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These pointy shoes deformed the feet of medieval Europeans

The needle-shaped foals on the sabatons (knightly shoe covers) of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.

The needle-shaped foals on the sabatons (knightly shoe covers) of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.
Picture: Wikimedia Commons

A 15th century shoe craze that swept across Europe left its mark on the skeletons of the people who lived at the time. Archaeologists recently attributed a plague of onions found on nearly 200 skeletons in a popular shoe style with a long pointed toe.

The shoe was the colt, or Krakow, and he got Europe in a daze during the medieval period. Foals were clearly not the kind of shoe one could work in, making them a clear status symbol. Not practical, of course, but it is fashion.

A team of archaeologists recently examined the skeletal feet of four different burial sites near Cambridge, England. Their discoveries, published today in the International Journal of Paleopathology, reveal interesting trends on the pervasiveness of hallux valgus, the lateral deviation of the big toe that causes bunions. They examined skeletons buried between the 11th and 13th centuries and compared them to skeletons from the 14th and 15th centuries. Only 6% of the first individuals showed signs of hallux valgus, while more than a quarter of the late medieval group did.

A deviated medieval toe, suggesting the individual was suffering from bunions.

A deviated medieval toe, suggesting the individual was suffering from bunions.
Picture: Jenna dittmar

“We were surprised to see such a marked difference in the frequency of hallux valgus in the late medieval period compared to earlier eras, but when we looked at the change in mode, this change made perfect sense,” he said. Piers Mitchell, archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, said in an email.

“We were very impressed that medieval elderly people with hallux valgus also had more fractures than those of the same age who had normal feet,” added Mitchell, co-author of the new article. “This matches modern studies of people today who have more falls if they have hallux valgus.”

The team were unable to infer the severity of the hallux valgus from the remains – they could only say whether or not there was a skeletal deviation – but they were able to trace demographic trends based on from where individuals were buried, trends to measure supported ideas about foals as a fad among the elites. The remains studied came from a charity hospital, a former convent, a parish cemetery and a rural burial place. A near majority (43%) of those buried in the convent, where wealthy people and clergy were buried, showed signs of onions. (In 1215, the church prohibited members of the clergy from wearing pointed shoes, but this obviously did not go against fashion trends, as many subsequent orders had to be placed – clearly people wanted to wear these amazing shoes, the onions and the decrees of the church be damned.)

Poulaines not only annoyed the church; they drew the wrath of King Charles V of France, who banned their construction in Paris, and Edward IV of England, who first banned shoe toes over 2 inches long and later banned the manufacture of any foal two years later.

“Most shoes in the 12th century were ankle boots that had round ends, ”said lead author Jenna Dittmar, an archaeologist now at the University of Aberdeen, in an email. “Then, in the 14th century, footwear diversified, and in many styles we started to see pointy-toed shoes (which got longer and longer in some places).”

But the team discovered that the foals weren’t exclusively an elite shoe; they had mass appeal. The hospital was built to house the poor and the frail, Mitchell said, and those buried there were reportedly underprivileged members of society, middle-class residents, and university and hospital staff. Yet almost a quarter of the skeletons showed traces of onions. Because people with hallux valgus seemed to have more fractures, some of those hospitalized people may have been there due to bunion injuries.

“This is a great example of how fashion can have unwanted consequences on a person’s health,” Griffiths said. “It would be fascinating to see if shoe trends in other parts of the world show similar changes in hallux valgus in past populations.”

When these shoes become fashionable again – it’s only a matter of time, right? – we can only hope that they will be a little more suitable for the feet than the previous versions.

More: The 10 Weirdest Things People Once Used As Status Symbols

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