Shoe concealments of yore – a recent study

Builders and archaeologists sometimes comes across old shoes (usually just one of a pair*) which have been deliberately hidden in inaccessible places in the fabric of old buildings. Under floorboards, behind bricked-up fireplaces etc etc. But why were they put there? A number of scholars have provided possible answers . . . The most recent academic paper being from Dr Ceri Houlbrook (University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom) and Rebecca Shawcross (Senior shoe curator at the Northamptonshire Museum & Art Gallery, UK). It’s  published in Material Religion : The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief, Volume 14, 2018 – Issue 2. See: ‘Revealing the Ritually Concealed: Custodians, Conservators, and the Concealed Shoe’  [24 hours to view or download: £32.00]

“Concealed shoes are footwear purposely concealed within domestic buildings. The motivations behind their concealments are unknown to us, but the prominent theory suggests that shoes were employed as apotropaic (evil-averting) devices.”

So could it be, for example, that the footwear-hiders thought that the shoes could act as ‘Lightning Conductors’ to distract malevolent supernatural threats? Such that a malign demon or spirit might think that a shoe is a member of the household, and so mistakenly attack it – subsequently getting trapped inside it?

That’s bearing in mind that it in the past it was widely believed that “evil spirits, fairies, and demons did not like the smell of leather” Ref: MacCulloch, John A. 1910. “Changelings.” In Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics 3, edited by James Hastings, Louis H. Gray and John A. Selbie, 358–363. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. )

* Further reading: A full access paper in which Dr Ceri Houlbrook explores possible reasons why the shoes tend to found one at a time.

“Drawing on a sample of 100 examples, this paper questions why such shoes were deposited as singles (the present parts), what became of the ‘other shoe’ (the absent part), and how such consideration aids our understanding of this enigmatic custom.”

‘The Other Shoe: Fragmentation in the PostMedieval Home’,

Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Vol. 27 (2): 261-274, December 2016.

Research research by Martin Gardiner