Foot Health

One of the most common things I've heard about wearing medieval shoes is the belief that they are uncomfortable and "bad" for the feet. Your foot is one of the more complex parts of your body, built to allow you stand and move about on it. To do this, all of this, efficiently, means that your foot has to retain its flexibility, and freedom of movement. When these are not retained, your body will tell you, not only through sore feet, but also pain and the potential for damage in other parts of your body such as your shins, knees, and your back. As you get older your feet will lose their flexibility, but there is no reason that you need to make that problem worse. Moreover, there are certainly people who should not wear anything other than special orthopedic footwear, and it would be stupid to suggest that period footwear can replace that sort of medical equipment; but for the most part, there is little truth to the beliefs that medieval shoes are uncomfortable and "bad" for you, as long as a few small precautions are taken. I would like to point out that these same precautions are observed when people buy shoes today. These details are how they fit, how they are padded, and how they are walked in.

 Historically, the most common reason for the aches and pains of medieval shoes, as with modern ones, is that they are badly fitted. Shoes that are too tight are often painful, uncomfortable, and can cause blisters, corns and bunions, hammer-toe and other long term problems. It has been suggested (Grew and de Neergaard, pg 106) that some of the problems that we see in Medieval shoes, had as much to do with poorly fitted shoes in childhood, as with badly fitted shoes in adult life.

 Shoes that are too loose can be even worse than those that are too tight. Shoes that let your foot slide around won't give you a stable foundation for support, and your own body weight becomes your foot's enemy. It is possible to give yourself shin splints and cramps in your feet, just trying to hold your foot stable in an oversides shoe. Often the walker is spending as much energy dealing with his shoe as he is with actual movement.

 The second detail to observe is the padding that goes into the shoe. In modern shoes, the interiors are often heavily padded and shaped to support the foot, and those that aren't may be supplemented by purchased pads and insoles. In the dark and middle ages, shoes were often padded as well, though with moss, hair, wool, and so forth. Padding can be used to correct for shoes that have stretched, or shoes that cause blisters. A pad can be placed inside the vamp to keep the foot from sliding too far forward, and to cushion the instep. Note that if the padded arch of the shoe is placed too far forward, it can be as painful as a fallen arch.

 There is no reason that modern reproductions can't be padded, either in a medieval manner or a modern one. Placing an inner sole in a shoe can help enormously.

Finally, and sometimes more difficult to deal with, is that with every different style of shoe, comes a different style of walking. People who wouldn't bat an eyelid at, for example, learning how to walk in high heels, assume that walking in moccasins is the same as walking in tennis shoes. There are different strains on the foot that one becomes accustomed to in a short time, but if ignored, can lead to strained tendons, bruised heels and damaged arches. If nothing else, a little more care must be taken before placing one's feet; in other words, look where you're going.

You might want to try to keep your feet pointed straight forward when you walk, as opposed to modern society's fashionable 45 degree angle. Keep this in a shorter stride that distributes the shock of each foot step along the outside of the foot. Try not to stomp your heel down when you walk, as a pebble can do far more harm in thin soled shoes than it will in more padded soles. Even with out the pebble, you can eventually bruise the heel. These are all things our ancestors knew without thinking, since they learned them as they learned to walk the first time. We, on the other hand, learned to walk on padded soles. Even so, we still twist the occasional ankle.

With some simple, common sense preparations, akin to those taken every day, there is no reason that most people can not wear period shoes. 

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Footwear of the Middle Ages - Foot Health, by I. Marc Carlson. Copyright 1996, 1997, 1998
This page is given for the free exchange of information, provided the author's name is included in all future revisions, and no money change hands, other than as expressed in the Copyright Page.