There are no archaeological examples that I know of for using non-leather materials for making shoes in the Middle Ages, however, it's also likely that I've missed some someplace. The use of non-leather materials for footwear predates the Middle Ages by many thousands of years, as well as occurring up to the current time. There are some non-authoritative descriptions of non-leather shoes in Wilcox and Norris. Unfortunately, my focus has been on leather footwear in the Middle Ages, and so I have not had an opportunity yet to delve into the other options that might be available.
However, using the logically flawed basis that a) it was done before then, b) it was done after then, and c) some costuming books say it happened, I will suggest that it's plausible that non-leather materials, such as felt, wool cloth, silk, linen; as well as rope, or netting could have been used for uppers. These could have been embroidered, ornamented, and even set with jewels. Likewise, leather, plaited "straw" or grass, and wood are not inappropriate for soles. The modern "espadrille", "basque", or rope-soled canvas shoe is a good example of this style of shoe, although rather than "straw", a term that while used to describe the shoes, might refer to any number of things besides the dried stalks of grain plants, these are made from a hard cordage of Esparto Grass [Saguto].
One of the areas I have been looking for information on, but am having no success with, has been the Viking era Norse use of felted wool, or boiled wool for shoes, and the use of naalbinding for shoe liners and toe caps. It's relatively simple to prove that felted footwear existed at some times and places. For example, on the Steppes mummies have been found in the Tarim Basin region (also known as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China) with felted stockings and boots. Unfortunately, the Tarim Basin in 2000 BCE is a far distance in both time and space from Viking era Scandinavia. So the search continues. If anyone has any suggestions, please feel free to contact me.
As an aside, I have made felted wool shoe liners for some of the thin soled shoes I have made, and I recommend them whole heartedly - especially in cold or wet environments.
Return to Contents
Footwear of the Middle Ages - Other Materials Copyright © 1996 I. Marc
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.