Jousters, Tumblers, and Shinbone Skates- A Brief History of Medieval Sport

In a bid to be ‘relevant’ and tie in with the London Olympic Games, August will see a series of sport-related posts of which this is the first.  Myself as the eccentric Medievalist naturally wanted to do something related to the medieval period, but a post specifically related to jousting would likely not have been permissible. Therefore my love of armour clad horsemen galloping towards each other with lances must be relegated to a sentence or two of this more general exploration of sport and games in the middle Ages.

Medieval people of all classes and had more to occupy them than working in fields all their lives, or brandishing broadswords at Frenchmen before they died of plague. Leisure activities ranged from the familiar sounding tennis, ice-skating and football, to the rather more unusual pastimes like water tilting. As the former suggest, the forerunners of some popular games we know today existed in the later middle Ages, with tennis and football as the most famous. These will be mentioned later.

For the aristocracy, jousting and the tourney seem to have had wide appeal, and both originally had the serious purpose of training and preparation for war also a principal occupation of the Medieval ruling class as ‘those who fought’. The problem was that early tourneys could be very dangerous and rather undisciplined affairs, effectively mock battles fought with real weapons and few rules, and combatants would not infrequently be injured or killed in them. Thus both the church and sometimes even the King sought to legislate against the tournament, though they still sometimes took place in spite of this. Yet gradually, the tournaments in particular lost their serious military function, became more organised and regulated and evolved into more of a ceremonial event or pageant in which display of one’s prowess or family connections were the object.

Skills of horsemanship and swordplay may still feature in the modern Olympics with sports such as show jumping or fencing,  even though these are a far cry from such displays of medieval martial combat.

Medieval ladies hunting, the one the pink dress using a bow.

Hunting and hawking were also popular with medieval aristocrats of both sexes, and could be a chance for women utilise their skills of riding and even archery, and it was apparently not unknown for a woman to use a longbow or crossbow during such pursuits. So the sight of women drawing back bows at the Olympics is not unique to our time and one can truthfully state that medieval ladies were doing such centuries before. Nor did archery remain the exclusive reserve of the aristocracy as archers  came to be used in warfare who were drawn from the lower classes, with some such as longbowmen required to undertake regular training from an early age.

Medieval Men hunting with hawks or falcons

Because of the expense incurred by purchasing, training, and maintaining the birds of prey, falconry largely remained out of reach of most common people, and so the reserve of the nobility.  Falconry and hunting were considered “honourable employments” for the upper classes, and the skill of the bird’s trainers or handlers could bring them much credit. Little wonder then that favourite hawks or falcons could accompany their owners even when they were not hunting. Yet despite its long and noble history (some claim it is one of the oldest sports in the world) falconry or hawking has not yet been included in the repertoire of the Olympics. Perhaps an aversion to the hunting and killing of live prey are the reason for its exclusion, but the noble sport still has many practitioners and enthusiasts across the world.

The original tennis, in which players hit balls with their hands

Then there was tennis, which seems to have originated in 12th century France, as a game which involved hitting a ball with the palm of one’s hand rather than a racket (not introduced until the 16th century), hence the naming of the game ‘jeu de paume’. Over time the game seems to have evolved, and a version which included a net became increasingly popular amongst the nobility who could play the game in indoor or outdoor courts, hence ‘jeu de courte paume’. Tennis or something like seems to have gained some popularity even amongst the lower classes, though there appears to have been some objection to common people playing it, and even some measures to restrict or ban them from doing so, this was apparently due to some association between the game and gambling. Nevertheless, ordinary people may still have played in such places as church yards.

Tennis was not the only game which the authorities sought to take action against however, another was football, which was banned by a number of kings and rulers. Today, such a measures may seem absurd, and banning football sometimes used as an example of the supposedly extreme moral ‘prudishness’ of the puritans. Yet considering the nature of medieval football, which had few rules and was being played in a society in which almost everyone carried knives and consumed ale as a foodstuff, the potential dangers of the game become more apparent. Cases of people being killed or injured during football games were not unknown, and, as some medieval football matches were played over large areas of say, one or more villages, it may have been understandable that some had reservations about the game being played in their proverbial ‘backyard’. This and the association of football with gambling also did not weigh in the favour of the game.

Yet towards the end of the Medieval and into the early modern or renaissance period, a less raucous version of the game seems to have developed, with about 20 or so participants in smaller areas of ground. This could be played in a castle courtyard, and seems to have gained some popularity amongst the aristocracy.

Skates of horse shin bone, similar to those used in the medieval times.

Aside from these the more well-known sports, there were a host of other recreational and sporting activities participated in by medieval people of various sexes, ages or social classes including ice-skating, stall-ball (a slightly  different version than that which we played at school) to the more athletic antics of entertainers and tumblers, and even a version of golf which has its origins in late 15th century Scotland. Where weather conditions allowed, medieval men and women seem to have attached horse shin bones to their feet as ice skates, and the object of stall ball was for men to aim at the legs of milk stalls with balls on which women would sit to defend by kicking the ball away. If the stalls were hit, however, the ladies were supposed to reward the men with a kiss.

Other more interesting activities could include water tilting a form of jousting in which competitors equipped with wooden lances or poles would attempt to knock one another out of boats, instead of knocking them from horses.

Then there were the entertainers perhaps known as ‘dancers’ and ‘tumblers’ whose activities could involve such athletic feats as tumbling, leaping and doing somersaults, or even walking on tightrope. The association with ‘dancing’ is said to be evidenced by medieval depictions of the biblical account of princess Salome’s dance before King Herod involving back flips or other such shows of athleticism associated with these entertainers. Female tumblers may sometimes have donned tight-fitting leggings and short tunics, but the displays of such entertainers of both sexes appear to have been popular, so much so that Edward II is alleged to have paid an entertainer twenty shillings a time for an act that involved falling off his horse. Thus some comparison between the antics of medieval tumblers and the skilful routines of modern gymnasts such as those who compete in the Olympics may be partly justified.

Those reading this post may be struck by the apparent echoes and similarities between medieval recreational activities and modern competitive sports. It may even be possible to draw parallels between tumblers and entertainers performing for pay, or even between knights and men at arms seeking renown and the recognition of their peers in the lists and modern sports people and athletes, including those currently partaking in the Olympic Games. These are often regarded as the modern re-invention of an ancient Greek contest but perhaps there may also be precedents found in the medieval forbears of modern sport and recreation. As the scripture says ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.

References:

John Marshall Carter, “Sports and Recreations in Thirteenth-Century England:
The Evidence of the Eyre and Coroners’ Rolls–A Research Note*”, Journal of Sport History, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Summer, 1988)

Thomas S Henrick, “Sport and Social Hierarchy in Medieval England”, Journal of Sport History, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Summer, 1982).

Medievalists.net ‘News’, ‘Football was being played in Medieval Scotland, research reveals’, accessed 29th July 2011, http://www.medievalists.net/2011/10/18.

John A Nichols, ‘Women in Sport: Images from the Late Middle Ages’, Accessed 29th July 2012, http://srufaculty.sru.edu/john.nichols/research/womensport.htm.

Steven J Overman, “Sporting and Recreational Activities of Students in the Medieval Universities”, FACTA UNIVERSITATIS Physical Education Vol. 1, No 6, 1999, pp. 25 – 33.

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