The footwear worn in the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500) follows the trend of fashion in general over this period, moving from very crude in the early years to highly refined and even frivolous by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In fact, the evolution of footwear tracks very nicely the larger social changes that marked this fascinating period in European history.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. , Europe was without any form of unifying order. Isolated communities of European barbarians (the name originally used by the Romans to describe foreigners) began to develop permanent settlements, but frequent warfare and little trade kept these communities isolated. For several hundred years, European footwear showed the influence of both the early Romans' and Europeans' former nomadic lifestyle. Shoes were generally made of stiff pieces of leather, stitched together and tied at the ankle. In the north, such as Britain, these shoes might have fur inside and reach up the leg. Such simple styles held up until the twelfth century.
As isolated European communities consolidated into more powerful kingdoms, technology and trade expanded, and so did the range of footwear styles. Beginning late in the eleventh century, Christian kings sent knights and soldiers on the Crusades, holy wars fought to reclaim Holy Lands in the Middle East. These crusaders were exposed to new footwear fashions in the Byzantine Empire (476–1453) and beyond, and they brought those styles back with them. One of the most popular styles brought back from the Middle East involved shoes with long points, called crackowes or poulaines. These were popular throughout Europe from the twelfth to the fifteenth century.
Several trends characterize footwear from the twelfth century onward. Leather cutting and stitching became more intricate, allowing closer fitting shoes. Straps extended from shoes up the shins, and buckles or buttons were sometimes used to fasten the shoes. More and more men wore hose. When these hose had soles sewn on to the foot-bottoms, shoes were not even needed. Interestingly, much less is known about women's shoes during this long period in history. Their dresses came all the way to the ground, completely hiding their footwear from view in the paintings and tapestries left from this time.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Wagner, Eduard, Zoroslava Drobná, and Jan Durdík. Medieval Costume, Armour, and Weapons. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.