Amor Vincit Omnia: 12th-Century Embroidered Shoes
by Robert of Ferness, OL
I hope this article inspires other artisans to publish what they would have entered at Ice Dragon as well, that all may enjoy learning about what could have been seen there, if not for the current sickness in our land.
During the Viking Age and early Middle Ages, people in Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Northern Europe used runes to send messages to each other, and to posterity. In Bergen, a city on Norway’s west coast, a particularly large number of artifacts with runes on them has been excavated. They carry reports of business, statements of love, condemning curses, and sometimes gibberish. Most of these appear as carvings on sticks, but one particularly interesting example conveys a Latin quotation via embroidery on a shoe.
For Ice Dragon this year, I decided to make a reproduction of that shoe and its missing mate, a project summarized here. For details and citations for assertions made herein, please see my full documentation referenced at the end.
This project involved three main aspects: 1) understanding the runes of the surviving shoe and coming up with something appropriate for its missing mate; 2) devising a pattern from the original and making wearable footwear; 3) learning about suitable material and colors for the embroidery.
As apparent in Fig. 1, we can see that the shoe has survived remarkably well after 800 years in the ground. Its surface sports numerous incisions, which are punctured by small holes through the thickness of the leather between them. This is the usual manner of applying embroidery thread to shoes, of which hundreds of examples are known (though only five with runes). In addition to the runes, decorative elements manifest in bounding lines for the letters and arcs on the ankle.
Fig. 2 clarifies the runes on this shoe, which, when transcribed to our Western alphabet, read mulil amor vincit omnia et, starting to the right of the ankle seam and running around the ankle, then jumping to the instep and running down to the toe. There are no word separators.
The first word, mulil, has proved to be untranslatable. It may be a personal name, some kind of magic charm word, or have some other meaning that may remain forever unknown. It does not appear in any corpus of Latin or Old Norse, either as-is or in any alternative that might have come from a misspelling or other sort of mistake. We can hope that someday it will turn up in a context that sheds lights on its use here.
The rest of the phrase, however, comes from the poet Virgil’s Bucolica Eclogue X, and is Latin for “love conquers all and,” with the rest of his phrase presumably continuing on the other shoe as nos cedamus amori “so let us surrender to love.”
Numerous aspects of runes can make interpreting them difficult. Their individual usage and form morphed through time based on changing pronunciation of their letters. Further, they varied from place to place, they were produced by people with different levels of literacy, and they could represent different languages. Additionally, different forms might be used on different media, and sometimes archaic runes were even written on parchment well after more modern forms were carved into other materials.
Notes: the same rune is used for “u” and “v”; the “o” and “r” of amor have been joined in a ligature, or bind-rune, a common practice to save effort or space by using the same stroke. The “t” used in this context is the thorn character ᚦ and an “o” is used in et, either by mistake or because of sound changes.
Making the Shoe
This general type of shoe, known as a turnshoe, consists of a sole and an upper. To make such a shoe, cut out a thick piece of leather for the sole, and a thinner, more flexible one for the upper. The upper will have a side seam, almost always found on the inside of the ankle, which is stitched before being attached to the sole. After the side seam is closed, the upper is stitched to the sole inside-out. Once stitched all the way around, the shoe is soaked in water until soft enough to be turned right side-out. I worked out a pattern for this shoe based on my previous work, essentially making the ankle opening a bit higher on the front and adding the skewed toes. Vegetable-tanned leather was used, dyed black with vinegaroon.
Embroidery on Leather
Unlike embroidery on cloth, leather-based work does not pass up and down through the material from one side to the other. Rather, it passes through the thickness of the leather, from one surface incision to another, leaving an area to be looped over. This technique means that the leather is not pierced from outside to inside and water will not then soak through holes when the top of the shoe becomes wet. Further, there is no thread on the inside of the shoe to abrade or catch on the wearer’s foot.
The incisions must be made before turning because cutting them into a three-dimensional form of flexible material does not appear to be feasible. I used a very sharp knife to incise the leather totally freehand, except for the long strips down the vamp where I used a straight edge for a consistent line. As for when to apply the embroidery thread, some excavated shoes clearly reveal it was added before turning. As an experiment, and because I was afraid of damaging the work, however, I first turned the shoes. This likely made it take longer to apply the thread because the formed shoe limited the freedom of manipulating the leather to best advantage.
The Embroidery Thread
At Bergen, 38 shoe uppers have retained traces of embroidery thread, although this shoe was not one of them. Unspun silk was used in all of those cases, and the thread was colored red or gold and has kept its bright and glossy characteristics during its time in the ground. My version of the shoes required about 785 ft. / 240m of red 2-ply filament silk applied two strands per pass by looping it through a tiny #12 glover’s needle eye and then applying via satin stitch. The gold elements required about the same amount. It took me 30 hours to embroider each shoe for some 7,500 total needle passes.
By no means is it clear who made the original shoe and added the embroidery. The shoemaker may have been itinerant or established; full-time or part-time; native or foreign; working alone or in a shop with others. Nor do we know who wore it originally, i.e., an extraordinarily rich person, someone moderately wealthy, or a person of more limited means. It could have been worn by a local, or by a visitor. However, some have claimed that a simple shoemaker could not or would not have added the embroidery and further that it would require an enormous cash outlay for such shoes. I do not agree with either of those assessments.
The surviving shoe is held by the University Museum in Bergen, cataloged as Acc. No. BRM 0/52927. Photos illustrating this conserved shoe, and others, are available on the web from the Bergen Universitetsmuseet site which are licensed CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.
Many details of this project have been omitted from this summary. Please see my publication on Academia.edu for further information, illustrations, citations, and references. I go into each aspect in more depth, including runes, making shoes, leather embroidery, medieval illustrations, and modern studies of all these aspects.