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Walking in the Middle Ages.

There’s been this video going more or less viral, about how people walked differently in medieval times. It’s spread a lot, and it finally arrived at the rock that I live under, and I watched it.

And went Aaaaaaaaaaarrggh.

In case you haven’t seen it, it has been posted over at Boingboing. In case you don’t really want to watch it, there’s a guy dressed in late medieval stuff telling you that medieval folks walked on the balls of their feet, and because we are stupid lazy modern shoe-wearing people, we are not doing that anymore, even though it is much healthier and cooler and whatnot.

Okay. Here’s the thing. In list format. With numbers, to hide the fact that it’s not very structured rambling…

  1. “People in the Middle Ages walked differently than we do today” – yes, probably. Just like modern people who walk barefoot mostly or all of the time walk slightly differently than shoe-wearers. There are studies about that, like for instance this one: The effects of habitual footwear use: foot shape and function in native barefoot walkers (K. D’Août et al, Footwear Science Vol. 1, No. 2, June 2009, 81–94). The very short version: Habitually barefoot people have the same high-pressure spots on the sole when walking, but pressure peaks are a bit lower, and it’s not completely clear how that is achieved. There’s another paper looking at sandals, flip-flops, barefoot and shoes here. It’s fascinating stuff!
  2. The fact that there are differences between habitual barefoot walkers and shod people, however, does not mean that the completely exaggerated way the guy in the video shows is “natural”. There are situations when you put the ball of the foot first, yes – like when you are tip-toeing to be silent, or don’t want to touch much of the ground, or if you are running at high speeds. Now if there were a typical very strong difference between placement of the foot ball-first or heel-first in barefoot people and shoe-wearers… don’t you think some of the studies about differences in gait would mention this?
  3. Also, “walking heel-first is actually detrimental to your health”? Erm. Humans are plantigrades, just like their colleagues over in the ape section, and a lot of other mammals. We change from the sole to the ball of the foot when running, or dancing, or fighting, yes – but usually, the heel comes first. And guess what? It is actually constructed for this, with a strong heel bone under which there’s cushioning stuff.
  4. “When we can be lazy, we are.” Well. Yes. Maybe. But why on freaking earth would the medieval people then not have been lazy? Anyone? Grrr. Either lazyness is a basic human trait, then there’s no reason at all why medieval people would have been less lazy, or it’s not, then there’s no reason why people would not still walk that other way today.
  5. Shoes with framed construction and lightweight shoes both influence how you walk; there might be a difference in how much they do this, but the medieval shoe does not count as no footwear. See, for instance, this paper about how even minimalist footwear influences running.
  6. If you’ve ever tried walking this way, you will quickly realise that it does not feel natural and it also does not feel efficient. Also, I can ball-silly-walk even with a really bad posture no problem. So can the most patient husband of them all.
  7. Medieval artwork that shows people on the balls of the feet shows them in specific situations. Fencers are still on the ball of their foot today, just like dancers. Other people depicted with a nice sexy foot sticking out of their garments? I’d say it is important for this to keep in mind that what the sixpack-belly is for today’s sexiness scale, the leg used to be in medieval times. Sexy legs were… sexy. Nobody cared for your belly definition. (Well, nice extra, probably. But legs were the thing.) Which might explain a few of the displayed non-dancing, non-fencing legs in artwork.

As stated before: Aaargh.

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2 Responses to Walking in the Middle Ages.

  1. Bruce says:

    Thank you for putting all that in one place. I felt there was something – well, a lot – fishy about that video, but I couldn’t be bothered raiding the book case for my medieval shoe references to check the wear patterns. I suspect that wear patterns would be much the same for normal plantigrade walking as for tip-toe prancing – in both cases the front of the sole is going to show wear from the push off into the next step.

  2. Speaking strictly for myself, I have bunions on both feet and arthritis as well. So I do not naturally put weight directly on the balls of my feet, barefoot or not–it just hurts too much! And we know from at least one Coppergate find that medieval people did occasionally suffer from bunions–there’s a surviving shoe with a slash over the “bunion” area, probably to give relief.

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