Saturday, June 12, 2021

The history of poulaines (long toed shoes)

( Orderic Vitalis Image via The History Jar)

According to Grew and de Neergaard (2004 p.113), Orderic Vitalis the 11th century monk recorded much of the social events of his time,and attributed Fulk le Réchin (1043 - 1109), as the originator of the poulaine (pigaches or Pigage). Orderic Vitalis noted French aristocratto as "a man with many reprehensible, even scandalous, habits."

(Fulk le Réchin Image via Find a grave)

According to Rossi (1976), Fulk le Réchin suffered painful bunions and ingrown toenails and commissioned his cordwainer to craft him a designer pair of shoes to accommodate these deformities. The clever shoemaker came up with triangular shaped shoes with a triangular extension beyond the toes (the peak). The French Count of Anjou had his peaks stuffed with flax so they could be curled back similar to a ram’s horn. Orderic Vitalis described them as scorpions tails, Fulk le Réchin was subsequently given the ribald nickname Cornadus, meaning ‘Horner” or horned one and strutted about the court, usually in a bad temper and quarrelsome manner.

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Now whether this is fact or fiction, no one really knows but something very strange did happened in the 11th century and across parts of Europe, the length of men’s shoes got longer and longer until they were 24 inches beyond the foot (i.e. three times the length of an adult foot (Nunn, 2000 p.18). The fashion for poulaines, continued almost unabated for the next three hundred years. The first literary reference to poulianes appears in the Eulogium Historiarum (crica. late 14c) and dated to circa 1361. Other sources cite 1382. No clear explanation has ever been proffered to explain this strange phenomenon. Nor the reasons why lomg toed shoes disappeared so quickly.

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After a courtier of William II, (1056 -1100) stiffened his long toed shoes with moss and grass and bent them into the shape of a ram’s horn (Grew F and de Neergaard M 2004 p.113) long toes shoes grew in popularity among young courtiers across Europe. Mocked at first the attraction to do deplorable things with poulaines made them irresistable. Gothic peaked shoes for men enjoyed greater popularity in affluent European countries from the 12th century. Peaks were either ankle shoes with a drawstring fastening wound around the leg, or slip-on shoes. Made in one piece these were fashioned individually by a cordwainer and many were highly decorated. A major part their continued popularity was due to the creation of a bourgeois class and according to Goubitz (2007 p.76 ) medieval shoes were custom made outwith the pocket of the lower classes, long toed shoes were restricted to those who could afford them. Some children’s poulaines have been found with modest peaks compared to adult sizes (Grew and de Neergaard 2004 p.29).

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By the 14 century, long toed shoes had become the vogue for male courtiers in Kraków, then the capital of Poland. France was the centre for fashion and when souliers à la poulaine, (shoes in the Polish fashion) started to be worn they were called Poulaines and in England they were called Crackowes (Yarwood , 1978).

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By 1340 in Poland, “crakows” or “poulaines,” had become a symbol of wealth and grandeur. Usually made from leather or occasionally embroidered textiles, velvets, and silks. Pikes (as they were called) were often hand-painted or etched with intricate patterns. Absurdly expensive and almost impossible to walk in, poulaines visibly represented a life of leisure and luxury, free of extraneous effort or the tyranny of practicality (McDowell 1997 p.31).

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Crown heads were the fashion doyens of the time and inter marriage between countries (or courts) the main reason for change of costume. One fashion was superimposed upon another with a trickle down to ensure courtiers and courtesans were kept à la mode. This languid fashion exchange meant costume took many years to change. The longevity (no pun intended) of fashionable long toed shoes was probably related to this slow, protracted passage of culture across towns and countries, in the absence of any widely distributed media in Medieval times.

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Richard II (1367 - 1400) married Anne (1366 – 1394) daughter of the King of Bohemia, Charles IV (1316 –1378), and Holy Roman Emperor in 1382. At the time Charles IV was the most powerful monarch in Europe, and ruled half of Europe's population and territory. Anne of Bohemia became Queen of England as the first wife of King Richard II. The marriage was initially unpopular in England but Anne soon won many English people over with her personality. The court of Charles VI, was based in Prague, and had become the height of Gothic style, her arrival caused, new influences on English art and costume. The arrival of long toed shoes in England is thought to have followed. This did not go without criticism however, and an English poem from 1388 complained that men were unable to kneel in prayer because their peaks were too long. Soon after in 1394, an anonymous 'monk of Evesham' recorded

"With this queen there came from Bohemia into England those accursed vices (English Cracowys or Pykys) half a yard in length,…”

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Poulaines came to a tip called, a lipipe or learup. (point of leather). The fashion for long toed shoes became an obsession for men in the Middle Ages and according to Rossi (1976 p. 105) young bucks quickly exploited the phallic possibilities and soon the extensions became longer and longer. Medieval cordwainers stiffened the extentions to keep them erect with soft organic material, like moss, hair, or wool (Grew and de Neergaard 2004 p.88) . To prevent the tip from curling when wet, sometimes a whalebone was used as a stiffener. The phallic extensions flapped with lifelike mobility with each step. The longer the toe the more masculine the wearer and sometimes small hawke bells (folly bells) was sown to the tip to gain attention and indicate an interest in sexual frolic, (Rossi 1976 p. 105). The fashion prevailed for over 300 years and soon the size of men's shoes got longer and longer until they were 24 inches longer than the foot. Some authorities believe, ‘Cock of the walk.’ may have had its origins with the poulaine.

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Cited by Rossi (1976 p.106), the church tried to discourage men from wearing them by saying poulaines prevented praying when kneeling. In 1215, Cardinal Curson (c. 1160 – 1219) forbade the wearing of poulaines by university professors at the University of Paris. Later across Europe, the fashion continued to be berated by clergymen from the pulpit with some decreeing them a Satan’s curse responsible for The Black Plague (1347 - 1351), as God’s displeasure at the wearing of the profane poulaine. In 1368, long toed shoes were banned in Paris and in the 14 century Pope Urban V (1310 – 1370), became a particularly strong critic and openly condemned them. The Council of Lavaur prohibited clerics and their servants from wearing poulaines.

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According to Boucher (1988 p.198), in 1367 poulaines were forbidden by an ordinance in Montauban France and a year later 1368, Charles V (1338 – 1380) of France issued an edict banning the making of wearing poulaines in Paris.

Nulle persone Cordewaner ou Cobeler .. face.. ascuns soler galoges ou husend oveqe ascun pike ou poleine qe passera la longuer ou mesure de deux poutz.

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In 1368, King Charles IV (1316 –1378) the King of Bohemia, decreed no commoner could wear poulaines and further banned his secretaries and notaries from wearing them or face a fine of ten (10) florins. He considered the long toed shoes and affront to good manners and disrespectful to God. Unabated eventually governments issued decrees to limit the length of poulaines to six inches for commoners, but permitting the length up to 24” for the nobility and aristocracy. The restriction in length of shoes was at first to discriminate "the haves" from "the have nots", then to quell the reappearance of the worship of the phallus.

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Once the style seeped down to commoners during the reign of Edward III (1312 –1377) of England, the first national sumptuary legislation went on record. Statutes were passed in the Parliaments of 1336, 1337 and 1363. These are available in the Statutes of the Realm. According to Bland (1976) one act included the following:

"no knight under the estate of a lord, esquire or gentleman, nor any other person, shall wear any shoes or boots having spikes or points which exceed the length of two inches, under the forfeiture of forty pence."

Nobility were allowed 24" (61cm) pointed shoes; gentlemen could wear 12" (31 cm) extensions and merchants 6.5" (16 cm).

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Towards the end of Richard II (1367 - 1400) reign extravagance in dress and manner of living rapidly increased. Richard was a bad example to his subjects and was known as "the greatest fob ever, to occupy the throne'. His excesses were legendary and his nobles and merchants were keen to follow his lead by spending large sums of money on their dress and the popularity of poulaines continued. To held standardise the measurement of shoes, shoemakers used three barley corn placed end to end (i.e. one inch). They determined 39 barley corns or 13 inches was the length of the longest foot. Smaller sizes were graded down in increments of one third of an inch. (Yue and Yue p.29)

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Long toed shoes symbolised the approaching readiness of young males to assume sexual and reproductive roles (Rossi 1997 p.108). Churchmen did not miss the overt phallic connotations and several Papal bulls (public decrees) were issued to prevent lower classes from wearing them, These protests were dismissed as the idealised aspect of medieval love disintegrated into the adulterous aspects of high gothic, courtly love. Poulaines or beaks were thought to be used as sex toys. By the late 14th century wooden or cork overshoes (pattens) fastened to the foot with leather cross straps became vogue and were worn indoors and outdoors. These kept the integrity of the poulaine supporting the extended toe as well as keeping the fine materials from damage (Nunn 2000 p.18). By middle of the 15th century in England, longer poulaines were back in fashion and pattens were almost ubiquitous (Grew F and de Neergaard M 2004 p.119).

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According to Boucher (1988) the zenith for poulaines was between 1460 -1470. Disgusted at the overt indecency in 1463, King Edward IV (1442 –1483) of England, decreed wearing long toed shoes in public as obscene, and more sumptuary laws were passed to limit a variety of racy fashions with the length of shoes restricted to two inches beyond the foot for everyone.

“No person under the state of lord, including knights, esquires, and gentlemen, to wear any gown, jacket, or coat which does not cover the genitals and buttocks. Also not to wear any shoes or boots with pikes longer than two inches."

In 1465, all cordwainers and cobblers within the City of London and surrounds, were prohibited from making shoes with pikes more than two inches long. According to Grew F and de Neergaard M (2004 p.31) there was also archaeological evidence from excavations of poulaines being deliberately cut in length. In 1470, French shoemakers were prohibited by law from making long toed shoes, and by 1475, the poulaine had vanished.

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Mounted knight’s riding into battle were particularly vulnerable to foot assaults from dismounted soldiers and wore sabatons (or sollerets) on their feet as part of their armour. Typically, sabatons were similar in style to poulaines and ended in a tapered point well past the actual toes of the wearer's foot. They were made of riveted iron plates called lames and consisted of a toe cap, four articulated lames, a foot plate and ankle plate, and a hinged heel cap, joined with buckled straps. These plates generally covered only the top of the foot. Sabatons were the first piece of armour to be put on and only used on horseback and pointy metal footwear would severely hinder movement and mobility on the ground, particularly under wet or muddy conditions, so the long points were detachable from the sabatons.

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Shoe fashion did change and by all accounts pretty rapidly by the end of the 15th century. Several theories have been postulated as to the swift demise of the poulaines but none attribute it to Sumptuary Law alone. Rossi (1997) and others suggested the inability to run in battle when the toes of the armour were so long citing Leopold III, Duke of Austria at the battle of Battle of Sempach (1386). Piles of shoe-tips found after the battle suggest otherwise. Certainly by the 16th century toe peaks could be removed easily in the case of a dismount. A surviving pair of sabatons belonging to Emperor Maximilian (1459 –1519) have extremely long poulaines, but the catches can be seen over the area of the big toe.

( Sabaton Image via wikipedia )

Another theory was when the heir to the Spanish thrown was born with polydactylism (extra toes). The risks of post operative infection and death following surgery were too great and much easier to change the fashion to broad toed shoes. In the absence of a modern media however, credible as these reasons may appear today, it is unlikely to explain the quick transition from long toed shoes to broad shoes (Bear’ Paws). An altogether more credible explanation would be the presence widespread disease which affected the feet, necessitating their prtection.

( Courtly Love Image via Early European Gardens)

Modern scholars acknowledge, the Influence of Islam on European culture at this time, and believe it formed the basis for European Chivalry and Courtly Love. In the absence of feudal lords and Knights engaged in the Crusades young men of the court were taught to sublimate their desires whilst channelling their energies into socially useful behaviour. To do otherwise, might threatened social stability. European courtly love flourished in the early 12th century and high-minded ideals of true romance were spread throughout when troubadours sang openly of love’s joys and heartbreaks in daringly personalised terms, extolling the ennobling effects of the lover’s’ selfless devotion. Their songs promoted a love yearned for, and at times rewarded by, the solace of every delight of the beloved except physical possession by sexual union. The relationship was always illicit i.e. the woman was usually older, the spouse of another, often a lord or patron, and consummation was not possible. During this time contemporary romantic literature began to include strong reference to women's feet. Troubadours waxed eloquent about their attractiveness and the literate read about them in the few books of the time e.g. The Romance of the Rose (circa 1230). Attractive feet were white; narrow with high arches and long straight toes. Toe nails were worn long with large white moons on pink, pale nailbeds. All this interest in women's feet came at a time when long toed shoes were popular among male courtiers. Increased sexual focus on the female foot intensified during the thirteenth century.

(Physical Intimacy Image via Wikipedia )

The conventions of courtly love allowed two "intimate ceremonies" of courtship. Woman worship (domnei) allowed the would-be suitor to gaze upon the partly or fully undressed partner and naked courting couples could lie side by side sometimes separated by only a pillow. Kissing and embracing were encouraged but the lovers proved their depth of love by avoiding sexual intercourse. These behaviours were highly sensual and carnal and at a time in history when married couples were parted or marriage was delayed, masturbation provided the perfect solution. By the same token, heavy petting provided a practical form of birth control especially when neither religious nor civil authorities interfered with women’s business. In Occidental Society, long toed shoes may have provided an ideal means of birth control and later provide protection from sexually transmitted disease. A historical corollary, if required, was foot binding in Oriental Society, at precisely the same time, the bound (Lotus) foot became incorporated into sexual practice. Young men stuffed their long-toed shoes with moss and grass to stiffen their poulaines and put them to a very practical use. Sometimes small hawk bells (folly bells) were sewn on the end of the shoe to audibly indicate, the wearer was interested in sexual frolic. Promiscuous sex among the privileged became prevalent in the Middle Ages.

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

Previously, syphilis had long been thought to be a disease introduced to Europe in the 15th century (carried back by Christopher Columbus’s crew). However, new research suggest a form of treponemal disease spread by sexual contact, existed in Europe prior to 1492. The presence of syphilis, the knowledge of its transmission and no means of preventing transmission gave reason to influence Medieval sexual practices. The longevity of long toed shoes may have had much to do with promiscuity among the ruling classes both as a sex toy and means to prevent STDs. Wearing poulaines caused men to adopt a wide based, high stepping gait similar to the staccato movement of a puppet. This was considered style and slavishly copied by courtiers eager to gain the pleasure of the regent. A similar gait pattern is seen in tertiary syphilis.

(Video Courtesy: prohealthsys by Youtube Channel)

Another severe complication of end stage syphilis involves neuropathic pathology similar to Charcot foot . An extremely painful condition causing skin ulceration, infection and fragile bones. A varient on the Treponema pallidum bacterium causing syphilis may have come from North America and account for the Syphilis Epidemics which decimated both European and Oriental cultures. In any event the fashion for Poulaines came to an abrupt end across Europe and appears to have been replaced by Duck Bill shoes (very broad shoes) in the early 15th century.

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In the spirit of zeitgeist, Duck Bill shoes celebrated the Cult of the Virgin Mary, and with reference to the female genitalia, they incorporated delicate slashing of the fine leather uppers to conveniently accommodated even the most deformed foot. The style worn mainly by mean remained popular for almost a hundred years.


( long points doubled back and secured with chains Image via )

Several sources including McDowell (1976 p.31) make reference to James I Scotland (1394 - 1437), wearing long points doubled back and secured just below the knee with silken laces, or chains of silver or gilt,. There is however, no archaeological or medieval iconographic evidence to support poulaines were ever tied to the leg.

Interesting Sites
Hunt K 2021 Skeletons reveal the cost of medieval fashion for pointy shoes CNN
Imbler S 2019 Why Were Medieval Europeans So Obsessed With Long, Pointy Shoes? Atlas Obscura

Armelagos G.J, Zuckerman M.K, and Harper K.N 2012 The Science behind Pre-Columbian Evidence of Syphilis in Europe: Research by Documentary Evol Anthropol. 2012 Mar; 21(2): 50–57.
Bossan M 2012 The Art of the Shoe Parkstone International
Gianni AJ, Colapietro G Slaby A Melemis SM Bowman RK 1998 Sexualization of the female foot as a response to sexually transmitted epidemics: a preliminary study Psychological Reports 83 491-498.
Peacock J 2005 Shoes: The complete sourebook Thames & Hudson
Rossi WA 2000 The complete footwear dictionary 2nd Edition Kreiger Publishing Malabar Florida
Vance P (Translater and Editor) 2000 Albert Racinet Illustrated history of European costume : Period Styles and Accessories Collins and Brown Limited

Boucher F 1988 A history of costume in the west Thames and Hudson London Bland A 1976 A history of ballet and dance in the western world London: Barrie & Jenkins
Goubitz O, van Driel-Murray C and Groenman-van Waateringe W 2007 Stepping through time:Archaeological footwear from prehistoric times until 1800 Stichting Promotie Archeologie
Grew F and de Neergaard M 2004 Shoes and pattens: Medieval finds from excavations in London:2 2nd Ed The Boydell Press Woodbridge
McDowell C 1997The man of fashion :Peacock males and perfect gentlemen Thames & Hudson London
Nunn J 2000 Fashion in costume 1200 - 2000 2nd ed New Amsterdam Booksa : Chicago
Rossi WA 1976 The sexlife of the foot and shoe Kreiger Publishing Malabar Florida
Yarwood D 1978 The encyclopaedia of world costume BT Batsford London
Yue C and Yue D 1997 Shoes: Their history in words and pictures Houghton Miffin Company Boston

Reviewed 12/06/2021

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