Historical Fencing Footwear

“What shoes to train in?”
Ask instead, what did Medieval and Renaissance fighters wear?

By John Clements
ARMA Director

Footwear is important. It directly affects how you move and what kinds of motions you can perform. Since the footwork of Renaissance martial arts is particular, and as I interpret and teach it, very agile, the shoes you wear become crucial to what you can learn correctly and perform effectively.

I have always stressed footwork in my practice and am known personally for being quick footed and very agile in my stepping. Over the years, I have tried out all sorts of different makes and brands of modern footwear, from Crocs to Keds, from dancewear to sneakers and sport shoes of all kinds. I have collected a wide range of types and wasted good money on assorted styles over the decades that I have been active. I continue to do so. I have also trained in various styles of historical and non-historical boots. I believe I have a pretty good feel for what kind of shoes are best for our craft --- and they are not the ones suited to the needs of playing football, baseball, and soccer, nor those designed for the requirements of basketball or track.

Nothing reveals mediocre skills quicker in my opinion than noting what a student wears on their feet when training in these skills. Countless times I have lamented practitioners who insisted on wearing ridiculous work boots or modern combat boots (and their teachers as well!).

The facts are that if you look through the historical sources, almost without exception you will see image after image of slim, flat, slipper-like shoes. You will not find heavy boots. You will not find shoes with thick heels. You will not find shoes with thick soles. Even when you see high-rise footwear, they typically appear thin with flat soles.

Evidence from the Source Teachings

From the late 13th century MS.I.33, to the late 17th century works of Paschen and Petter, there is an undeniable common element detectable among the footwear of Renaissance martial arts illustrations: slipper-light shoes or stockinged feet. Try to find a pair of heeled boots or heavy looking shoes on a combatant. You will be hard pressed to do so.

From Fiore’s editions, to Talhoffer’s, from Von Danzig’s images to those of Paulus Kal, Leckuechner, Lebkommer, the Goliath, Solothurner, and Gladiatoria works, as well as Vadi, the 15th century sources all depict close-fitting slipper-like footwear. Images in the 16th century sources from Duerer, Pauernfeindt, Jorg Wilhalm, Marozzo, Agrippa, Vigianni, Didier, and Di Grassi to Lovino (with his tiny feet!) reveal the same. Famously, the treatises of Mair and Meyer show stockinged feet throughout. The fighters depicted in Heredia, Ghisliero, Saviolo, Fabris, George Silver, Giganti, Capo Fero, Swetnam, the Pallas Armata, Thibault, Wallhausen, Heussler, Koppen, Alfieri and the various anonymous works from the era each include small simple shoes.

Even in 15th and 16th century artwork of battlefield close combat you will be challenged to find examples of what look like boots, let alone shoes with thick heels. Fighting men obviously knew something about the necessity for light close-fitting footwear. In the “age of maile” and the “age of plate,” as well as into the “pike and musket era,” a surprising multitude of military artwork depicts simple flat shoes, quite often even with attached spurs. Whether the figures are knights or commoners, armored or unarmored, on the battlefield or in single combat, engaged in training or judicial duels, wielding anything from poleaxes to rapiers, or even grappling unarmed, the consistency in the footwear illustrations across regions and centuries cannot be denied.

We see light footwear worn indoors and outdoors on all terrains and manner of floors. Even when armored sabatons are worn, they are invariably depicted as close-fitting, conforming to the natural shape of the foot, with no hint of thick protruding heels. It’s important to realize, heels on shoes were historically for one purpose: fitting into stirrups. Later they were for fashion. But heels were certainly never for purposes of fencing. And thick soles on shoes were typically for walking long distances.

Across generations, artists of the period took the time to put detail into weapons and clothing and postures; we cannot imagine they fictionalized what was worn on the feet or somehow neglected to show such common items correctly. To argue otherwise, that the diverse source images depicting thousands of examples of light shoes, are somehow not to be believed, is madness.

Besides the overwhelming iconographic evidence for light footwear being worn by Medieval and Renaissance fighting men, there are other proofs. In the 1621 work, The Triumphs of God’s Revenge, a series of fictional tales of murder and retribution by the English writer John Reynolds, we read in Book I of the Italian gallant Gasparino’s challenge to the courtly thug Pisani. The parties meet and tie their horses to the hedge, pull off their spurs and then, “cut away the timber-heeles of their bootes, that they might not trippe, but stand firme in their play.” Writing in 1863 on the history of young German aristocracy in the 17th century, Gustav Freytag similarly described a military dignitary on his way to a duel: “He then rode with his second to the nearest village; behind a hedge he pulled off his riding-boots, put on light fencing shoes…” Boots were simply unsuited to needs of single combat.

Boots, for that matter, were something you wore when traveling. They were something high and sturdy to avoid mud and the ever-present filth. They were designed to keep your feet warm and dry and to not quickly wear out. But despite what The Three Musketeers pretends (itself based on 19th century notions of historical costume), riding boots were certainly not designed for the quick agile actions needed in hand-to-hand fighting. It is not hard to notice that as the importance of close combat skills declined in the mid-17th century, soldiers were outfitted more and more with military footwear designed for long marches, extended campaigns in the field, and firing guns from standing ranks.

Modern Assumptions and Prejudices

I once had a conversation with a museum expert on historical clothing and shoes, and I complained how slippery the various historical styles of leather shoes were that I had tried, and how the soles (often with nails) hurt your feet if you practice vigorously in them for very long. I grumbled that their soles were extremely slick and all but unusable on modern surfaces. He shrugged and said he had no explanation, since surviving specimens were all but non-existent and, besides, he was no fencing practitioner...

Manufacturers of historical costume shoes, just as with replica swords today, typically don’t have the knowledge of what is necessary for vigorous martial arts practice. For some time they have had no concern for footwear to be worn as anything much more than costume accessory or theatrical ensemble. Reenactors and living-history crafts-people have for decades been concerned about accurate historical garb, but focused on what was worn at court or when traveling (i.e., formal shoes and riding boots). Combat shoes have never been much more than incidental dress items. Only recently some have turned their attention to the footwear within the historical fighting literature. While I myself have no knowledge of historical footwear construction, I can note that reenactors have no reputation as serious martial arts practitioners. Their opinions on footwear should therefore be suspect, given how much of a pass they have long given to the ubiquitous heavy boots worn by so many enthusiasts claiming authenticity. 

Keep in mind, groups like the notorious Sca, well-known for abysmal footwork in their ahistorical combat sport, have long had a requirement in their fighting rules to wear steel-toed shoes (which actively discourages any need to stand or move correctly). This hardly induces agile stepping, let alone permits accurate interpretation of the motions contained within Renaissance source teachings. Meanwhile, the renn-fair groupies, who can hardly be considered to be serious about historical fighting skills, continue their love affair with Robin Hood pirate boots.

A Persisting Problem

My perspective here is the result of experiences I have had since the 1980s getting my practice partners, and later, my students, to switch to lighter slimmer shoes. The difference in how you can move and what you can perform in a manner reflecting the source images quickly becomes self-evident. I have over the years seen and encountered countless practitioners that insisted on wearing heavy work boots or inflexible combat boots instead of accurate shoes as depicted in the sources. Many of these folk were themselves deeply into historical role-play and dressed in historical style shoes only when not fighting. Their excuses were numerous and nonsensical, especially given that the actual historical fighting men managed just fine to practice real skills for real world self-defense while wearing the footwear they did---and sometimes none at all.

[It should be obvious and easy to say: You need light and flexible shoes to ideally practice this art. That should be it. It’s that simple. End of Story. But no, we have to gather up all the images, document the evidence, explain our reasoning, and justify common sense opinions in detail, all just to establish what should be self-evident facts. Even then, there will be self-deluding fools on the internet denying this is the case. They’ll look at the evidence and still manage to argue, “Um…not-unh.” They will contend that somehow all this accumulated material is to be disregarded because… maybe… all the various artists over the centuries somehow chose not to portray shoes accurately, or maybe fighters all changed shoes before battle, or maybe they changed shoes when practicing in-doors. Or maybe they really are wearing thick inflexible heavy shoes but we just can’t see them clearly enough in the artwork. Any excuse is proposed other than admitting the obvious simplicity: fighting men generally wore light shoes because you move and fight differently in them. No, instead, they will invent any justification to explain away that for years they have been habitually wearing types of footwear that encouraged misunderstanding the sources, thereby adversely affecting what they learned to do. Go figure.]

Even the two pairs of virtually heel-less boots appearing in Jacob Sutor's
1612 treatise are flat and tight fitting around the sole.

Examples of footwear worn by knights and soldiers outside abound in historical artwork consistently show thin and flat styles. The cumulative weight of this cannot be discounted.

Battlefield footwear as found in assorted 12th to 15th century French artwork:

Tight fiting heel-less riding boots from 15th century German chivalric litertaure

More shoes from 15th century Italian military artwork

Given just how common simple form-fitting flat-soled footwear are consistently depicted in detail within 15th and 16th century fencing manuals (such as this anonymous work below) it becomes baffling why modern practitioners do not readily adopt similar shoes in their training. 

What Kind of Training Shoe to Get?

I regret I can offer no recommendations for any specific make or model of historical style shoes, which are often custom made and not inexpensive. There are so many crafts-people and vendors that the ones I have may not be the same exact style and design of others. So, without trying them all out I cannot say that any particular ones will now be better or worse than my past experiences. I can advise what I regularly tell my fellow practitioners and students: get rid of your thick wide-soled running shoes or basketball sneakers, in favor of something flexible and flat (or at least conforming to the natural shape of the foot).

Historical fencing practitioners need a shoe with a thin sole that will flex. One that will let you readily feel the ground beneath your foot but also allow you to raise the heel, or rather, to keep the ball of your foot planted as you bend to step or turn it – just as we repeatedly see performed in the source images. This is I believe the crucial element of historical fencing footwear.

To act and move correctly you need athletic shoes made for quickly stepping, turning, and leaping on diverse ground, not ones designed for running and jumping distances over grass or basketball courts. You also typically need something that works well on modern floors. Face it; we all invariably practice on linoleum, vinyl, common asphalt, painted concrete, padded foam mats, or moist St. Augustine grass in backyards and public parks. We need shoes that will to some degree protect our feet from excessive strain and stress on modern floors as well. And we also need them to be inexpensive.

So, what do I recommend? I tell students get some wrestling shoes or sport fencing shoes, simple tennis shoes, or even tae kwon do shoes. I usually find what I need at Walmart or Payless Shoes. They are cheap, look decent, and meet all the requirements. If you can find them and afford it, try some Capezio dance shoes (which I find superb), or even styles like the Puma Urban Collection. Whatever fits your size and wallet. But avoid those cheap flimsy kung fu slippers --- truly the slipperiest shoes on the planet and just terrible. They offer no protection to your toes or heels and they rapidly deteriorate from use. (Besides, wearing some cheesy rubber-soled modern Chinese shoes to practice historical European martial arts just feels wrong.)



“nothing is built on so much as footwork”
- Master Joachim Meyer, 1570

“all cunning in this Art consisting more in feet than hands”
- Master George Hale, 1614

The issue of footwear is no insignificant matter. Not only does what shoes you wear affect how you move, but more importantly, understanding why they wore the kinds of shoes they did gives rise to understanding how they moved when fighting. In turn, understanding how they moved in fighting gives better understanding of just why they wore the shoes they did.

I am no specialist on the history of Renaissance shoes. I could care less about their styles, decoration, or construction. I only care if the ones I wear fit well and hold up when I am moving during practice of my fighting art. But, when it comes to shoes for Renaissance martial arts I do know one thing: the historical evidence and source teachings do not show us men fencing in thick heels or heavy boots.

Footwear of the common pointed-toe style in Paulus Kal's late 15th century Fechtbuch

Footwear in Joachim Meyer's famous martial arts treatise of 1570


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