Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Shoes and sex in the Middle Ages

“If ever a shoe style represented a symbol of social status then the long toed shoe of the Middle Ages remains unsurpassed. The fashion lasted for four centuries, unbroken.”


Footwear throughout history has supplied a social ritual, the knowledge of which indicated, breeding and status. The wealthy classes of the Middle Ages indulged their superiority by wearing sumptuous clothing and shoes became symbols, serving to indicate standards of conduct as well as emotional states. During the High Middle Ages fashion took a bizarre turn and the glitterati of European courts wore poulaines or, very long toed shoes. As the centuries passed, men’s footwear grew longer and longer until they were 24” longer than the feet they protected. Normal walking was impossible and young dandies stiffened their peaks with moss and grass ensuring the true purpose of the shoe dildos was obvious. Despite the fashion’s longevity no rational explanation has ever been proffered to explain the phenomenon. In the spirit of zeitgeist, the author attempts to now fill that void. The fashion began at the same time the first Crusaders were returning from the Holy Lands (The First Crusade, 1095–99).


As European society emerged from the Dark Ages, high culture prevailed in the Empire of Islam which extended from India to Spain. When the two cultures clashed Knights were surprisingly impressed by the sophistication of the mystic culture of the Sufis. For centuries the Sufis developed a mystical path of love where the sensual and the spiritual came bonded in an ecstatic way. It was never clear whether the poet was praising a human beloved or the divine beloved or one shining through the other. Modern scholars acknowledge the influence of Islam formed the basis for European Chivalry and Courtly Love. The conventions of courtly love taught young men to sublimate their desires and channel their energies into socially useful behaviour. To do otherwise might have threatened social stability especially at a time when feudal lords and knights were engaged in the Crusades. For people to break these taboos only reinforces the strength and drive for sexual pleasure which transcend any moral precept.

Courtly Love

Courtly love flourished in the early 12th century during the cultural renaissance that followed the first Crusades. It involved the passionate devotion of lover and loved one. The relationship was always illicit i.e. the woman was the wife of another, often a lord or patron and its consummation was virtually impossible. The high minded ideas about romance spread when troubadours sang openly of love’s joys and heartbreaks in daringly personalised terms, extolling the ennobling effects of the lover’s’ selfless devotion. The troubadours (the term is derived from the Arabic word 'tare', meaning musical enchantment) promoted a love yearned for, and at times rewarded by, the solace of every delight of the beloved except physical possession by intercourse. Courts of Love were held to publicise the rules of love and the ladies who presided at the courts taught society about the new way to live and love.

Domnei & Donnoi

Most arranged marriages between aristocrats were for political reasons but convention upheld two "intimate ceremonies" as a form of courtship. Domnei (woman worship) was a custom where the would-be suitor gazed on the partly or fully undressed lady; and Donnoi where the couple lay naked together sometimes separated only by a pillow. The test for the young lovers was to prove their depth of love by avoiding intercourse. This was sensual, carnal and openly encouraged the delights of kissing and embracing. The sight of a beloved’s nudity and the touching of her body provoked desire. Under these circumstances it would be no stretch of the imagination to work out what gainful employ a 24" long extension on the foot might be put towards. Indeed, at a public banquet an average sized adult male with two 24 " long extensions on his feet could keep three women perfectly happy under the table, leaving his hands free to enjoy a health repast.

Long Toed Shoes

The fashion for long toed shoes lasted four centuries and although it ebbed and waned in that time, the length of shoes got longer until the style was abruptly halted in the early 15th century. Through its zenith, shoe length was subject to papal condemnation as well as sumptuary laws which always restricted excesses to the less wealthy. Despite this the fashion remained even although it caused men to walk unnaturally and ungainly with a wide based, high stepping gait. A particular fad of the young nobles who attended the court of William Rufus was to wear shoes with long tapering points like scorpions’ tails. Orderic Vitalis was an English born monk who spent the whole of his religious life in the Norman Abbey of Evroul and recorded much of the social events of his time. He documented a fool in the court called Robert, who stuff the points of his shoes with flax so they could be curled back in the form of a ram’s horn. He was subsequently given the ribald nickname Cornadus, meaning ‘Horner” or Horny.

Symptoms of Tertiary Syphilis

(Video Courtesy: nabil ebraheim by Youtube Channel)

The same high stepping pattern of movement (ataxia) is seen in tabes dorsalis, a sequestrate of tertiary syphilis where spirochetes destroys the central nervous system. Syphilitic myelopathy is a disorder characterized by muscle weakness and abnormal sensations caused by untreated syphilis infections. Loss of proprioception causes coordination difficulties which contribute to problems of wide based walking. The same infection causes widespread damage to the nerves of the brain and results in personality changes, mood changes, hyperactive reflexes, abnormal mental function including hallucinations and delusions, decreased intellectual functioning, and speech changes. This is known as General Paralysis of the Insane and typically begins about 15-20 years after the original syphilis infection.

The Court Jester

"When the king was a syphilitic semi-imbecile, a jester even more grotesque may have served as a useful stage prop, disarming criticism by making the king look more nearly normal by comparison and thus making the make-believe of kingship possible."

(Willeford, 1969 p156).

Syphilis was long thought to be a disease introduced to Europe in the 15th century (carried by Christopher Columbus’s crew). Hence historians have had no reason to seek evidence of its existence prior to this date. Recent discoveries of human remains in Hull, England, have revealed syphilitic pitting and the bones have these have been carbon dated to the 11th century. The presence of the pox and the knowledge of its transmission would give reason to influence sexual practises.

(Video Courtesy: Timeline - World History Documentaries by Youtube Channel)

Safe sex

The urge to prevent pregnancy was actively and creatively pursued since Onan spilled his seed (Genesis). Pre modern peoples of Europe regulated family size and women in antiquity had significant control over their reproductive lives. From ancient times a foreign object placed in the uterus was thought to prevented pregnancy and in periods when marriage was delayed it has been assumed that masturbation was an outlet. Until the Middle Ages women practiced birth control with little interference from religious or civil authorities. In courtly love shoe shaped dildos may have been used as sex toys and/or a means of physical contraception used after intercourse. The long shoe style may also have provided protection from sexually transmitted disease and or masked the symptoms. In a similar manner in Oriental Society, sexualisation of the Lotus Foot may have been for the same reasons.

Foot sex

The association between feet and sex is found no clearer than in the Orient. The origins of foot binding are clouded although aesthetic appreciation of the small foot was present in early Chinese literature. Documentation of the foot binding starts from the 10th Century. Maintaining the Lotus foot (3” long) ensured hypersensitivity of the foot arch and forced the child to walk with small steps. Deportment was important and thought to increase the labial folds and muscle tone of the pelvic floors. The vagina was tight for life and the soles of the feet became second vaginas. Pedal sex was contemporary in the ancient world.

But what global event would cause two diverse societies separated by thousands of miles and eons of culture to adopt such a curious preoccupation with feet and sex? It had to be disease.

Fact or fantasy

What I have just recounted is conjecture, and in the absence of written evidence must remain so. Whether shoes became sex toys by necessity and sexualisation of the foot, a focus for safe sex, will never be clear. However, something strange did happened in the 11th century and this has influenced our sexual behaviours to date. As an anthropologist/sociologist who studies the foot in health and disease, I could not finish this presentation without a foot note. The end of the fashion for long toed shoes came abruptly in the early 15th century. From contemporary paintings, the only evidence available, the style was quickly replaced by shoes which were so broad across the ball if the foot as to boast of individual compartments for each toe. The podiatrist’s delight was called Bears Paws. The same style is seen today in post-surgical moon boots used to support and protect injured tissue. One other outcome of neuro-syphilis is Charcot foot where trophic ulceration decimates the sole of the foot making walking in anything other than shoe boxes, impossible. By the 16C a new class of courtiers had emerged and deportment took on social significance where appearance reflected moral attitudes. Clothing became more rigid, to impose a standard form.

Reviewed 21/08/2019

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