A retelling of the ballad of the Scottish borders
Walter Map’s charming little tale of a Princess, ambition, obsession, one of the most taboo acts known to humanity, an unlikely weapon from an unlikely source and, of course, shoes. Let me take you to Constantinople…. Musical credits, sources and more at: https://talesofbritainandireland.com/episode-32-the-shoemaker-of-constantinople/ #myth #mythology #folklore #legends
In Constantinople there lived a shoemaker…
Walter Map’s charming little tale of a Princess, ambition, obsession, one of the most taboo acts known to humanity, an unlikely weapon from an unlikely source and, of course, shoes.
Let me take you to Constantinople….
Warning: this is a very Not Safe For Work story, not suitable for children.
“No… what? Really!?! No!”— Me, reading this story for the first time
There’s a fair amount that could be written about this story but I think more even than in the case of episodes I’m going to keep this website page brief on details and let the episode do the talking.
Story in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)
The stories in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript.
If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the story, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on…
Please also note that this is considerably NSFW and not suitable for children.
The Shoemaker of Constantinople
The story opens looking down on a breathtakingly cerulean blue sea, lit by the warm rays of the sun.
The waters are disturbed by the wake of a large ship, making its way across the sea at speed, propelled by banks of Oarsman and by the large sails bearing the Imperial Insignia.
On the deck of the vessel a woman paces up and down. In one hand she has a small sack clutched very tightly indeed.
Despite the splendour of the day she’s clearly nervous. But not nearly as nervous as those around her. Towering muscular sailors and heavily armed soldiers who are clearly afraid. They’re trying not to show it but it would be rapidly apparent to any unseen observer that they are terrified of the woman. They’re steeling themselves against involuntary flinches each time she turns particularly swiftly.
She gives the order to stop. Far away from any land. Her commands are quickly and unquestionably obeyed.
More orders are shouted. Two larger sacks emerge from the darkness of the ship. The shape of them meant there could be no mistaking their contents. One after the other they are tossed overboard into the glorious azure depths.
Then she looks down at the small bag in her hand. With one swift and decisive motion she throws it as far out into the sea as she is able.
There came a great bubbling and steaming at the point it hit, as though the water was heated in a cauldron… there was an almighty churning of the waters, flexed with sand dredged from fathoms deep.
There’s a brief period of calm.
And then the sea explodes.
Let’s go back a few decades.
We’re in the city of Constantinople in the best years of the Byzantine Empire. It’s a huge, busy, bustling city, the greatest in Europe by far.
Such a place requires a great many people doing many different jobs. Amongst the artisans can be found a shoemaker. He didn’t come from the wealthiest background this shoemaker, but what he lacked in heritage he more than made up for in drive, determination and persistence.
He presumably had a name but it’s been lost to time. We’re going to call him The Shoemaker.
The Shoemaker was but a young man but he already excelled at his craft – in quality and speed. And this had not gone unnoticed. He was making waves amongst the Byzantine bourgeoise and his little shop was busy with customers wanting to commission footwear from him.
And it was during one such visit his life changed entirely.
A noblewoman came to him. Before he even saw her he heard her heavenly voice, but when he was fortunate enough to cast eyes on this most radiant beauty he found himself in a deep all consuming love (read lust).
For her part – well she wanted some shoes. She was only here as he had to measure her feet, a task he did reverentially, else she’d have simply sent a servant to do it.
The Shoemaker was almost struck dumb, but as she swept out, commission given, measuring completed he managed to ask one of her retinue the name of the woman: “Satalia”.
It was surely the most perfect name in all of Christendom.
He set aside all his other work. Made her the finest pair of shoes he’d ever made, discarding several inferior versions along the way, and damn the cost. These had to be just right.
She sent a servant to pick them up. And so, she thought, ended her interaction with him.
He’d spent his whole life aiming to become the best shoemaker and succeeded admirably. But now he had a new goal.
He turned all his considerable attention to how he would make the gorgeous Satalia his. He wasn’t used to the idea of failure. for he’d never grappled with it.
Now oddly enough securing Satalia’s hand was not very much about wooing her. For in this place requests for marriage were granted and organised by fathers. It was the father he would have to convince. But he could not even realistically begin to do that.
You see the society was riven by strictly demarcated class differences. A shoemaker, even a spectacular shoemaker like himself was simply of too low a class to ever get a woman like Satalia. It just wasn’t permitted.
But there were ways to rise in class. They were just very difficult.
But, as I said, he was driven. And so he took all his money, he sold his inherited house, and he spent it all on buying his way into the army.
For years Satalia went about her life completely unaware that somewhere the Shoemaker was using his razor sharp focus and absolute dedication to successfully rise in the ranks of the ever busy Byzantine army.
He was very successful indeed, and rose quickly. But he had no love of the fight for its own sake and kept his end goals always in sight.
So he continued his rise right up until the exact point where his star shone bright enough that he was reasonably sure that he was of a requisite status to be a good match for Satalia.
The decorated veteran returned to Constantinople and asked Satalia’s father for her hand in marriage.
And her father refused.
We don’t know why exactly. Maybe her father just thought she should have some say in it and she didn’t know this soldier at all, maybe something about the intensity of the man worried him. But crucially he said “no”.
This floored the Shoemaker turned soldier. He’d spent years of his life on this! It couldn’t go like this. He would have her!
But for that he’d need a change of plan and another change of career.
The Aegean sea was full of pirates – the intense rich trade between Constantinople and the rest of Europe made a tempting target, however well guarded it was. There were always desperate violent men willing to give it a shot. And the Shoemaker found himself amongst them. His military career had proved useless so without compunction he’d signed up against the very state he’d served for so long.
How this was meant to help his goal of wedding Satalia is not entirely clear. For lesser men It’d probably make no sense at all. But for The Shoemaker? Well he dreamed big. Impossibly big. That he could become head of a pirate fleet large enough to take Satalia from Constantinople by force.
Years passed again. And once again the Shoemaker rose swiftly in the ranks and against all the odds, but perhaps unsurprisingly by now, he made it to the very top of a notorious gang of pirates, becoming one of the most feared pirates in all the Mediterranean.
His band raided ships and coast alike, and seeing the writing on the walls more pirates flocked daily to his banner, or found themselves in the unenviable position of being his enemy.
The plan was working. But he’d have to develop much more were he to take on Constantinople itself… it was surely an impossibility… but he persevered, the organisation continued to grow, striking fear into the hearts of those across the land.
Right up until the day that word reached him that Satalia had died.
Not, by the way, in some ironic raid by his pirates where she was conveniently present for maximum narrative drama.
No. She just died. People do that. They did so more back then. Diseases were pretty common and often fatal, childbirth was often a stone cold killer, violence was more endemic generally. There were lots of reasons people just died. And she just did.
Just as he’d abandoned the military without hesitation The Shoemaker abandoned his life in the Aegean without a moment’s thought.
He rushed back to the city as a civilian, just in time to catch the funeral. He couldn’t attend officially of course, but he lurked in the trees of the rural cemetery where the service was conducted. Wept to himself as priests wafted incense from swinging censers, as words were said, as the body was laid into the ground.
And there he waited till nightfall. With a shovel.
And what happened next was pretty much the worst thing you could imagine would happen. He would have her you see. In death if not in life. So up came the recently buried body and he opened the coffin.
And still driven by that single minded desire which had consumed him for years the Shoemaker committed the most abominable act with that corpse.
If you hadn’t worked it out yet The Shoemaker is the villain of this piece.
After he was finished a strange and terrible voice cried out. Sepulchre tones which seemed to come from nowhere at all. For perhaps the first time in his life The Shoemaker was truly frightened
“Now you’ve done this awful deed you have obligation to that which you have wrought” it snarled at him, from every direction and seemingly from inside his skull all at the time.
“Return at the allotted time, and take your progeny”. The Shoemaker looked down at the defiled body which lay there unmoving.
Madness finally starting to take a hold he desperately buried the body again. He had just about finished his awful work when the first cock crowed, and he fled just before the rosy fingered dawn could break on such an unholy scene.
Months passed and in that time the Shoemaker did very little indeed. The voice echoed round his head every waking moment and in his dreams. He was in some awful limbo, just waiting for the nine months to pass, which they did with agonising slowness.
He was almost sure he’d imagined by the time the day finally arrived. But he had to see.
He set to his ghastly task once again. Digging again.
After a while he uncovered the skull. It was well rotted, now there was no mistaking that this was a dead body. No life could come from within.
“That’s right!” came the raspy tones of that dread voice. “Keep digging”.
Sobbing with terror the Shoemaker unearthed the whole of Satalia’s wretched body.
There was no life in the corpse itself but something was somehow working its way out of the body.
The Shoemaker looked on in horror at the blasphemous birth of this cursed progeny of his.
And he was shocked to discover that rather than some infernal baby the thing that wriggled from his post-mortem victim was a human head. An adult human head, severed from a body that had never been.
The voice screamed and screeched at him from all around : “Never gaze on its face again!” and then it did some more explaining.
And as it did The Shoemaker’s thoughts went from ones of gibbering terror to ones of diabolical delight.
He had misunderstood. This wasn’t some punishment. No, this was almost a reward. Because there really is no justice in the world.
The first anyone found out about what The Shoemaker had dug up in that grave was when he arrived back at the den of the pirates he’d dumped so unceremoniously nine months before, demanding to be their leader.
They obviously weren’t having him back and weapons were quickly drawn to demonstrate the point.
The Shoemaker produced a box he was carrying with him. He opened it in the direction of a group of pirates.
Inside was of course that damned head, its face staring outwards. But the pirates barely saw it because they dropped dead.
Not dramatically, there was no time for grasping at throats and eyes bulging in terror. The life just went out with them and the bodies fell to the floor.
A pirate lunges at The Shoemaker with his sword. The Shoemaker swings around, the gaze of the box of death taking out more men until resting on the one with the sword, who sees the face in the box and falls to the floor, sword clattering harmlessly away.
“So does anyone else want to argue, or do you want to join me in the biggest raid of all time?”
“Looks like the captain’s back!” said a smart one. At that a great resounding cheer went up from all assembled.
The Shoemaker gave a horrible smile.
People didn’t even have to look at the head to die. He just had to kind of wave it in their general direction. If it could see them then they’d sag and become lifeless masses.
The crews of enemy ships could be mown down from a distance, armies crumbled before it. At first defenders might find some brave souls to take over from the first wave who dropped dead, to stick their heads out over the castle rampart. But when the second wave dropped dead, just as mysteriously then the call to open the gates and give this man everything he wanted became very loud indeed.
To his bewildered opponents, which was essentially everyone else in the world, The Shoemaker appeared to be death incarnate, the destroyer of worlds, the living embodiment of mortality, the greatest and most awful sorcerer the world had ever known.
Fortresses, towns, cities, whole provinces yielded to him. Greece and Anatolia bent the knee, and soon only his beloved home, and the place where he had committed his crimes stood independent.
The ‘battle’ for Constantinople was as short as any other. Seeing the way the wind was blowing the people threw open the gates executed the old Emperor, and offered the Shoemaker both the crown and the Princess as a bride. Offers he took up without hesitation.
And so he returns home. A conqueror. Here he sits on the Throne of Constantinople, unwilling Queen at his side, unwilling army at his command, unwilling church legitimising the marriage, unwilling populace bowing down low to him and cheering his every deed.
From a humble beginning he has risen to be a new dark god. And they say evil doesn’t pay.
And none of it brought Satalia back.
Let’s turn our attention to The Princess turned Queen against her will. For she had some traits in common with the shoemaker. She too was strong willed, utterly determined to succeed and willing to do whatever was necessary.
And just then she had an obsession of her own: Surviving her marriage to this dreadful man. She steeled herself and as unnatural as it was she became the perfect wife to The Shoemaker.
She presented to him a convincing façade of love and lust, concern and care.
And oddly enough… well this wasn’t something the shoemaker had ever known before.
He’d spent his whole life obsessing over first shoes and then one woman he’d met only briefly. But now he had a wife.
Over time the Shoemaker fancied that he and the Princess were falling deeper and deeper in actual love. He opened up more and more to her during their conversations in bed, sharing his problems with her and finding solace in it. Too late he had discovered the benefit of a good relationship.
And ever so subtly… over months… the Princess teased out of him the secret of his power.
While trying not to be sick as he recounted it all she pretended to care so much about him, to understand how difficult it had been, while paying especially close attention to exactly how he killed.
And that night the Shoemaker turned Emperor went to bed with his obedient, loving wife beside him, and he slept a deep and contented sleep.
And his eyes would open precisely once, ever again.
And now we’re almost back to the start of the story.
The Princess did the deed. The Shoemaker was dead in his bed.
I suppose in some world the Princess could have kept the head for herself, used it to rule with tyrannical fear. But that was not her way.
She was Empress really, the rightful heir, and she had just killed the most powerful man the world had ever known. She had no problems getting the people to obey her.
She was going to get rid of the head once and for all.
She took command of a ship and headed out into the Mediterranean. She took the Shoemaker’s body and that of Satalia, who she ordered dug up, as she wasn’t taking any chances.
With the head in the bag they headed out and tossed all three into the sea. The bodies went in without incident but when the head landed….
Well the sea itself seemed to be rejecting so loathsome an offering. It was as if it had been hit by a mighty blast at the point the head went in, and a wall of water exploded upwards, in all directions, seeming to reach the very sky.
But, try as it might, the sea could not expel the blasphemous bag. The waves collapsed back to sea level, but they didn’t stop their churn, and a mighty whirlpool formed.
It was a maelstrom that would, from that day forth, devour and destroy any ship unlucky enough to fall into its depths. And it still swirls to this day.
What happened next – well that’s not clear. The story we are telling is over at this point. Good, or what passed for good has triumphed, after a great deal of suffering and death. And it’s certainly possible that terrible things happened either to the Empress or to her people next.
But, just this once, let’s pretend. The Shoemaker is gone, evil lies defeated! And the Empress and all the people of Constantinople lived happily ever after.
Views of Constantinople
For some inexplicable reason there aren’t really any illustrations of this story in the fin de siècle children’s fairy tale books I take lots of the images for my episodes from. Funny that.
But Constantinople and then Istanbul has served as inspiration for some breathtakingly beautiful artwork. So here’s a small selection…. to take your mind off things.
Not a Cobbler
I spent a long time wanting to call the Shoemaker a cobbler. Just for the satisfying onomatopoeic value: the Cobbler of Constantinople just rolls of the tongue nicely. But technically, and I quote Wikipedia here:
“A cordwainer is a shoemaker who makes new shoes from new leather. The cordwainer’s trade can be contrasted with the cobbler’s trade, according to a tradition in Britain that restricted cobblers to repairing shoes. This usage distinction is not universally observed, as the word cobbler is widely used for tradespersons who make or repair shoes.”
So now you know.
Anywy here’s a picture of an ancinet Greek shoemaker’s tomb. It’s not really related, but just to help you keep your mind off.. things.
- De Nugis Curialium – Walter Map, translated by Fredrick Tupper
- Notes on Walter Map’s Nugis Curialium – James Hinton
Musical credits for Episode 32: The Shoemaker of Constantinople
Intro and outro theme from the incredibly talented Alice Nicholls Music
Other music, used under various Creative Commons licenses:
Castle of Darkness
Conqueror of the kingdoms
Tales from the asylum
Legends of the storm
Hanging with the worms
Railroad’s whiskey co.
A baroque letter