Medieval Monday: Let the Games Begin!!

“Look in the streets and behold the little boys,
How in fruit-season for joy the sing and hop.”
– Alexander Barclay (medieval poet)

medieval chessI mentioned in a previous post that summer was not only a time for hard work, but also games and other enjoyable activities. Some of these we still recognize and play today, including chess, backgammon, and “draughts,” known to us as checkers. These could be set up on tables under the trees or played indoors. Other common table games were “knucklebones” (throwing dice), “fox & geese” (a strategy game), and “hazard” (a predecessor to craps). Skittles was the predecessor to bowling and was played either outdoors or indoors.

games_smStoolball was an early form of cricket, hurling (or shinty) was the medieval version of hockey, and shovelboard was much like the present day game of shuffleboard.  There were a variety of competitive sporting competitions, including “gameball” (football), archery, and quarter-staff contests. There were games of stickball, throwing horseshoes, knives, hammers, axes, and stones, and using slingshots and catapults to hurl objects beyond a mark or at a target. These activities seem to have been enjoyed by adults as well as children.

John Stow (16th Century England) wrote, “On holidays all the summer the boys play at archery practice, running, jumping, wrestling, putting the stone, sending missiles attached with thongs beyond a mark, and dueling with bucklers. The girls Cytherea leads in dancing until moonrise, and the earth is beaten with the lively foot.”

fruitChildren still made their own amusements, not all of them good ones. French poet Froissart noted that he amused himself as a child by tying threads to captured butterflies so that he could control where they flew. Stealing fruit was a popular pastime, and the pits or seeds could be used as counters for games or as jacks. John Lydgate, a 15th Century monk and poet, admitted to such behavior in his youth. “I ran into gardens, where I stole apples; I spared neither hedge nor wall in gathering fruit. I was more ready to pick grapes from other people’s vines than to say Matins.” There were also a wide variety of communal children’s games. Unfortunately, the rules of how to play most of them have been lost to time. Floating objects down streams, swimming, and blowing soap bubbles were common summer activities for children.

If you’re a game aficionado and would like to learn more about medieval games, and maybe even bring a few of them back into the present, I’m including links to some fantastic resources I found. I even came across a short video of someone playing medieval skittles—which just goes to show, people will record and upload just about anything…

Lots of medieval games (33 different ones with directions for each!):
Fox and Geese:


12 thoughts on “Medieval Monday: Let the Games Begin!!

  1. babbitman says:

    A great post that illustrates that medieval people were just like us; in fact most of these sports are still going strong.
    Skittles is still regularly played in a number of old pubs in Britain which have purpose built skittle alleys (not so great if your house happens to back on to one of these Victorian ale houses because the noise of wooden balls striking wooden skittles plus alcohol-fuelled cheering isn’t very conducive to sleep at 11 pm; yep, speaking from experience!)
    Stealing fruit = “scrumping”, a pastime that was still pretty widely known when I was a kid back in the 70s & 80s.
    Hurling is still the national game of Ireland while we played a tame version of shinty at primary school in England a few times (unlike hockey you can use both sides of the stick).
    And the fairly rowdy original games of football (usually involving two whole villages trying to get a ball up the opposition’s main street) settled down into a variety of different versions (Association, Gridiron, Aussie rules, Rugby Union & League, Gaelic). The ‘goal’ is still the same as the original medieval one – get the ball into your opponent’s end. Some villages still play it the medieval way once a year, including the Atherstone Shrovetide Ball Game which seems just an excuse for a mass brawl:
    All these jolly japes tended to rile monarchs who wanted their male subjects to be practicing the skills of war, particularly archery (a long warbow required immense strength as well as skill and lack of practice could be fatal in battle). Which is why in 1363, King Edward III of England issued a proclamation banning “…handball, football, or hockey; coursing and cock-fighting, or other such idle games”. Luckily, no-one took much notice and the games continued!

    Liked by 2 people

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