The Medieval Gait - Sarah Woodbury

The Medieval Gait

Recently, a reader posted a link to a video positing that people in the Middle Ages walked differently than people do now.

They did this because of the idea that most medieval footwear didn’t include hard soles, so walking toe to heel instead of heel to toe allowed a person to negotiate hazards better. The author references medieval images of people with their toes pointed out, like a ballet dancer now, and particularly points to manuals about warfare.

This idea has been shared all over the internet this month, and being interested in medieval things, I wanted to know if I’ve been thinking about medieval people all wrong. I also decided to write about it because my first instinct was to think this theory is absurd, but if I’m wrong, I want to know it.

What  Roland Warzecha doesn’t delve into, and perhaps he hasn’t considered, is that this idea has ramifications that go far beyond the Middle Ages to affect all of human history. If what he is saying is true, after millions of years of humans walking one way, suddenly in 1500 AD when we more often wore hard soled shoes, our gait changed completely.

What I am not arguing with at all is that humans walk differently when wearing shoes versus barefoot, and that the hardness of the sole and the height of the heel have an effect on our gait. What I object to is the idea that people walked toe to heel, that this is a better, healthier way to walk, and that heel to toe is essentially a post-1500 AD way of walking.

With the idea that I do the research so you don’t have to, I decided to return to my anthropologist origins, and that, of course, means I started with the Laetoli Footprints.

The Laetoli Footprints

The Laetoli footprints are a 27 meter (88 foot) trail of 70 footprints made by three early hominds in Laetoli, Tanzania. They were “formed and preserved by a chance combination of events — a volcanic eruption, a rainstorm, and another ashfall. When they were found in 1976, these hominid tracks, at least 3.6 million years old, were some of the oldest evidence then known for upright bipedal walking, a major milestone in human evolution.”

“The early humans that left these prints were bipedal and had big toes in line with the rest of their foot. This means that these early human feet were more human-like than ape-like, as apes have highly divergent big toes that help them climb and grasp materials like a thumb does. The footprints also show that the gait of these early humans was “heel-strike” (the heel of the foot hits first) followed by “toe-off” (the toes push off at the end of the stride)—the way modern humans walk.” (emphasis mine)

As an anthropologist, that is enough evidence for me, but if it isn’t for you, I discovered more detail about shoe and shoe construction which calls into question the ideas upon which this theory is based.

Developments in Shoes

First of all, the Romans had hard soled shoes, so if anyone was going to walk like we do because of shoes, they did. They also had heels, which were built up layers of leather inside the shoe.

Secondly, platform shoes were commonly worn in the middle ages to raise people above the muck of the streets. These shoes had hard soles. It’s hard to know how often they were worn. Try not to judge.

Thirdly, the invention of heeled boots is actually attributable to keeping a man’s foot in the stirrup, and these were invented thousands of years ago. There is some dispute as to when stirrups reached Europe, but it was at least by the time of Charlemagne (c 800 AD). Stirrups and spurs are clearly visible in the images on the Bayeux tapestry, woven in the 11th century to commemorate the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

I had been struggling with the idea that knights wore soft leather soles, when the technology for hard leather was used in all of their gear–and so many cultures outside of Europe wore hard-soled shoes, so I was pleased to discover archaeologists in Oxford just found some 700 year old shoes  with hard soles and definite heels. To my eyes, they wouldn’t look out of place today.

Did some people walk toe to heel? Sure. I know people now who walk that way. Do elite runners run on their toes? For sure. I find it exhausting, but apparently it’s faster. Have we distorted our feet by wearing shoes–definitely. And high heels are insane. But are we fundamentally different in the way we walk –or can walk–compared to five hundred years ago … or three million? I would say not.


10 Replies to “The Medieval Gait”

    1. Oh that’s great. Thanks!

      Fortunately for my article, “we found that proportional toe depths of chimpanzee footprints and the Laetoli G1 footprints (calculated in the same manner as in previous analyses [14]) were significantly shallower than those observed in modern human footprints,” and “Examinations of the loadings along this bgPC axis and comparisons of the bgPC scores for the Laetoli and modern human footprints showed that the Laetoli sample is characterized by relatively deep impressions beneath the heel and midfoot compared with other parts of the foot, especially the toes.”

      Meaning that these ancient humans did not walk on their toes!

      1. Yes that is true. But at the same time the data shows that this particular hominid had to have a different skeletal structure compared to modern humans to allow for the gait that it had. So there are fundamental biomechanical differences in the way we walk compared to the hominid that left the Laetoli footprints.

        “Our results show that the Laetoli footprints are morphologically distinct from those of both chimpanzees and habitually barefoot modern humans. By analysing biomechanical data that were collected during the human experiments we, for the first time, directly link differences between the Laetoli and modern human footprints to specific biomechanical variables. We find that the Laetoli hominin probably used a more flexed limb posture at foot strike than modern humans when walking bipedally. The Laetoli footprints provide a clear snapshot of an early hominin bipedal gait that probably involved a limb posture that was slightly but significantly different from our own, and these data support the hypothesis that important evolutionary changes to hominin bipedalism occurred within the past 3.66 Myr.”

        While this does not mean that modern humans evolved to walk toe-heel it does mean there are significant differences between the two hominid gates and the pressures involved in locomotion and how they would have interacted with their environment. This particular hominids gait was more flexed at the limbs, imagine or try walking with your knees and hips bent more. Still a long way to go to get to a modern humans walking gait and our skeletal posture.

        “As such, the relatively shallow toe depths of the Laetoli G1 footprints are in fact compatible with a form of bipedalism involving a more flexed limb posture than is observed in the normal gait of modern humans. We do not infer a chimpanzee-like limb posture from the Laetoli footprints but rather one that simply involved slightly more knee and hip flexion at touchdown than is typical of modern humans. But even small differences in limb posture could have had important evolutionary implications. If the Laetoli G1 footprints were made by A. afarensis, and members of that taxon typically used a bipedal gait that involved relatively more flexed limbs, then A. afarensis probably would have experienced somewhat higher bipedal locomotor costs compared with modern humans [36–38] despite having similarly long lower limbs [39]. A higher cost of bipedal locomotion relative to modern humans could have had important adaptive consequences for A. afarensis, affecting mobility, home range size and many other aspects of interactions with the environment. This may have been a necessary trade-off, however, if some degree of arboreal locomotion still played an important adaptive role for A. afarensis”

        I would also say that differences between barefoot vs. most modern footwear tend to support the idea that it is far healthier to walk in something that allows for as close as possible a barefoot walking gait and posture.

  1. I am always interested when others, who are knowledgeable, can acquaint me with the ‘science’ of something, providing compelling evidence, for this-or-that, relative to unobservable phenomenon. So, thank you. At same time, regarding the earlier practice, somewhat common among both men and women, of a certain status, who wore high heeled shoes, which were often designed to extremes. In terms of heel height/sole curvature, I can offer a little practical experience to the mix — having, unfortunately, given over to the recent period of fashion, where heels reached lofty heights. I can attest that it is virtually impossible to lead with the heel, when making repeated strides (if you intend to remain upright, and assuming there is room for flexibility in the ankle). Also, this post made me very conscious of my own gait, with shoes and without. I was surprised to realize how much I led with, or shared stride, with the ball of my foot. I certainly rely on my toes to provide quick maneuver. Try it. Still, the posture of the subject in this image, also spawned a number of thoughts, socially and culturally speaking. In other words, the depiction seems rife with commentary on the ‘fashions’ for maneuvering at court. Fun stuff.

  2. I find this discussion very interesting! I have two Granddaughters that when they first learned to walk did it on their toes. They are 12&12 now and at times they still wall on just their toes. They only do this when bare footed and have ask for wooden toed shoes! Strange but true!

  3. One shouldn’t generalize based on such a small sample. Did medieval man walk differently due to the footware? Possibly, but how ‘universal’ and ‘natural’ is it?

    We now have a vast body of anthropological data on other cultures and societies. How do iKung or Australian aborigines walk? The Georgians and other Caucasians wore soft boots. Did that determine their stride? Has anyone ever made a serious comparative study of the issue?

    Do hunters stalk on the balls of the feet while farmers plod along on their heels? What about Bedouin? More data is needed.

  4. If there is a difference in gait, it may be because of wooden rather than leather soles. Clogs were popular in damp, mucky conditions, but the inflexibility of the wooden sole means you walk by rocking rather than bending the foot.

  5. Some years back I was looking out one of my windows, which looks across a grassy field to the edge of some woods. Just short of the woods, I saw a large black dog walking parallel to them. Then I realized that the animal was not walking on its toes dog-fashion but on its heels, and therefore it had to be an American black bear. Quite a surprise to see one so close to the house.

  6. Very intriguing discussion of gait and one about which I’ve never given much thought. I shattered my heel into 6 pieces years ago and have 3 stainless steel pins permanently binding the bones together. I can’t stand walking barefoot on hardwood floors and definitely use the toe to heel approach on these surfaces. When I’m on carpeting or wearing socks or shoes, I typically use the heel to toe gait.

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