Workers discovered a shoe this month behind a wall at a Cambridge University college in England that was probably meant to protect inhabitants of the building from mischievous or malicious spirits. The shoe is about 300 years old, and the workers found it in St. John’s College behind a wall in the Senior Common Room, a historic spot.
The Senior Common Room was originally the residence of the college’s master and was built between 1598 and 1602. However, a press release from Cambridge News, the university’s news service, state that the shoe was probably placed behind the wall panels during renovations in the 17 th or 18 th centuries.
Shoes and other items were considered amulets against evil and malevolent spirits in more superstitious times, the press release says. Discoveries of similar items have been made at Hampton Court Palace and Ely Cathedral.
An aerial shot of St. John’s College (Photo by St. John’s College)
Workers laying cables made the find August 1, the birthday of an academic and ghost story writer at Cambridge by the name of M.R. James. He often began his eerie tales by having characters discover antique objects, releasing spirits with ill-intent from the realm of the dead.
“No such misfortune has befallen St John’s since the shoe was uncovered, however, which is welcome news for the college, since these days the Senior Combination Room is where many of its academic staff have their lunch,” the press release states.
The worn-out shoe is a size 6 in today’s measurements and it has a hole in the left heel. The most common type of amulet was the shoe, the press release states, but many other types of objects were placed in wall as protective charms. Other objects known to have been embedded behind walls include horses’ skulls, dead cats and “witch bottles” with human matter such urine and hair.
Another shot of the shoe (St. John’s College photo)
Amulets were not just embedded in walls. People of the times also placed them in roofs and beneath floors.
The Cambridge Archaeological Unit is analyzing the shot. Richard Newman of the unit is quoted in the press as saying:
“It was positioned between the chimney breast and the window, which is exactly the sort of location where you would expect to find a shoe being used in this way. Given its location, it is very likely that it was there to play a protective role for the master of the college. It may even have been one of his old shoes.”
“This is one area where archaeological finds are quite important. There is not a lot of documentary evidence about people’s beliefs in ritual magic in the past, and often the sources that we have are very negative and disparaging about such practices. These discoveries are important because they give us a material record of what people may have believed at the time.”
The press release says the shoe may have played a role in auspicious events that happened in the room, including, in the 1620s the betrothal of English King Charles I to his intended bride, Henrietta Maria. Also, in World War II, the allies planned part of the D-Day landings on the coast of Normandy region of France in the room, the press release states.
Top image: This 300-year-old shoe was discovered behind a wall at St John’s College and is thought to have been an amulet meant to ward off evil. (St. John’s College photo)
By Mark Miller