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The Perfect Shoe

I’ve been thinking about shoes lately, specifically shoes for HEMA. Now, for any chance of deciphering this rambling rant, the reader needs the context. When I was young and more foolish than I am now, I buggered up my right knee. This was not a world changing, oh my god there is blood everywhere kind of injury, it was just the sort of strain that causes you to limp for a month and curse stairs. Except I’ve been limping and cursing ever since. Stairs make it hurt. Sitting at a desk for hours makes it hurt. Standing makes it hurt. Running makes it hurt. Fencing makes it hurt. Most of the time it’s a dull annoying ache, like that work colleague who just won’t shut up, but after exercise it tends to become genuinely sore, and occasionally feels like evil dwarves are hammering 4″ roofing nails into the joint to make it stronger.

And there is the key word, right there. Stronger. The only thing other than very good whisky that helps is to be doing sufficient exercise of the right kinds to keep the joint mobile, and to build up the muscles around it to strengthen and stabilise the joint. Various herbal remedies have been recommended, and physiotherapists have suggested surgery which may improve matters or may make it worse, but as with many modern life style complaints the key is to get off my lazy fat 21st Century Arse and do frequent strenuous exercise. You know, the sort of thing that Homo Sapiens Sapiens has spent several million years of it’s evolutionary history doing.

So it is that I’ve been looking for the best type of HEMA shoe for myself for quite a while. (An editorial interruption at this point: shoes that are best for me, not necessarily best for anyone else.) I want a shoe that does not hide what my feet are doing, shoes that let me feel whether my ankle is rolling in or out, how my foot moves as I step, which way my toes are pointing. On the other hand, I don’t want a shoe that has the risk of sliding on the sorts of polished floors we often train on. I owe it to my training partner not to skid forward in a lunge or strike and accidentally take out their remaining teeth.

Modern trainers are frankly rubbish for fencing in. Unless you go for a very (very) expensive trainer, modern trainers are designed to encase and protect the foot (and often ankle) so that the wearer does not have to think about what their feet are doing in order to prevent injury. Perversely, for HEMA purposes, the amount of grip that modern trainers give on the floor can be quite dangerous, as they can “grab” at the floor when you need them to be able to turn your foot in order to stop your kneecap falling off. The big sports shoes companies realised back in the 90’s that this was a problem, when they saw the rate of knee injuries in professional basketball players start to rise alarmingly. These days pro players wear shoes with an Adidas or Nike logo on them, but they are to consumer trainers what a Lamborghini is to a roller skate, and equally inaccessible to the average consumer.

The historical context comes into this. Prior to around the end of the 15th century, fencers were wearing turn shoes, or turn shoes with an extra sole added. These were necessarily made of leather thin and soft enough to turn the right side out during fabrication, and were intended to fit like a glove for the foot. Somewhere in the early part of the 16th century cordwainers switched to making shoes on a last, which allowed the transition to a stiffer sole (and later a built up heel). Still, all the fencers in any treatise you read prior to the 20th century are wearing shoes that have a leather sole, which have the gripping capability on polished wood floors of an ice-cube skittering over an oiled frying pan. It’s also worth noting that shoes for most of the medieval and renaissance period had no heel, or virtually no heel, which makes a very big difference in the way you walk or fence.

The Museum of London “Shoes and Pattens” book has an interesting discussion on this by the way – analysis of the (many) shoe soles plucked out of the Thames for the 14th and 15th centuries show a very different wear pattern on the bottom than modern shoes. When you need to be concerned what is going to jab through the sole if you walk carelessly or heavily, or cannot trust that the heel is going to shoot out from underneath you, you don’t walk by throwing the foot forward and slamming the heel down before rolling straight onto the toe. Instead medieval folk, like barefoot runners, tend to put the side of their foot down and cautiously roll forward onto the ball of the foot, really feeling the ground underfoot before committing their weight. And isn’t that what we need to do when fencing? Surely there’s an advantage to knowing and controlling exactly what your foot is doing when stepping? Maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason why many past masters emphasised that?

I’ve tried many different types of shoes for fencing. Modern trainers, school shoes, court shoes. I’ve not tried fancy bare-foot trainers yet, nor specialist fencing shoes, although I suspect they are closer to medieval shoes in their feel. One thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have the ready cash to spend on a high-end pair of specialist fencing shoes or bare-foot trainers in the hope that they might be good for me. Instead, I’ve taken the Sam Vimes approach.

When I was a student, I lived constantly in cheap and nasty Dunlop Volleys. Yes, Volleys are now kind of expensive and a fashion item, but way back then they were the cheap shoes for amateur tennis players. They were canvas, with a flat fairly thin rubber sole, and provided zero support for your foot or ankle. Also, if you wore them every day for months at a time in a subtropical climate, they took on a smell that makes your eyes water. When I lived at college, I would leave them outside my door in the fire hose cabinet, with a bio-hazard sign on the outside. Toward the end I switched to super cheap and nasty “kung fu” slippers. You know the type – cost £3, black canvas, hard plastic sole, fall apart kind of quickly. They didn’t last as long as the Volleys, but they were cheaper and stank less. Eventually of course I grew up and had to go to work, and went back to wearing “proper shoes”.

So it is that many years later, now I no longer particularly care about wearing the right clothes and shoes to work, I started to wonder about moving away from modern trainers and back to Volleys. To my surprise, the Volleys of yesteryear don’t seem to exist any more. There are Volleys on the market, but they have got a more built up heel, and are quite expensive, so I’ve been scratching my head about an alternative. A few months ago I undertook the walk from York to Towton in 15th century clothes and period reproduction shoes. I knew that I had to make some sort of preparations for this other than drinking lots of coffee, and so took to the internet in search of Kung Fu slippers – my thinking was that if I did a bunch of walking in these before the Towton walk, I’d be a little bit prepared.

To my delight, I found on Amazon “M.A.R International Kung Fu Shoes Rubber Sole Slippers Martial Arts Gear Wu Shu Wing Chun Tai Chi Black Size 46” for the price of a hamburger that you regret some hours later. These are the same Sam Vimes paper-thin soled throw-away shoes I remembered from my youth, with a slight twist: unlike the old ones which had a very rigid and slippery plastic sole, these have a soft and very flexible thin-rubber sole. I’ve been wearing them virtually non-stop for about 12 weeks now, and am delighted with the results.

I’m not sure how much longer I will get out of this pair, they have started to wear at the heel and are probably going to fall apart in a week or so, but at throw-away prices that’s acceptable (for comparison, the pair of Nike Freerunners that I usually wear for fencing got about 1 year before starting to fall apart, although in their defence they are still hanging together after 3 years).

It may be a placebo effect, but I believe that the (essentially) bare foot feel is causing me to actively use the muscles in my feet and lower legs with a generally beneficial effect on my fencing. Because they are quite thin, I am not just throwing my foot forward to slam the heel down as I walk to work, but rather feel more like I am placing my foot before rolling and pushing off with my toe. I can feel the big toes and feet working a lot more as I walk, and am much more conscious of which way my feet are pointing. This is a big thing for my knee. I can see that mostly when I walk my right foot points outward, as the instep collapses and the pressure goes off my knee somewhat. Over the decades my body has learned this laziness, and it’s a hard habit to break. I’d not been able to see it before wearing these cheap slippers, but now can consciously sense when it happens, and when the instep falls in, and correct it as I walk. This in turn is helping to re-strengthen the knee joint. So hooray!

How are they for fencing though?

I had the opportunity about two weeks ago to spar in Victoria Park with various HEMA folk from around London. Mainly rapier, a little bit of longsword, a little bit of sword and buckler. A very pleasant afternoon, rounded off by a few pints in a nearby pub, which is very much the shape of HEMA in England. We fenced on the grass, which had the usual mix of loose sticks, small humps and divots, and surprise slippery patches. The shoes were excellent. My footing felt very secure, and I could consciously choose how to step and place my feet. Heaven!

Given the success of that afternoon, I wore them to training the following night. The venue is the usual rented space most HMEMA practioners use – a polished wood floor, not quite enough room, and the occasional surprise of having to move all the tables and chairs that the previous users neglected to restore to their place. I can’t remember what we were doing – rapier that night – but we were doing a lot of lunging, and a lot of moving off the line. And the shoes were a disaster. The soft rubber sole, on the hard wood surface, proved to be their undoing, as they grabbed at the floor even more than the Nikes. By the end of the night, and certainly the next day, it felt as though the evil dwarves had been hammering on my knee and walking was distinctly painful.

After all that, I’m not sure what to try next. I wore the Nikes throughout Dijon 2015 and found that the benefits of the slippers carried over somewhat to them, but I was conscious of the raised heel and how it shaped my step. As an aside, the surface there was outstanding, being that slightly rubbery composite material used for good basketball courts now, and so giving very secure footing for drilling and tournaments. I saw all sorts of shoes at the event. Quite a few of the weird bare-foot foot-gloves with toes, specialist fencing shoes, the usual panoply of trainers, and a few people wearing what looked like rock-climbing shoes but probably weren’t.

Suggestions are welcomed and sought. I must say that for playing with Thibault, the temptation to wear my lovely reproduction early 17th C shoes from Plantagenet Shoes is great.

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