When the boots are not just made for walking

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Skinny Malinky Long Legs may have had banana feet and/ or helluva smelly feet, depending on which version of the rhyme you know, but for all of us, our feet are important.

First we stood erect, then walked barefoot and eventually we stuck shoes on our feet to protect them from wear and tear.

Then the shoes themselves became more important than the feet – and shoe fashion took over – often to the cost of our own physical health.

A team from the University of Cambridge examining the medieval skeletal remains excavated from their city show a people suffering from bunions.

Archaeologists analysed 177 skeletons from cemeteries in and around the city of Cambridge and found that only 6% of individuals buried between 11th and 13th centuries had evidence of the affliction. However, 27% of those dating from the 14th and 15th centuries had been hobbled by longstanding hallux valgus (commonly known as a bunion).

During the 14th century shoe style changed significantly from a functional rounded toe box to a lengthy and more elegant pointed tip.

Dr Piers Mitchell from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology explained:

“The 14th century brought an abundance of new styles of dress and footwear in a wide range of fabrics and colours. Among these fashion trends were pointed long-toed shoes called poulaines.

“The remains of shoes excavated in places like London and Cambridge suggest that by the late 14th century almost every type of shoe was at least slightly pointed – a style common among both adults and children alike.”

“We investigated the changes that occurred between the high and late medieval periods, and realized that the increase in hallux valgus over time must have been due to the introduction of these new footwear styles.”

The pointiness of shoes became so extreme that in 1463 King Edward IV of England passed a law limiting toe-point length to less than two inches within London.

The researchers from Cambridge University’s After the Plague project argue that these “poulaine” shoes drove the rise of bunions in medieval Britain.

Platform shoes were designed to raise the wearer above the filth and excrement of the streets in cities in the past. Many cultures have adopted this form of footwear and the fashion re-emerges every so often. Many readers will remember the glam rock period and perhaps they even owned a pair or two. Now well into the 21st century the platform shoe is still being worn.

Reconstruction of an Venetian chopine, after models dating from 1500 to 1600. On display at the Shoe Museum in Lausanne.

Pointy and platform shoes in extreme form make it difficult for the wearer to keep balance when walking.

Dr Jenna Dittmar of the University of Cambridge, found that the skeletal remains with hallux valgus were also more likely to show signs of fractures that usually result from a fall e.g. those to upper limbs indicating an individual tumbled forward onto outstretched arms.

This association was only found to be significant among those who died over 45 year old, suggesting youthful fashion choices came back to haunt the middle-aged even in medieval times.

Dr Dittmar said:

“Modern clinical research on patients with hallux valgus has shown that the deformity makes it harder to balance, and increases the risk of falls in older people. This would explain the higher number of healed broken bones we found in medieval skeletons with this condition.”

But trips and falls are not only the preserve of extreme fashionable shoes – slippers, such a comfort to many a foot, is a risk particularly to older people. In research conducted by Catherine Sherrington into hip fractures in older people it was found that the most common type of footwear at the time of the fall was a pair of slippers. (perhaps the clue is in the name)

Shoes play an important role not just in protecting our feet, making a fashion statement, taking us to the hills and kicking about on the football pitch – but they also have great symbolic significance.

In Orkney there was a tradition of inserting a shoe (or sole) above a doorway to the outside as protection against evil spirits.

Hidden above the lintel – the sole of a shoe at Skaill, Rousay (F Grahame)

And more recently displays highlighting issues of the abuses humans commit on each other have used shoes.

So whatever your preferred choice of footwear is – don’t forget to take care of your feet.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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