Tristan Slippers

An Image of Adultery on a Symbol of Marriage?
  • Kathryn Starkey
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The image above depicts part of a leather upper from an open-backed slipper worn and discarded in the city of Leiden, in the Netherlands, sometime in the second half of the fourteenth century.2 Needle holes along the edges of the fragment indicate that a thick thread once attached the piece to a sole that was probably made out of cork or wood covered with leather. The evidence provided by similar findings tells us that the upper consisted of two such triangular pieces attached at the top by a strap, and perhaps a buckle.3 The fragment is damaged and worn, but one may still discern the shape and constellation of the image embossed into the leather. Two figures appear in high relief, sitting beneath a tree on gothic-style chairs, gesturing toward one another. Between them is a chessboard placed over a hexagonal well at the base of the tree. A crowned head reflected in the water reveals the presence of an eavesdropper peering out of the tree above. Framing the image are two banderoles in Low German that read: “altoes blide / so wat ic lide” (always happy, despite how much I suffer).


Fifteenth Century Fourteenth Century Literary Text Urban Society Needle Hole 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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  1. 2.
    For the details of this description I draw on the authoritative study of these fragments by Herbert Sarfatij, “Tristan op vrijersvoeten? Een bijzonder vesierungsmotief op Laat-Middeleeuws schoisel uit de Lage Landen,” in Ad fontes: Opstellen aangeboden aan prof. dr. C. van de Kieft ter gelegenheid van zijn afschied als hoogleraar in de middeleeuwse geschiedenis aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam (Amsterdam: Verloren, 1984) p. 43 [371–400].Google Scholar
  2. See also Johan H. Winkelman, “Over de Minnespreuken op Recentelijk Ontdekte Tristan-Schoentjes,” Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 43–4 (1995): 553–560. The fragments average 15 cm in length and 6.6 cm in height. The leather is about 2 mm thick.Google Scholar
  3. See also Goubitz, Stepping out in Time: Archeological Footwear from Prehistoric Times until 1800 (Zwolle, the Netherlands: Stichting Promotie Archeologie, 2001).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Winkelman, “Tristan en Isolde in de Minnetuin. Over een Versierungsmotief op Laatmiddeleeuws Schoeisel,” Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 24 (1986): 163–188.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    Walter Prevenier, “Court and City Culture in the Low Countries from 1100 to 1530,” in Medieval Dutch Literature in its European Context, ed. E. Kooper (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 12 [11–29].Google Scholar
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  7. 17.
    Ruth Schmidt-Wiegend, “Hochzeitsbräuche,” in Handbuch der deutschen Rechtsgeschichte, ed. A. Erler und E. Kaufmann (Berlin: E. Schmidt, 1971-), col. 190.Google Scholar
  8. 18.
    Gregory of Tours, Liber vitae patrum xx.i (De Sancto Leobrado reclauso). Cited from translation by Joaquin Martinez Pizarro, in A Rhetoric of the Scene: Dramatic Narrative in the Early Middle Ages (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989), p. 246 n. 6.Google Scholar
  9. 19.
    These traditions are also mentioned in Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, vol. 9 (Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1899), p. 1850.Google Scholar
  10. 20.
    In her comprehensive study of clothing and fashion in the courtly epic, Elke Brüggen includes only a brief section on shoes, which are apparently seldom mentioned in medieval courtly descriptions of clothing. According to the few literary references, peasants wore heavy shoes made of thick cowhide, while the nobility wore shoes made of Cordovan leather or fine materials. Elke Brüggen, Kleidung und Mode in der höfischen Epik des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1989), pp. 245–46.Google Scholar
  11. 25.
    See Doris Fouquet, Wort und Bild in der mittelalterlichen Tristantradition. Der älteste Tristanteppich von Kloster Wienhausen und die textile Tristanüberlieferung des Mittelalters. (Berlin: E. Schmidt, 1971);Google Scholar
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  13. 26.
    See Fouquet, “Die Baumgartenszene des Tristan in der mittelalterlichen Kunst und Literatur” Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 92 (1973): 360–70.Google Scholar
  14. 32.
    See Ann Marie Rasmussen, “Eavesdropping Male Narrators.” Speculum 77 (2002): 1, 168-1, 194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 35.
    Isolde is likened to a falcon and a sparrow hawk in Gottfried von Straßburg’s Tristan: She is described as “gestellet in der waete, / als sî diu Minne draete / ir selber z’einem vederspil” (formed in every part as if love had formed her to be her own falcon [ll. 10899–901]).” Her figure is described as free and erect as a sparrow hawk’s: “si was an ir gelâze / ûfreht und offenbaere, / gelîch dem spärwaere” (ll. 10996–98). As she walks into the court gathering, Isolde’s eyes dart around like a falcon’s: “si liez ir ougen umbe gân / als der valke ûf dem aste” (ll. 11001–2). Gottfried von Straßburg, Tristan, 2 vols, ed. Peter Ganz (Wiesbaden: Brockhaus, 1978).Google Scholar
  16. 36.
    Carl von Kraus, ed., Des Minnesangs Frühling (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1959) ll. 8,34–9, 2. Similarly, the lady is compared to a falcon in this strophe by Kürenberg: “Wîp unde vederspil diu werdent lîhte zam: / swer si ze rehte lucket, sô suochent si den man. / als warb ein schoene ritter umb eine frouwen guot. / als ich dar an gedenke, sô stêt wol hôhe mîn muot.” (Women and falcons are easily tamed: whoever knows how to attract them, they seek out that man. Thus did a handsome knight woo a fine lady. When I think of it my spirit is heightened [ll. 10,18–21])Google Scholar
  17. 39.
    Michael Camille, The Medieval Art of Love (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), pp. 107, 124–25.Google Scholar
  18. 40.
    The reference to the fish is found in only four instances in the Tristan material. It is found here on one of the slippers, on an oak comb from Bamberg dated from the first half of the fifteenth century, a mural at St. Floet in Issoire, dated at 1350, and in a Dutch version of the story by Dirc Potter, written at the beginning of the fifteenth century. On the significance of the version of the text with the line about the fish, see Martine Meuwese, “Arthurian Illuminations in Middle Dutch Manuscripts,” in Word and Image in Arthurian Literature, ed. K. Busby (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 151–73. Bart Besamusca, mentions the slippers in the context of Potter’s use of the fish motif in “The Medieval Dutch Arthurian Material,” in The Arthur of the Germans, p. 204 [187–228].Google Scholar
  19. 44.
    Ingeborg Glier, Artes Amandi: Untersuchung zu Geschichte, Überlieferung und Typologie der deutschen Minnereden (Munich: Beck, 1971).Google Scholar
  20. 46.
    Frits Pieter van Oostrom, “Reflections on Literary History and Netherlandic Cultural Identity in the Medieval Period” in The Low Countries and the New World(s): Travel, Discovery, Early Relations, ed. Johanna C. Prins, et al (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000), p. 7 [1–10]. He draws on Glier’s work on the Minnereden in which she concludes that the Middle Dutch version of the Minnereden are more clearly didactic.Google Scholar
  21. 47.
    A. M. J. von Buuren, “Dirc Potter, A Medieval Ovid,” in Medieval Dutch Literature, pp. 151–167. On Dirc Potter, see also van Oostrom, Court and Culture. Dutch Literature 1350–1450 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), esp. pp. 219–263.Google Scholar
  22. 49.
    Martha Howell, The Marriage Exchange: Property, Social Place and Gender in Cities of the Low Countries, 1300–1550 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) p. 237. Howell writes: “Historians are most familiar with these tropes from the literary and didactic texts of the late medieval and early modern period—sermons, conduct books, songs, plays, and stories in which contemporaries constructed the ideal of a union between husband and wife, bound together as much by passion as duty, that was, entirely contradictorily, both hierarchical and fully reciprocal.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. See also Ott, “Katalog,” 164–65 and Gertrud Blaschitz, “Schrift auf Objekten” in Die Verschriftlichung der Welt: Bild, Text und Zahl in der Kultur des Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit, ed. Horst Wenzel, et al. (Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, 2002), pp. 167–70 [145–179]. The comb is currently held in Bamberg at the Museum des historischen Vereins.Google Scholar

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© E. Jane Burns 2004

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  • Kathryn Starkey

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