Thou shalt not stir one foot to seek a foe

I haven’t really thought about Santa Claus for years now, but I do remember as a child wondering if those pointy curled up shoes his elves had to wear served some special function. I don’t think I ever wanted shoes with curls, or anything, but I do recall keeping my eyes open for them whenever my mother dragged me into a shoe store. I say ‘dragged’ because I hated the ones she usually chose. I’m not sure if running shoes had even been invented by then, but the shoes I got to take home were either too big (You’ll grow into them, dear) or too small (I can tell your toes don’t even touch the ends… and besides, they’re on sale). It was the too small ones that were the worst, though, and those were the times I longed for the big-toe wiggle room I was convinced the elves had. But I never saw the long, pointy variety on the shelves, and  except for the high-heeled women’s shoes, there was nothing particularly pointy available and certainly nothing that curled up at the ends.

But now that I’m retired, and have cleared some room in my head for childhood memories, the subject of elf shoes surfaced again one day for some reason… Okay, it was triggered by a short article (with intriguing pictures and illuminated 15th century manuscripts) in the Smithsonian Magazine.

I have to admit I didn’t know they were called poulaines -or, since they were introduced from Poland, were also called Cracows. They were apparently quite fashionable in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries for both men and women. But, much like today’s high-heeled women’s shoes, they led to a veritable medieval plague of bunions -or hallux valgus (to pretend undeserved podiatral knowledge). In fact, shoes became so pointy that in 1463, King Edward IV decreed that there could be no points longer than 2 inches.

But since it spoke to the seriousness of the fashion, it naturally attracted the anthropologists. Two of them, Piers Mitchell, from the University of Cambridge and Jenna Dittmar from the University of Aberdeen examined a whole bunch of skeletons from the time of the pointy-shoes, and found that 27% were Hallux valgussed (if you’ll forgive the neologism). Of course not everybody was similarly cursed. It was more common in the wealthy people who’d chosen a particularly expensive cemetery -and amongst the cemetery owners as well: Augustinian friars. Interestingly, most of the farmers in the area weren’t as frequently bunioned. Not only that, but amongst the wealthier corpses who were over 40 years of age and had bunions, a lot of them had fractures -suggesting they might have tripped over their points, or something. You apparently need your big toes to remain stable when you’re standing or walking… I mean, go figure…

Whether or not humanity learned from its bunions is still moot though because, like most good shadows, Halluces, padded silently behind fashion over the years, only to reassert themselves in the Britain of the 1950ies in the form of Winklepickers. My memories of the 50ies, much like my short-term memories of the 21’s, have only managed to eke out a largely fragmentary existence, but nevertheless I have some recollection of asking my mother about some shoes I saw pictured in a newspaper showing what teenagers in Britain were wearing. They had long points but no curls, if memory serves (which it sometimes doesn’t). I was fascinated by them, but my mother thought they looked like weapons –‘shoe-knives’ I think she called them.

At any rate, she merely shrugged, took the paper away from me and said she’d never seen shoes like that in Winnipeg, and anyway even if she had, I couldn’t have any. The idea did not die, however, and I was loathe to let it lie fallow. We were generations away from the internet then, so I did what any 10 year old would do in those days -I went to the library.

They did have a two-book section on the history of shoes, remarkably, but both of the books only mentioned medieval court shoes and of course the edict against them by King Edward. And not a word about the recent fad in Britain.

That’s why they have librarians, though, and I wandered along the aisles until I spotted one wheeling a little cart filled with books for replacing on the shelves. I don’t remember anything about her except that she looked younger than the one behind the counter at the front and spoke with a funny accent that didn’t sound at all Prairie. I told her about the picture in the newspaper and her face lit up.

“Oh, you mean Winklepickers?”

I remember that because I thought she was making a joke. But then her face turned serious and I think she looked over her shoulder and along the aisle before she explained -of course I may be embellishing what I remember: I still do that, but I think I’m better at it now.

“You can’t buy ’em in Winnipeg, you know…” she whispered, followed by another furtive glance behind her. “It were the gangs what used to wear ’em…” I’m pretty sure she italicized ‘gangs’. “They used ’em as weapons,” she added in another whisper.

“But why did they call them Winkie… pickles?” I asked, not sure I heard her correctly.

Winklepickers,” she corrected. “Because they would aim the sharp ends at your winkles if they didn’t like you.” I remember she smiled at me then and wandered off down the aisle humming, leaving shelved books in her wake.

I can’t help but admire what you could learn in a library in those days. Even if the books were old and incomplete, they must have screened the librarians carefully for their knowledge. I remember telling my mother what I’d learned when I got home, but despite my insistence, she refused to tell me what Winkies were; she kept saying she didn’t know. In fact, though, after all these years, I finally realized that, even in those early years, her vocabulary probably wasn’t up to mine.


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