Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Magical Shoes: A brief history

Shoes are the stuff legends are made from. They feature in sacred scriptures and secular mythologies and from antiquity shoes have also been a central component of fairy tales and folk stories. Cinderella is likely to be the most well-known. According to folk historians, Iona and Peter Opie, there are at least 700 versions of the story, worldwide. One can be traced to ancient Greece whilst others are known in China (9thc), where the Cinderella was known as Yeah Shen. In Korea, she is Kongjee and in Vietnam, Tam. The best known version comes from France and was written by Charles Perrault, published in 1697 in his Tales of Mother Goose.

In the original version the slippers were made from fur, in the most famous version from Walt Disney, the heroine wears glass slippers. No one is sure why this was the case but a strong argument was a mistranslation took place. The French noun "vait" means a white fur, and " verre" is the French word for glass.

Boots were important in Perrault's tales not only in the story of Puss in Boots but also in the lesser known Hop o'my thumb. The former may refer to the common habit for poorer people to bequeath expensive footwear. The other belief that shoes and boots could carry within them the persona of the original owner was just too alluring for the story teller not to grab hold of. In Hop o’my thumb, the hero steals the ogre's boots and takes with them, his strength. The idea that footwear can change an individual is a common theme. The moral many fairy tales stress is “Clothes maketh the man.” Once divested of the symbols of power, individuals no longer function.

The idea clothes were linked to status (power) was recognised by the Greeks who legislated for what could be worn by individuals lest they rise above their station. Women for example were allowed to wear three garments only and this is thought to be one reason why Greek women went barefoot. In Shakespeare’s King Lear: II, ii, reference is made to “a tailor make a man?” Fear of ’upward mobility’ in the Middle Ages again called into play sumptuary laws to prevent the rising middle classes from appearing outwardly more affluent that their position in society permitted. To the human brain perception is more important than reality and clothing provides a quick means of "sizing someone up" without having to engage them in direct conflict. In that sense clothing aka shoes, function as "displaying" behaviour.”

Fabulous dancing shoes were also a common theme in many fairy tales. Hans Christian Anderson's 'The Red Shoes' is a tale of vanity punished. The heroine falls in love with her shoes till eventually they take over her whole life and near end it prematurely. Eventually she has to cut off her feet to save her from death by dancing. The moral to this tale was not to become too taken with self-image. Death by dancing was not uncommon in the Middle Ages and frenzied physical movements (chorea) were often the cause of terrible physical exhaustion with tragic circumstances.

In the 13th century a group of 200 people in Germany were dancing so spiritedly on the bridge over the Mass River that it collapsed, killing many participants. The injured survivors were treated in a nearby chapel dedicated to St. Vitus. It is recorded many made miraculously recoveries. Involuntary movements became known as the dancing disease or Saint Vitus' chorea. (choros is the Greek word for dance). A chorea is an abnormal involuntary movement that occurs without purpose. Saint Vitus' dance later became a term synonymous with Sydenham's chorea, a childhood condition associated with rheumatic fever.

Around about the same time in Italy there were reports of mass hysteria dancing with many deaths. These strange phenomena persisted on a widespread scale in southern Europe for 400 years, reaching a peak in the seventeenth century, after which it virtually disappeared. It is now thought the disorder was not hysteria but an abnormal neurological reaction to tarantula spider bites. Researchers think music and dancing were the only effective remedies available and people were known to have died within a very short time of an attack because music was not available. Tarantism was mainly confined to southern Italy, and the term Tarantella became common among musicians. One theory is the Tarantella was the first example of music therapy.

When in the 14th century plague was rife and no cure was available, Christians and pagans danced to seek protection from the illness. These dances had their origins on religious fervour, pagan tradition or superstition and may have led to epidemics of mass hysteria. According to legend, the Dancing Procession of Metternich (Luxemburg) originated in the late eighth century after people with tremor and paralysis were miraculously healed at the grave of the missionary Willibrord. News of the miracles spread and people began to dance at Willibrord's grave seeking protection and cures from neurological disorders. With music and dancing so closely linked to disease and cure then shoe makers took on an important role in society.

In 'The Twelve Dancing Princesses' a 19th century tale written by the Brothers Grimm, a shoe maker prominently features and in 'Elves and the Shoemaker', the shoemaker and his wife meet with the help from the little people. Elves and goblins as shoe makers demonstrated Puckarian characteristics which may have reflected a quite distrust of the trade. When shoe makers were good they were good, but when they were bad, that was uncomfortable. Shoemakers were articulate and capable of intelligent opposition to social injustice and in Roman times, many of the early converts to Christianity became clandestine sandal makers. In the Middle Ages they were also thought to disguise the evil foot by supporting the flat arch which was thought to be a sign of Satan. So as a well-known trade, shoemakers provided an attractive occupation for story tellers to include into folk lore and fairy tales.

Shoes could also have a life of their own and in the well know Asian folk tale, Abu Qasim a miser, merchant is haunted with is tattered magical shoes which got him into all kinds of trouble. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wears ruby red shoes (studded with diamonds) for good luck and more recently comic hero “Roy of the Rovers” has magical soccer boots. All in all, shoes matter to human beings whether they are lucky or unlucky, comfortable or uncomfortable.

McDowell C 1989 Shoes: Fashion and fantasy Thames and Hudson
Rogers J 1985 The dictionary of cliches NY: Balantine Books.

1 comment:

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