In the fourteenth century shoes were mostly made from leather, which was often tawed, rather than tanned. Tanning changed the structure of the leather, making it last longer and less likely to decompose. Tawing, on the other hand, was a process that made the leather softer and easier to stretch. The leather was soaked in a solution that could include egg yolks, flour and potash.
Leather shoes were made by the turnshoe method. A soft piece of leather – the upper – was placed skin side down on the last. It was stitched to the sole and turned inside out.
Most shoes were very simple and men’s and women’s shoes were similar. At the beginning of the fourteenth century there wasn’t even any difference between right and left shoes, other than that made by the wearer’s feet in use. Over the course of the century this changed, at least in the shoes made for the wealthy.
There were various ways of making sure that shoes didn’t come off. They could be laced on the side or top, buckled, and they might be made with or without back straps.
Shoes for the wealthy could have patterns scored in them in which the top of the leather was scraped away to reveal the suede beneath. Alternatively, leather uppers could be decorated with scoring, patterning of the leather and embroidery.
Sometimes the leather was decorated by punching holes in it to make diamond-shaped openings, forming a lattice on the upper of the shoe. Sometimes the spaces created would be filled with embroidery. It made the leather very fragile, though, so was presumably something only for the wealthy, for whom shoes tended to be more decorative than useful or hard-wearing
It was also during the fourteenth century that fashionable clothing became important. This didn’t just mean making clothes and shoes from better quality materials, but wearing styles that made it obvious that the wearer didn’t do physical labour or even walk very far. The most notorious example of this was the long-toed poulaine shoe, in which the thin, pointed toe could be as long again as the foot. No one who wore it could be in a hurry to get anywhere, nor could they walk very far. These shoes were popular at the court of Richard II. They were completely impractical for anything other than standing around looking important and were really just for aristocrats. They were condemned by the church in the mid-fourteenth century as being ‘more like the talons of a demon than the ornaments of men’. Contrary to popular belief, the points of the toes were not tied to the wearer’s legs. They were never that long. The photograph below shows an interpretation of the style for people who liked to look fashionable, but still had to work.
Sometimes the toes of poulaines were stuffed with hair or moss. In case you’re interested, researchers know what kind of moss was most used in London. It was thuisium tamarascinuum, which was both springy and absorbent.
There were other kinds of shoes available in the fourteenth century: buskings, ankle shoes, bateaux, galoches and trippes. In a different kind of fashion statement, some men had leather soles sewn into the bottom of their hose, so that it looked as if their shoes were the same colour as their leggings.
Most villages had someone who could work leather. If you were in a town there would be several places where you could have shoes made or buy secondhand ones. Shoes were made by cordwainers, not cobblers. They were named after Cordovan leather from southern Spain. It was very soft and very expensive. The London Company of Cordwainers (the shoemakers’ guild) was founded in 1272.
Cobblers, on the other hand, were originally dealers in secondhand shoes. They bought old shoes, which often needed some work doing on them before they could be sold on. Worn shoes went back to the cordwainer for repair, but cobblers began to develop the necessary skills and there were arguments with the cordwainers about how much new leather the cobblers could use in their work. Eventually it was agreed that they could use very little. Resoling and repairs requiring new leather were to be done by the cordwainers.
Shoes had flat heels, which meant that their wearers would be walking in mud on wet days or on ice on cold days. There were no pavements and roads weren’t even cobbled, so roads and paths were at the mercy of the elements. Although shoes could be made waterproof by the mid-twelfth-century, most weren’t. The method involved adding more layers of leather, which was expensive. There were easier ways of keeping feet dry.
Pattens kept the feet (and shoes) off the ground. They were usually made from a flat piece of wood with two wedges on the bottom. Sometimes, like the pair in the photograph above, they were flat and hinged, presumably to make walking in them easier. They were usually made from alder, willow or poplar. Alder is a durable wood even when it gets wet, but it was also the preferred wood for arrows, which took priority.
The leather straps holding them on the wearers’ feet could also be decorated in the same way as shoes or they could be painted. Medieval people loved decorations and bright colours.
Here’s a video of shoes being made in the medieval way. You’ll see that the process is even more fiddly than you think.