A 15th-century shoe craze that swept Europe left its mark on the skeletons of people who lived at the time. Archaeologists have recently attributed a plague of bunions found on nearly 200 skeletons to a popular shoe style with a long pointed toe.
The shoe was the poulaine, or crakow, and it had Europe in a tizzy during the medieval period. Poulaines were clearly not the sort of shoe you could labor in, making them a status symbol. Impractical, sure, but that’s fashion.
A team of archaeologists recently examined skeletal feet from four different burial plots near Cambridge, England. Their findings, published today in the International Journal of Paleopathology, reveal interesting trends about the pervasiveness of hallux valgus, the lateral deviation of the big toe that causes bunions. They looked at skeletons buried between the 11th and 13th centuries and compared them to skeletons from the 14th and 15th centuries. Only 6% of the earlier individuals had evidence of hallux valgus, while over a quarter of the late medieval group had it.
“We were surprised to see such a clear difference in how common hallux valgus was in the late medieval period compared with earlier times, but when we investigated the change in fashion, that change makes perfect sense,” said Piers Mitchell, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, in an email.
“We were most impressed by the fact that older medieval people with hallux valgus also had more fractures than those of the same age who had normal feet,” Mitchell, a co-author of the new paper, added. “This matches up with modern studies on people today who have been noted to have more falls if they have hallux valgus.”
The team wasn’t able to deduce the severity of hallux valgus from the remains—they could only tell if there was a skeletal deviation or not—but they were able to draw some demographic trends based on where the individuals were buried, trends which to an extent supported ideas about poulaines as a fad among elites. The studied remains came from a charitable hospital, a former friary ground, a parish graveyard, and a rural burial site. A near-majority (43%) of those buried in the friary, where wealthy folks and members of the clergy were laid to rest, showed signs of bunions. (In 1215, the church forbade clergy members from rocking pointy shoes, but that evidently didn’t buck fashion trends, as numerous subsequent orders had to be passed—clearly, people wanted to wear these incredible shoes, bunions and church decrees be damned.)
Poulaines didn’t just irk the church; they drew the ire of King Charles V of France, who banned their construction in Paris, and Edward IV of England, who first outlawed the shoe toes from being more than 2 inches long and banned the making of any poulaines two years later.
“Most shoes in the 12th century were ankle boots that had round toe boxes,” said lead author Jenna Dittmar, an archaeologist now at the University of Aberdeen, in an email. “Then, during the 14th century, shoes diversified, and in many styles we start seeing shoes with pointed toes (that grew longer and longer in some places).”
But the team found that poulaines weren’t exclusively an elite shoe; they had mass appeal. The hospital was built to house the poor and frail, Mitchell said, and those buried on site would have been disadvantaged members of society, some middle class locals, and university and hospital staff. Yet nearly a quarter of the skeletons there had evidence of bunions. Because those with hallux valgus seemed to have more fractures, perhaps some of those hospital-bound folks were there due to injuries caused by bunions.
“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 footwear trends in other parts of the world show similar changes in hallux valgus in past populations.”
When these shoes come back into style—it’s only a matter of time, right?—we can only hope they’ll be a bit more foot-friendly than the earlier iterations.