Monday, May 31, 2010

Shoes in the Wall

One of the more unusual customs I’ve run across is the placing of worn shoes in the walls of buildings when they are constructed. Concealed shoes have been found in churches, cottages, manor houses, public buildings and castles. The Romans likely brought the custom to Britain. Food and drink sacrifices (and sometimes more gruesome offerings) were buried in the foundations of their own buildings.

In Britain, worn shoes have been discovered walled up over windows, doors, or in chimneys, but also in staircases and under floorboards. The oldest known concealed shoe was found in the wall of Winchester Cathedral’s choirstalls. It was put there in 1308. Recently a cache of shoes from the 17th-19th century was discovered in the walls of Liedberg Castle in Germany.

Shoes are a symbols of good luck. (Think of the old bridal poem, “something old, something new…and a silver six pence in her shoe.”) To put them near windows and doors indicates they were meant to prevent evil from coming inside.

The notion of shoes as protectors dates to the 14th century when John Schorn, rector of North Marston, Buckinghamshire is purported to have cast the devil into a boot.

Curse of the Slippers of Papillion Hall

In the early 18th century, David Papillon kept his Spanish mistress a virtual prisoner in the east attic of Papillon Hall in Leicestershire. She died mysteriously, and her date of death and place of burial went unrecorded.

In 1903, during a renovation of the attic, the skeleton of a woman was found in the walls. Believed to be the bones of that long ago Spanish mistress, the story goes that her former lover murdered her because she was a witch but that, before she died, she evoked a curse. If her slippers ever were removed from the property, ill fortune would befall the owner.

Each time the Hall was sold, the lady's slippers were given to the new owner. There were a few times, however, when this custom wasn't followed--with disastrous results. (To read more about the curse, and to learn the whereabouts of the slippers today, click on the link below.)

This story dovetails with the commonly held belief that bad luck will follow if a concealed shoe is removed from its resting place during renovations. Homeowners should either place them back when repairs are completed, or substitute another shoe.

Resources:

Concealed Shoes in Buildings, by June Swann, keeper of the shoe and boot collection at Northampton Museum
Concealed Shoes and Garments
The Slippers of Papillion Hall
Historians Puzzle over the Meaning of Centuries-Old Shoes in Castle Wall
Shoes in the Wall
Common Ridings and Beating the Bounds