Finally here is a pair of “16th century” shoes. The quotes are because they aren’t really good repros at all. These are a mary-jane style shoe, reminiscent of the cow-mouth shoes of 16th century Germany, but again, not a great repro, so don’t worry about that. What you need to know is that the heel stretched out a lot, and the single strap across the front of the foot leads to these being quite slippery along the heel, almost like a flip-flop. This ends up making them drag even more than my workboots.
So, all of this is completely anecdotal, but you can clearly see that the wear patterns are different because the shoes are different, but not because I dramatically change how I walk in them. There likely are slight differences (for instance, on the work boot and the repros, I tend to toe-grip because they are loose shoes) but not a difference like changing what order my foot hits the ground.
Another argument for medieval people walking toe-heel is because of the “soft sole” of the shoe and being concerned about rocks or thorns or … well … whatever hurting your foot so you have to walk differently to be able to “feel out the ground” before committing your weight. I find this to be an exceedingly weak argument. Again, I hike in woods and mountains, walk on pavement, walk on gravel roads, and have even walked cobblestone streets in Europe in my soft leather soles (Helsinki in November was fun, wet shoes by the evening, dry by morning every day). I haven’t sustained any injuries from doing so in the six years I’ve almost exclusively worn soft leather soles or been barefoot. Sure, sometimes my foot gets sore, like a heel will be tender for a day or so, but to be fair, sometimes I’m sore when I wake up because I slept wrong on my soft modern bed…. so I think being sore sometimes is just the price of entry for being alive.
Even if we accept that medieval people were squeamish about walking on their soft leather soles on hard cobblestones or wet ground or whatever, it turns out that at least decently well-to-do medieval people had a solution for that. Wooden pattens were worn to protect the shoe, and the foot in it, from these potential hazards.
It is well beyond the scope of this little article to detail all of the types of pattens that existed in the medieval period (and before and beyond) but you can see that they were wooden-soled slippers that went over the shoe. Sometimes they had a heel-strap of some kind, but most often they seemed to only have this single strap across the ball of the foot. What does this tell us about the gait requirements to wear such a device?
Well, if you’ve ever worn Dr. Sholl’s, you already know: You have to toe-grip during the swing phase in order for there to be enough pressure to keep the shoe on. If you don’t know what I mean by toe-grip, just picture wearing a slipper or a flip-flop and walking with any vigor at all. You make a “fist” with your toes during the swing or you will “kick” the darn shoe off across the room. In fact releasing the grip early will cause the shoe to slip forwards in annoying fashion.
Walking toe-heel in shoes that are loose or that require a toe-grip to keep on is extremely uncomfortable and frankly unlikely, especially when the natural human gait is to land with a straight leg onto the heel, rolling through the foot and using the arch of the foot as a spring to help with the pushoff-phase of the gait.
Considering the side-view of the more extreme of these, I frankly don’t think you’re walking fast or with a marked heel or toe strike anyways.
All of this to say: Medieval people had a solution for comfort outside on dodgy surfaces and it doesn’t seem to line up with an extreme toe-heel gait.
When we talk about “medieval people doing x” we have to be really careful. First, people have always done things that are “unnatural” for fashion. Piercings and tattoos go way back and certainly aren’t the way we are born. We can look to Geisha for examples of “unnatural” walks that are learned and perfected as paragons of beauty. Ballet dancers walk a different and no less unnatural way while on stage to suit the aesthetic tastes of that situation. Women in stilettos walk differently than women in trainers. Hell, in the 90s lots of men in the hip-hop scene affected a limp.
And this is the point: People will do what people need to do to suit the situation. The considerations aren’t merely biological or kinesthetic, but also aesthetic, situation-related and class-driven.
How we walk, and more broadly, how we move affects not only our long-term health, but our status. For those of us who study martial arts, we have similar warring desires: To keep our body healthy and hopefully even improve on our fitness, to choose stances and mechanics that are structurally sound through opposing pressure, and frankly, to look good while we do it.
It’s likely we don’t look like a medieval aesthetic of movement because we weren’t raised in that aesthetic, and affecting a movement pattern requires deep understanding and training. As we are practicing a recreated art, we have to accept that some things are unknowable.
Is it possible that above a certain station or class, men walked toe-heel as an affectation? Absolutely. (see above, the “gangta-limp”) But I think that the current evidence is weak and more research is indicated for anyone asserting this as fact.