Skeletons for pointy shoes reveal the cost of medieval fashion

He was the Jimmy Chose of his time.

In 14th century Britain, pointed leather shoes were known as Paulines. The city’s medieval men and women, however, suffered for their fancy footwear: they got bunion

painful condition is Common today, especially among women. Paleopathologist Jenna Dietmar was surprised to find evidence of a bunion, formally known as hallux valgus, among skeletal remains she was investigating, a comprehensive project on life experience in medieval times.

“You get degenerative changes in the bones of the feet. There are very clear osteological signs that the toes were pushed laterally. And basically there are holes in the bone that suggest the ligaments were tearing away. Looking at the bone feels painful,” said Dietmar, a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen who was at the University of Cambridge when he conducted the research.

A bunion forms when the big toe angles up and a bony protrusion forms on the inside of the foot. The deformity is most often associated with high heels and tight-fitting shoes, although other factors such as genetics play a role. The bump can be painful and make it difficult to balance.

The excavated median toe bones show a bunion with lateral deviation of the big toe. Credits: Jenna Ditmara

Inspired by the unexpected spread of bunions, Dietmar and his colleagues analyzed a total of 177 skeletons dating from the 11th to 15th centuries in and around Cambridge in the United Kingdom. The research team found that 27% of skeletons from the 14th and 15th centuries suffered from bunions, compared to only 6% from those between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Researchers said the 1300s saw the arrival of new styles of dress and footwear in a wide range of fabrics and colours, and by the end of the 14th century the remains of shoes excavated in London and Cambridge show that almost every type of The shoes – for adults and children – were at least slightly pointed.

Some of the shoes remain intact, although in the Museum of London. a well preserved example It is 31.5 cm (1 ft) tall, on display in the Medieval London Gallery.
This pointed-toe medieval shoe is known as a paulin.  The artwork dates back to the late 14th century and is on display in the Museum of London.

This pointed-toe medieval shoe is known as a paulin. The artwork dates back to the late 14th century and is on display in the Museum of London. Credits: museum of london

It was not clear whether the shoes had heels, Dietmar said. The wood-like material from which the heel could have been made is not well preserved in the archaeological record.

fashionista friars

Wealthy, high-status individuals living in urban areas were more likely to suffer from bunions, the study of skeletons, which came from four different cemeteries around Cambridge, suggested.

Only 3% of the skeletons in the rural cemetery 3.7 miles (6 km) south of the city and 10% of the parish cemetery on the outskirts of the city, where many of the working poor were buried, showed signs of bunions.

In comparison, evidence of bunions was found on 23% of those buried at the site of a charitable hospital, now part of St John’s College, and 43% of those interred on the grounds of a former Augustinian friary. Are – mainly clergy and wealthy benefactors

Members of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit working on the excavation of the skeletons in 2010.

Members of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit working on the excavation of the skeletons in 2010. Credits: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

While ascetics were to wear clothing that reflected a simple lifestyle of worship, it was common for priests to wear stylish attire. The study noted that fly clergy were of such concern to church officials that they were forbidden from wearing pointed-toed shoes in 1215. The study noted that, with further orders on clerical dress in 1281 and 1342, the decree had little effect.

More male skeletons in the study had bunions than females, but Dietmar said there were fewer female skeletons in the study sample and the team could not conclude that there was a gender split.

The study also found that the skeletons of those who died over the age of 45 with hallux valgus were also more likely to show signs of fractures that usually result from a fall. For example, fractures in the upper limbs may indicate that a person has fallen forward on outstretched arms.

“Modern clinical research on patients with hallux valgus has shown that the deformity makes it difficult to balance, and increases the risk of falls in older people,” Dietmar said. “This would explain the greater number of healed broken bones found in medieval skeletons with this condition.”

The study was published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.


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