Down at the heel for lack of a shoe­horn

“He bequeythed to his sone Tome
Hys chaspy and his schoyng horne
With pyr­dowy.”

From the Lystyne Lordys Vera­ment, c.1475–1500. See Marc Carlson’s trans­la­tion and com­ment­ary

That pas­sage is inter­est­ing in what it tells us about how shoes fit at that time. You don’t need a shoe­horn for loose shoes. There is quite a recog­nis­able shoe­horn hanging on the wall on the left of this pic­ture of Saints Crispin and Crispi­ni­an from a c1500 altar pan­el at Dinkels­bühl, Bav­aria, on Marc’s site.

Accord­ing to Marc, a “chaspy” is a strip of hair-on leath­er used in much the same way as a shoe­horn to slide the heel of the foot into the shoe without squash­ing the back­part of the shoe.

Some­thing I for­got to men­tion in my pre­vi­ous post on the care and feed­ing of shoes is that you should always use a shoe horn when you’re put­ting your shoes on. If you don’t have a shoe­horn then a piece of card or a fol­ded piece of paper will do the trick. If you use your fin­gers then you will stretch out the topline of the shoe because instead of just hav­ing to clear your heel it will have to clear your heel and your fin­gers.

If you crush the back­part of a shoe it may nev­er entirely recov­er. If the heel stiffen­er is pas­ted in place as well as being whip­stitched to the upper then the paste/leather bond lends a fair amount of stiff­ness to the shoe. Break that and it’ll go floppy. If this hap­pens you can prob­ably resur­rect it to some extent by soak­ing it to dis­solve the paste and block­ing it back into shape either on the last the shoe was made on or just by form­ing it by hand and stuff­ing the shoe while it dries.

Ken Nye, on the medi­ev­alshoe­mak­ing list sug­gests that the ori­gin of the expres­sion “down at the heel” refer­ring to some­thing that is worn out and shabby prob­ably comes from shoes that have lost their stiff­ness at the heel stiffen­er and are sag­ging and not fit­ting well. Hav­ing seen what a pair of shoes looks like after this has happened to them I think that’s an entirely plaus­ible explan­a­tion for the ori­gin of the phrase.

Anoth­er thing I’ve seen res­ult in shoes that are down at the heel before their time is when they are worn without being fastened prop­erly. The fasten­ings on a shoe keep your foot from slid­ing too far for­wards into the vamp and squash­ing your toes and also from lift­ing out of the shoe as you take a step. Invari­ably if your foot lifts out of the shoe as you walk it is going to come back down on the back­part and either squash it out­right or stead­ily force it back­wards and squash it flat where you’ll end up walk­ing on it and wear­ing through it instead of the sole which will des­troy the shoe right quick.

Here are a couple of pic­tures of my second pair of shoes, which las­ted me about 3 years before fail­ing com­pletely at an event earli­er this year. I advise build­ing replace­ments before your shoes get to this stage 🙂

This is the heel of one of the shoes. you can see that it has col­lapsed at the back and become part of the tread sur­face of the shoe. The curved line about 1/3 of the way in from the right edge is where the stitches of the last­ing seam are start­ing to become exposed.

This is the heel of the oth­er shoe of the pair which I patched with a scrap of red leath­er to get me through the last day of the event. I’d worn a pretty big hole in the shoe by this stage.

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