We might be surprised to learn that there were lots of holidays in medieval times which left plenty of time for sports and games. Almost every month had a period of time associated with a religious festival or holy day. They all added up to around 100 days a year, about 14 weeks! Some sports were violent, dangerous, and cruel, at least by our standards. Whether victims were animals or human beings did not seem to matter to the medieval spectator. Animal rights were certainly not on the agenda! The thrill of showing off one’s prowess and fitness in sports appealed to competitors and spectators alike. The lack of rules, protective gear and first aid were the price to be paid for this entertainment. As no formal training was ever given, combat and other sports were the only ways of practising for the real thing when war broke out. Here are 10 wildly popular sports we may not have studied in History class.
10. Gameball or Soule
Now, if we think that American football can be rough, let’s look at what happened at a medieval gameball match. There were no rules at all in regards to the numbers on a team. Violent behavior such as pushing or trampling opponents was allowed. There were practically no other rules. Teams competed and tried to get the ball (a stuffed animal bladder) over the line to score. Goal posts were movable and sometimes could be even two miles apart. Matches between rival villages often lasted for several days. Some team members could be stabbed to death as knives were not banned! William Midleton, a Welsh poet of the sixteenth century, wrote about the numerous injuries sustained by players. The game was considered so dangerous that King Edward IV and other monarchs had laws passed which forbade this dangerous and violent sport. It took centuries for the sport to become the almost genteel game of soccer and American football of today.
The nobility and aristocracy placed great value on their ability in hunting and there was great prestige attached to killing wild boars, bears, and deer. These were golden opportunities to show off their skills at horsemanship and marksmanship. It was also a great way of providing food for all the banquets. Hunting was dangerous as the wild boars could kill with their large tusks. There were also risks from stray arrows and being mauled by the animals themselves. There were also accidents caused by reckless horse riding. There is a wonderful description of a medieval hunt in the famous poem Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.
Class differences meant, of course, that hunting was strictly for the landowners and nobility. The lower classes hated them with a vengeance. When they dared to poach and were caught, the consequences were gruesome and savage. They were usually hanged, but some were castrated and some were even blinded. Perhaps the worst punishment of all was when a peasant thief was sewn into a deerskin, and was then chased by ferocious hounds. A cruel death was inevitable.
8. Hot Cockles
Here is a vaguely sadistic party game which was a great favorite with the upper classes at Christmas parties and other celebrations. It was popular from medieval times right up to the Victorian era. It seems to have reached its peak of popularity in 18th century France. The blindfolded ‘penitent’ lays his head on the ‘confessor’s’ lap. He is then beaten or spanked and has to try and guess who it is. If he or she guesses correctly, the spanker then becomes the next penitent. This game was also played by children but when the adults tried it, you could end up getting badly bruised. There was always the risk that someone might take advantage of a grudge to dole out justice. It was also popular because there were sexual innuendos which pleased the noble classes at the time. There is a painting by Fragonard called the A Game of Hot Cockles which is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
This sport was a continuation of the Roman gladiatorial games and was no less dangerous. Basically, two knights in full armour and with lances, raced on horseback towards each other and to try to unseat their opponent. We can imagine the dangerous collisions and resulting injuries. Often the lances were broken and there were many nasty injuries, and death, as a result. Backs and necks were broken and sometimes swords and battle axes were used with drastic consequences for the contestants. This was a high impact and high speed sport with little protective gear. Henry II of France was killed in a jousting accident. A splinter from his opponent’s lance pierced his brain.
Jousting was regarded as a superb test of a knight’s combat skills and was perfectly justified as training for real war and conquest. It was also highly entertaining, with strict rules and procedures. The ladies of the court were on hand to give out the prizes, such as a warhorse. Many knights became rich when they won a joust because they were able to seize the loser’s horse and armour as the prize. The loser usually had to buy his equipment back.
Once the musket was invented in 1520, jousting gradually became less popular. One weird fact is that jousting was made the official sport of Maryland in 1962. It has been popular since colonial times.
The game of shinty came originally from Ireland where it is known as hurling. Records show that the Gaels who migrated in ancient times to Scotland brought the game with them. Hurling is still enormously popular in Ireland, where the hurley stick is broad and slightly curved. In medieval Scotland, shinty matches, sometimes involving massive teams of rival villagers, took place on New Year’s Day. Cold weather sometimes meant that shinty was played on the frozen lakes. Players used skates made from cattle shinbones! The Little Ice Age (circa 1350 to 1870) meant that colder winters were much more frequent than now.
Ice hockey is now a pale reflection of what really went on in a medieval shinty match, whether played on grass or ice. Players were allowed to tackle and block each other using the caman (shinty stick). The goals were known as ‘hails’ and the teams competed by trying to get the leather ball into those areas to score. This was a full contact sport and with no protective headgear so you can imagine the injuries. As they were allowed to drink as well, things got rough and dangerous.
It is fascinating to learn that the fictional game of Quidditch in the Harry Potter books was actually inspired by shinty. Quidditch has now become a reality and is actually played by 300 teams worldwide.
If you lived in England in 1252 and you were a male older than 15 years old, you were required by law to own a bow and arrow. Archery was an essential skill in warfare. The longbow archers were highly trained and they could fire up to 12 arrows in 6o seconds. It is said that an arrow released from a longbow could actually pierce the plate armor of the enemy at a distance of 250 yards. No great risks here when practised as a sport but when used in battle, the longbows were stunningly effective. The English archers at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 killed more than 2,000 French soldiers with their longbow arrows.
Once the bourgeoisie became important in Europe, many popular archery matches were held, often between competing townships. These events were usually accompanied by fairs and banquets. The lower classes were only allowed to take part in more mediocre events such as running, wrestling and jumping.
4. Irish stick fighting
Fighting with cudgels and sticks was a universal sport in medieval times. The shillelagh (from the Gaelic word siúil éille, meaning “oak club”) in Ireland is the traditional wooden stick which originally came from the Shillelagh oak forest in County Wicklow. Most people associate this type of baton with a walking stick but its original use was as a weapon. It was extremely useful in defending yourself against wild animals and robbers. The ancient Celts held games known as the fiancluichi and stick fighting was a very popular contest. We can watch the video here to get an idea of the different thrusts, strikes, feints, holds, and positions used. There were also precise rules because it was not a drunken brawl, as many people think.
In medieval times, Irish stick fighting had become a standard method to settle tenants’ rights. Various factions grew up and the typical challenge was to drag a coat along the ground and dare the opposing faction to even touch it! These fights were fierce and violent. Serious injury, maiming and death were a natural aftermath. The surprising thing is that women were allowed to take part. However, they were not allowed to be hit by the men, although the women could hit the men!
3. Hammer throwing
Hammer throwing has very ancient roots. The Celtic games in Ireland known as the Tailteann go back as far as 2,000 BC and hammer throwing is believed to have been one of the contests there. In Ireland, the first contestants used a cartwheel, no doubt inspired by the legendary Cuchulainnwho is said to have started the trend. Hammer throwing became very popular in Scotland when Edward I banned Scots from possessing any weapons. They then turned to the hammer as an alternative. Basically, the hammer (weighing 7 kgs for men and about 4 kgs for women in today’s competitions) has to be thrown as far as possible. Contestants spin around three times which allow them to gain momentum before they throw. Speed is the essence here, as indeed are strength and accuracy.
In medieval times, hammer throwing often involved accidents as stray hammers flew into the crowd, causing many deaths and terrible injuries. Nowadays, there are protective railing and fences to protect spectators. When they do medieval fair re-enactments now they recommend putting a soft covering over the hammer head, just in case!
2. Bear and bull baiting
Animal baiting was so popular in the medieval era that every town in England had a bear or bull ring where this bloodthirsty event was held. Bull baiting was more popular in the earlier period while bear baiting became the favorite in Elizabethan times. It is said that Queen Elizabeth I also participated at some of these bloodthirsty events.
The origin of bull baiting was actually to make its meat tenderer to eat. Bull baiting was a great way to soften up the meat, thus making it easier to digest! The procedure was the same for bears or bulls. The unfortunate animal was tied to a stake in the centre of the arena and had his nose stuffed with pepper to enrage him. He was then baited by ferocious dogs. The bulldog, as the name suggests, was one of the most popular breeds for this purpose. They attacked the bull and aimed for its vulnerable parts and eventually, after about an hour, would bring it to the ground in agony. Sometimes dogs were thrown to the ground by the bull and they suffered broken backs and other traumatic injuries. It was not until 1835 that the English Parliament actually passed a law forbidding bear or bull baiting.
1. Sword fights and dueling
In the late medieval period, dueling was enormously popular among the noble classes. It was also practised as vital preparation for war where man-to-man combat would be expected. When wars were not raging, duels were usually fought to defend a man’s honor or to decide who would win a woman’s hand in marriage. Judicial combat was accepted as a way of settling disputes. God would side with the innocent party, it was widely believed. The winner was rarely regarded as a murderer and his social standing usually rose to stellar levels.
In medieval times, it also became a popular sport in tournaments. Sometimes, these matches were fought to the point of surrender or for pleasure. The longsword was the favorite weapon and it usually required two hands as it weighed about 4 lbs, but other weapons could be used, such as axes, daggers and poleaxes. Shields were used as attack and defence weapons. There were many techniques to learn, especially the art of dodging and parrying. The Pell was the training area where knights went through intensive training because this would be a matter of life or death in a real battle.
The fun really started at tournaments when the knights were divided into competing teams and the chaotic battle was known as the melee (from the Old French meslee, meaning “brawl, confused fight”). These events were enormously popular. During the tournaments, there were a high number of casualties and the whole affair was not as chivalrous as you might think. It was usually chaotic, brutal, and violent. Henry VIII suffered a severe leg injury when his horse fell on him in a jousting tournament.
Medieval fighting is now making a comeback and there are clubs in the USA and Europe where fighters recreate the medieval atmosphere by fighting with longswords. It has been called the world’s most violent hobby. The weapons used are not as sharp and stabbing is not allowed to minimize the possibility of being seriously injured. Anyone for tennis?