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Skeletons reveal medieval fashion cost for pointy shoes

They were the Jimmy Choo of their day.

Known as foals, pointy leather shoes were the fashion in 14th century Britain. The town’s medieval men and women, however, suffered for their fancy shoes: they got onions.

The painful state is common today, especially among women. Paleopathologist Jenna Dittmar was surprised to find evidence of bunions, more officially known as hallux valgus, among the skeletal remains she was investigating for a larger life experience project at the time. medieval.

“You get degenerative changes in the bones of the feet. There are very clear osteological signs that the toes have been pushed sideways. And there are basically holes in the bone suggesting that the ligaments are pulling out. It looks painful to. look at the bone, ”said Dittmar, a researcher at the University of Aberdeen, who was at the University of Cambridge while she conducted the research.

A bunion forms when the big toe becomes tilted and a bony protuberance forms inside the foot. The deformity is often associated with high heels and constricting shoes, although other factors like genetics play a role. The lump can be painful and make it more difficult to balance.

The excavated medieval foot bones show a bunion, with a lateral deviation of the big toe. Credit: Jenna dittmar

Intrigued by the unexpected prevalence of onions, Dittmar and his colleagues analyzed a total of 177 11th to 15th century skeletons buried in and around Cambridge in the UK. The research team found that 27% of skeletons dating from the 14th and 15th centuries suffered from onions, compared to just 6% between the 11th and 13th centuries.

The 1300s saw the arrival of new styles of clothing and footwear in a wider range of fabrics and colors, researchers said, and shoe remains unearthed in London and Cambridge in the late 14th century. century suggest that almost all types of footwear – for example adults and children – were at least slightly pointed.

Few of the shoes have survived intact, although the Museum of London has a well-preserved copy on display in the Medieval London Gallery, which is 31.5 centimeters (1 foot) long.
Skeletons reveal medieval fashion cost for pointy shoes

This medieval pointed-toe shoe is known as the colt. The artifact dates from the end of the 14th century and is on display at the Museum of London. Credit: London museum

It was not clear if the shoes had heels, Dittmar said. Materials like wood from which heels might have been made do not keep well in archaeological records.

Fashionista brothers

Richer and higher-status people living in urban areas were more likely to have suffered from bunions, the study of the skeletons, which came from four different cemeteries around Cambridge, suggested.

Only 3% of the skeletons in the rural cemetery 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) south of town and 10% of the parish cemetery on the outskirts of town, where many poor workers were buried, showed signs of onions. .

By comparison, evidence of onions was found in 23% of those buried at the site of a charity hospital now part of St. John’s College and 43% of those buried within the grounds of a former Augustinian convent. – mainly members of the clergy and wealthy benefactors.

Skeletons reveal medieval fashion cost for pointy shoes

Members of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit at work on the excavation of skeletons in 2010. Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

While the brethren were expected to wear clothing that reflected a simple worship lifestyle, it was common for the clergy to wear elegant clothing. The fly clergy were of such concern to church officials that they were prohibited from wearing pointy-toed shoes in 1215. That said, the decree seemed to have little effect, with other edicts on the issue. office attire adopted in 1281 and 1342, notes the study.

More male skeletons in the study had onions than females, but Dittmar said the study sample had fewer female skeletons and the team couldn’t conclude there was a gap between the sexes.

The study also found that the skeletons of people over the age of 45 with hallux valgus were also more likely to show signs of fractures usually resulting from a fall. For example, fractures to the upper limbs could indicate that an individual has fallen forward on outstretched arms.

“Modern clinical research in patients with hallux valgus has shown that the deformity makes balance more difficult and increases the risk of falls in the elderly,” said Dittmar. “This would explain the higher number of healed broken bones that we found in medieval skeletons with this disease.”

The study was published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.


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