Major surgery of any kind requires a good bit of adjustment in your day-to-day life. It is especially complicated when you are involved in any form of reenactment where you not only have to consider how your modern life is impacted, but you then have to consider how it impacts your "medieval" life.
I had major surgery on my left foot two weeks ago, and it never occurred to me to consider how I would accommodate this in my 15th century life. The obvious answer would be to "take some time off to heal;" however, as a co-chancellor for the current King and Queen of An Tir in the SCA (think Sr. Program Manager) I can't just decide not to show up. It occurred to me one evening right after surgery that I had not considered this, queue post to Facebook
"I just had a harrowing thought...how will I get hose/chauses over my
dressing!!?!!?? Crown tourney clothing meltdown in 3....2.....1...... Liftoff! #poorplanningonmypart"
Of course, being an artist myself and highly plugged in to the creative minds in the SCA, the suggestions came pouring in, and to summarize them: "What would they have done in period?"
The period thing...indeed. Mission accepted!
I only had a week to pull this together, so in order to make this happen the research net was going to have to be cast wide and not deep. By that, I mean relying solely on the visual record, or pictures in period of people with leg/foot injuries. To go deep would mean delving in to the written records of the time period, which is a little bit more laborious and time consuming. The resources came pouring in from friends especially from fellow 15th century researchers Charlotte Mathilde Johnson and Allison Hoang.
I limited my search to 15th century Europe and pulled a bunch of these images to baseline commonalities. These are some examples of 15th century images that we found:
After examining all of the images, I opted to use the image of St. Martin sharing his cloak from the Catherine of Cleves book of hours, which is estimated to be from the mid 15th century.
Once I settled on this image as the main point of inspiration, I posted another query to my equally geeky group of friends. "Hey, anyone out there able to make a crutch and a strap on leg based on this picture in a week?"
Surprisingly, two of my friends from the SCA jumped on this. My friend Holland Cooley who is a woodworker decided to fabricate the crutch and leg, and my friend Maddy Dumont, an upholsterer by profession, volunteered to pad them out for me for comfort.
Three days later, Holland sent the images over to review, and I was completely gobsmacked. They were far better than I had hoped for, and I was totally stoked to try them out.
So the weekend arrived, and I had in the interim gathered linen scraps to bind by leg mainly to cover the ultra modern walking boot. It allowed me to carry on the aesthetic that is found in many of the pictures that we were using for research.
Once Holland delivered the crutch and leg to site, Maddy padded them out using a heavy-weight wool and padding.
Here is my first step outside after strapping everything on and ditching my modern crutch. I decided I was going to play a beggar this weekend, so I only got dressed as far as my underwear. The intent was to spread a blanket and sit with a wooden bowl and harass people that walked by for "crusts of bread" and "alms for the poor." However, that never materialized. Maneuvering around on this configuration was much more complicated than anticipated.
The strap on leg, while built based on period images was not very sturdy with just one strap. Obviously you see the one strap configuration in several images in the visual record that we were using as a reference, so I don't think there was a flaw in the construction. It was very clear that this leg was not intended for walking, or even assisted walking; it's just too shaky sliding around on your knee. This makes sense why you see consistent use of crutches in addition to the prosthetic leg in many pictures. It cannot on function as a replacement for a leg.
I learned this the hard way when I first tried to take a step on it: I fell over.
Where it did become infinitely useful was standing. Once you got the hang of how it moved on your knee, you could use it as a support when you are standing to more evenly distribute weight from your good leg/hip. It was incredibly useful when standing in one place. When one examines pictures, you see some form of prosthetic in about 50% of the pictures and a crutch in 100%. After using this configuration, it is clear why not everyone used it: 1. resources, your poorest of the poor may not have been able to afford one or have the means to make one 2. It has limited usefulness for movement, but becomes very valuable when standing in one place. I expect that that if I were to dig in deeper, we would find different variations of this in attempt to better stabilize this configuration. Also, with practice I would expect that I would become much more adept at using and navigating with the strap-on leg afixed, but for the weekend the lessons learned about being crippled in the 15th century with a wooden strap on leg was enlightening and pretty invaluable.
Eventually on Saturday I ended up taking off the leg and relying solely on the crutch. It also was quickly becoming cold and rainy, so I donned my wool cote, hat and coif. It was not exactly beggarly, but in several representations there are middle class people dressed moderately well on crutches. Therefor using a crutch was not something unheard of in the well dressed middle class.
Using the crutch was interesting, especially coming off of using modern crutches. Most of the crutches found in the visual record I examined did not have any form of hand grip or handle unlike their modern counterparts. It creates a very different experience. Rather than using an overhand grip on a cross bar handle like a modern crutch, you have to grip the shaft of the crutch overhand much like an inverted sword. When you are moving your crutch, you engage much more of you hand, forearm and bicep where modern crutches engage more of your shoulder, biceps and triceps which is a much more efficient way to navigate. Period crutches also require more coordination as you not only have to remember to move them as you walk, but to keep a very tight grip on them. If you don't you'll drop your crutch mid-stride and fall over...I learned this from experience, as I took a couple of spills trying to figure out how to navigate on this new style of crutch. I didn't spend much time looking at pre/post 15th century images; however, using this image from the late 13th century. and this image from Bruegel in the late mid 16th century, you can see that the configuration has not changed much for hundreds of years in medieval Europe. My experience with these implements was likely very consistent with what someone from the 12th through 16th centuries would have experienced with similar prosthetic configurations.
This was a fun learning experience, and exemplifies the type of experiential research and experimental archaeology that I like to pursue in many of my endeavors. This does not exemplify what deep academic research would look like. I would, as I mentioned earlier in the blog have to cast my net much deeper.
However, to get a taste of what something would have been like, an experience, this type of approach can be invaluable.
You can find more of the images we used at the following links:
Thanks for reading!