Steel-soled shoes

October 18, 2010

In March 1685 the librarian Henri Justel wrote from Paris to the Royal Society in London, with a description of a new ‘Engine that consumes smoak & prevents all sorts of the most foetid things cast into the fire’. Enclosed within the letter was an advertisement describing the machine, below which was printed a second advertisement, for ‘Semelles d’Acier’ – steel soles for the shoes.

Leur usage este d’empechere de sentir la dureté du pavé, de l’Estrie & des pointes des Pierres, & de tenir le pied en estat si foiblesque le soient les Soulier

Justel’s report was read aloud at the next Royal Society meeting on 10 March, 1685/6, and duly recorded in the Society journal book, which mentions

steel soles for shoes wch are made very light and yet preserve the feet from the inequality of the Pavemt and sharpness of the stones.

The shift, in the Society’s translation, from the ‘dureté’, or hardness, of the pavement, to its ‘inequalities’, could imply that pedestrians experienced different problems with the climate, terrain or architecture in different urban surroundings: problems which were common to the inhabitants of each place. In this case, the advert might show an interest on the part of virtuosic communities in London and Paris – the ‘scavans et curieux’, mentioned in the blurb – not only to make methodological leaps and theoretical distinctions, but also to develop (and profit from) practical innovations along the lines of everyday life – like the story, probably apocryphal, that Newton invented the cat-flap.

But the bill does not appeal to a sense of shared experience – the environment is particularised rather than shared, and the Society’s translation of the advertisement literally offers a way for those with sufficient means to make the ground more equal for themselves than for others.

And the predicament, which is located where the body makes contact with the solid world, is described in different forms elsewhere in seventeenth-century texts, such as in the following account from Robert Boyle’s History of the Air (1692). Boyle’s informant is ‘an Ingenious Gentleman’, who, experiencing inhospitable terrain, suggests a cheaper but more exhausting solution:

in the Island of St Louis, or near it, at a certain Season of the Year, when hot winds blew from the Continent, the Sand on the Shores would be so scorching hot, that he was not able to stand upon it, but it would, through the Soles of his Shoes, scorch his Feet, unless he walked very fast.


Around 1600, Spanish novelist Mateo Alemán wrote about Guzmán de Alfarache, a rogue or picaro who gets into bad scenes to the point that his life gradually deteriorates. Guzmán’s life can be read as a moral parable but I am really interested in this text for Guzmán’s method of perambulation, that is wandering.

Once, wandering, he meets an attractive woman:

I went wandring vp and downe the City, and hauing little money, and much care, it was my happe to meete with a rare piece of Nature, an admirable Beauty; (at least in my eye, howsoeuer in other it might be otherwise)

In another instance Guzmán notes that ‘There did daily passe by the doore many haggard-Hawkes, youngwandring Lads, much about my yeeres and growth; some with money in their purse, others begging an almes for Gods sake’. He hopes that he ‘might not (as many others) be punished as a Vagabond, and runne the censure of a wandring Rogue’. One night he has an accidental encounter with a woman when they are both naked, and remarks that upon seeing him:

[The woman] suspected that I was some Phantasma, some Hob-goblin, orwandring Ghost, and letting the light fall out of her hand for feare, she gaue withall a great schriche.

As the story progresses, and Guzmán descends further down the social ladder, the wandering gets more sinister:

How often haue I accused and condemned my selfe, when begging in the Church, mine eye hath beene wandring and rouing about? and chuckt and hugg’d my selfe, with the delight and pleasure that I haue taken therein? Or to speake downe-right English, and to declare my selfe more plainely, feeding mine eyes greedily on those Angelicall faces of your finest Ladyes, whose Louers did not dare to looke vpon them for feare of being noted

Wandering like a ‘Masterlessehound’ gets him into bad company:

I wandred vp and downe at mine owne pleasure, (as my fancie did lead me) thorow the streetes of Rome. And because in my prosperity, I had purchased some friends of mine owne profession, they seeing me vn-prouided for, and that I went vp and downe like a Masterlessehound, here one would inuite me, and there another

At another point he proclaims ‘todo lo nueuo, aplaze: See what is newest, that we still like best. This rule, holding more especially in such as I was, who had spiritum ambulatorium, a wandring humour of mine owne, and was a great louer of nouelties’.

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The dictionary defines wandering as ‘travelling from place to place or from country to country without settled route or destination; roaming. Often in plural, sometimes denoting a protracted period of devious journeying’, which serves as a useful contemporary reminder that deviousness isn’t always with malintent, rather it can mean simply ‘departing from the direct way; pursuing a winding or straying course; circuitous’. Now people celebrate city walkers and deviators, like Ian Sinclair, who wend their own way through a place, but in the early modern period we see wandering linked to vice, and the potent menace of having nowhere particular to go.