How important are shoes? Ask Dorothy – or Cinderella! Footwear had significance for medieval Christians, too. Looking closely at the figures in our early medieval Irish manuscripts, we see that some figures wear shoes and others do not. It is possible to identify many of these figures as portraits of the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Before they wrote their Gospels, these men were disciples of Christ.
Two Gospels record specific instructions that Christ gave his followers about shoes. The guidelines were given to the apostles as they were sent out on missions to preach. In Matthew’s Gospel (10.8-10), Christ advises the apostles to travel without money or a change of clothes and that they should not take shoes, either. Mark’s Gospel (6.9) gives similar instructions about travelling light, but recommends the wearing of sandals.
During the central Middle Ages, a few hundred years after our manuscripts were produced, new currents of thought about monastic practice sought to reconnect with early Christian practices. Monks were especially interested in imitating the apostles and their devotion was measured in austerity. Monastic leaders like Peter Damian (11th century) told their monks that they should not wear shoes or even cover their legs as a sign of their commitment to Christ. The link in the minds of these later medieval monks between early Christian behaviour and the renunciation of even the smallest luxury likely led to the iconographic convention of rendering the apostles barefoot.1 We see barefoot figures in the images for Matthew and Mark in the Book of Mulling and the evangelist on the left in the Garland of Howth (figs. 1a-b, 3a). Their lack of shoes, however, may not reflect their sanctity.
In the early Middle Ages, when our early Irish manuscripts were made, shoes were prescribed for monks. John Cassian (5th century), whose records of early Christian desert ascetics were so influential in the West, regarded sandals as appropriate footgear for hermits. Benedict (6th century), one of the earliest abbots in the West to write down guidelines of behaviour for monks, recommended that either shoes or sandals were worn. John in the Book of Mulling, Matthew, Mark and Luke in the Book of Dimma and the evangelist on the right in the Garland of Howth all wear shoes (figs. 1c, 2a-c, 3b).
Although medieval shoes have survived to this century, they are often in a fragmentary state. Shoes were made from leather and like other organic materials, they broke into pieces over the centuries. It may also be that the shoes were discarded only when they wore out and so have been mere fragments since the Middle Ages.2 Leather uppers from three styles of shoes were recovered in excavations at Iona, site of an important early medieval monastery. A reconstruction of one shoe type (fig. 4) proposes that it would have looked very much like the ankle boots worn by St. John in the Book of Mulling (fig. 1c).3
The slippers worn by St. Mark in the Book of Dimma (fig. 2b) better resemble an early medieval shoe found in an Irish bog in Co. Leitrim (fig. 5). The majority of our Evangelists are equipped with the same footwear as the monks who made and used the Gospel books.