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blog History for Fantasy Writers: Shoemakers

Discussion in 'Research' started by skip.knox, Sep 15, 2019.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    skip.knox submitted a new blog post:

    History for Fantasy Writers: Shoemakers
    by E.L. Skip Knox

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    Most everyone knows the story of the shoemaker and the elves. The Grimm brothers gave us the version most of us know, and it begins this way:

    There was once a shoemaker, who worked very hard and was very honest: but still he could not earn enough to live upon; and at last all he had in the world was gone, save just leather enough to make one pair of shoes.

    That's the stereotype we have: shoemakers are poor and the cobbler is even poorer. Some were. But in the Middle Ages, they also had a reputation for being lazy, as witnessed by this bit of doggerel describing the work habits of shoemakers:

    Monday is Sunday's brother
    Tuesday also do they play
    Wednesday they fetch the leather
    Thursday they return again
    Friday they cut it up
    Saturday they make pants and shoes.

    So, only one day a week of actually making shoes! Poor and honest, or lazy? Happily, fiction writers can have it both ways and six other ways besides. For some ideas, it pays to look at shoemakers in history, to see how they worked.

    Shoemakers in just about every town were organized into guilds. Since demand for shoes was inelastic, one of the...
    Continue reading the Original Blog Post.
     
  2. Black Dragon

    Black Dragon Staff Administrator

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    Great article, as always. I'm curious: how long would a typical (decently made) pair of shoes last? Did they usually last longer than our mass produced shoes of today?
     
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    How long would vary wildly by occupation, weather, material, care, and chance, but this is what cobblers were for. The leather itself could last longer than a lifetime. Soles could be replaced or even just a new one put over the old one. Even stitching could be replaced. Longer than modern shoes? Mostly likely, but modern shoes generally aren't all leather. If you do take a leather shoe, though, it would still last a long time if you invested in repairs.

    BTW, this is exactly the kind of question a writer wants to know and a historian doesn't. For one thing, the historical record is largely silent. When was the last time you wrote down how long your shoes lasted? It's also a question that doesn't lend itself to historical analysis, at least not for modern historians. For this sort of thing you have to go back to pre-WWII historians at the very least, or even pre-WWI. But those historians were not always critical of their sources. You might find an answer, but it might not be a very good answer, historically. For the writer, though, they're great. Lots of details and anecdotes and who cares if you can find trustworthy documentation? If it makes for a good story, I'll snatch it up.
     
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  4. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    One might get an idea of durability by looking at cowboy boots, all leather and such, might be fairly comparable? No idea. I sold shoes at one point in my life, and no doubt a quality pair of cowboy boots will go through many sets of soles. I know folks who’d come in sad to be finally giving up on a pair of uppers after 20 years... yeah, they were like paper-leather, but I bet comfy, heh heh. Even a hard-working boot could survive 10 if it was a utility boot rather than supple and for looks. That wouldn’t even be using some of the heavier/thicker bull hides I’ve seen. Not sure if I’d want those on my feet, but they’d last a while, heh heh.
     
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  5. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    I can believe in "generational boots". Well into the 80s, I was using work boots my father had forgotten to return to the RAF in the 50s.
    They were the only hard leather sole with hobnails I've ever seen or worn. They were lined inside with cardboard because you could feel the hobnails. And you still needed two pairs of wool socks. They were almost certainly war surplus from the 40s and probably the only thing I've ever worn that would have survived a nuclear attack.
    That said... They only died when I stained them black and tried to get a shine on the leather. They were never destined or designed to get a good polish.
     
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  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Barry Levinson made a pretty good movie called Avalon about growing up in Baltimore. One anecdote that has always stuck with me is how he made money as a kid by walking in men's shoes. That is, a well-to-do man who could afford to buy new shoes, would give these new shoes to the boy for a time. The boy walked around for days, breaking in the stiff leather until the man could wear the shoes without getting blisters. The boy made a dime or two.

    Not about shoemakers, but at least shoe-related.
     
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  7. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

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    Hello Skip!

    This has been a most excellent article, thank you very much. I am always curious and very eager to learn more about what Medieval life was really like, and it so happens that shoes in particular were very interesting for me. It's something that we rarely give any importance to in our modern world, we just take shoes for granted but it has not always been like this.

    As you know, I have a strong interest regarding certain 14th Century princess, and now I realize that her shoes were for sure prettier, far more expensive and a lot more durable than mine!

    I do not have any shoemaker character in any of my stories.

    Now that I think about it, only a few stories of mine take place in Medieval style worlds. Also, I concentrate on the story and leave world building and world details in second and third place of importance respectively. Shoemakers are part of certain classic stories as you have mentioned, so I am sure that they can be great characters in a story.

    I love to learn about just how complex and well-organized the Medieval world was really like.

    I have an article suggestion for you: My interest in the 14th Century in particular has caused me to read a lot about the Great European Famine of 1315, and it was quite a disaster. You could write an article about it, analyze the causes behind it like the changes in weather patterns and how the constant rain eventually affected the crops and food supply.

    All of those things could be super interesting in a Medieval Fantasy story.
     
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Thanks, SheilawiszSheilawisz. I'm guessing you've read The Great Famine by William Chester Jordan. It's probably the best work in English. His bibliography will send you off to related works.

    It's a good idea for an article; I'll put it into my idea queue. I have several articles already in development, so it'll have to get in line. :)

    She was never a princess but she was a queen twice: have you read about Costanza of Aragon? She's 13th century.
     
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  9. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

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    Hi there Skip!

    Actually no, I have not read The Great Famine by that author you have mentioned, and my knowledge of Aragonian history is quite limited. The Iberian peninsula was a huge mess before the creation of a unified Spain, and it's still a mess today in many ways. I feel that British history is more interesting, but still a lot of very important things happened in Spain.

    I hope that you come up with an article about the Black Death, there are so many silly myths about that disaster in particular.
     
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I have a whole essay on the demographic crises of the 14thc--Black Death, Hundred Years War, the Great Famine. Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror isn't very good history, but her sub-title hit it on the nose: it was indeed a calamitous century.

    I'm not really bored with British history, but I am fed up with it. Far too many books are set there, and the peculiarities of that peculiar island get taken as the template for "medieval." So I gravitate toward other interesting areas. I've neglected Iberia, but my excuse is Italy. ;-) I know a bit about early modern Spain, thanks to J.H. Elliott, but medieval Iberia is mostly darkness illuminated by a few, rather random spotlights--crusaders at Lisbon, Charlemagne's expedition, the holdout kingdom of Asturia, the Muslim invasion of the 8thc, El Cid of course, and some equally random information about Castile and Aragon in the 15thc. Just recently I've learned about Costanza of Aragon who married first a Hungarian king and then Frederick of Hohenstaufen.

    Like I said, pretty random.

    I do recommend The Great Famine if you can lay hands on a copy.
     
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  11. Brianna Sharp

    Brianna Sharp Acolyte

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    I had no idea a shoe maker and a cobbler were different things! I never was very fond of history lessons but this was very interesting.
     
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  12. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I think history is a bit like science for me... when it’s not in a class it’s way more interesting. This is mainly because you get the tidbits rather than the boring, ugly details... like helping my daughter with sciene. It’s kind of interesting that heavy breathing gets oxygen to tkae care of lactid acid buildup during a burst of exercise... the details of cellular respiration are boring as crap, LOL. At least for both of us.
     
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