Sports
Middle Ages
Knights

What sports were played in the Middle Ages?

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03/30/2014

The sports of medieval Europe were less-well-organized than those of classical antiquity. Fairs and seasonal festivals were occasions for men to lift stones or sacks of grain and for women to run smock races (for a smock, not in one). The favourite sport of the peasantry was folk football, a wild no-holds-barred unbounded game that pitted married men against bachelors or one village against another. The violence of the game survived in Britain and in France until the late 19th century.

The nascent bourgeoisie of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance amused itself with archery matches, some of which were arranged months in advance and staged with considerable fanfare. When town met town in a challenge of skill, the companies of crossbowmen and longbowmen marched behind the symbols of St. George, St. Sebastian, and other patrons of the sport. It was not unusual for contests in running, jumping, cudgeling, and wrestling to be offered for the lower classes who attended the match as spectators. Grand feasts were part of the program, and drunkenness commonly added to the revelry.

The burghers of medieval towns were welcome to watch the aristocracy at play, but they were not allowed to participate in tournaments or even, in most parts of Europe, to compete in imitative tournaments of their own. Tournaments were the jealously guarded prerogative of the medieval knight and were, along with hunting and hawking, his favourite pastime. At the tilt, in which mounted knights with lances tried to unhorse one another, the knight was practicing the art of war, his raison d'être. He displayed his prowess before lords, ladies, and commoners and profited not only from valuable prizes but also from ransoms exacted from the losers. Between the 12th and the 16th century, the dangerously wild free-for-all of the early tournament evolved into dramatic presentations of courtly life in which elaborate pageantry and allegorical display quite overshadowed the frequently inept jousting. Some danger remained even amid the display. At one of the last great tournaments, in 1559, Henry II of France was mortally wounded by a splintered lance.

Peasant women participated freely in the ball games and footraces of medieval times, and aristocratic ladies hunted and kept falcons, but middle-class women contented themselves with spectatorship.

There were a number of sports that were not martial.

Tennis was certainly one. Badminton had not yet been invented, but battledores and shuttlecocks, was commonly played; picture badminton played for two, played without a net, and with a goal of keeping the shuttlecock aloft as long as possible.

A number of different kinds of handball were played.

We know there were various forms of medieval football. They were played according to various rules, and the game took various forms, but it was never as organized and regulated as modern football. One form, called mob football, seems not even to have counted the numbers of people on each side. The game could be played on the street in a village or town, and seems to have consisted more of anarchy than anything else.

There is speculation that baseball was played in the Middle Ages. We know a game called rounders was widely played in Tudor times, and was at least sometimes called baseball at the time. Reading a description, most Americans would probably identify it as a type of baseball, in much the same way they identify stick ball as a type of baseball.

There were various forms of bowling done in the Middle Ages, skittles being one, and bowling greens were not uncommon.

Early forms of billiards were played, including forms called lawn billiards.

Scottish King James II banned golf in 1457 because his archers were spending time playing golf instead of practicing, so it clearly existed widely before that date. An earlier game rather like golf was pall-mall, whose name comes from Italian words meaning ball and club.

Fishing was done as a sport. We do not have a lot of records of this, but surely the Fisher King was not fishing for a living.

Birds were hunted with hawks and falcons. They were also hunted without.

Deer and wild pigs were hunted from horseback with lances or swords, and were also hunted with bows. Smaller animals were hunted with bows, sometimes with dogs.

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