Cordovan Penny-loafers

Cordovan Penny-loafers

As is usual in New York’s wet cold winters, my favorite everyday shoes have disintegrated.  They were a pair of old fashioned cordovan penny-loafers and, as I discarded them, I wondered why the lovely maroon/burgundy color is called cordovan. It turns out that the simple question has a complicated answer which winds back to late antiquity when the city of Corduba was the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior (in fact the city was initially named Kartuba by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca).  When the Roman empire broke into pieces, Hispanica Ulterior was overrun by Vandals who were subsequently defeated and replaced by Visigoths (a sequence of internecine conquests and reconquests which lasted from the 5th through the 7th centuries).

Visigoth Brooches from Southwest Spain ca. 6th century AD (in the Walters Art Museum)

Visigoth Brooches from Southwest Spain ca. 6th century AD (in the Walters Art Museum)

The Visigoths were a branch of the Germanic tribe of Gothic people who converted to Arian Christianity (remember the heretic Arius from the story of St. Nikolaos—his theological survived in the Viisgoth kingdoms of Western Europe).  The Visigoths were evidently great leatherworkers/cobblers, and they reputedly created the original cordovan leather.  This did not initially refer to the color but was a special sort of extremely tough leather which was made from the flat muscle (“the shell”) of a horse’s rump. Cordovan leather was especially suited to boot toes, straps, and archery equipment—all of which had to be especially tough and thick.

Columns of the Great Mosque of Cordoba (now the Cathedral of Cordoba)

Columns of the Great Mosque of Cordoba (now the Cathedral of Cordoba)

Corduba was captured by new invaders in AD 711 and became part of the Umayyad Caliphate which was run from Dasmascus, however the region broke away and became an independent emirate in AD 766.  This state (named al-Andalus) subsequently grew into a powerful caliphate itself.  During the 10th century, Cordoba, then known as Qurṭubah, was one of the largest and most cultured cities on Earth.

The Flag of Córdoba

The Flag of Córdoba

In 1236, King Ferdinand III of Castile captured Qurtubah and renamed it Córdoba.  Although the city declined in the Renaissance era it evidently remained famous for its leatherworks.  The English first began to use the word “cordovan” to describe the oxblood color of cordovan-style leather goods in the 1920s.

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Anyway, so that’s the history behind the name of the color of the shoes I just threw away.  I guess they were named by Hamilcar Barca…

Hamilcar Crushing the Roman Navy and...wearing a Cordovan Color undertunic

Hamilcar Crushing the Roman Navy and…wearing a Cordovan Color undertunic