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Pointed shoes from the medieval era broke people’s feet, study shows

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Wearing shoes that hurt is not a relatively current custom. High heels have been part of humanity’s garments for thousands of years, and the older those shoes, the less comfortable they were. In a recent study by Cambridge University’s department of archeology, scientists found evidence that these shoes caused a lot of trouble centuries ago.

The shoes in question were pointed and long, and were worn by wealthier people, as if they were luxury pieces of the time. The researchers analyzed the skeletons of 177 people, found in four medieval cemeteries in the city of Cambridge, which is in England. In one of the cemeteries rich friars and parishioners were buried, in the other poor people, another was dedicated to the middle class, and another was part of a remote rural parish.

The skeletons have been studied in detail to find signs of injuries that may have been caused by loss of balance due to wearing shoes, in addition to being the cause of the appearance of bunions, which are a bone swelling in the joint at the base of the big toe. Then, scientists found that 27% of those individuals, who lived between the 14th and 15th centuries, suffered from bunions.

Among the friars buried in the cemetery for the rich, 45% of them had bunions on their feet, just at a time when the clergy in England were dressed in more sophisticated clothing. “The adoption of fashionable clothing by the clergy was so common that it generated criticism in contemporary literature,” says Mitchell.

In the skeletons of poorer people, only 10% suffered from bunions, since shoes at the time were expensive. In the rural cemetery, the number is even lower: only 3% had foot problems. Of skeletons dated between the 11th and 13th centuries, before pointy shoes became fashionable, only 6% showed signs of bunions.

In addition to the bunions, some of the skeletons showed signs of fractures, which could have been caused by an imbalance with the shoes. According to the study, about 52% of individuals with bunions on their feet had at least one fracture. Jenna Dittmar, lead author of the study, says that the deformity caused by the bunion causes imbalance and increases the risk of falls in older people.

“This would explain the high number of broken ‘glued’ bones that we found in medieval skeletons with this condition”, explains the scientist. “We think of bunions as a modern problem, but this work shows that, in fact, it was one of the most common conditions in adults in the medieval era”, he adds.

The full study is available in the journal International Journal of Paleopathology.

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