Skeletons reveal the cost of medieval fashion for pointy shoes - CNN
Known as poulaines, pointy leather shoes were the height of fashion in 14th century Britain. Medieval men and women about town, however, suffered for their fancy footwear: They got bunions.
The painful condition is common today, especially among women. Paleopathologist Jenna Dittmar was surprised to find evidence of bunions, more formally known as Hallux valgus, among the skeletal remains she was investigating for a wider project on life experience in the medieval period.
“You get degenerative changes in the bones of the feet. There’s very clear osteological signs that the toes were pushed laterally. And there’s basically holes in the bone suggesting that the ligaments were pulling away. It looks painful to look at the bone,” said Dittmar, a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen, who was at the University of Cambridge while she conducted the research.
A bunion forms when the big toe becomes angled and a bony protrusion forms on the inside of the foot. The deformity is often associated with high heels and constrictive footwear, although other factors like genetics play a role. The bump can be painful and make it harder to balance.
Intrigued by the unexpected prevalence of bunions, Dittmar and her colleagues analyzed a total of 177 skeletons from the 11th to the 15th centuries buried in and around Cambridge in the United Kingdom. The research team found that 27% of the skeletons dating from the 14th and 15th centuries suffered from bunions, compared with only 6% that dated back between the 11th and 13th centuries.
The 1300s saw the arrival of new styles of dress and footwear in a wider range of fabrics and colors, the researchers said, and the remains of shoes excavated in London and Cambridge by the late 14th century suggest that almost every type of shoe – for adults and children – was at least slightly pointed.
Few of the shoes have survived intact, although the Museum of London has one well preserved example on display in the Medieval London gallery, which is 31.5 centimeters (1 foot) long.
It was unclear whether the shoes had heels, Dittmar said. Materials like wood that the heels could have been made from do not preserve well in the archaeological record.