Medieval London



Figure 1: Pair of leather boots displayed at the Museum of London from the 13th century found in a rubbish pit at the St Mary Spital Hospital.

These mid thirteenth-century brown leather boots displayed at the Museum of London were excavated from a rubbish pit at the St Mary Spital hospital. Measuring 219mm high, 235mm long, and 90mm wide, these boots [figure 1] were worn by someone with a small foot, likely a woman. [1] Determining the type of leather used is difficult but goat, sheep, and calfskin were the most common leather used for the production of boots by shoemakers at the time. The boots had an upper made from a single piece of leather and flaps that were stitched to the side. There are areas of substantial wear and tear along the soles and attempts to repair the damage. Spots around the ball and heel of the boot were tattered and there were repair attempts on each boot, indicating the owner had used the shoes heavily before discarding them. The pattern of wear on the boot could indicate a certain walking pattern in which the wearer transferred her weight to the heel and ball of the foot.[2]

photo 1 Cropped.png

Figure 2: A cobbler works on the sole of a shoe in his workshop with an assortment of tools on the table in front of him. From the Landauer I Twelve Brothers Book in Nuremberg, 1525.

Shoemaker Cropped.jpg

Figure 3: Drawing of a shoemaker, in his workshop surrounded by tools such as a stitching awl and a trimming knive. From the Landauer Twelve Brothers Foundation Book of Nuremberg, 1598.

These leather boots  were likely made by the shoemakers or cordwainers of London, who had established the London’s Cordwainers’ Company in 1272.[3] The guild controlled the shoemaking industry of London and became the main supplier of footwear in the city. The life of the boot started when butchers sold their collection of raw leather to the tanners, who then proceeded to treat and tan the leather. Then the tanners sold their treated leather to cordwainers for the final step in the construction of proper boots. Customers had their feet measured by the shoemaker to make sure the boots were sized properly.[4]

After being worn for some time, boots had to be repaired. This required the skills of a cobbler, who was hired to renovate patches on shoes and fix damaged areas on the sole, welts, and uppers.[5] The factors affecting the longevity of boots included the intensity of wear, quality of leather, and craftsmanship. Cobbler could perform four different types of repairs: clump, soles, uppers, and lasting margin repairs.[6] These boots appear to have been repaired by a cobbler due to the stitching repairs on the sole of the boot. The stitching of the soles broke along with the stitching of the sole and upper as they are prone to friction and pressure due to consistent use. A cobbler could repair the gaps but multiple visits were expensive. Self-repair became popular but it was a temporary solution and continuous repairs made the boot less comfortable.

Medieval London Boot 3 1.jpg

Figure 4: This detail displays a man wearing a pair of brown calf-high leather boots. From BL, Harley 2838  f. 10.

Medieval Boot.jpg

Figure 5: A man helps a woman remove her ankle boots, which appear to be black due to the process of currying. From BL, Royal 10 E IV f. 146v.

Worn by both men and women, boots were the preferred footwear for outdoor use or work as the high upper part of the boot protected the user against most forms of dirt and debris. Calfskin was considered the best leather to use in the production of boots as it was abundant and had a nicer texture than cheaper pigskin. Unusual leathers like deerskin were used mainly by the wealthier members of society.[7] Other parts of the boot such as the stitches, colors, and design were impacted by fashion trends, which led to such changes as a shift from front lacing to the popular side lacing, or the change from using drawstrings to buckles. Those who could afford it were able to personalize their boots to stay updated with current fashion. One prominent decoration on the boot was the addition of embroidery which involved sewing stripes of colored leather across the boot.[8] This boot lacks any sign of embroidery but has decorative thongs threaded through the leather.[9] Boots could be colored through currying, which was the process of trimming and oiling the tanned red leather, which made the leather more flexible and darkened its color.[10] The brown boots in figure 4 were probably not curried, but the black boots in figure 5 appear to be curried as they are significantly darker.

The amount of detail in the production of boots is a testament to the incredible craftsmanship of the cordwainers, who could employ a variety of techniques in manufacuring a range of footwear, depending on cost, taste, and fashion. Ankle boots were favored by women; the owner of these boot was also able to afford some decorative thong-work. Worn until they were unable to be repaired again, the ankle boots found in the rubbish pit at St Mary Hospital likely reflect the patterns of use of most boots worn by medieval Londoners.

--William Whelan

End Notes

1 "Boot," Museum of London Collections Online. 

2 "Boot," Museum of London Collections Online.

3 Urwin, The Gilds and Companies of London, 252.

4 Rees, The Art and Mystery of a Cordwainer, 58.

5 Grew, Neergaard and Mitford, Shoes and Pattens, 89.

6 Mould, Carlisle, and Cameron, Craft, Industry and Everyday Life, 3347-3348.

7 Mould, Carlisle, and Cameron, Craft, Industry and Everyday Life, 3417.

8 Grew, Neergaard and Mitford, Shoes and Pattens, 77. 

9 "Boot," Museum of London Collections Online.

10 Swanson, Medieval Artisans, 58.

Works Cited

“Boot.” Museum of London Collections Online. Accessed November 1 2020.

Grew, Francis, Margrethe Neergaard and Susan Mitford. Shoes and Pattens. Medieval Finds from Excavations in London vol. 2. Museum of London, The Boydell Press, 2001.

Mould, Quita, Ian Carlisle, and Esther Cameron. Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Leather and Leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York. Council for British Archaeology, 2003. doi: 10.5284/1000404.

Rees, John F. The Art and Mystery of a Cordwainer: An Essay on the Principles and Practice of Boot and Shoe-Making. London:Paternoster-row, 1813.

Swanson, Heather. Medieval Artisans: An Urban Class in Late Medieval Europe. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989. doi:10.2307/4051124.

Unwin, George. The Gilds and Companies of London. London: Methuen & Co, 1908.

# Google Analytics Portion 06-02-2016