Dressing the Dead: Leather Shoes from St. Mary’s Parish Church Kilkenny.
Published in the Newsletter of the Archaeological Leather Group, Newsletter 50, September 2019.
St. Mary’s Parish Church, is located in the centre of the walled Hightown of Kilkenny City, beside the main marketplace on the High Street. Built around the year 1200 by the Earl of Pembroke and Lord of Leinster, William Marshal, it was one of the largest parish churches in medieval Ireland. It was much altered in the middle of the eighteenth century, when large parts of the original church were demolished. Rubble from this demolition was used to raise the remaining floor level and seal the earlier burial sites and memorials, thus preserving them.
In 2015-16, a series of excavations was carried out by Kilkenny Archaeology, during the construction of the Medieval Mile Museum on the site. Amongst the finds recovered were three incomplete shoes of post-medieval design. Two shoes 351:1 and 351:2 were found in a burial vault in the south transept of the church where the early-seventeenth century burial vault of the Archer family was situated. They were located in situ at the east end of Burial 14 within the remains of an oak coffin. The shoes can most likely be dated to 1610 – 1640 AD. The Archer family was one of the three principal families of Kilkenny during this period (O’Drisceoil and Kenny, 2018).
Pl 1: The shoes as found in the coffin remains (Photo: Kilkenny Archaeology).
A third and fragmentary shoe sole, 3025:10 was found in the northwest sector of the churchyard and is most likely of 19th century date.
Discussion of Finds
The two shoes recovered from Burial 14, 351:1 and 351:2 are interesting examples of the early development of heeled footwear in the seventeenth century Ireland. The shoes appear to have been made especially for the funeral and burial and there are no traces of any wear and tear on the soles.
The folded welt is in two sections, a short section, which ran around the lasting margin at the heel and a longer separate piece, which ran around the rest of the lasting margin to connect with the heel welt. From waist to toe, the midsole and treadsole would appear to have been stitched to the main welt with only the midsole being stitched to the heel welt.
The four heel lifts were stacked and pegged together before being pegged in place between the midsole and treadsole. Two large pegs were driven through the centre line of the lifts as well as a continuous line of smaller pegs around the edges. There are no traces of stitching on the heel lifts or on the treadsole at the heel.
Pl. 2: Detail of spring-heel between midsole and treadsole (Photo: J. Nicholl).
The unworn nature of the treadsoles preserved the shoemaker’s guidelines for cutting and assembling the shoe. The guidelines, on the grain surface of the leather, consist of a deeply cut stitch/peg channel which runs parallel to the edge of the sole and is inset by approximately 10mm all around. A further straight line is cut down the centre of the sole on the inside of the stitch channel from toe to heel. Four peg holes are located along this centre line.
A pair of parallel lines, approximately 5mm apart are cut from inside the stitch channel across the waist. A second pair of lines, located approximately 30mm nearer to the front of the sole are also cut across the width from stitch channel to stitch channel.
These guide marks would have been quickly worn away with use as in an example recovered from Kevin Street in Dublin, where only faint traces of similar guidelines can be seen at the waist of the shoe. This shoe also has a spring heel located between the midsole and treadsole as do a further four examples from this site (Nicholl 2017a).
Pl. 3: Treadsole with shoemaker’s guide marks (Photo: J. Nicholl).
Pl. 4: Treadsole with shoemaker’s guide marks (Photo: J. Nicholl).
Pl. 5: Worn treadsole with shoemaker’s marks from Kevin Street, Dublin (Photo: J. Nicholl).
As can be seen from Plates 3 and 4, there are slight differences in the outline of the two shoes, which suggest that they might not actually be paired shoes. The toe of 351:1 is definitely square with sharp corners while the toe of 351:2 is more rounded. However, the fact that they were found within the same burial would seem to argue against this. The discrepancy could be accounted for as a slight error on the shoemaker’s part in cutting out the soles.
The unworn nature of the treadsoles also suggests the shoes were made specifically for the burial. The commissioning of footwear for burial is not without precedent. An entry in the Account Roll of the Priory of the Holy Trinity in Dublin for the year 1346 records the purchase of shoes for the Prior for his burial, “Also in shoes bought for him for his burial, 3d “ (Mills, 1996, 113).
Recent excavations in a convent chapel in the city of Rennes, France, recovered the body of Louise de Quengo who died in 1656 and was buried in simple religious vestments and leather shoes with cork soles (The Guardian, 2015). There is now a growing appreciation that the post-medieval dead were buried with a variety of grave goods and that some were dressed for burial, perhaps as a mark of respect to their position in life (Renshaw and Powers 2016, 161).
It should also be borne in mind that shoes have been endowed with symbolic meanings by many cultures (Sewell 2011), but especially in the seventeenth century, when shoes were considered as potent symbols to ward off evil and witchcraft. The practice of hiding shoes in buildings as protection against witches was widespread in England and, to a lesser extent in Ireland during the reign of James I (Nicholl 2017b). Perhaps the dressing of the dead in everyday shoes for burial is a reflection of this practice.
Given the evidence for the early 17th century shoemaking methods, it is tempting to consider the two shoes as belonging to a male member of the Archer family, (possibly Thomas Archer d. 1617), in whose vault the shoes were found and who was buried, suitably attired and shod, as befitted his rank in Kilkenny society.
Pl.6: Detail of shoe with vamp in position and two side seams.
Mills, J. 1996, editor Account Roll of the Priory of the Holy Trinity, Dublin. Four Courts Press, Dublin.
Nicholl, J. 2017a, Unpublished Leather Finds Catalogue: Kevin Street, Dublin for Archaeology Projects Ltd.
Nicholl, J. 2017b.Two Concealed Shoes from Number 9/9a Aungier Street in Dublin. Published in the Newsletter of the Archaeological Leather Group, Number 45, March 2017
Renshaw, L. and Powers, N. 2016, The archaeology of post-medieval death and burial, Post-Medieval Archaeology, 50:1,
159177, DOI: 10.1080/00794236.2016.1169491
Ó Drisceoil, C. and Kenny, P. 2018, Excavation at St Mary’s Parish Church, Kilkenny 2015-17: Final Report, Kilkenny Archaeology.
Sewell, K. 2011 https://kristinsewell.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/footwear-archaeology-and-meaning/