The Age of Sabots in 15th Century Netherlands

pair of clogs by marie hathaway

In terms of cleaning up an old house and making it livable at the same time, I’ve so far mentioned items either directly useful, like chairs to sit in, or ritualistically useful, like a historical tea set. But other found objects fit less obviously into the spheres of use. In fact, with the advances in footwear design over the past centuries, some might consider the pair of old wooden clogs that we have sitting atop an unused fireplace to be a positive hindrance.

In French-speaking countries, they call them sabots. My Dad, whose side of the family tree leans heavily on the French branches, explains that the word sabotage came from French workers throwing their sabots into the gears of new industrial machines to prevent the machines from putting them out of work. Having explained it as such, my Dad concedes that he doesn’t know how accurate that origin is; it could just as likely stem from a Japanese word and associated practice.

But enamored of the idea and its depiction – a wooden clog “clogging up” the gears of a great machine – I continued to share the hearsay origin story with whomever I showed the sabots to, without attempting to verify it with “facts.” In this way, the pair of black-painted sabots proved its value in a realm beyond utilitarian and ritualistic – that of a solid, bonafide conversation piece.

And so it went… for nothing gets the recollection or the imagination going like the image of an honest worker using his (the particular ones on our fireplace likely belonged to a man) special, one-of-a-kind wooden shoe to stop a machine designed explicitly to use up vast amounts of natural resources in order to create a mass of copies (of whatever) that will ultimately make money for someone else and make the worker go hungry. The image creates a springboard among the conversationalists for ideas, associations, dreams, stories, and actions.

I finally had to look up the etymology of sabotage, before writing this. Merriam-Webster does seem to confirm our story with regards to the origin of the word: “French, from saboter to clatter with sabots, botch, sabotage, from sabot; First Known Use: 1910.”

Likewise, Wikipedia has information similarly obscure as my Dad’s, listing three different “claimed explanations.” One of these explanations, however, is quite similar to ours, although it occurs much earlier, in the Netherlands (now Belgium) in the fifteenth century. The story records how workers threw sabots into the wooden gears of textile looms to break the cogs in order to maintain their trade. This story sets my mind racing.

When I think about the Late Middle Ages, at least lately, I think of the millennial groups that proliferated at the time. Therefore, when I imagine a worker fed up with the exploitation of nature and of him or herself, I imagine that person abandoning work to join The Pursuit of the Millennium, as Norman Cohn calls it in his book of the same name.

Cohn describes it exactly as such: a surge in population leads to a surge in commerce, causing the “surplus population” to flood the city-centers of industry (only in existence because of said surplus), then creating overpopulation, unchecked industrialization, a greater gulf between the rich and the poor, and ultimately, widespread poverty. Those who suffer find themselves looking for something else….

Salvationist groups and movements formed widely during the Middle Ages. Cohn describes the general impulse as a “mission which was intended to culminate in a total transformation of society.” One such movement that the worker in 15th century Netherlands might have naturally gravitated to was that of the Anabaptists.

As Cohn explains, “Anabaptism was not a homogeneous movement and it never was centrally organized. […] Nevertheless certain tendencies were common to the movement as a whole.” These tendencies included “active brotherly love,” common goods, “charitable dealing and generous mutual aid,” and a rejection of the state.

Sebastian Franck puts together some of these ideas in a pointed summary of and commentary upon the Fifth Epistle of Clement:

“Shortly after that, Nimrod began to rule and then whoever could manage it got the better of the other. and they started dividing the world up and squabbling about property. Then Mine and Thine began. In the end people became so wild, they were just like wild beasts. Each wanted to be finer and better than the other, in fact wanted to be his master. Yet God had made all things common, as today still we can enjoy air, fire, rain and sun in common, and whatever else some thieving, tyrannical man cannot get hold of and keep for himself.”

Picture it: our hypothetical worker, pitted unwittingly against a rapidly expanding population of neighbors, is hoping for the best – in lieu of great fortune, however, he would gladly accept passable food and shelter. And so he moves to an industrial city in the Netherlands at the end of the 15th century. There, he or she finds the situation not only unfeasible, but also unlivable.

According to Cohn it was likely more worse there in the Netherlands than in any other population/industry surge during the Middle Ages. Industry was being operated by a primitive profit machine of capitalists and burghers, unsympathetic to the natural world and its peasant inhabitants, and unaccountable to anyone else. To our worker, then, the Millennial movement‘s offer of mutual aid, common goods, brotherly love, and the end of slavery to the state and capital might seem to offer some possibilities…. …or maybe he looked down at his sabots and had another idea…

Ah, but I’m getting carried away. A good pair of sabots tends to make one do that.

(Top image note and source: The Black Pair of Clogs Atop the Fireplace, copyright Marie Hathaway)

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About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.