The Olympics are in full swing in London here in the year 2012. I’ve always been a huge Olympics fan from as far back as I can remember. But sports competitions, even international sports competitions, are nothing new. They have existed as far back as the original Olympic games of ancient Greece and even farther. And sports competitions have continued to be a major part of life from that time up through the middle ages and into the present.
So what kinds of games did people play in the middle ages? Did they have strange and fantastical medieval sports or did they enjoy the same activities as we do now?
The answer is, of course, yes.
In the middle ages any given male past childhood could be called into military service at any time. The feudal system required all able-bodied to serve their king on the field of battle when they were called for, whether as a knight or a common foot soldier. Since hardly any training was provided for these calls to arms all men were expected to have refined the skills of combat before a war ever broke out.
So how did one do that? By playing games.
One of my favorite scenes from the movie Braveheart involves the men of William Wallace’s village partaking in stone-throwing contests. They do this, it is explained, as a way of increasing their strength and preparing to do battle with the English, who had forbidden them to own or train with arms. That pretty much sums it all up right there. Medieval games and sports were designed to develop skills that would be needed on a battlefield.
For your average everyday peasant this meant simple games that involved tests of strength and agility. Contests like throwing stones, hammers, and spears for accuracy and distance were popular. So was wrestling in all its various forms. … And all of these sorts of competitions are included in the Olympic games of today. Hmm.
Several medieval team sports were widely played both in the country and in the city. A sport with the descriptive name of “Gameball” was played by teams representing various schools in London and beyond. It involved two teams and used a round ball that each side tried to kick across the field in an attempt to score a goal by shooting it past the opposing team’s defender into a target area. … Gosh, that sounds familiar.
Yet another team sport, Shinty, had its origins in Scotland. Shinty was played long before the middle ages, actually, dating back to antiquity. It involved two sides attempting to hit a small, hard ball from one end of a field to another and through a goal using sticks that had a flat or curved foot at one end. … Wait, that sounds familiar too. In fact, the only thing that separates Shinty from modern field hockey was the fact that you could use both ends of the stick to keep the ball in play.
Stoolball was another medieval team sport that gained popularity in the countryside. It was thought to originally have been played by milkmaids who would set up their stools on either end of a long, narrow strip in the middle of an oval field. The game was played with two sides made up of eleven players each. One team would field while the other would bowl. Balls were bowled underhand without hitting the ground, and a batsman would defend their stool by attempting to hit the ball away. If the ball rolled over a predetermined boundary the batsman scored four points, whereas if it sailed airborne over the boundary they would score six points. Runs were also scored by running between the stools. … It sounds a lot like another game I know and love.Yep, you guessed it. The games and sports that were played by the common people in the middle ages were the precursors to the sports we play today. Stoolball evolved into cricket. Baseball was derived from cricket. Shinty and Gameball were simpler versions of hockey and football/soccer. Other sports that might look familiar to a modern person traveling in the middle ages are Skittles, which is a version of ten-pin bowling, Bowls, which bore a distinct resemblance to Lawn Bowling, and Colf which was like … well, I think you can figure that one out.
But perhaps the most popular sport for common people in the middle ages was archery. Archery is still an Olympic event. People still engage in it worldwide. In fact, my nice was the state Archery champion for her age group in Alabama last year. True story. But in the middle ages, Archery wasn’t only popular, by 1252 in England is was required for all men between the ages of 15 and 60. This was the beginning of the era of the English longbow, remember. Those archers that took down thousands of French soldiers and knights in The Hundred Years War didn’t spring up overnight. They had been practicing with a bow from the time they were children.
The Olympics of the modern world reflects another aspect of medieval sports. People came together to play with and against each other at special times and in special locations. Winning at sports brought pride to your town or manor and prestige for yourself. Peasants could win serious prize money and gain status through their skill. And nobles could gain wealth, land, and titles through their skills in the joust.
Ah, the joust! That’s a blog post all to itself. Come back next week to hear all about it!