The Lost Shoe: A Symbol in Medieval Scandinavian Ballads and Church Paintings

The Lost Shoe: A Symbol in Medieval Scandinavian Ballads and Church Paintings

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The Lost Shoe: A Symbol in Medieval Scandinavian Ballads and Church Paintings

By Tommy Olofsson

Miss Julie and Cinderella

In August Strindberg’s Miss Julie there is a scene that has not been analyzed in sufficient detail. It comes when the people of the farm are celebrating Midsummer and approach the house, singing. Jean asks Miss Julie to leave his room at once, but she refuses to heed his urgent advice. “Shall I obey you?” she asks contemptuously. Jean then begs her to go to her own room and go to bed: “Besides, if I hear rightly, the people are coming for me, and if they find us here, you are lost.”

What is the song the peasants are singing? Jean immediately grasps the meaning of the old folksong, but Miss Julie does not understand at all. “What are they singing?” she asks. “It’s a satirical song! About you and me!” Jean understands because he is a man of the people. Julie does not understand because she is a young woman from the upper class.

It takes some knowledge of the allegorical symbolism of folk speech to understand what the song so disrespectfully suggests, namely, that the peasants suspect the manservant and the count’s young daughter of having slept together. This is clear from the first of the three verses cited by Strindberg:

Two ladies came out of the wood
Tridiridi-ralla tridiridi-ra.
And one of them had wet her foot

They spoke of a hundred dollars
Tridiridi-ralla tridiridi-ra.
But hardly had more than one dollar

The bridal wreath I’ll give to you
Tridiridi-ralla tridiridi-ra.
But to another I’ll be true

What seems most important to note from our point of view is that one of the ladies “had wet her foot”. Here we discern an established symbol in old European folksongs and fairytales, namely, that a person who has lost a shoe or in some other way has got wet feet is a person who has lost his or her virginity before marriage.

The prototypical and most illustrative example is the one passed on to us by the Brothers Grimm through their publication of the now-classical tale of Cinderella, who has been to a ball in the palace where she lost her shoe. The following day the prince rides out to look for the girl whose shoe he has found, that is to say, whose virginity he took the night before.

The prince is obsessed with finding the girl he so much enjoyed dancing with and kissing, who had then run out so suddenly, descending the palace steps in such haste that she dropped one of her shoes. He rides around to all the homes in the neighbourhood and finally comes to the place where Cinderella lives with her wicked stepmother and her spoiled stepsisters.

The tiny shoe does not fit either of her half-sisters. It is far too small and tight for them. It is only when Cinderella gets a chance to try it on, as the last in turn, of course, that it turns out to be a perfect fit. She is the right girl. She gets to marry the prince. It is understood implicitly that he had sex with her the night before, evidently to his great satisfaction.

It goes with saying that the tale of Cinderella has undergone some retouching and demure revision before becoming one of the classical Western children’s stories. The sexual symbolism that the story must surely have displayed originally has now been diluted so much that in the version by the Brothers Grimm it is at most a faint reminiscence, presumably impossible to detect for anyone not familiar with medieval imagery and a symbolism that seems rather peculiar to us slightly more modern people.

It is not surprising that an author like Strindberg, with his broad learning and his affinity with the common people, displays a familiarity with this symbolic language in the oral folk tradition. He reveals a profound knowledge of folk customs and traditions in many of his works. Equally unsurprising is that his scholarly commentators have completely missed the meaning of the words sung by the peasants. To be fair, there is so much else to notice and analyze in Miss Julie. What we are concerned with here is not crucial for the interpretation of Strindberg’s drama, just one of all the details that can, if necessary, contribute to an all-round interpretation. It is nothing more than this. The point is that people like us who are interested in old folksongs prick up our ears and notice that our interest suddenly lets us see something that other people do not see. Yet it is clear that the song is significant for the drama. When Jean hears what the peasants are singing, he demands that Julie and he hide immediately, locking themselves in his room, unless Miss Julie would be so good as to flee at once to her own bedroom: “I’ll bolt the door, and if they try to break it in, I’ll shoot. Come. [On his knees.] Come!”

It is obvious that Strindberg attaches great importance to the song, first by quoting it word for word, and soon afterwards in the stage directions which describe a folk “ballet”, accompanied by a “fiddler” and “aquavit”, in which the people form a ring to dance “Two Ladies Came Out of the Wood”. Is each verse a dig at Jean’s and Miss Julie’s awkward predicament? Yes, so it seems. The first line mentions two women. This must be Miss Julie and Jean’s fiancée, Kristin the maid. Then there is a hint of intercourse with “And one of them had wet her foot” – Julie has just had sex with Jean. The second verse stresses the loving couple’s economic difficulties. What in the world can they do now? Go to Switzerland and open a hotel, Jean suggests, although such a project would surely not receive the financial blessing of Julie’s father. The alternative is a suicide pact, which Miss Julie proposes in true romantic spirit. “I think it would be better to open a hotel,” Jean replies resolutely. We know what happens. Miss Julie takes her own life, with Jean’s willing assistance. Jean himself will presumably continue as a manservant and will probably go on to marry a woman of his own kind, Kristin the maid, whom he loves. He expressly says to Julie that he does not love her; his erotic attraction to her has to do with his sense of being a class inferior. She nevertheless gives him the “wreath” that is mentioned in the third verse. The wreath is a token of honour, known since the laurel wreaths of classical antiquity, but in the Middle Ages it was also a symbol of the female sex. For example, the ribald medieval Italian sonnetist and Petrarchist, Pietro Aretino, talks of how the woman’s “wreath of hair” is willingly given as a reward to a splendid and appreciative male member. And in the second-last line of the poem there is a clear statement of who it is that Jean loves, namely, his Kristin, a woman of the people, a woman who suits him.

Perhaps this is roughly what Strindberg was thinking. But this sketchy interpretation is probably far too impatiently succinct, and nor should it be taken for granted – absolutely not, on the contrary – that the author wanted everything to fit, down to the slightest detail, in textbook manner. The all-round interpretation of the function of the folksong in Strindberg’s drama is not our main concern here either. What interests me most is the image of the wet foot in the third line of the first verse. The reason is that I have made the acquaintance of this wet foot, or the lost shoe, in several medieval ballads.

“The Clog Man”

During photographic excursions to medieval churches in Sweden and Denmark I noticed quite soon that the Danish excursions yielded more than the Swedish ones, at any rate for my purposes, searching as I was for ballad motifs and folk pictures, preferably grotesque ones, connected to jocular medieval ballads. The reason for the difference is simple. After the Reformation in the late 16th century the ecclesiastical authorities in Sweden went to almost ridiculous lengths to paint over motifs that could be offensive to pious parishioners. In Denmark they did not bother to censor pictures to the same extent, indeed hardly at all, which means that the medieval Catholic heritage, as depicted on the walls of the churches, has often survived. There was some censorship even in Denmark, but it was never on anything like the same scale as in Sweden, where a great deal of taxpayers’ money has been spent in recent decades renovating the old churches and cautiously exposing the old wall paintings – sometimes with dubious results.

There are nevertheless Swedish churches where the murals were not painted over, perhaps because the advocates of censorship did not really understand what the pictures showed, failing to grasp their true meaning. We found one such church in Skåne, to be exact in Linderöd a little west of Kristianstad. It has a medieval wall painting which really ought to have been painted over and concealed, for the spiritual benefit of the congregation. The reason this did not happen is probably a misunderstanding. The painting has been known since the nineteenth century as “The Clog Man” and has been thought to be directly linked to the shoemaking tradition in this district of Göinge, especially the making of clogs. The so-called “Clog Man” has become a symbol of a craft that people in the area justifiably took pride in; it contributed to the local economy, to an extent that is difficult to measure, but above all to its distinctive cultural identity. The icon of the clog district has even been admired on a wall painting from the fifteenth century in Linderöd church.

But is this supposed “Clog Man” really a Scanian craftsman? It is obvious that he has primarily been interpreted in this way for a number of generations, hence his well-established name. Here is what “The Clog Man” looks like:

The Linderöd church in southern Sweden was built in the end of the 12th century. The medieval murals in the church are made by Anders Johansson and were finished in 1498. The male figure in this picture is in popular speech called “The Clog Man”.

What we see is a youth holding one of his clogs close to his chest. The other clog, of an equally old-fashioned model, seemingly with two heels, is still on his right foot. If you are in Linderöd church you will notice that the young man seems to be looking towards the altar. From his position on the wall in the chancel he is directing his gaze towards the altar. But he is doing something else. He is waving. In his immediate vicinity there is nothing to wave at, so the only reasonable interpretation of his gesture is that he is waving farewell to the altar and the picture of Christ’s passion and sacrifice which is there in its proper place. What we see is not a clog maker in Göinge, as has long been believed, but a young man waving goodbye to salvation, to God and to His son who chose to die for him and his future salvation. He is aware that he has sinned, and he is holding a clog tight to his chest, as a sign.

Under the Göinge clog man, who is not actually a craftsman but a young and lascivious sinner, we see two sketchy figures which seem to hint at why he has got his foot wet, that is to say, lost his virginity.

Above him is a drawing of a vulva, of the kind that one could see on the wall of any modern-day public toilet, and under this rudimentarily rendered organ we find a sketch than can scarcely be interpreted, not even with clerical dignity, as anything but an anus. It is to one of these orifices, or perhaps both, that the youth has lost his virginity. And that is why he is waving farewell to the altar, aware that he is now probably doomed to the torments of Hell, sooner or later, but for the moment he does not look too terrified; if anything he is rather cheerful and cocky.

What further contributes to the semiotic precision of the picture is the roses drawn around the sinner. This is a picture of a young man who has made the acquaintance of the rose grove, the place where amorous adventures take place in accordance with the established symbolism of the medieval ballad.

A curious detail in this context is that the priest in Linderöd, who opened the church for us after the evening darkness had fallen over Skåne one evening in April 2010, was astonished at our spontaneous interpretation of the picture, but quickly accepted our explication, possibly infected by our delight in the discovery.

“The Farmhand and the Maiden”

I think we have found a wall painting that is a direct illustration of one of our Scandinavian medieval ballads, more specifically number 233 in the standard edition, Sveriges medeltida ballader.[1] This is the well-known jocular ballad that usually goes under the title “The Farmhand and the Maiden”. It seems reasonable to believe that we really have here an illustration of a ballad that is discernable and in most respects hits the nail on the head. We ourselves have been animated by the idea, and thus far we have at least convinced the priest in Linderöd. If there are doubters, they will have to put forward solid arguments against our interpretation. Until then our thesis is, quite simply, that we have in Linderöd a visual representation of the central motif in “The Farmhand and the Maiden”, and this ballad was in the painter’s mind when he planned and executed the picture.

True? I think so, but I cannot know for sure. There is no banderole here to provide an explanation, no verbal key to the mystery.

I believe, then, that this is a depiction of a specific ballad, and I am eager to proclaim this interpretation. What even a restrained sceptic will see in Linderöd church is a wall painting from the fifteenth century which undoubtedly seems to communicate using the symbolism in a number of medieval ballads, here in particular one that concerns the loss of a shoe. And in this connection “The Farmhand and the Maiden” is a rewarding example for several reasons. In most of the variants it is a truly amusing ballad, most entertaining when it is the maiden who proves to be the most cunning player in the game between the sexes.

The farmhand, the knight or the young swain – his titles vary in the recorded versions – usually loses a shoe or both his shoes during the lovers’ tryst, but he does not complain about this, cheerfully saying that he can easily get new shoes, he has suffered no harm, whereas the maiden can never retrieve her virginity. He says this without a hint of compassion, in boyish triumph, as in this version. Here the dialogue is between the farmhand and the maiden:

The maid stood at the window, she wept and she swore:

Now you have your maidenhead, and I your shoes.

I can surely get a pair of finger-mended shoes;

But a maid will never get her maidenhead anew.

This variant (SMB 233 A) is full of roguish cynicism. The farmhand deceives the maiden by pretending to be “a lord”. Through this device he can have his way with her. He is a rascal, the kind of man that young girls need to be warned about. That is also the moral in several variants, but in the most entertaining and most poetically effective of them, the girl answers back, showing that she cares not one whit about her lost virginity, if she was even still a virgin before the encounter. She says that she is prepared to perform an even greater feat than obtaining a new shoe, namely, restoring her maidenhead. That is no problem, she retorts, for she can constantly renew her maidenhead by buying a dummy, comically enough made of wood, as a hint that horny men do not notice the difference anyway. Randy men are easy to trick. That is what this ballad is usually about. There are exceptions, as we have mentioned. Mostly the ballad is a wicked lampoon about men’s insensitive sexuality and triumphant smugness. The farmhands, et consortes, imagine that a pair of lost shoes is a trifle in comparison with the loss of a maidenhead, but the girls sneer at this conceit and say that they can restore their maidenhead without difficulty, sometimes even with the assistance of the father with his skill in carpentry. In its best variants it is a wonderful jocular ballad which says a great deal about how an unmarried woman in the Middle Ages could view her erotic predicament – and be prepared to joke about it!

The lost shoe

The shoe or shoes that were left behind in haste, perhaps because the owner was afraid of being caught in an unchaste act, are part of a complex of metaphors with a symbolic character in the medieval ballads. In the old ballads it seems to be mostly associated with the man’s lost innocence, while there is often more explicit talk of the woman’s lost virginity.

Not far from Linderöd is Brunnby church, likewise in Skåne. There we find a character who has put his foot in it in the same way as the clog man. This is a peculiar figure with disordered clothes, and with only one shoe left. His nose is long, as Jews tended to be maliciously depicted in the Middle Ages.[2] This is probably a picture of a despised Jew with his typically pointed headgear. His lips are sensuously red, possibly from lipstick. The pointed cap, like the one boot he still has, suggest that this is a man, but the buckle at his waist looks feminine. He is probably dressed up as a jester or fool, a generally unreliable person, Jewish, seriously marked by his sins.

The clog man in Linderöd church is more interesting, however, and the picture of him has a more dramatic charge. Notice his gestures. He has evidently just lost his virginity and is therefore waving goodbye to the altar with its promise of bliss.

In Miss Julie and in the tale of Cinderella, the gender choreography is different and much more discreet, but the symbolic meaning of the metaphor is the same, although it is young women who lose a shoe, like Cinderella, or get their feet wet, like Miss Julie.

The closest example to us in time, the song for the ring dance in Miss Julie, is perhaps the most eloquent. Jean, a man of the people, understands the imagery of the song. Miss Julie does not, since her class has distanced her from folk knowledge.

The most surprising example, in my view, is the clog man in Linderöd church. Why was this taunting sinner not painted over a century ago? My guess is that the churchmen no longer understood the picture, no more than Strindberg scholars have understood what Jean immediately grasped when he heard the peasants singing “Two Ladies Came Out of the Wood”.


Strindberg, August: “Fröken Julie” (“Miss Julie”), Samlade verk, vol. 27, ed. Gunnar Ollén, Stockholm 1984.

Sveriges medeltida ballader (“Swedish Medieval Ballads”), vol. 5:1–2, ed. Sven-Bertil Jansson and Margareta Jersild, Stockholm 2001.

The Types of the Scandinavian Medieval Ballad. A descriptive catalogue, ed. Bengt R. Jonsson, Svale Solheim and Eva Danielsson, Stockholm & Oslo, 1978.

Foot Notes

[1] Sveriges medeltida ballader (“Swedish Medieval Ballads”), 1–5, ed. Sven-Bertil Jansson and Margareta Jersild, Stockholm 1983–2001, is a complete scientific edition of all Swedish medieval ballads, published in seven volumes. (In my article I simply refer to it as SMB.) For English readers it is appropriate to refer also to the bibliographical overview and commentaries to each of the ballad types in The Types of the Scandinavian Medieval Ballad. Jonsson, Svale Solheim and Eva Danielsson, Stockholm & Oslo, 1978.

[2] A famous Swedish example is Albertus Pictor’s malicious picture of a Jew in Härkeberga church, with a similar hooked nose and with the same kind of pointed hat.

Tommy Olofsson is an author and a literary critic as well as a Professor of Creative Writing at Linnaeus University. Click here to visit his faculty page.

Watch the video: Varulven - The Werewolf. Swedish medieval ballad (July 2022).


  1. Falakee

    Bravo, a brilliant idea

  2. Mem

    Your thought is very good

  3. Derwyn

    Relevant. Can you tell me where I can find more information on this issue?

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