When I started to research this article, I thought it would be fairly straight forward. However, I found reliable material difficult to find and contradictory in some cases. I’ve tried to glean what I think is correct information, so if you take issue with anything I say here, do let me know.
The picture at the right shows examples of shoe styles worn during the medieval years. Early medieval shoes often had a drawstring around the ankle. The pointed toe became common in the 12th century. It seems that shoes for men and women did not differ much. They were often similar styles and colors, although style sometimes called for rounded toes and sometimes pointed toes, called poulaines. Some medieval images also show shoes with squared toes, called cow mouth or bear paw shoes. Soles of most shoes were usually basic flat pieces of heavy leather.
Some sources say that boots were expensive because of the amount of leather required and, therefore, were not common until later in the middle ages and into the Renaissance period; but, there are many images of low, ankle-high boots.
Lower classes of folk may not have had leather shoes. If they did they were plain and usually covered in patches. If they were lucky enough to have leather for shoes, it was usually rough, untanned leather. The shoe was similar to what we now know as moccasins with a sole and upper, perhaps tied around the ankle with a leather string. In the 13th century, shoemakers began to use separate pieces of leather to make heels. Some shoemakers used lasts to make ready-made shoes that could be sold at markets or fairs. Lasts were carved wooden models of feet.
Wealthy class might have worn shoes made from soft calf skin. They also wore shoes made from fabric such as silk and embroidered with fancy designs or decorated with braiding.
Shoemakers (and other leather workers) were often called cordwainers. The word may have derived from Cordoba (Cordova), the Spanish city famous for its fine leather (apparently goat skin) and frequently referred to as Cordovan leather. In later years, Cordovan leather may have also referred to horse hide, cow hide, or other leathers.
Today, we often hear the word cobbler, but a cobbler and a cordwainer were different occupations in those days. While the cordwainer made new shoes, the cobbler usually repaired shoes or “rebuilt” shoes from parts disassembled from used shoes.
What did people do in the rain or snow? Because most people did not (may not) have boots, they wore something called pattens. These were wooden platforms with leather straps into which shoes were inserted. These platforms kept the feet up off the wet ground.
Me? I’m not a shoe fanatic. I think it would be pretty cumbersome to wear shoes with long toes like some of the images I looked at while researching this article. And, they must have suffered terribly from cold, wet feet. Thank you, I’ll stick with my sneakers most days, flip flops in the summer, warm boots in the winter, and rubber boots in the rain.