I keep running into sources talking about pulley-shoes, pulley-toe shoes, pulley-toes, &c. even though they don't always play well with Google OCR and are basically invisible to vanilla searches.

Those extremely weird terms don't show up in any dictionary including the OED but it's clear they're talking about some kind of medieval shoe with pointed toes. One source even glosses the term with the French phrase souliers à la poulaine ("shoes in the Polish style").

Now, poulaines are properly the version of the pointy-toed shoe that spread across Europe in the mid-14th century and differed in some ways from the "scorpion tail" shoes that Orderic Vitalis thought the bunion-afflicted womanizer Fulk of Anjou was using to cover up his sinful deformity and from the stuffed "ram's horn" shoes that Richard the Horny was using to turn everyone gay in the late 11th century.

Thing is, though, I can't find any period sources talking about "pulley" footwear at all... not that Google is being helpful even with displaying even uses of the terms I've already found.

Any idea where these bizarre and unhelpful names 'pulley shoe' and 'pulley toe' came from? Are they just variants of poulaine that the OED hasn't noticed yet and that are being misapplied to the wrong century out of historians' general unfamiliarity/distaste with fashion? or is there any more to it, like a passage in William of Malmesbury or something? (Complaining about the ridiculous clothes of 'the kids these days' and the excesses of the 1% was of course one of the favorite pastimes of monastic and ecclesiastical historians in any age.)

enter image description here

  • I suspect that the three links at the top are in Japanese. "Pulley shoes" show up on Google here as being shoes with wheels: like a hybrid between a rollerskate and a normal shoe. Perhaps a bit like a toy car you wear on your feet. Commented Jul 11, 2023 at 22:02
  • 2
    +1 for a well-posed question - quirky - but well posed.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jul 11, 2023 at 22:56
  • 2
    It's a shame that the first FOUR links show up as empty pages, Google tells me "You have either reached a page that is unavailable for viewing or reached your viewing limit for this book" The other links work for me though.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 4:04
  • 1
    When I clicked a second time, all the excerpts were visible. Agreed, they're not essential reading and clearly these books were either written in the 20th or 21st century. I'm trying to determine their exact dates.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 4:59
  • 1
    So, then, it seems that at some time after pigaches and poulaines were conflated, the term pulley emerged and got applied to both? There’s a word in the OED entry for poulaines that looks an awful lot like pulley: 1530 J. PALSGRAVE Lesclarcissement 259/1 Pullayne, poullane. Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 19:06

2 Answers 2


The earliest mention of the term "pulley shoes" that a Google Books search turns up is from an explanatory footnote in Thomas Forester's 1854 translation of Ordericus Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, volume 2 [Book 8, Chapter 10] (original text published in Latin by the year 1143). Here is Forester's translated text from Ordericus Vitalis that prompts the footnote:

This count [Fulk of Anjou, circa 1090] was very blameable, and even infamous in many parts of his conduct, and abandoned himself to all sorts of vices. His feet being deformed, he had shoes made of an unusual length, and very sharp at the toes, so that they might conceal the excrescences, commonly called bunnions, which caused his feet to be so ill-shaped. This new fashion became common throughout the west, and wonderfully pleased light-minded persons, and the lovers of novelty. In consequence, the shoemakers, in making shoes, shape them like scorpions' tails, vulgarly called pigaces,1 a fashion which almost all the world, both rich and poor, are wonderfully taken with, while in former times, shoes with round toes, fitted to the form, were in common use both by rich and poor, clergy and laity. But now men of the world sought in their pride fashions of dress which accorded with their perverse habits ; and what formerly honourable persons thought a mark of disgrace, and rejected as infamous, the men of this age find to be sweet as honey to their taste, and parade on their persons as a special distinction.

And here is the footnote itself from Forester, published in 1854:

1 Pigaceas ; Ordericus appears to have Latinized a Norman-French term of the day, not now to be found in any vocabulary. The curious account of the fashions of the age supplied by our author shows that nothing escaped his observation, recluse as he was. That of the long-peaked shoes, with the toes trussed and fastened upwards, souliers à la poulaine, pulley shoes, as the French called them, flourished for three centuries, and was not given up till it was severely denounced by kings and popes.

So, according to Forester, Ordericus Vitalus created pigaceas as a learned neologism, a quasi-Latin form of "a Norman-French term of the day, not now to be found in any vocabulary." Forester then explicitly equates this style of shoe with the shoe identified by the contemporaneous (in the 1140s) French term souliers à la poulaine, which Forester translates as "pulley shoes." Presumably the "pulley" aspect of the expression derives from the trussing and fastening upwards of the Pinocchio toes on shoes of this type, the better to permit actual walking and even running.

As a side note, I must say that I find it strangely comforting that Western culture didn't begin its descent into decadence until the very late eleventh century, according to Ordericus Vitalus, before which time honorable people wore sensible shoes and censured fashions of dress that accorded with their wearers' perverse habits. With what nostalgic regret his readers must have thought back to the Golden Age of circa 1080, when Ordericus Vitalus was but an innocent lad and society hadn't yet gone to pot.

  • See my last comment on Ms A's answer about a possible (probable?) alternate derivation for 'pulley' in this context but (a) you're not wrong that even if modern scholars are dubious that anyone ever actually tied up their poulaines the 19th century believed people had and (b) this is extremely likely the source of learned reuse of this bizarrely unhelpful modern term in the 20th and 21st century. I'd imagine most historians of the age would've read this translation of that work at some point in their training on the era.
    – lly
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 4:42
  • As an aside, your last paragraph is delightful. Glad to have shared a little sunshine with this quirky adventure into medieval fashionistas.
    – lly
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 4:43

Souliers à la poulaine, Poulaines, pykes 1, pigache 2, Krakowes, and Crakows were all names for those peculiar elongated pointy shoes that were in fashion between the twelfth and fifteenth century in Europe. In Italy they were called Cracovia 3 link:YouTube or scarpe polacchi (Polish shoes). As to when the English called them pulley-toes and pulley-shoes I have yet to determine.

The pigache is also known as the pigage, pulley shoe, [7] [8] pulley toe,[1] or pulley-toe shoe.[9] Less often, Orderic Vitalis's terms of opprobrium are reworked into names: scorpion's tail or ram's horn shoe. Wikipedia

As this footwear became highly desirable among courtiers, the nobility, and subsequently by the bourgeoise, the original French name souliers à la poulaine 4, meaning shoes in the Polish style; derived from the Old French term for Poland, Poulaine 5, was adopted by Anglo-Norman speakers during the medieval period.

Anglo-Norman language
…from the late 12th century to the early 15th century, Anglo-French was much used in law reports, charters, ordinances, official correspondence, and trade at all levels; they were the language of the King, his court and the upper class. Wikipedia


  1. Middle English Dictionary entry for Pike, definition
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Chopine e Poulaine: calzature di Moda dal Medioevo all'Età Moderna
    An Italian ‘magazine’ written and presented by YouTuber Matteo Rubboli.
  4. Wiktionary (etymology)
  5. Etymonline
  • 1
    I'll have to come back to this later.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 6:02
  • 4
    @Laurel Since when do "we" have to attribute links? Excerpts, yes. Quotes, yes. But links? I mean, imagine giving the title of every book that Ily provides a link to. It would look a real mess. (I see from the edit history that the editor, E. Ashworth sensibly refrained). Moreover, I don't like the aesthetics, the answer looks crowded and the links should be on the terms not the sources. I don't have time to sort this out, or to find a compromise, but I'm very disappointed by the (ugly and unwarranted) editing. Unless you can point me where it has become official policy.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 12:40
  • 1
    @Ily I believe that the names; pulley-shoes, pulley-toe, and pulley-toes shoes are probably variants, or the Anglicized versions of poulaines but I haven't got any hard facts... not yet. Maybe I will tonight or tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to seeing Sven Yargs' answer! (Bound to post something.)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 12:50
  • 2
    There's no rule that you have to attribute links (got into the same argument myself elsewhere). However, it may be helpful for the less technically savvy (who don't know how to see the URL without clicking on it). A more elegant solution (or compromise?) would be in-text (e.g., "according to Etymonline…").
    – Laurel
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 13:59
  • 2
    For what it's worth, this answer will need that coming back to but I completely agree with Ms A that the editing is an eyesore. I had assumed she was doing it for clarity (fine) but if you or other editors are forcing it on people, jeez, just stop. If people don't know how to see the URL without clicking on it... they can click on it. How could that possibly be a problem?
    – lly
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 16:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.