Curator’s Choice – Medieval ‘Poulaine’ shoe

Posted: 11th January 2021

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – Medieval ‘Poulaine’ shoe

This extraordinary leather shoe with its long, pointed toe was excavated from a waterlogged pit on the north side of Scale Lane, Hull in 1974. It dates to around 1370 and is a man’s shoe for the right foot. It is made from thin, soft leather, with a single-piece sole and a two-piece upper which is cut low at the sides to fit under the ankle bone. But the stand-out feature is the ‘pike’ or ‘poulaine’ – the extended point at the toe.

The height of fashion in the later 14th century, these shoes were called ‘crackowes’ or ‘Cracows’ in England, as they were believed to have originated in the Polish city of Krakow. The term ‘poulaine’ was used in France, from the French term ‘from Poland’. Most excavated examples appear to have been men’s shoes, but 15th century illustrations show that they were popular with both men and women. Our shoe clearly belonged to a very wealthy person since such as style would have been far too impractical for most people. Only the rich could afford to value fashion over comfort.

The points were stuffed with moss or horse-hair to keep them rigid, but they must still have been the cause of some spectacular pratfalls. The point on our example is actually relatively modest; examples from London have a point extending over 10cms from the toe. Medieval sources mention lengths of ‘half a yard’ (45cms) which required tying to the shin with chains to avoid tripping over them! Sadly, despite the wonderful image this conjures, it seems this was something of an exaggeration – at least, no archaeological examples have yet been found to support such an outrageous idea.

The pointy-shoe style was very controversial and laws were introduced to try to limit the length of the point or to ban them altogether. Charles V of France condemned them as ‘an exaggeration against good manners’ while a poem of 1388 complained that men were unable to kneel in prayer because their toes were too long! Priests even referred to them as ‘Satan’s Claws’. In England so-called ‘sumptuary laws’ of the 15th century restricted their length according to the status of the wearer and in 1465 points over two inches were banned altogether. But fashions had changed by then, and the new style was for a more practical square-toed shape. Less fun but less tripping over your own feet!

I chose this object because shoes and boots are wonderfully personal survivals, preserved for us to see thanks to the waterlogged conditions in Hull’s Old Town. They give a rare insight into people’s lives – some still bearing the bulges and holes where their wearer’s toe-joints wore through. Most are simple, thin and soft, like a modern slipper and look really comfortable. But others, like this one, tell us more – that even in the medieval period some people could afford to splash out on fashion statements. No matter how difficult they must have been to actually walk in!