A build-up of bunions
June 14, 2021 2:25 AM   Subscribe

A bunion is a minor deformity of the big toe. It angles the toe outward from the foot, with a bony protrusion forming at its base. By far the most common contemporary cause of bunions is constrictive boots and shoes – with high heels often blamed for today’s bunions. It seems that shoes contributed to bunions many centuries ago too. Of the 177 individual skeletal remains we examined in our study, at least 18% had bunions. But when we dated the skeletons, we found that only 6% of people who’d been buried between the 11th and 13th centuries – long before the pointed shoe was in vogue – had suffered from bunions. The Conversation looks at the physical cost of wearing fashionable shoes in the 14th century.
posted by Bella Donna (38 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
While the rich are overall better off, I don't think this is the only example of high status leading to self-damaging signaling.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 5:33 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I learned a surprising amount from this. I didn't actually know about the connection between lateral deviation of the big toe and falling down, but it makes unfortunate sense.
posted by theatro at 5:47 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I didn't know about the connection between pointy shoes and Poland!

(...said connection being explained in the first link in the article, which also has gems like
a legend of a “defeat inflicted by poor Swiss peasants against the mighty Hapsburg cavaliers that was partially due to wearing long pointed shoes”)
(apropos the perils of wealth) and
At the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, when the Ottomans routed an army of European crusaders, the French contingent was forced to cut off the tips of their poulaines in order to beat a speedy retreat.”
)
posted by trig at 5:50 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


However, study of the feet of the Augustinian friars in Cambridge shows they ignored the requests from Rome when it came to matters of the sole.

*golf claps*
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:07 AM on June 14 [24 favorites]


A further fascinating discovery was that hallux valgus was not equally common in all sections of society.
So bunions have layers?
posted by zamboni at 6:11 AM on June 14 [6 favorites]




matters of the sole.

*golf claps*


The author saw their opportunity, and seized it!
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:15 AM on June 14


When you grow up seeing these shoes only on comic characters like genies, jesters, and Santa's elves, it's hard to imagine anyone seeing them as attractive. The closest I can come is that illustration of Renaud de Mauntaban's wedding, which does look stylish, in its way.

I have read that poulaines got the name "winklepickers" because a man who wore them could use the point to do things to a lady underneath the table. Presumably she would have to cooperate a lot, considering the long dresses and robes and all. Whether this was an urban legend, like the "meaning" of jelly bracelets some 25 years ago, I can't say, but I suspect it.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:54 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


There was a great Freakonomics podcast about footwear and problems thereof; recorded years ago and re-aired recently, I think. Well worth a listen.

https://freakonomics.com/podcast/shoes/
posted by DoubtingThomas at 10:01 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


When you grow up seeing these shoes only on comic characters like geniesmedieval men, jesters, and Santa's elves, it's hard to imagine anyone seeing them as attractive.

And yet that's exactly what I thought when people started wearing leggings and jeggings...
posted by trig at 10:12 AM on June 14


Now that you mention it, leggings and jeggings are in a fine ancient tradition of going around tightly bepanted, which was current in medieval times, although only for men. Some men of fashion would dip themselves in the bath with new breeches on, then allow their wet breeches to dry on their body so as to get the tightest possible fit. (Forgive me for not providing a cite for this. A quick search provides a lot of results that are not what I was looking for, but clearly what somebody is looking for.)
posted by Countess Elena at 10:21 AM on June 14 [11 favorites]


Despite what the article says, bunions turn your big toe inward, not outward. (Evidence: my own bunions, one of which is now surgically corrected.)
posted by tvgraphicsguy at 10:49 AM on June 14 [9 favorites]


Some men of fashion would dip themselves in the bath with new breeches on, then allow their wet breeches to dry on their body so as to get the tightest possible fit.

Like 501’s? (Possibly 501xx’s; shrink to fit labeling may vary.)
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:55 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


Research like this is one of the big reasons I became a history major.
posted by nickmark at 11:11 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


it's hard to imagine anyone seeing them as attractive.

You need to team them with a really effective codpiece.
posted by Phanx at 11:19 AM on June 14 [8 favorites]


Agree- David Bowie in The Labyrinth kicked off my puberty.
posted by Monday at 11:24 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


I can’t see how shrinking hose onto the body would work before the crotch seam. Given how lovingly painters show very nice tightly clothed legs until the, huh, very late Victorian period, I’m sure people figured it out…
posted by clew at 12:01 PM on June 14


Despite what the article says, bunions turn your big toe inward, not outward. (Evidence: my own bunions, one of which is now surgically corrected.)

I came in for this, lol. The bunion is the protuberance at the base, I believe, which then causes the big toe to point inwards. ... yet in the article that bone picture toe is definitely pointing out.

It seems that the significant factor is the *tightness* of the shoe, not the *pointiness* ... though I'm not sure how you would separate those two aspects quantitatively.

it's hard to imagine anyone seeing them as attractive

I think the attraction was $$$, i.e. the opposite of workboots.

“If you were a man of status and you had enough wealth, you wanted to show that off,” Shawcross says. “And to do that, you had to take the toe to the extreme.”

"... they were also an indicator of leisure and luxury, free of extraneous effort or the tyranny of practicality ... [they] also had a sort of sex appeal, being cut to show off the colored hose around a lord’s ankle—considered quite sexy at the time."


Not much different than high heels for women now. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by mrgrimm at 12:26 PM on June 14 [4 favorites]


yet in the article that bone picture toe is definitely pointing out.

I just realized that's probably a left great toe. Doh.

posted by mrgrimm at 12:27 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


That is my conclusion, that it’s a left big toe.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:40 PM on June 14


“The tyranny of practicality” is a pretty great phrase, thanks for reminding me!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:41 PM on June 14


so just ancient botas picudas mexicanas then?
posted by mbo at 1:19 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


As someone who suffered from Plantar Fasciitis for years before switching to flat shoes with a wide toebox, I honestly don't think people are any better off today. The vast majority of shoes being sold and worn today are absolute shit for your feet.
posted by dobbs at 2:30 PM on June 14 [7 favorites]


Why do they think the fractures were due to bunions and not due to wearing stupid shoes?
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:07 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


I can’t see how shrinking hose onto the body would work before the crotch seam. Given how lovingly painters show very nice tightly clothed legs until the, huh, very late Victorian period, I’m sure people figured it out…

The hose didn't go up all the way; they were stockings and the tops were covered by a tunic and/or codpiece.

I don't know when they were first knitted, but they were definitely being knitted by the 16th century, just like modern socks. Basically, men were running around in thigh-high socks for a couple of centuries, before they switched to knee high and breeches.
posted by jb at 3:14 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


This looks like a good place to talk about the fact that this past year has been the first time in memory that my feet aren’t killing me and it’s because I’m not wearing shoes because I’m working from home. I now have a deadly serious plan to change my life to never require uncomfortable footwear ever again.
posted by HotToddy at 3:37 PM on June 14 [9 favorites]


The hose didn't go up all the way; they were stockings and the tops were covered by a tunic and/or codpiece.

I don't know when they were first knitted, but they were definitely being knitted by the 16th century, just like modern socks. Basically, men were running around in thigh-high socks for a couple of centuries, before they switched to knee high and breeches.


I’ve worn reproductions of 13th, 14th, and 15th century hose. By the 15th century they go all the way up to the waist.

Hose length followed rising hemlines from the early medieval period to the 15th century. Once the hem started to reach the pelvic area in the 15th century, the two hose were joined in the back to cover the buttocks, with the codpiece to cover the gap in the front.

Rather than being knit the hose were typically made of woven wool or linen, cut on the bias for stretch or made of boiled wool for that painted-on look.

Then in the 16th century as hemlines fell again the hose divided at the knee, with a lower stocking and an upper hose (with codpiece), which would eventually evolve into breeches and stockings and then finally into trousers and socks.
posted by jedicus at 8:30 PM on June 14 [9 favorites]


I don't know when they were first knitted, but they were definitely being knitted by the 16th century

This made me remember a kid's book set in 1493, The Wool Pack by Cynthia Harnett, which has some detail about tight-fitting hose.

"Nicholas shook himself out of his comfortable tunic, and opened the chest which stood at the foot of the bed to find his best clothes. The hose lay just on the top. They were made of cloth cut on the cross, so that they fitted his legs neatly. They were tied by laces called 'points' to his overshirt or 'pour point* —a little short jerkin worn for the sole purpose of holding up the hose. He tied the points with great care, remembering an occasion when he had dressed in a hurry and his hose had descended while he was waiting at table. There had been guests then too—another Staple merchant, Master Midwinter from Northleach, a fat jolly man, who had never seen Nicholas since without inquiring if he was sure of his points."

And again, "he felt quite fresh again and able to change from his riding clothes into a doublet of blue edged with silver, with a deeper blue cote over it. The new hose, of finest cloth, were cut on the cross to fit his legs like a skin, and, coupled with the stiffness that beset him, made him feel like a jointed dummy."

So hose weren't necessarily knitted.
posted by glasseyes at 8:49 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


Ah jedicus, now I see your comment
posted by glasseyes at 8:51 AM on June 15


Woven cloth has a diagonal stretch. Cutting on the cross means placing the pattern pieces so as to use that stretch so the finished garment clings to a persons body tightly.
posted by glasseyes at 9:02 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


I love the places this thread has gone. HotToddy, I salute your plan. Fashion historians, thank you for the info. There's something poignant to me about the fact that Ötzi the Iceman wore leggings as so many of us do today. Admittedly, modern leggings are not usually made of goat skin but there's still a connection. It makes him seem more real to me.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:14 AM on June 15


The vast majority of shoes being sold and worn today are absolute shit for your feet.

A few years ago, my wife's foot was hurting like crazy. She began to think it was broken, so she went to the ortho clinic. They took some X-rays and the tech said, "OK, the doc will take a look and come let you know what she sees."

Five minutes later, the orthopedist came in saying, "So, how long have you had your Danskos?"
posted by nickmark at 10:45 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


And if you cut checked or plaid cloth on the bias for your hose, you naturally get diamonds or lozenges -- which, as fashion remembers things imperfectly, return as the tricky-to-knit argyle.
posted by clew at 11:47 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


jedicus: thank you for the correction!

(my only knowledge comes from being vaguely aware that there was a late-16th/early-17th century stocking-knitting industry).
posted by jb at 1:14 PM on June 15


I remain annoyed that bunions are blamed on heels. Oh you ladies with your frivolous shoes! Nothing we can do for you, just be less vain! I wear heels about 4 hours a year and yet still have bunions.
posted by sepviva at 6:03 PM on June 15


I remain annoyed that bunions are blamed on heels. Oh you ladies with your frivolous shoes! Nothing we can do for you, just be less vain! I wear heels about 4 hours a year and yet still have bunions.

My understanding is that when people talk about "heels" causing bunions, they're referring to ANY rise from the front of the shoe to the back. IE, shoes that are not completely flat.

A shoe that is completely flat is called a "zero drop" shoe and has many benefits. The vast majority of shoes sold today are not zero drop. Hell, even Nike Free has a height-difference front to back (and a confined toebox). (The "Free" in the name is supposed to imply a barefoot experience.)

So, unless you're making a concerted effort to wear zero drop shoes you aren't wearing heels only 4 hours a year, but 8 hours a day. And, I suspect if you were making a concerted effort to wear zero drop shoes there is no way in hell you would put heels back on again, even if only for 4 hours a year.
posted by dobbs at 4:46 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


I remain annoyed that bunions are blamed on heels. Oh you ladies with your frivolous shoes! Nothing we can do for you, just be less vain! I wear heels about 4 hours a year and yet still have bunions.

From the original article, it seems that it's not so much the heels as the constrained toe-box that is the problem. The 14th century shoes shown have no heel (just soft leather).

A question for people who know: is it that the style of shoe is just made with a too narrow toe, or is it that when you have a long, pointed and open toe, your foot would slide if the shoe isn't very tight?
posted by jb at 11:42 AM on June 16


Really interesting article and a proper cautionary tale on the importance of good footwear. Thank you for sharing. As someone with Problem Feet with Bunions just wanted to share that bunions are hereditary and/or caused by joint problems. Shoes make bunions worse but don’t cause them.

The Conversation article seems to sometimes conflate the fact shoes can contribute to bunions with their cause. Take the claim that “by far the most common contemporary cause of bunions is constrictive boots and shoes – with high heels often blamed for today’s bunions.” I can’t access the whole article that is meant to support the claim but the abstract says only that “(a)commodative footwear is important” and doesn’t make a stronger causal claim.

I’ve inherited bunions and the underlying joint problems that make my feet particularly problematic. I have problems with stability and balance and I’ve broken my foot once while working out. Completely flat shoes are not a good choice for me because they aren’t supportive enough. I’ve been told by a number of podiatrists that I should live in trainers. Pointed shoes have always been a no-go area. They are the worst. Heels are also the worst.
posted by mkdirusername at 8:02 AM on June 20 [3 favorites]


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