History of Shoemaking in Britain – Roman to Medieval

Roman to medieval

16th century shoemakers

16th century shoemakers (from L.F. Salzman, 'English Industries of the Middle Ages', 1923)

Although shoes were made and worn in prehistoric times, very little has survived from before the Roman period. These early shoes were usually of the moccasin type, a rawhide bag for the foot with seams at the back and front.

The Romans introduced more sophisticated shoes, and improved tanning methods to make better quality leather. Romans, used to wearing sandals in warmer countries, cut the shoe uppers into straps and nets, and used rivets and hobnails. Evidence of shoemaking has been found in many Roman towns, and recently near the Roman settlement of Rocester in Staffordshire.

The patron saints of shoemaking, Crispin and Crispianus were, according to English lore, born in Canterbury, and converted to Christianity. They were tortured for their faith with their own awls and drowned with millstones around their necks in AD288. By the fifteenth century they were widely venerated.

The Anglo-Saxons introduced the turnshoe – here, the parts of the shoe are sewn together ‘inside out’, and then turned the right way round to wear. The Normans seem to have re-introduced better quality tanned leather. From the 12th century shoemakers begin to form guilds in towns and centre, such as Oxford (1131), London (by 1160). Other towns had communities of shoemakers at this time, such as Northampton and Stafford, but guilds here were not formed until 1401 and 1476 respectively.

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