Bunions: fancy shoes in medieval Cambridge

Archaeological digs in Cambridge reveal that the wealthy regularly got bunions from wearing pointy-toed shoes
15 June 2021

Interview with 

Jenna Dittmar, University of Aberdeen


Foot skeleton


Are you a fan of high heels? If so, you might be unfortunately familiar with bunions - painful bony lumps that can form affect the big toe joint. This deformation, also known as hallux valgus, can be caused by wearing high heels or shoes that put pressure on the big toe. And, it turns out, this condition wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to the medieval residents of Cambridge who enjoyed wearing the incredibly fashionable, at the time, pointy-toed shoes, as Jenna Dittmar, now at the University of Aberdeen, discovered analysing human remains from cemeteries around Cambridge, as she told Chris Smith...

Jenna - So we analyse the bones of the feet. And from looking at these bones, we can see evidence of degenerative changes on the joints. Sometimes you see lipping or evidence of arthritis, and you can tell that during life, the toes would have been malaligned, so kind of stuffed together.

Chris - And how do you link that deformity to what the people were wearing? Because they could have been wearing any old shoes, could they not?

Jenna - Absolutely. But during the 14th century, we see a new type of very pointed shoes that had very long exaggerated tips that become quite fashionable. And the toes of these shoes were so long that they had to be stuffed with wool or moss, so they would keep their shape. And when we were looking at trends through the 11th and 15th century, we see a very clear increase during the 14th and 15th centuries that it coincides exactly with the time that these shoes became popular in England.

Chris - Are those the same sorts of shoes that you see Jesters wearing in a pack of cards?

Jenna - They're very similar. Yes. Only typically the types of shoes we would be talking about would be made of leather.

Chris - And were they fashionable among the upper classes or was everyone walking around in shoes like that?

Jenna - They certainly were the most popular amongst wealthy individuals, but our study looked at individuals from four different archaeological sites, including a hospital specifically for the poor. And we found evidence of hallux valgus in this cemetery as well. So this suggests that this type of footwear was widely adopted by all members of Cambridge society. Even though we did find more evidence of this type of condition in the clergy and in the wealthy patrons that were also buried in an Augustinian priory

Chris - Men and women, or were these shoes chiefly popular with just one sex?

Jenna - We did find evidence in both men and women, but we found higher percentage rates in the men that we looked at. And when we looked at the historical records, we find that the shoes tended to be more exaggerated and pointed in male footwear than they did in female footwear.

Chris - And did anyone actually make the connection between wearing these daft forms of footwear as we now view them and having these negative consequences?

Jenna - That's an excellent question. There are some historical records that talk about foot pain, but it's really difficult to differentiate medical terms in the 13th and 14th century. So it could also mean that they were experiencing foot pain from something completely different. So it's really hard to tell if they made this connection during historic times. Actually we found that the individuals in this study that were over the age of 45 were significantly more likely to have a fracture as the result of a fall than those that did not have hallux valgus. So it suggests that people were paying quite a high price for fashionable footwear.

Chris - So they will literally tripping over their own toes.

Jenna - Yes, exactly.


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