Monday, November 3, 2008
In less enlightened times wickedness, ugliness and illness were considered inseparable. During the Middle Ages flat feet were considered undesirable and people with them were marginalised from society as evil. Many old wives tales and superstitions relate to seeing flat feet as being a bad omen.
Meeting people with flat feet at the beginning of an important journey was considered extremely bad luck. During the Dark Ages, poor people went barefoot or wore rough leather covers to protect their feet. Peasants were suspicious of shoes and believed they carried the spirit of the previous owner.
Shoemakers or cordwainers in medievil times were frequently treated with suspicion because their shoes could cover, flat feet. By the seventeenth and eighteenth century this prolonged aversion of flat feet was given a medical name, the Jewish Foot. This related to the perceived inherent weakness in the largely nomadic and disliked population of Jewish people in Europe. Later this was replaced by the term weak foot in the medical literature of the nineteenth century and of course rebranded "pronated foot", in the late 20th century. We continue to despise flat feet yet are no further forward in understanding them than our ancestors were. Still we carry on the crusade by using the fetish curved plastic (foot orthosis) to magically cure the "Evil Fit".
The association between the foot and erotic pastime was clearly seen in the many delightful illustrations found within erotic literature and art from the East. The foot was considered a tactile and sensitive part of the anatomy which had been included in love making for many centuries, dating back to antiquity. Such behaviour may be seen improper or debased by today's standards but to make any sense of the practice it is important to see the phenomena within the original context and operating as a natural behaviour. Perhaps the most difficult to contemplate was the Chinese preoccupation with small feet.
The sado-ritualistic practice of footbinding lasted at least a 1000 years and was done intentionally to create a second, or quasi vagina. The plantar surface of the foot became hypersensitive, as did the genital area surrounding the vulva. Increased labial folds meant the vagina muscles remained toned. All this was achieved through changes to the musculature caused by gait adjustments relating to the smaller steps from bound feet. The irony is, of course, today the same principles are used to effect rehabilitation by taping and foot orthotic management.
In early Europe, the increased sexual focus on the female foot may have intensified in the thirteenth century as the first epidemic of sexually transmitted disease was brought back with the returning crusaders. With no means of preventing transmission, acceptance of alternative sexual intimacies was accepted. During this time contemporary romantic literature began to include strong reference to women's feet.
Troubadours waxed eloquent about their attractiveness and the literate, read about them in the few books of the time e.g. The Romance of the Rose. Attractive feet were white; narrow with high arches and long straight toes. Toe nails were worn long with large white moons on pink, pale nailbeds. To be really sexy there should be no syndactlism (webbed feet). Fashion for women was at least three hundred years away and those who could afford to wear shoes, had heelless pumps or slippers in the same style as those depicted in paintings of the Virgin Mary. All this interest in women's feet came at a time when long toed shoes were popular among male courtiers.
The churchmen did not miss the overt phallic connotations. Subsequent Popes attempted to ban them. However their protests were dismissed as the idealised aspect of medieval love disintegrated into the adulterous aspects of high gothic, courtly love. The fashion lasted three hundred years before it came to an abrupt end. Shoe extensions had grown, in that time, from a few inches beyond the toes, to twenty-four inches beyond the foot. Accepted as a privilege of affluence the extension were eventually legislated for and people who earned less than forty pounds per annum were prevented from wearing long toed shoes at all. Vittore Carpaccio (1450-1522) was a Venetian painter and according to Rossi (1971) depicted shoes as turreted instruments of torture designed to seduce. He probably was not that far wrong.
The end of the fashion was foretold by three events. An Austrian archduke was assassinated and could not flee his attackers because of the length of his shoes; King Charles V of Spain was born with polydactilism (six toes on each foot); and the consequence of the syphilis epidemic meant broad toed “orthopaedic” shoes became ever apparent.