With the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions, craftsmanship declined across Europe. Common people went barefoot or wore rough clogs and sandals and the craft of making sandals was almost lost.
Due to the vast size of the Empire, the Romans were forced to train others in shoe making and these crafts survived in pockets becoming more integrated into ethnic shoe styles of the region. The elaborate sandals and open work bootees of Imperial Rome were still worn by the affluent of 5th century Byzantium. These were extremely expensive and according to Anderson-Black & Garland (1975) the shoes were made of soft leather or material with leather soles and a strap across the instep with fastening on the outside. Soft boots and shoes were worn by all classes.
Shoes and boots were heavily decorated with gems and the boots in Byzantine times were worn to the calf. The shoes of Charlemagne (748 – 814) were described as gilt covered and distinguished by long latches. His nephew wore wooden shoes with uppers of leather and laced through with leather thongs. Worn closely to the foot the toe shape was narrow and pointed at the great toe. This was thought to be the way to tell left from right. The same style of footwear were found through to the 9th century.
Fastenings sometimes incorporated jewelled clasps at the front of the ankle. Early Christians began to celebrate the goodness of creation as shoes took on a religious significance. Colour was specific to rank and privilege and amongst the most sought after gifts of the time were a pair of shoes. Costs were prohibitive and people bequeathed their footwear to family and loved ones. Hence the saying, "following in your father's footsteps." The expression of love for God often took on sexual metaphors including footwear.
Women wore flat soled slippers made of leather and died red, green, purple or white. Sometimes they were gilded. The Consul wore red leather boots with ties crossing the instep and fastening around the ankles. Citizens wore yellow leather boots with ornamental ties on the outside of the calf. Soldiers wore leather soled boots with brown yarn which stretched and required no fastening. The Emperor wore boots of crimson leather sewn with pearls and worn higher over the knee that the back. By the sixth century AD, shoes fastened in graceful ways. A revival of toe-less Greek bootees was a feature of the time. Ankle boots were in vogue and laced up the front or side, leaving the toes free. Rich decoration was the custom, and shoes were often embroidered with jewels. Boots and shoes followed the natural line of the foot and were made of leather, cloth or felt.
Around the ninth century a distinction in shape between the right and left foot began to be made by the Anglo Saxon shoemakers. Once the new notion of use of clothing had become generally accepted the art of costume developed and expanded. It formed a convenient mode of expressing rank. The 10th century man wore shoes of soft brown leather with openwork striping and jewelled ornament in the centre of the instep.
Frankish boots called pedules were made of soft leather or cloth and were turned over at the top, below the knee. The upper of the boots were sewn with pearls. Women continued to wear soft shoes of the same designs as those of men. By the time of the Norman Conquest (1066) shoes were richly worked in leather, cloth or silk, and ornamented with gold. The Norman shoe fitted closely to the foot and finished at the ankle, sometimes having a rolled border. At this time shoes developed definite long points.
Many pilgrims went barefoot at a time when flatfeet were viewed with considerable suspicion. By themselves, shoes were also considered omens of good or bad luck, as many cultures believed the shoe housed the spirit of its previous owner.
Anderson-Black J. Garland M. 1975 A history of fashion London: Orbis Publishing.
Lister M 1987 Costume: An illustrated survey from ancient times to the 20th century Boston: Plays Inc.
Leno J B 1885 The art of boot and shoemaking Crosby Lockwood and Co. London
Carlson IM 1999 Footwear of the middle ages