Authenticity on the Example of Shoes in the Company of St. George

The following is a guest piece by Marco Hostettler, from Thun, Switzerland. It is a summary of a research article on the same subject. As part of his final year in school, he wrote that article and submitted it to the Swiss Youth Research program "Schweizer Jugend forscht / La science appelle les jeunes". There he was awarded the highest predicate. Below you will also find a link to the full research article Marco wrote about the Company.

A low shoe with buckles on the instep (Photo by Anna Zehnder)

Visiting reenactment events I have noticed differences in credibility between different groups.  What is at the root of this, is it the fact of  being near to the original sources or the fact that the media plant certain images in our brains? Is the medieval framework that is being presented to us by these reenactors authentic?

I limited my investigations to the subject of the shoes and pattens of the Compagnie of Saint George, a group known throughout Europe. A shoe is an everyday article that doesn't particularly arouse interest. Inconspicuous objects are generally judged to be unimportant, which is why I assumed that this would be the best indication of the level of authenticity of a reenactment group. I also investigated pattens as these objects belong in the same category.

A higher shoe with shoe strings on the instep (Photo by Anna Zehnder)

Initially I consulted scientific literature concerning shoes and pattens in the 15th century. I made notes of all their important characteristics in order consequently to be able to judge the authenticity of the reproductions that were being studied. At the same time I visited a company of St. George event in Gruyères on June 20, 2010 and photographed a lot of shoes and pattens. I also interviewed the historical cobbler Sebastian Hug.

The most important results

The fabrication of the 45 shoes that were investigated is authentic. All the shoes were tanned with vegetable tanning material, bringing the technique as near as possible to the original.

The 13 pattens that were investigated were authentic in their construction. The materials used were poplar and willow, as well as cowhide for the attachments.

Reenactors use their shoes for 8 to 10 years. In contrast, they would have been worn in the middle ages for around three or four months. This lacks in authenticity

I found three pairs of nailed shoes, which surprised me as nothing is to be found in the scientific literature. The cobbler however knew about a find in Padderborn (Germany) in 2008, proving them to be authentic.

The nailed shoes discovered in Padderborn (Photo by Hartmut Roder) 

So the Compagnie is quite authentic as far as shoes and pattens are concerned. The materials (Willow and poplar wood, cowhide)  are constructed as far as possible according to available models and examples. The cobbler is aware of current scientific knowledge, assuring authenticity.

All the same reenactors are sometimes obliged to go into compromise, for example the long duration of wearing the shoes. This is caused partly by the high cost of  the reproductions. Also the shoes are not being worn on a day to day basis, but merely for certain events.

Leather pieces as heel reinforcement, as well as the inner sowing seam (Photo by Anna Zehnder)

Furthermore , 'authenticity' is never going to be perfected. The insights that research into the past affords us are merely glimpses into the world as it was as a whole. As a consequence 'authenticity' will never represent 'reality' as it was, but a momentary reflection of that reality that is constantly changing.

These studies permit one to state that reenactment groups that work hard can present themselves in a reasonably authentic manner, at least in some aspects. With care and diligence it should be possible to come very near to the reality.  However any group is going to come to limits despite much enthusiasm. We are living in a different world. So much has changed that it is impossible for us to reconstruct the past. Likewise the criteria for an authentic representation are changing constantly. Every new archaeological find, every new scientific discovery changes 'authenticity' as such, completing our conception of what 'medieval' means. 

Different shoe models from London, 14th and 15th century (Photo from Grew et al.)

Literature on medieval shoes and finds:

DRAY, William H.; History as Re-enactment – R. G. Collingwood’s Idea of History 1. Aufl. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995

EMBLETON, Gerry et al.; Söldnerleben im Mittelalter 1. Aufl. Stuttgart: Motorbuchverlag, 1996

GOUBITZ, Olaf et al.; Stepping through Time - Archaeological Footwear from Prehistoric Times until 1800 1. Aufl. Zwolle: Stichting Promotie Archeologie, 2001

GREW, Francis et al.; Shoes and Pattens - Medieval Finds From Excavations In London 2. Aufl. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2001

HOCHBRUCK, Wolfgang; Qualität mit Zertifikat – im Geschichtstheater, Artikel vom 07.04.08 URL: [Stand: 28.02.10]

HOFFMANN, Erwin; Mittelalterfeste in der Gegenwart – Die Vermarktung des Mittelalters im Spannungsfeld zwischen Authentizität und Inszenierung 1. Aufl. Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2005

RODER, Hartmut (Hrsg.); Schuhtick – Von kalten Füssen und heissen Sohlen 1. Aufl. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2008


By Marco Hostettler, Guest Author

Full Research Article (in German):
Marco Hostettler: Wie authentische sind Reenactment Gruppen. Eine Untersuchung anhand der Schuhe der Company of St. George, Thun 2009


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