Research: Goethean Observations: Mediaeval Shoes

I am looking at a shoe made of leather which is on display in a glass case in the Museum of Oxford. With it on display are a number of other leather artefacts, but I will reserve my observations for the shoe in question.

The shoe, which I believe is that for a right foot, is dark grey in colour. It rises above the ankle, it’s quite small but appears to be one that would have belonged to a man. It has a small round metal buckle which appears to be the only fastening. It’s a little worn at the edges, particularly at the front, but not so worn on the back; it’s more or less intact. The upper part of the shoe has been cut in six places. The cuts have been made on the right hand side and the last cut which is more of a hole has been cut into the top of the shoe. The buckle is also on the right hand side. It’s round with a metal part on the inside such as one would find on a belt buckle. Opposite this, on the left hand side is a small hole which I assume is the fastening. Looking at the buckle, and the small metal part inside, I assume that there was a strap which passed through the buckle and around the shoe.

Looking into one of the cuts made in the right hand side of the shoe I can see three small holes in the bottom at the edge. The shoe is about 8 to 9 inches in length, the back of the shoe rises approximately 4 or 5 inches. The shoe is behind glass so obviously I cannot touch it.

The sixth hole cut into the top of the shoe has a cut in each of its edges, as if the hole was made first by cutting two crossed lines into the leather and then making the hole from these. The first cut in the shoe, that nearest the sole, is about 2 inches in length, the second about an inch, the third and fourth slightly smaller, the fifth about half an inch long. The hole is about ¾ inch in diameter.

The shoe has been packed inside for display with a white material. Looking at the back right hand side of the shoe (just behind the ankle) I can see that it has been cut, but it seems to be part of the shoe’s design, to ease the task of putting it on. The shoe has also been cut down the centre, again part of the design, to about two inches from the buckle. The sixth cut – the hole – is about an inch and a half from the end of this cut.

The right hand side of the shoe is that which is most visible and I can clearly see the texture of the leather, I can almost see the shape of the heel where the shoe has moulded to the shape of the wearer’s foot. There is a large crease just above where the ankle would be (which seems to correspond with the idea that the shoe would have been fastened with a strap). There is another large crease running down from the buckle towards the sole.

Part 2

What is clearly seen in this shoe is the apparent simplicity of its construction. I can almost see it as a single piece of leather and as I consider this I begin to picture it in the hands of the tanner. I can almost see the carcass of the animal from which it was taken (I wonder for a moment about the cow; where had it grazed, when was it killed), the man who cut it and prepared the leather. I can hear the noise of the place in which he worked and see this piece of leather as the means by which he is able to live. I assume he knows the shoemaker? Did the shoemaker live in the town? Did the tanner? What things were on his mind as he worked the leather in the 13th or 14th century? And what about the buckles, where were they made? Who made them? Were they sent to the shoemaker along with other buckles? What was going through the mind of the man who made it? What was happening in the world when it was made? The same question applies to the tanning of the leather and the making of the shoe itself.

At some point the leather from the tanner and the buckles (from the ironmonger?) would have found their way to the shoemaker. Did he work alone? Were there others working with him? Were the shoes bespoke, made to fit individual buyers, or did he just make them in bulk? Did he know the man who wore this shoe? If he did, what did he talk with him about as he measured up his feet? What was happening in the city at the time, how long had it been since the tanner had sent the leather? What was the process of making the shoe, how long did it take? What was the buyer wearing on his feet as he talked with the shoemaker? Did the buyer select the leather or was it just whatever was available? Why did the buyer chose this particular design? What were the shoes for – everyday use? What was the shoemaker’s workshop like? What were the sounds both inside and outside?

Having talked with the buyer, the shoe maker would begin to mark the leather. What did he use? A piece of chalk? He would cut the leather to shape, making the cuts that I could see in the shoe – those that were intentionally part of the design. And then, having cut the pieces, he would begin to sew the shoe together. Did he do it in the light or in the dark, under the light of a candle? What did he think about as he worked the needle and thread? Was he an old man. Did the drawing of the thread help him in his thoughts? What were the sounds as he worked? Quiet, except for the noise coming from the street. As I see him work, I begin to feel the rhythm of his body, I feel his aches and pains. I feel the squint of his eyes as he tries to see more clearly what he is doing.

Did he like the man for whom he made the shoes? When he finished the shoe, did he pick it up and look at it admiringly, squinting again to make sure everything was perfect? It had to be, this after all was how he made his living.

The final touch, the attaching of the buckle. The shoes were ready to be collected. The buyer comes and picks up his shoes. He enters the workshop (perhaps the shoemaker delivered them to his house?). What time of year is it? Winter? Is it cold outside beyond the warmth of the workshop? One can hear the sounds of the outside pour in through the door along with the chill. Or maybe it’s summer? Is the workshop warm, stifling? The man is eager to try on the new shoes. He takes off his old ones and takes the new pair from the shoemaker (what do they feel like, what colour are they?) Do they carry on their conversation from last time, or do they just make small talk? The man tries them on, they fit perfectly. He walks in them for the first time, up and down the workshop. The shoemaker smiles and waits for the money. How much did they cost?

The man takes the shoes. Does he wear them out, does he discard the old shoes he’s been making do with for so long? Where does he go when he leaves? What does he do, what is he thinking about? Does he speak to anyone? What does he see as he walks in them for the first time along the streets he knows so well? Over time the shoes – the leather – begin to soften and fit themselves to the shape of his feet. His walking makes the creases and folds in the leather. They fit better and better but there is a problem with his right foot. He has bunions which are making walking painful and difficult. But there’s little he can do about it except walk as best he can, his grimacing face showing the signs of his discomfort. Do people ask if he’s okay as he limps down the street, or is it a common sight in mediaeval times?

Where does he wear the shoes? Which streets did he walk down whilst wearing them? Inside which buildings?

The pain gets worse and in the end it’s all he can do, in a moment of desperation to take a knife and cut two lines in the shape of a cross in the top of his shoe directly above the bunion. Did he start by making the one cut and proceeding to cut more as the condition of his feet deteriorated, adding the cuts on the side? Or were they all cut at the same time? What went through his mind as made the cuts? How old were the shoes when he had to cut them? Was it just the one shoe that was cut this way?

As time goes by, the shoe is discarded (what about the other?). Perhaps the man’s condition became so bad the shoe no longer fit him. Perhaps he died? Where was it thrown away? Somewhere wet, somewhere that kept them so well preserved. The moat of the castle? The river? Who threw them in? The man himself – or perhaps his wife? Maybe someone else. Did they think of the man when they threw them away? What happened to the shoe after it was discarded. Did it float on the surface of the water? Was it dark when they were discarded? Was it light? What could be seen, what could be heard the moment the shoes hit the water’s surface?

Part 3

The ground.
The air.
Pressure. Weight. Weightlessness.
Something lives within, then is gone.
The space left behind; the imprint of weight and weightlessness combined.
The wet. The mud.
Soft. Hard
Heat. Dust. Scratching. Expanding.
Held together, seams, thread, pressure.
Stained by the long dark. Sudden break. Noise and light.
Empty. Fixed in shape by the memory of something living.
Long gone to the ground.

Part 4

I am made of many parts, there are different aspects of my being, the leather, the threads, the holes, the emptiness inside. The absence of the body (the foot) around which I was pulled tight, which moulded my shape. I moved, I expanded as I felt the pressure above and below me. I was squeezed between the two or sometimes left in the limbo of lightness. I breathed. I took in water, I dried out. I absorbed smells and over time my smell changed from that of the shop in which I was made to the smell of the house in which I was sometimes left. I was the smell of the man who wore me and the smell of the streets of which I was a part; the streets left behind with versions of myself; depressions left in the ground. I felt pressure outside and within but now I feel nothing, just a limbo of lightness. I smell of nothing. The pressure of the mud which encased me, the darkness, the shape in which I was fixed for centuries. I was beneath the ground the shape only of myself, of one of those depressions left in the street. Long, long dark. Silence. Then light, sudden light and noise and careful hands. Not like the hands of the man who owned me, but the hands of the man who made me, the careful hands of the shoemaker who cut me into shape, who carefully punctured the holes for the thread, who looked at me with great satisfaction. Now that same look is extended to me once again and I am light, and in the light. I have come an impossible distance, but am in the place where I have always been. Where is the other shoe? Where are all the other shoes made by the shoemaker, made by all the shoemakers?


One of the ways I use this Goethean method of observing is by using it has a framework on which to hang a series of questions (Phase 2). I find this a good way of trying to understand what the shoe might have experienced over the course of its 'lifetime' by trying to locate its changing place within a mutable, physical world. It's also worth, once I have finished writing, going back over what one has written so as to try and tease out the 'essential' elements of what has been observed; these elements can then be used to try and locate the 'gesture' of the thing.

What I notice when reading over the text is how the shoe is often positioned at various thresholds. A number of words seem to suggest this:


There is also the fact that the shoe exists at the threshold between the animate and the inanimate, between man and object. "As I see him work, I begin to feel the rhythm of his body, I feel his aches and pains. I feel the squint of his eyes as he tries to see more clearly what he is doing." Of course it maybe that he felt no pain and didn't squint, but nevertheless, what one can find distilled in the fabric of the shoe is the rhythm of the maker's own body, as well as of course, that of the man who prepared the leather, the buckle and last but not least the wearer.

There is also a threshold which is a little more difficult to explain; that between conscious thought and unconscious doing. For example, one can imagine the shoemaker making the shoe almost unconsciously, as if he has done it so many times before, the action is almost a part of his being like walking. But coupled with that is what he was thinking whilst unconsciously 'doing'. Nothing works in isolation and I like to think that whatever he was thinking somehow - no matter how perceptibly or imperceptibly - translated itself in whatever way, into his actions - in this case making the shoe.

The shoe therefore exists at these thresholds too; between the inanimate and animate, conscious thought and unconscious doing, and, it could be said conscious doing and unconscious thought.

Thinking further about these thresholds, I began to see the shoe as a kind of spring, one which over a period of time is more and come compressed from both the weight of the wearer and the pressure of the ground on which he walks. Looking at the shoe today, one can almost imagine it, as a spring, unwinding like a clock, telling a time that to us at least barely changes at all.

Turning then to the shoes in Majdanek, one can imagine them all this way, as springs which are slowly unwinding. In this sense, the mountain of shoes is imperceptibly moving, exerting by degrees an influence upon its surroundings.

Majdanek Concentration Camp, Poland

Just as a body lying buried in the ground continues to exert an influence upon its surroundings, so does every shoe, and I can't help but imagine, that this uncoiling inside each one is the slow release of a long unbroken memory, of the human who wore them and the pathways which they walked.