Poulaines, also known by other names, were a style of unisex footwear with extremely long toes that were fashionable in Europe at various times in the Middle Ages. The poulaine proper was a shoe or boot of soft material whose elongated toe (also known as a poulaine or pike) frequently required filling to maintain its shape. The chief vogue for poulaines spread across Europe from medieval Poland in the mid-14th century and spread across Europe, reaching upper-class England with the 1382 marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia and remaining popular through most of the 15th century. Sturdier forms were used as overshoes and the sabatons of the era's armor were often done in poulaine style. Poulaines were periodically condemned by Christian writers of the time as demonic or vain. Kings of the era variously taxed them as luxuries, restricted their use to the nobility, or outright banned them. After becoming more common as women's footwear and expanding to awkward lengths, poulaines fell from fashion in the 1480s and were seldom revived, although they are considered an influence on some later trends such as the 1950s British winklepicker boots.
The usual English name poulaine (/puˈleɪn/) is a borrowing and clipping of earlier Middle French soulers a la poulaine ("shoes in the Polish fashion") from the style's supposed origin in medieval Poland. They have also been known as pikes from the common weapon of the era; as piked, peaked, or copped shoes; as cracows, crakows, and krakows from the former Polish capital; or simply as pointed shoes, pointy shoes, or long toed shoes. Poulaine, pike, and crakow can also be used particularly for the elongated toe itself, causing some writers to mistakenly restrict the usage of poulaine to only the toe and to insist on crakow as the name of the footwear itself. Despite appearing in a 2014 Vogue article, however, use of crakow for the shoe is now so uncommon as to be marked obsolete in the Oxford English Dictionary. The elongated toe was also known as a beak, although this was not generally applied to the shoe itself.
Long-toed shoes had been popular in Europe at different times, first appearing in the archaeological record with the 12th-century pigaches and periodically going in and out of fashion thereafter. They reached their most exaggerated form with the poulaines in the third quarter of the 15th century before falling out of fashion in the 1480s.: 88–9
The arrival of this fashion in England is traditionally associated with the marriage of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia in 1382. An anonymous 'monk of Evesham' recorded in 1394: "With this queen there came from Bohemia into England those accursed vices (English Cracowys or Pykys) half a yard in length, thus it was necessary for them to be tied to the shin with chains of silver before they could walk with them."
However, there are indications they were worn as early as the 1360s. The author of the Eulogium Historiarum describes men of this period as wearing "points on their shoes as long as your finger that are called crakowes; more suitable as claws... for demons than as ornaments for men."
Fourteenth-century poulaines found in London were found only in men's sizes,: 88–9 but 15th century art shows them being worn by both men and women, with the toes of men's shoes being the most extravagantly long. They were a controversial fashion and faced criticism from several quarters. In 1368, Charles V of France issued an edict banning their construction and use in Paris. An English poem from 1388 complained that men were unable to kneel in prayer because their toes were too long.
In 1463, Edward IV passed a sumptuary law restricting anyone "under the state of a Lord, Esquire, [or] Gentleman" from wearing poulaines over the length of two inches. In 1465, they were banned in England altogether, so that all cordwainers and cobblers within the City of London were prohibited from making shoes with "pikes" more than two inches long.: 117
By the 1480s, poulaines had generally fallen from fashion in favor of the wide duckbill shoes supposedly popularized by Charles VIII of France owing to his own six-toed foot.
The poulaine inspired later footwear fashions, such as the 1950s winklepicker boots.
Poulaine toes were packed with stuffing to provide rigidity and help them hold their shape. Surviving examples from medieval London have the points stuffed with moss. An Italian chronicler noted in 1388 that they were also sometimes stuffed with horsehair.
Although there is no archaeological or medieval iconographic evidence to support the idea that the toes were ever tied up to the leg, as noted earlier, there is direct literary evidence dating from 1394 which states that this was the practice at the time these shoes were introduced into England. Additionally, the practice is mentioned by the antiquarian John Stow in his 1698 publication A Survey of London, where he wrote:
In Distar Lane, on the north side thereof, is the Cordwainer's Hall, which company were made a brotherhood or fraternity in the eleventh of Henry IV. Of these cordwainers, I read, that since the fifth of Richard II (when he took to wife Anne, daughter to Wenceslaus [sic], King of Bohemia), by her example the English people had used piked shoes, tied to their knees with silken laces, or chains of silver or gilt, wherefore in the fourth of Edward IV it was ordained and proclaimed that beaks of shoon and boots should not pass the length of two inches, upon pain of cursing by the clergy, and by Parliament to pay twenty shillings for every pair. And every cordwainer that shod any man or woman on the Sunday, to pay thirty shillings.
However, given that John Stow was writing over 100 years after the shoes fell out of fashion, and the lack of rigorous historical research in the writings of the time, he cannot be considered a reliable source. His record of Act 4 of Edward IV is exaggerated—the actual act does mention restrictions in length, but not monetary penalties, parliament or clergy:
Nulle persone Cordewaner ou Cobeler .. face.. ascuns soler galoges ou husend oveqe ascun pike ou poleine qe passera la longuer ou mesure de deux poutz.
Archaeological evidence in the form of surviving shoe soles shows that the length of the point beyond the toes of the foot was rarely, if ever, more than 50% of the length of the foot.: 88–9 This is consistent with depictions of highly fashionable European men from the third quarter of the 15th century when poulaines were at the height of their popularity. As with many items of high fashion, the most extreme examples were worn by the upper classes.
Pattens were protective overshoes frequently worn in the late medieval and early modern period to protect footwear from mud and filth while outdoors. They were typically made from wood and fitted to the shoe with leather straps. The name poulaine was sometimes used for the elongated pattens necessary to protect the full length of the long-toed shoes of the period.
Sabatons were the protective footwear used with medieval European armor. During the period that poulaines were in fashion, the sabatons sometimes became similarly awkwardly long or pointed and interfered with soldiers' ability to walk or run. At the 1386 Battle of Sempach, it became necessary for the knights of Leopold III, Duke of Austria, to quickly dismount and fight on foot. Because they had not prepared for this, many were obliged to cut off the tips of their sabatons on the field to continue. Swiss chroniclers report a huge pile of these shoetips were found in a heap after the battle and this was illustrated in the account of the battle in the 1513 Luzerner Schilling. A surviving pair of sabatons belonging to Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, have extremely long ends for use on horseback but these are detachable if fighting on foot became necessary. The catches can be seen over the area of the big toe.