Toe the line


Archaeologists reveal why you should not wear pointy shoes.


Pointy shoes might be loved by some, but you can pay a price: bunions. A bony mass forms at the base of your big toe, pushing the toe inward at an angle. Bunions, known to physicians as hallux valgus, are commonplace in the fashion-conscious world of today. As the victims grow older, major bunions can cause balance problems and cause people to fall and even break their upper limbs.


It transpires that hallux valgus is nothing new. By the late 14th century, adults and children in London and Cambridge wore a broad spectrum of shoes, many of them slightly pointed. We know this because Cambridge archaeologists analysed the skeletons of 177 people from four medieval cemeteries. One was for wealthy monks and parishioners, one for people who were less affluent but not poor, and a third came from a remote rural parish. A surprising 27% of the dead suffered from bunions, including no fewer than 45% of the monks in the wealthy cemetery. They lived at a time when British priests were dressing more fashionably, to the accompaniment of criticism from people who felt that the religious should not value material comforts and rewards.


Generally, poorer people in the sample had healthier feet, only 10% in the city cemetery and a mere 3% in the rural burial ground had bunions. As the deformity increased, the bunion sufferers showed tell-tale signs of injury. Some 52% of them had suffered from at least one fracture. The medieval data fits well with modern experience: bunions were a relatively common condition among adults of six centuries ago.


Lesson from the ancestors: step away from the pointy footwear, people.



Image: Pointy shoes on the 15th century illuminated manuscript of Renaud de Montauban.