Religion and the church may have played a central role in Medieval history but the inhabitants of that time period also knew how to entertain themselves. Aside from festivals, acrobatics, dancing and music, people from the Medieval times enjoyed playing a wide variety of games and sports.
Many of the sporting events we know and play at present can be traced back to the Middle Ages. However, due to vague rules, many Medieval sports took on deadly proportions. Not only were they physically demanding but there was little to zero emphasis on safety. Animals were sometimes involved such as in the case of hawking and hunting. Despite the hazards that came with some sports, many Medieval residents were still eager to join in the fun.
Medieval sports were created to add more colour and life to an otherwise warlike, monotonous and gloomy era. Intense spirituality may have taken its toll on those who practised it and so playing sports was welcome activity. Outdoor games that gained traction among the lower echelons of society gradually evolved into royally sanctioned games or noble pastimes just as military drills and training, including archery, horseback and sword-fighting, branched out into various types of sports. Most Medieval sports were geared towards increasing the fighting abilities of participants.
Sporting events were also the best venues to showcase the power and influence of knights and nobles. They were held in conjunction with festivals and people from across the land gathered to bear witness to such glorious occasions. There was a lot of free time to be spared in the Medieval times so the working citizens took advantage of the eight weeks of leisure afforded to them every year by watching sporting events and other festivities.
Archery contests were particularly popular in the Middle Ages. Not only was it a sport but it was also a skill that every Englishman between the age of 15 and 60 had to acquire in accordance with the law. Formerly called Butts, the bow and arrow played a pivotal role in England’s heroic victory over the French army in the 14th century Battle of Crecy. The English suffered only a few casualties compared to thousands on
Jousts and tournaments were other early Medieval sports that enjoyed much fanfare. The basic rule for jousting was simple: the first one to knock their opponent off his horse wins. Knights, usually representing different factions, charge at each other from opposing ends of a track using blunted lances.
Medieval tournaments, on one hand, were no different from Roman era tournaments. Rather than turning slaves into gladiators, however, nobles chose the best knights under them to represent their factions. No specific rules governed these tournaments so long as the participants successfully defeated their opponents with the weapons that they had. Tournaments allowed the use any kind of weapon for defence and offence purposes. There was much brutality and bloodbath to be expected.
Medieval society covered a wide variety of sports, most of which were the ancestors of present-day sports. A number of outdoor sporting games like game-ball, bowls, colf, shinty, stoolball, hammer-throwing, horseshoes, skittles and wrestling were popular among Medieval citizens apart from archery, jousts and tournaments.
Noblewomen were especially fond of hunting. It was one of a few Medieval sports they took part in during their spare time. Hunting was an expensive sport and it usually involved other animals such as trained hounds and hawks. The dogs were used to sniff out the prey, hence leading to the capture of foxes, rabbits and other game.
Rules governing this sport were not so strict and the nobility often hunted within their own territory (which could cover a large stretch of forest). They rode horses and, more often than not, used a bow and arrow to pin down their targets. You see now why hunting was an exclusive sport. To hunt, the noble must be well-versed in both archery and horseback riding.
Members of the noble class loved to play colf – the well-known ancestor of the golf. In their spare time, they enjoyed this sport, the playing of which required a large expanse of land. Jousts and tournaments were likewise considered as elite sports. Although peasants and common folks often held informal and friendly mini tournaments, these were nowhere near as grand as the tournaments commissioned by members of the royalty or peerage, who had to be present during such occasions to present prizes and declare the winners.
Perhaps because constructing courts were rather costly and ordinary citizens did not have sufficient funds to build one or play it in all its glory, tennis was considered an elite Medieval sport. Lords and ladies played tennis in closed quarters where they could socialize with members of their rank. Many manors and castles came with tennis courts.
Compared to members of the nobility, peasants and serfs enjoyed a number of Medieval sports and outdoor games. Of course, such events were not as sophisticated and safe as the games played by the peerage. Though rough and risky, the sports played by peasants and serfs were more diverse and entertaining. Commoners liked to play ballgame, wrestling, horseshoes, shinty, stool-ball and hammer-throwing to name a few.
Since most of them worked in physical jobs, sports that banked on their physical skills were far more enjoyable. Peasants and serfs were likewise skilled in archery as they were legally mandated to practice the sport from the age of 15 to 60. Peasants from different villages competed at folk-football events. This Medieval sport was well-loved because village members could showcase their teamwork and take pride in their village. There were only a few games in which peasant women could participate in including ball games and foot races.
Medieval sports were not only fun and entertaining but they gave more life and colour to a highly spiritual era occasionally plagued by monotony. Medieval culture thrived and grew with the help of those sporting events. Current society has greatly benefited from Medieval sports as most of the events we know and practice at present could trace their roots to that time.