“Look in the streets and behold the little boys,
How in fruit-season for joy the sing and hop.”
– Alexander Barclay (medieval poet)
I 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.
Stoolball 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.”
Children 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!): http://www-cs.canisius.edu/~salley/SCA/Games/
Fox and Geese: http://www.mastersgames.com/rules/fox-geese-rules.htm