Sunday, October 26, 2008
Feet, Shoes and Superstition : Stepping Out
Traveling in the Middle Ages carried with it many pearls and much store was placed on rituals to protect the vulnerable. An old Scottish tradition was to throw a shoe over the house before embarking on a journey. Wherever the toe pointed when the shoe landed determined the direction the journey would start. The custom’s serendipitous nature might have had a practical use by simply preventing pre-planned ambush as murderous robbery was common. When a shoe landed, sole uppermost this was thought to be a bad omen and alternative plans were made.
A common belief in the Middle Ages was human smell deterred evil workings. People rarely washed and smell of human odour was ever present on clothing and shoes. The practice of leaving an old shoe outside the front door of a dwelling before setting out on a journey was a common practice. A remnant of this custom is seen today in garden ornaments shaped as old boots, often used as flower pots.
Throwing shoes after someone setting out on a journey was thought to bring good luck and reference to this superstition appears in the literature of the 17th century onwards.
"For this thou shalt from all things seek,
Marrow of mirth and laughter,
And wheresoever thou move, good luck,
Shall throw her old shoe after."
Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809 - 1892)
The modern custom of tying old shoes to the bridal carriage or car may be a variation upon this good luck custom. In Transylvania the same gesture was thought to increase fertility. Throwing the shoe was taken to wish the couple a fulfilling life together with procreation being a very important part of that union.
In Latin, ‘conficere’ means to prepare which is a source of the word confetti. In Medieval Italy the custom was to throw sweetmeats (candy) at carnivals but by the 19th century the custom was freely practised in England at weddings and special occasions. Sweets were replaced by paper shapes in symbolic form and colour and shoes were included.
Suspicious travellers were always wary of morning travel with Monday considered a bad to travel. Once started on a journey the first person a traveller met was called the ‘first fit.’ The first fit was treated as an omen for the journey ahead. When the first fit was a red haired barefooted woman then disaster was sure to follow. Flat footed (or splay footed) people were especially bad luck and in Scotland they were called “the ill Fit “or jinxes. Travelers keen to continue with their journey tried to undo impending malice by observing rituals such as drawing blood from the first fit’s forehead which was done in the form of a cross. The alternative was to return home, cross the threshold with the right foot, eat and drink, then set out again.
The fear of flat feet was in part reinforced by a misinterpretation on the Scriptures. In Genesis 1:27, man was described as being created in the divine image of God, early Judo-Christians interpreted this as all men (not women) should be God like. Contemporary artists used idealized and stereotypical forms were used to depict the body beautiful. This was particularly inaccurate in the absence of human dissection. The clichéd Christian foot was well formed with high arch and straight toes. Any misshapenness came to represent all that was evil with a painful flat foot confirmation to the faithful of the presence of God’s wrath.
During the infamous European witch hunts (circa 1450 -1700) tens of thousands of people were executed on the flimsiest of evidence. At trial, confessions by torture, were generally accepted as proof of guilt. Peter Binsfeld wrote the influential treatise De confessionibus maleficorum et sagarum (Of the Confessions of Warlocks and Witches) and it became an authoritative reference on demonic signs which included physical disfigurement. Asymptomatic flat feet were viewed with particular suspicion and following public executions to avoid a peasant revolt based on remorse, authorities searched the bodies post mortem for signs of demonic possession. Post mortem flatfoot frequently confirmed the presence of evil.
Travellers carried talisman for luck and to ward off evil spirits. One quaint custom was to put a fern leaf in the shoes. Ferns had particular significance to early Christians because both the stem and root of the fern are marked with a ‘C.’ However, the special powers of the fern predate Christianity and a pagan belief was fern bloom accidentally dropped on the shoes of a traveller would give them individual knowledge of the speech of animals, birds, trees and bees. In the Northern Hemisphere, ferns blossomed deep in the forest around the Summer Solstice (June 22nd) but only the mature plants gave off golden seed and these were quite difficult to find. Woodman and those more familiar with a very hostile environment were more likely to find the plants so when a layperson happens upon it by chance this was considered a very special event which might only occur only once in a lifetime. When the shoes were removed the magical powers disappeared but if a fern was in the shoe this protected the owner from witches and forest goblins.
Other variations were to sprinkle salt or in the Southern States of the US, small red pepper pods in the shape of a cross were placed in the left shoe or boot for good luck, some authorities insisted before these spells could work the footwear had to be incinerated. Superstitions involving salt date back to Biblical times. It was a highly prized commodity and its presence was thought to keep the devil at bay.
In Mediterranean culture during antiquity walking with one shoe/sandal on and the other off had significant meaning. Men on a quest which involved hazardous enterprises started their journey with the right foot shod and the left, bare and this sartorial code came to represented ‘death or glory’ in Greek Mythology. The downfall of King Pelias was foretold by the presence of a man with one sandal (Jason). Not all cultures share the same beliefs and in North America walking with one boot only was thought to bring as many bad days as steps taken. Waking from sleep with one shoe on and the other off was a divination thought to bring bad luck for a year. Certainly the circumstances with which we might find ourselves waking with one shoe on and the other off might be when we are bent on a task too focused to notice hazardous elements, like unseen furniture. The resultant knock could easily be explained as bad luck. A fashion in the Middle Ages was for male courtiers to wear different coloured tights and corresponding shoes with the common belief wearing unmatched shoes was a sign of good luck.