Some Ran­dom Thoughts on Mak­ing Medi­ev­al Repro­duc­tions

Build­ing repro­duc­tion medi­ev­al objects for reen­act­ment is an exer­cise in com­prom­ise. There are occa­sions where an object can be recre­ated using noth­ing but accur­ately repro­duced tools and mater­i­als pro­duced and pro­cessed as they would have been for the ori­gin­al object, but these are rare oppor­tun­it­ies and often expens­ive under­tak­ings.

For the rest of us try­ing to build accur­ate repro­duc­tions for reen­act­ment or liv­ing his­tory pur­poses, we have to make com­prom­ises in the tools, mater­i­als, and tech­niques we use. The ques­tion then for me is about the com­prom­ises and choices I make in my work.

When it comes to medi­ev­al shoes we are lucky to have a fairly large num­ber of extant pieces from the high middle ages and early mod­ern peri­od, and a fair few from earli­er cen­tur­ies, that tell us quite a lot about their con­struc­tion, but that rel­at­ive abund­ance of extant pieces is tempered by a great lack of any inform­a­tion on exactly how the con­struc­tion was car­ried out in those peri­ods.

For example, there is a wealth of evid­ence that heel stiffen­ers were whip stitched to the upper using a stitch that doesn’t pen­et­rate all the way through the upper (a so-called tun­nel stitch); but I couldn’t tell you any­thing about the exact shape of the awl blade that the shoe­maker used, nor wheth­er shoe­makers in vari­ous peri­ods had spe­cif­ic awls they used for that task that were dif­fer­ent to their clos­ing or inseam­ing awls.

I have inferred from look­ing at pic­tures of awl holes in extant leath­er that the awl blades shoe­makers used were prob­ably a flattened oval with a slight chisel point, and per­son­ally I use a dif­fer­ent size for clos­ing and for inseam­ing, but that’s because that’s what allows me to pro­duce the best work. It’s a con­scious com­prom­ise in favour of what works over what is abso­lutely doc­u­ment­able.

When think­ing about how I do things there are ques­tions I ask myself.

  1. Do I know any­thing about how they did it in the peri­od of the shoe?
  2. If not, do I have access to resources where I can learn about the tech­niques and mater­i­als of the peri­od and the time to go and learn before I make this par­tic­u­lar shoe?
  3. If not, which of the mater­i­als I have and tech­niques I am famil­i­ar with will make the best shoe with­in the lim­it­a­tions of the tools avail­able.

Best shoe” in this con­text is a flex­ible ques­tion. “Best” can mean most solidly con­struc­ted, most beau­ti­ful, neatest, closest to the con­struc­tion of extant examples; or a com­bin­a­tion of all of the above. Some extant work is really ugly, but sound. Some (espe­cially repair work) is just a quick and dirty bodge-up to cov­er a hole, or a hole cut to make room for a deform­ity in the foot.

The biggest com­prom­ises come in mater­i­al choices. It is very hard and very very expens­ive to get hold of leath­er that is very much like medi­ev­al and renais­sance leath­er. Mod­ern “veget­able” tanned leath­er is a very dif­fer­ent mater­i­al indeed from its medi­ev­al pre­curs­ors, but it is bet­ter than mod­ern chrome tanned leath­er for repro­duc­tion work.

Long-staple dry-spun lin­en or hemp thread is dif­fi­cult to source, as is prop­er black pine pitch. For­tu­nately boar bristles have become quite read­ily avail­able thanks to the efforts of Fran­cis Classe, who sells them from his web­site. When it comes to thread, a good waxed end can be made from unwaxed dac­ron thread which takes code well, nev­er rots and is visu­ally indis­tin­guish­able from lin­en or hemp on any­thing less than a very close inspec­tion.

Pass­able repro­duc­tion medi­ev­al shoes can be made out of mod­ern veg tanned leath­er and poly­es­ter thread using har­ness needles, and very good ones can be made using mod­ern leath­er,  the right awls and prop­erly waxed thread with bristles, but neither will be quite like a medi­ev­al shoe and it is import­ant to under­stand why this is the case and what the com­prom­ises mean.

 

 

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