A History of London in 10 Archaeological Objects: Object 6August 23, 2012 Archaeology, Blogs, LAARC, LAARC Object of the month
The Museum’s Archaeological Archive – the LAARC – has had an exceptionally busy summer, running a host amazing archaeological events. Still celebrating our 10th anniversary, we’re now over halfway through our celebratory blog: ‘A History of London in 10 Archaeological objects’.
We’ve now jumped several centuries forward from the Late Saxon to the Late Medieval Period. Once again I have the tricky task of summing up an entire epoch – almost 500 years conveniently known as the Middle Ages – through one object.
The Early and Late Medieval periods of London are dominated by major themes and events of the period including e.g. the Peasant’s Revolt, Crusades and Black Death, set against urban population growth and decline, mirroring diversified trade and industry expansion. The theme of religion would have been an obvious choice and pilgrim badges a very suitable object. Thomas Becket (London’s unofficial patron saint of the period) is a well known figure and many badges depicting his image have been recovered from urban waterfront excavations:
However, we already have a number of metal objects in the top 10, and a variety of other materials survive archeologically and need to be represented. If you’re a fan of pilgrim badges though, the Museum’s core collection will soon be available to peruse online.
My sixth object has been chosen to explore the theme of ‘power and fashion’. Found in relation to a castle (what could be more iconic of the medieval period!) it is perhaps unusual as an archaeological object, in being able to tell us something of London’s ruling elite.
Medieval (Late C14th) Leather ‘Poulaine’ Shoe
This leather shoe is some 600 years old and forms part of a group of shoes excavated from the site known as Baynard’s castle (sitecode BC72), excavated during the early 1970s. Baynard’s castle is perhaps the lesser known of the three Norman London castles after the Tower of London (established 1066) and Montfichet’s Castle (by 1136). Baynard’s has a rich history as both a castle owned by the Duke of Gloucester and, after 1446, the crown when it became a royal palace.
Found in dumps of rubbish of a C14th public harbour called East Watergate, our medieval shoe is extremely interesting both in itself and as part of a larger assemblage of 416 other shoes which form the “largest and one of the best preserved group of footwear ever to have been recovered from a London site”!
This particular example is exceptional for its decorative, scored lines and suede finish. It would originally have had a pointy end; known as a ‘poulaine’, ‘Crakow’ or ‘pike’ of which the style became popular from the late C14th. A high percentage of the assemblage from the Baynard’s castle site are poulaine shoes, which is at odds with other assemblages excavated in London. Their impracticability is one aspect that defines them a status symbol of the time. Edward IV in the later C15th enacted sumptuary legislation restricting pointy shoes to the aristocracy (3 Edw iv c.5):
“no Knight under the State of a Lord, Esquire, Gentleman, nor other Person shall use or nor wear…any Shoes or Boots having pikes passing the Length of Two Inches…”
The entire assemblage of shoes from this rubbish dump show little wear and we may suggest that they come from the castle itself or perhaps even the King’s Great Wardrobe. The Wardrobe’s main function was to source material and supply dress for royalty and was located just north of the castle, within the Ward, and is contemporary with this archaeology.
But why is the end of our poulaine cut off? Perhaps the shoe was remodelled to fit a new owner’s feet, although the sole of the shoe has not been that worn which suggests little actual use and, importantly, reuse before being disposed of. One curator at the museum prefers to think of a noble’s spurned wife committing the modern act of shirt-slashing…
The LAARC stores hundreds of leather shoes from all periods and they are an evocative object as we can easily connect with their use. Unlike much of London’s archaeology that usually presents a picture of the everyday (and more menial) life, I hope this object stands out as perhaps having been worn by one of London’s wealthiest and most powerful figures of the time.