The Games Medieval People Played

1300_1320ManesseCodex_hawking

Last week we were looking at medieval holidays. It was all very well having time off work, but what did people do with it? Fairly obviously, eating and drinking played a part, but there were other activities which varied according to the time of year.

Some of them were of a fairly martial nature. Archery practice was important all year round, and men practised at the butts and at something called shooting at cock, which involved a live cockerel. I assume that this has less to do with cruelty than with the benefit of shooting at a moving target.

Other martial activities included wrestling, javelin-throwing and throwing a knife at a peg. These were fun, but were also developing skills useful in warfare.

There were ball games: handball, football and bowling. Football was a vicious game and injuries, even deaths, were not uncommon. Teams varied in size: a tithing could take on another tithing or a village another village. The distance between the goals varied according to the number of players. Bowling was a bit more sedate and took place out of doors anywhere where there was enough flat ground. A round stone was used as the bowl.

On the side of pointless entertainments were quoits, blind man’s buff and skittles. Again, these were mostly outside activities. In the summer boating and swimming were popular, but led to many fatalities.

More sedentary occupations were dicing and board games, which were played by rich and poor alike. The most popular dice games were raffle, with three dice, and hazard, with two.

One of my favourite medieval board games is merrelles, or nine men’s morris. It’s for two players who each have nine pieces in two colours, e.g. player A has white and player B has black.  The aim is for a player to get three of the pieces in a line horizontally or vertically, removing the opponent’s pieces until they only have two pieces left and can no longer play.

Nine_Men's_Morris_board_with_coordinates.svg

The board is blank at the beginning and the players take it in turn to place their pieces. If one of them succeeds in making a line of three, they can remove one of the other’s pieces. Once all the pieces are on the board, the players take it in turns to move their pieces trying to join three in a row. The piece can only be moved to an adjacent space and cannot leap over any other pieces.

It’s a very ancient game, dating back at least to Roman times. It needs no complicated equipment. The lines can be scratched on the ground and small pebbles used as the pieces.

Dancing was an activity in which everyone could take part. At certain holidays this was done round a bonfire.

The aristocracy hunted, feasted and jousted. Although these were entertaining, they also had serious uses, in that hunting provided food for the household, feasting ensured that the aristocracy were healthy and in good condition for war and jousting meant that they were well-practised when it came time to fight in a battle or skirmish. They could also play tennis. Tennis is mentioned in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, dating from 1385, which shows that it was already fairly well-known in England. Tennis was the same game as handball, but was played with racquets.

Chess is another game mentioned in Troilus and Criseyde, as Criseyde reflects on how pleasant her life is without a jealous and controlling husband to shout ‘Checkmate!’, or ‘Chek mat!’ as Chaucer has it.

Aristocratic women probably had more leisure time than anyone else. They sewed, chatted to one another, listened to books being read aloud, or read books themselves.

 

Sources:

Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 – ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

43 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment

43 responses to “The Games Medieval People Played

  1. Fascinating April!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t realise how dangerous the games could be – so many fatalities!

    Like

  3. Cool episode April, sounds more fun than video games of today! Even with the injuries!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Good grief, you could have been describing a typical day in the life of a Turkish male, maybe without the danger part! 🙂 Sitting around drinking tea and playing games plus chatting [goodness knows what they talk about all day!]

    Liked by 2 people

  5. If you substitute some modern technology equivalents, I wonder if anything has changed all that much.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Unbound Roots

    Very interesting, April! I just love your history-filled posts.

    I was not surprised to see that you listed quite a few games that still exist today – I love this! My family is having a reunion this summer with many coming all the way from Sweden. It is taking place on the family farm that was homesteaded in 1884. My great-grandfather wrote about many different Swedish games he grew up playing, so I’m going to try to learn these games – if I can find information on them. Maybe our relatives from Sweden still play these games. It will be interesting.

    Thanks so much for another great post, April!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I didn’t know that bowling was such an old sport. Were the pins in it made from wood?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Shaunn Munn

      There were many forms of bowling from what I’ve read. Some were played somewhat like Italian bocce. They usually required knocking opponents balls away from a target ball or peg. Whoever got closest to the target won.

      Some used pegs slightly driven into the ground –just deep enough to stand up but not enough to be hard to bowl over. This is for when the ground is hard to keep smooth & flat. These worked well in bowling “greens”.

      Hard, flat clay courts would allow for flat-bottomed pins. The ones I saw were convex in shape, not the kind popular in American bowling. Pins could be set into different designs, like triangles & diamonds, dependent upon how many were used.

      Some used delineated lanes. Some had courts. Many variations existed in medieval times. Many still exist in villages throughout Europe.

      Many games used nine or ten pins. But a lot depended upon what the contestants or community preferred. Good, heavy hardwoods were best, and gave that satisfying, high-pitched “click” when hit. Balls could be wood, stone, or possibly other materials. Heavy woods also tended to stay erect better on windy days.

      Bowling is a fascinating topic & much research is available online!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I suspect that mostly it was a case of using what was to hand, especially at the lower end of the social scale.

        I might do a bit more research, as it’s interesting to know what people did in their leisure time.

        Liked by 1 person

      • lydiaschoch

        Shaunn, I completely missed this reply to me. My apologies for that.

        I had no idea that there were multiple forms of bowling back then. It sounds like it was an entertaining way to pass your time. How did you learn so much about this topic?

        Liked by 2 people

        • I babysat for years for the children & grandchildren of our local bowling lanes owners. They had books about the history of bowling in their home.
          While the kids watched cartoons, I read about bowling. Wish I could read them again! They were put out by bowling equipment companies. Surprisingly, the online info isn’t nearly as in-depth.

          Bowling was enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians. Forms of it spread through the Mediterranean. But I also suspect bowling developed elsewhere without knowledge of the earlier forms.

          Liked by 2 people

    • The oldest bowling green in the world is in my town. It goes back further than 1299, from which the oldest surviving record of its existence dates.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Shaunn Munn

    I would presume horse races would have been pursuits of the aristocratic &
    wealthy. But dog racing was also popular, as well as animal baiting, executions & other cruel events. They were commonly enjoyed by rich & poor.

    But some communities had a lot of fun with games like wife-carrying races, three-leg races, & many of the amusements still found in children’s games today. Adults participated & had as much fun as the children. Great ways to let off steam! Games like “London Bridge” and “Red Rover” are wonderful holdovers from medieval jollity! Some games sprouted from grim beginnings — think of “Ring a Ring of Rosies”!

    “Punch & Judy” & other marionette & puppet shows drew crowds. Frankly, I think they had a great deal more fun than we do today!

    What a great article!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you.

      None of my sources mentioned horse racing, but I suppose it must have happened. I’d need to do more research about bear-baiting and cock-fighting, as they might have been more prevalent in later centuries. They were violent times.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. As a kid, I remember playing a lot of games with my friends which were said to have their roots in the middle ages. Some were potentially very rough, but as participants could range in age from around 3 or 4 to 11 or 12 the older kids played soft to avoid hurting the “littlies”.

    We also spent an enormous amount of time making sort-of crossbows and long bows (which never worked very well) and building forts.
    Years later I met a man who’d grown up in Norway who said he and his friends had done exactly the same. It’s sad to think that we’re probably among the last to have played games that must have survived among children for centuries. And would certainly have kept us very fit, and taught us how to compete co-operatively.

    Liked by 2 people

    • We didn’t make bows and arrows, but I had a wooden bow with arrows that had a plastic thing on the end so that they stuck to flat surfaces.

      I hope children are still playing versions of the games I used to play in the playground. It can’t all be ipads and video games.

      Liked by 2 people

      • We had different games for the playground – they were often gender specific. We used to play the ones I’m thinking of in the evenings after school with other kids from the street. Now I think back it was funny, because the Catholic kids joined in. Whereas during the day, when they were wearing their school uniforms, we wouldn’t have been caught dead together. It was all “Catholic Frogs” and “Proddy Dogs”. What little walking remnants of history we were.

        Now, back to medieval aristocratic women and their leisure. Wouldn’t the sewing have been a form of work because it was put to use in church or castle?

        Liked by 1 person

        • The question about sewing is interesting. They weren’t (as far as I know) making clothes, which would have been work. What they were doing was purely for decoration, but the same was true of the people who painted pictures on the church and castle walls. There must have been a dividing line between sewing recreation and sewing as work, as there is today between someone who makes their own clothes and home and someone who sits at a sewing machine all day and everyday making clothes to be sold in shops. It’s something that will bear more thinking about and study, though.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Shaunn Munn

            I’m fascinated by pre-industrial textiles, especially embroideries & embellishments. I would suspect that the basic construction of say, a gown, would be in the hands of semptresses. Fine work, such as embroideries & placing of jewels, would certainly only be trusted to the elite. The embroidering of cloths of gold and/or silver would be too precious to trust out of sight of some authority. Presumably, this was why one hears of women sewing & embroidering together under the watch of their “betters”. Handmaidens quietly sewed in the darker corners while the ladies did the fancy work & chatted in the sunny areas.

            I may be wrong in this, but I suspect the imported silks & exotic cloths probably did not already have fine embroideries on them. That many had patterns so beautiful that they appeared embroidered must have been common, but trust the medieval woman to add more! Skeins of silk flosses & threads were not often seen on personal import inventories, but they must have been widely available, perhaps purchased from local merchants for better control over color selection?

            I would also think that women would try to impress each other & their menfolk by producing needlework of great beauty & intricacy. As with friends & family I have today, bringing out needlework for the oohs & aahs of others, women of yore likely derived a lot of enjoyment over their accomplishments! I have absolutely no talent in such areas, which increases my appreciation for such arts!

            It is the deconstruction of the precious parts of these cloths that puzzles me. At some point, the cloth would be too frayed, faded or stained for elite use. There was not an infinite supply of precious materials. What became of old pieces?

            I can’t see the expensive stuffs in the cloth discarded or handed down to menials. One never hears of it, but surely the good parts were saved?
            If so, who did it? Were they sold back to jewelers to be once again drawn into metallic thread? (And some metal threads were tightly wound around a core of cord. Jewelers must have done that!)

            Just can’t see a fine lady picking out the metal threads, etc. A puzzlement!

            Liked by 1 person

            • I have been meaning to do some posts about textiles and clothing, but haven’t got to it yet.

              I should imagine that gold thread was reused after a garment was finished with. It was made by winding gold leaf around ordinary thread, so it was quite expensive. It wasn’t used to sew, but was couched onto the fabric, so it would have been easy to remove it. Couching is a technique where a heavier thread is laid on top of a fabric and held in place by a lighter thread, which passes over the heavier thread and into the fabric. I haven’t explained that very well, I’m afraid, but the gold thread would not wear very much and could be detached from the fabric without sustaining any damage.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Shaunn Munn

                That helps! I don’t get to see too many old textiles here in Indiana. Mostly go by portraits, which don’t allow the real work to show! Thank you!

                Liked by 1 person

  10. Fascinating as ever, April. I had no idea that tennis was that old.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Medieval Gambling | A Writer's Perspective

  12. For some reason, I’ve stopped getting your posts again, although this time I don’t find them in the spam folder. I’ll hit subscribe again and see if I can’t manage to get them at least once per post.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. This is a really interesting post April, so fascinating! I can just imagine if anyone from back then came to visit our time – I wonder what they’d think!!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Losing the Plot

    I used to play nine men’s Morris quite a lot when I worked in Carrick Castle, I have a set upstairs. I have a set of Cloister Games that I bought in Past Times years ago that have 3 medieval board games but I’m not familiar with the other two. I’ll dig it out and see if you know them

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Pingback: Medieval Board and Table Games | A Writer's Perspective

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