Selfhood and Shoes: Paris

If you’ve taken note of European news today, you may have come across images of hundreds – thousands – of shoes arranged in neat rows across the Place de la République in Paris. A mind-boggling variety of footwear, and tastes, are evident: weathered trainers, leather boots, floral sneakers, glittery sandals, wellingtons, flip-flops, heels, mules. Even a pair of scuba diving flippers.


Why are they there? A large-scale march on climate change had been planned to take place in Paris on 29th November, preceding a climate change conference being held there from 30th November until 11th December. However, following the tragic events of November 13th, city authorities cancelled it.

In lieu of the march, protestors decided to make their stand another way: by sending their shoes. Roughly 10,000 shoes now line the Place de la République, as substitutes for their wearers and symbols of their support. This installation, which includes the footwear of Pope Francis, actress Marion Cotillard, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – as well as thousands of other supports – clearly demonstrates the power of the shoe to act as representative, substitute, or symbol of its wearer.


Anthropologist Carolyn White wrote in 2009 that ‘Shoes are compelling symbols of individual lives and act metaphorically to suggest an intimacy with the person who wore them’ (2009: 141). Shoes are seen as possessing metaphorical – indeed, metonymical – connections with their wearers and this theory has been used to explain the popularity of the concealed shoe as a possible apotropaic device. Shoes were concealed because they can act as substitutes for their wearers.

Indeed shoes are highly personal items. Archaeologist Carol van Driel-Murray believes that ‘As bearer of the individual’s imprint, the shoe functions as a signature – a spiritual graffito’ (1999: 136). But why the shoe, footwear-expert June Swann asks. Because it is ‘the only garment we wear which retains the shape, the personality, the essence of the wearer’ (1996: 56). By retaining the foot’s shape (and yes, its smell), the shoe becomes a metaphorical symbol of the wearer – a notion testified by the many mantras regarding footwear: Put yourself in my shoes. Walk a mile in another person’s shoes. The shoe’s on the other foot. You can’t put the same shoe on every foot. If the shoe fits wear it. And so on…

This link between shoe and wearer had two possible benefits: either it could fool any attacking preternatural power (spirits, demons, witches, etc.) into thinking that the shoe actually is the wearer, subsequently luring them away. Or the shoe is imbued with the wearer’s essence, agency and luck, making it a protective power in itself. Whether or not these theories are accurate, it’s clear that shoes were viewed as representative of their wearers – and still are today, if recent events in Paris are anything to go by.

Domestic Magic in the Museum of London

The Museum of London has quite a wide selection of apotropaic objects in their collection, and last week I went for a visit. However, I didn’t go just to look at and photograph them, but to think about where they’ve ended up post-discovery; to consider how their biographies have continued now that they’ve been removed from their places of concealment. No longer apotropaic devices, they’ve been accessioned, labelled, and have subsequently transitioned into a new role: that of the museum artefact.

Amongst their collection is a mummified cat, which I’ll consider in a later post. For now I want to focus on the concealed shoes.


The shoes, which were dug out of storage for me, were a pair of man’s hobnailed boots with elastic sides, highly worn and damaged, with gaping holes in the uppers. These had been found in the roof of the vestry of the Savoy Chapel in London, originally with a sooty scrap of wallpaper tucked inside bearing a pencil inscription. Sadly the wallpaper scrap, which carried a registered design stamp dating it to 1868-1883, no longer survives. Why and how it was disposed of is unknown, but fortunately a record was made of it, and we know that the inscription read: ‘William Chapman/ B 3d July 1828/ this was don in 1876’. This is very useful for our dating of the act of concealment (presumably 1876) but is also very interesting for what it suggests about motivation. The act of inscribing your name along with what we assume to be a date of birth suggests a desire to make a personal claim on the deposit. Perhaps William Chapman was more concerned with ‘leaving his mark’ than warding off malevolent supernatural forces – or perhaps it was a mixture of both. Would the efficacy of the shoe be more potent with an explicit personal connection?


The shoes, stuffed with balled-up pads of tissue paper to help retain shape, were set out for me on a white tissue table-cloth. A white luggage tag bearing their catalogue number (58.13ab) along with ‘boots, 1860-70’, was attached to one boot via a loose cotton cord. I was given a pair of latex gloves, warned by the curator that the boots were extremely fragile, and asked to handle them as little as possible. I was hesitant to touch them at all, lest the boots fall apart in my hands, and when I did move them, it was gingerly, with a great deal of reluctance and breath-holding. With hindsight, I wonder if my trepidation had less to do with the state of the boots and more to do with their environment.


The accessioning of an object into a museum collection invariably results in what Lowanthal bemoans ‘the loss of environmental context’ (1985: 286). If a concealed shoe is removed from its place of concealment, is it still a concealed shoe? If not, then what is it?

A museum environment, according to Macdonald, almost sanctifies an object: ‘Once they are in museums – such is the magic-conferring power of these institutions – objects are special’ (2002: 92). This opinion is shared by Paine, who notes a striking parallel between ‘museumification’ and ‘sacralization’ (2013: 2), asserting that when an object becomes a ‘museum object’ it ‘acquires a new meaning, a new value, a new personality’ (2013: 2). This process is what Kirshenblatt-Gimblett terms the ‘museum effect’ (1991: 410), whereby objects become ‘enshrined’ by their museum environments (1991: 386) – and I would argue that these boots have been subject to the same process. They’re handled carefully, almost reverently – so differently to how I imagine they were treated by past owners. Did William Chapman wear a pair of latex gloves when he placed them in the roof of the vestry? I think not. And judging by the state of the boots, I doubt they’d been treated with much reverence before entering a museum environment.

However, ‘museumizing’ objects does more than ‘sanctify’ them; it also anchors and ossifies them in a process of ‘museumification’. It occurred to me that the location of the Savoy Chapel boots – in storage – prevents them from being seen by members of the public. Only my academic credentials privileged me this engagement with them; as Gathercole observes, some objects ‘are at the core of museum scholarship, locked away in store-rooms, revealing their secrets only to the initiated’ (1989: 76).

Locked away, revealing their secrets only to a select few… This sounds familiar. Wasn’t this the status of these boots before they were accessioned; before they were discovered in their hiding place in the Savoy Chapel vestry? Has a museum environment resulted in a reversal of the usual process: the concealed revealed has become re-concealed?

It seems as if environmental context has not been entirely lost after all.

Archaeology in the Attic: Middleton Archaeological Society

Archaeology in the Attic

For anyone interested in concealed shoes, I’ll be giving a talk at the Middleton Archaeological Society entitled ‘Archaeology in the Attic: Concealed Shoes & Protective Magic’ this coming Thursday (November 26th 2015). The talk will be held at 7:30pm in The Olde Boar’s Head, Long Street, Middleton – a very apt location, considering that this lovely black and white timber structure, said to date from 1587, contains a concealed shoe of its own. During restorations in the 1980s, a child’s shoe was discovered in the southern staircase. The builders decided to re-conceal it and so there it remains, mere feet (no pun intended) away from where I’ll be tossing around theories for why such shoes were concealed in the first place.

Olde Boars Head

Please feel free to come, and take a look at the Middleton Archaeological Society’s website for information about what they’re doing and upcoming events.

A Concealed Shoe Revealed


This week I had coffee with Laura Potts, Media Relations Manager at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, where I teach history. Laura lives in an old house with her husband and children in a village not far from the university. They bought it in May 2014, in a fairly dilapidated state, and have been doing it up ever since.

Judging from what Laura tells me, the white-painted brickwork suggests it might be a nineteenth-century house, but the builder’s opinion of the now-exposed beams is that the core structure predates that. The door frame is also a non-standard size, and an unusual shape, which apparently points to construction in an earlier era, although until somehow who knows their stuff gets in there, we don’t know how much earlier.

One summer day, a couple of months after the renovations began, Laura noticed, to her surprise and delight, a dusty old shoe sitting on the mantelpiece over one of the recently opened-up fireplaces. How it had got there was a mystery until the electrician, who at that time was rewiring the house, told Laura that he had found it up the chimney. Here it is:

Fig 1

Not long after that – I think it was in the autumn of 2014 – Laura contacted me as the go-to witchcraft guy in the university, to ask my advice. (She also told me that they had also found a couple of dried up rats in the roof of a lean-to, but everyone now seems to think that they just died there, probably after being poisoned, rather than ending their ratty days as deliberately placed ritual deposits.)

My advice to her was not to destroy the shoe or sell it or anything, but to keep it close to where it was found. I don’t think I’m particularly superstitious, but it seemed right that the shoe should stay put. It belongs to the house now, doesn’t it? Laura said that when we both found the time she would bring the shoe to the university so that I could have a look at it.

That time came this week. Laura arrived at the café with a big red biscuit tin under her arm. Obviously this was to protect the precious shoe, but it also served to heighten the suspense: the shoe concealed and revealed, concealed once more.

Fig 2

It’s a strange little object, the soft boot of a child or small adult, with a side opening, perhaps originally fastened with studs or a shoelace. It has a thin leather sole with a hole worn through it – in fact, as you can see, the whole thing had seen heavy wear by the time it was deposited in the chimney.

Fig 3

Like the house, it’s maddeningly hard to date – for this novice anyway. The fabric it’s lined with looks like relatively modern machine-woven fabric, suggesting nineteenth- or even twentieth-century manufacture, although the shoe itself has a curious design. Again, an expert will doubtless solve this one in a few moments.

Laura and I had fun discussing the shoe, and just having there in front of us on the table, in the genteel, arty surroundings of the Sainsbury Centre, gave me strange pleasure. It was telling us so little about itself, but seemed oddly alert – or maybe that was just me imagining things each time I threw it a glance during conversation.

Fig 4

When the house is finished, Laura plans to display the shoe in a little glass case over the fireplace. It can’t go back up the chimney, of course, but it’s good that it will be on show as near as possible to where it was found, and more to the point where, at some unspecified point in time, back when the world was different, it was hidden by some fearful or perhaps hopeful person. The further it travels, it strikes me, the weaker its significance – its historical magic. You can seen how forlorn it looks.

Laura still has an upstairs fireplace to strip back, in the room immediately above the one where the shoe was found and connected to the same flue. They wouldn’t have hidden another upstairs, would they, asked Laura with a mixture of doubt and anticipation. But you know, something in me suspects that they did. I’d say that the shoe told me, but then of course you’d think I was going mad . . .

Shropshire ‘Witch-Marks’


Early in November this year, I spent a weekend in Shropshire visiting my parents, who moved there quite recently. My wife rented a cottage a couple of miles up the road in a small place called Alkington, near the town of Whitchurch.

The cottage was a converted hayloft, one of several farm buildings at Alkington Grange. Like the estate to which it belonged, these buildings had early seventeenth-century antecedents, but were remodelled in the Victorian period. Some of the beams seemed ancient, although whether they were part of an old frame upon which a brick structure was superimposed, or had been salvaged from demolished Elizabethan and Jacobean buildings, was hard for me, without much architectural historical experience, to tell.

Whenever I visit old houses and churches, I do keep an eye out for apotropaic marks. And almost at once I noticed one – a classic ‘VV’ or inverted ‘M’– carved in a central position on a cross-beam to the right of the modern main staircase:

Malcolm's Blog Fig 1

As you can see, it appears to have been done quickly and carelessly with a knife. It attracted a fair bit of interest in my immediate family who, apart from me, have little or no interest in history. My father, who is interested in old things, had a look and said: ‘perhaps that was just the sort of thing you did when you built something back then’, by which he meant that it didn’t need to be invested with great religious solemnity of ritual significance by whoever carved it.

I’m sure he’s right. For a Jacobean joiner or farmer to have scratched such a thing is not necessarily evidence of his terror of witches, but suggests a less focused and less engaged desire for good luck, and a casual aversion to doing the wrong thing. He took an easy opportunity to improve his chances of being lucky, rather than courting misfortune by an almost wilful failure not to take such an easy opportunity. I guess that’s how most superstition works.

As a historian of witchcraft, I thought it was a lovely and fascinating relic, and it was a thrill to run my fingers over it, and to stay in the house that the charm had been intended to protect – and for all I know, had protected all these years!

I did find another ‘witch-mark’, in the master bedroom, on an exposed horizontal timber in the stud wall to the left of the door:

Malcolm's Blog Fig 2

It’s not that easy to see in the photo, but the mark consists of two boxes side by side, each filled with a diagonal cross, again very crudely and hastily done with a sharp blade. Visible here are the several repetitions of the verticals, which confuses the image, but the marks would certainly appear to be Saltires, crosses of St Andrew. I believe these are more commonly found as apotropaic marks in houses in northern England than in the south.

On the Sunday, we all went to visit my sister’s family near Market Drayton. She lives in a farmhouse on the Shavington estate that appears to date from the first half of the nineteenth century, but may well have an older core. My nephew’s girlfriend, hearing about my Alkington discoveries, said that there were strange marks all over the beams in Rob’s bedroom, situated at the top of the house. Rob had never noticed them before, but led the way upstairs.

I didn’t count them, but they are all similar and look like this:

Malcolm's Blog Fig 3.png

They appear to have been cut or hammered in using some kind of pattern. They may just be a carpenter’s marks, put there to guide the construction of prefabricated timbers; doubtless an expert will be able to tell me. But the day before, I did see some marks that looked very similar – at least I think I did – on a half-timbered Tudor building, c. 1590, in the Shrewsbury high street, the façade of which was covered in all sorts of strange marks and symbols. I didn’t take a note of what it was, but if anyone’s interested it’s next to a branch of Joules, as you can see here:

Malcolm's Blog Fig 4

So, a weekend of witch-marks in Shropshire, all discovered pretty much accidentally. What a systematic search of the county would reveal is anyone’s guess.

Continuities of Concealment in Surrey


Last Thursday (12th November) I attended an evening lecture hosted by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Martin Higgins, Historic Buildings Officer at Surrey County Council, was speaking about daisy wheels (aka hexafoils) and taper burns, and he put forward some very interesting theories. Firstly a strict distinction was made between ‘superstitious’ or ‘apotropaic’ carvings, and the entirely secular marks made by masons, carpenters, hewers, and merchants; a warning about over-interpretation, which I believe many historians and archaeologists need to heed. The question over whether daisy wheels were apotropaic or simply decorative was considered, a question that can only be answered with a consideration of individual context. Higgins also noted that many daisy wheels in Suffolk are incomplete – and the theory was passed around that perhaps efficacy came more from the act of creating than the finished symbol itself.

Higgins’ consideration of taper burns was also fascinating. There is still heated debate over whether these burn marks were made accidentally or deliberately; Higgins argues convincingly for the latter and I’m inclined to agree. These burn marks, which would have taken roughly half an hour to create, are often found in clusters and in places where accidental burning seems unlikely, e.g. in the middle of a door. Were they there for protection against malevolent forces or against fire, in  a vaccine-style ritual (if you burn something a little then it will protect it from further burning)? Again, context is vital. Taper marks on the roof or in the attic may have been to protect against lightning. Surely fear of fire must have motivated the marks in the gunpowder room of the HMS Victory. While marks on a fireplace could equally have been made to protect against fire and to prevent something with evil intent (witches, demons, spirits, etc.) from entering via the chimney.

My very brief summary of Higgins’ fascinating and informative lecture doesn’t do it justice, but I’d like to focus now on one comment he made. He mentioned, quite in passing, that he had once concealed a shoe in his house. As you might imagine, my ears pricked up instantly. Following his talk, I contacted him to find out more and he kindly emailed back, explaining the why, how, and where of it.

When he had his fireplace restored, in his house in Betchworth, Surrey (pictured), a cache of concealed objects was found: a collection of bent pins and a bottle. The bottle was empty but unsealed, so any liquid (e.g. urine, as is commonly found in witch-bottles) could have evaporated. This cache was removed to be recorded properly, but Higgins admits to feeling ‘guilty (should that be nervous?)’ that it isn’t in situ at the moment. He will return it once it’s been recorded.

Copy for Martin Betchworth, The Street, Manor Cottage W elevation 13'5'08

But from old concealed objects to new: Higgins tells me that when he removed a corner chimney breast in the kitchen, he ‘decided to continue the tradition of concealing shoes in and around chimneys, so, having young children at the time, placed some worn out shoes of [his] eldest child in the blocked stack.’ Why? Because he ‘would enjoy finding old shoes in [his] house, so it was mostly for future generations to think about who might have been living in the house when they were placed there, and who knows it may bring luck to the household’.

Betchworth, The Street, Manor Cottage W elevation detail of new gable 5'12'07

Higgins also carved and added new barge boards to the house (pictured), and these included some symbols we’re familiar with: daisy wheels and AMR. However, Higgins included the daisy wheels as decorative features (and for his love of gardening), and the ‘AMR’ doesn’t stand for Ave Maria Regina, as we might have imagined, but are the initials of Higgins’ children. Modern takes on old symbols, and Higgins notes that the ‘whole of this was because the new gable deserved decent barge boards, and why not put a stamp on the building… It could be regarded as just a rather grand form of graffiti’. It makes me wonder whether similar reasons were motivating the carvers of similar symbols generations ago, or whether this simply demonstrates the mutability of meaning. Symbols, objects, and customs can survive centuries – but not without a little adaptation to the meanings, ideas, and emotions behind them.

Clothes Pegs in Cardiff

I’ve been contacted by Stuart from Cardiff who, whilst renovating his Victorian house, came across a dozen old wooden clothes pegs under the floorboards. Has anyone come across pegs used apotropaically (is that a word?) before? They’re not the most obvious items for deliberate concealment, but I can’t think of another reason why 12 clothes pegs wood find themselves underneath floorboards. Theories and ideas welcome!

Cardiff Pegs Stuart Lee

The Lamb’s Shoe, Bury

The Lamb is a pub on Tottington Road in Bury, Greater Manchester, which was built in 1830, when it started out as an inn, complete with stables. It’s now a traditional pub, situated on a busy road in a residential, but semi-rural area of Bury, frequented mainly by locals. Roger Elliott became the landlord of The Lamb in 2013, but has been a regular here for fifteen years at least – and for as long as Roger can remember, the shoe has been on display in a glass and wooden case above the fireplace in the main bar area.

The Lamb

I came across a reference to the shoe on a local community Facebook group and immediately contacted Roger, asking to see it. He was more than happy to let me conduct my research, and invited me to The Lamb on Saturday 31st October – noting the aptness of the date. The pub – cosy, even though it wasn’t opening time yet – was bedecked for Halloween, and the shoe seemed to fit the theme.



The shoe is small – certainly a child’s – and is clearly old and well worn, with frayed and folded edges, and a damaged toe. It was found roughly 30 years ago when former owners of the pub rebuilt the chimney. Within the chimney breast was a ledge, and on the ledge sat the shoe. Behind the ledge was also a number of clay-pipes. According to Roger, the owners wanted to keep these finds as close as possible to their original place of concealment, so they built a case and placed it on top of the fireplace for customers to see. As Roger told me, there were apparent consequences when it was moved from this spot:

“There is a bit of a story where it was moved, moved to the end of the bar, and there was straw found there the following morning, as if from the stables. There was just straw found all over the place. And it happened for a couple of days and he moved it back on there [the fireplace] and it all went…it didn’t appear anymore.”

When I asked Roger if he would ever move the shoe, he replied with an emphatic “no”: He wants to keep it “almost exactly – by about nine inches – exactly where it was found”. And would he take the shoe with him if he ever moved out of the pub? “No, no, no. That is part of the pub”. Roger’s theory is that the shoe was placed there in the 1830s or 1840s, in order to bring good luck to the pub and ensure it doesn’t burn down. Does he think it works? “No not really”, he replies automatically, but then he re-considers. “Well, so far we’ve not had any bad luck. So in that sense…” He gestures to the room around him. “It’s still standing.”

Hidden Charms Conference, Norwich, April 2016

It’s looking to be a great line-up (even if I do say so myself!) at the Hidden Charms conference (take a look here) in Norwich, 2nd April 2016:

Brian Hoggard, ‘Evidence of Unseen Forces: Apotropaic objects on the threshold of materiality’

Sonja Hukantaival, ‘Same Mental Idea, Different Manifestation? Hidden charms in Finland and the UK’

Jeremy Harte, ‘Luck and Dread’

Annia Thwaite, ‘The Urinary Experiment: A re-appraisal of ‘witch-bottles’ and their functions in early modern England’

Jason Semmens, ‘Cunning-folk and the Protection of Property: The view from the West-Country’

Lisa Wilson, ‘By Midnight, By Moonlight: Ritual protection marks in caves beneath the Mendip Hills, Somerset’

John Billingsley, ‘The Head That Works For you: Apotropaic vs. show’

Ceri Houlbrook, ‘From Concealers to Finders: Putting the (concealed) shoe on the other foot’

James Wright, ‘Cultural anxieties and ritual protection in high status early modern houses’

Estee higher res