joined with an invisible seam. The frame - a strip of leather about 3 millimetres wide, which gives this design its name - is sewn together with the shoe. Then a second seam is sewn to the outside of the frame, the double seam attaching the outsole. During the 16th century a third partial sole was sewn between the inner and outer sole in the heel area. This created a wedge heel, which developed into a full-fledged heel.
Beata Ceynowa, Ewa Trawicka, ‘EvERY STEp LEAvES A TRAcE’ HISTORIC fOOTWEAR fROM THE COLLECTION Of ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM IN GDAŃSK Catalogue, PL ISBN 978-83-85824-71-8
Olaf Goubitz, Stepping through Time, Archeological Footwear from Prehistoric Time until 1800
Marquita Volken, Archaeological Footwear, Development of shoe pattern and styles from Prehistory till the 1600´s
Shoes and Pattens, Francis Grew, Margrethe de Neergaard, Susan Mitford
Moder und Kleidung im Europa des späten Mittelalters Rainer C. Schwinges und Regula schorta
Spätmittelalter am Oberrhein, B. Frenzel
Lexikon des Mittelalters, K.- R. Schultze- Klinken
Mittelalterliche Lederfunde aus Konstanz 1994, Chr. Schnack,
Shoes and Pattens, Grew/ de Neergard 1988