What Type of Sports Were Played in the Middle Ages?

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Most of the information about Medieval history revolves around their religion and church. But did you know that the people in those times also knew how to entertain themselves? More than their festivals and music, people in the Middle Ages have also enjoyed playing a wide variety of games and sports.

In fact, many of the sports we play in the present time can be traced back to the Middle Ages even ones like Club Swinging (yes its a sport). However, the sports they played way back had vague rules which took on deadly proportions. More than being physically demanding, their sports had little to zero emphasis on safety. Despite of these hazards, many Medieval residents were still eager to join in the fun.

Sports in the Middle Ages were created to add more color and life to their warlike and gloomy era. These events were also the best venues to showcase he influence and power of knights and nobles. Most of their sports were held in conjunctions with festivals where people from across the land gathered to bear witness to such glorious occasions. Since people in the Medieval times had a lot of time to spare, they spent eight weeks of leisure every year to watch sporting events.

In the Middle Ages, feudalism can be described as a Pyramid of Power and anyone has the possibility of moving higher up the ranks of the pyramid which everyone aspired to do. A Knight who was successful at sporting events or who proved valiant in battles would become wealthy and his wealth could pay for a castle. Also, his importance in the land would increase and he would be one of the nobles.

It goes the same with a peasant who excelled in Medieval sports and won at sporting contests. He would gain an important reputation, his position in life would improve, and his value would be increased by his lord.

If you are wondering what sports they played, here are the type of sports that were played in the Middle Ages.

(photo:  Game of Calcio Fiorentino in Florence from 1688)

Jousting

Jousting tournaments were the really big sporting events in the Middle Ages. However, these sports were dangerous and many men were killed in these sports. Knights who participated in these sports had undergone Quintain and Pell Training. Men at arms as well as Feudal Lords and Knights used weapons such as swords, lances, daggers, and battle axes. In fact, most of the Medieval sports were designed to provide practice in using these weapons.

Archery

This was the most popular sport in the Middle Ages. In fact, it wasn’t only a sport but was also a skill that every Englishmen between the ages 15 and 60 should attain according to the law that was passed in 1252. Archery training during the Medieval period of the Middle Ages were held in designated areas called Butts.

The Long Bow was invented by Englishmen and it was an important weapon which defeated French in the Battle of Crecy in 1346. Based on historical estimates, there were about 2,000 French knights and soldiers that were killed by long bow arrows compared to the English who just lost 50 soldiers.

Colf (or Kolf)

More details Kolf players on ice. Hendrick Avercamp (1625)
Kolf players on ice Hendrick Avercamp 1625

Colf, a game ancestral to modern golf, was a popular medieval sport in the Netherlands and Belgium. The game’s exact origins are unclear, but it dates back to at least the late Middle Ages. It was played in various parts of Europe but was particularly popular in the Low Countries. Paintings and writings from the era often depict scenes of people playing Colf, indicating its widespread popularity.

Colf was played in open spaces, such as fields, meadows, or even on ice during winter. The objective was to hit a small leather ball towards a target, which could be a post or a designated spot on the ground, using a long wooden stick or club. The player who could reach the target in the fewest number of strokes would win.  The equipment used in Colf was rudimentary compared to modern golf. The balls were made of leather and stuffed with feathers or hair, and the clubs were simple wooden sticks, sometimes with curved ends to better strike the ball.

Hammer-Throwing

Scottish hammer throw illustration from Frank R. Stockton's book Round-about Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy
Scottish hammer throw illustration from Frank R Stocktons book Round about Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy

Hammer-throwing in the Middle Ages was a precursor to the modern athletic event known in the track and field sports today. Hammer-throwing originated from agricultural practices in ancient societies, particularly among the Celts in Ireland and Scotland. It was initially a display of strength and skill in using everyday tools and later evolved into a competitive sport.

In the Middle Ages, the hammer used in this sport was not the sledgehammer we think of today but likely a blacksmith’s hammer or a similar tool. It was attached to a wooden handle, significantly longer than the hammers used in contemporary athletic competitions.  The exact techniques and rules governing medieval hammer-throwing are not well documented, but it’s believed that the basic premise was similar to today’s sport – to throw the hammer as far as possible. Unlike the modern sport where athletes spin in a circle before releasing the hammer, medieval throwers may have swung the hammer overhead or from the side.

Hurling or Shinty

Hurling and Shinty, ancient sports with roots in the folklore and cultural history of Ireland and Scotland respectively, have been played for centuries. While both share similarities, there are distinct characteristics that define each game.

Hurling

Hurling is an ancient Gaelic sport, deeply embedded in Irish culture and history, with references dating back to 1272 BC. It is one of the oldest field games in the world and is mentioned in old Irish legends and lore.

Played with a small ball called a ‘sliotar’ and a curved wooden stick known as a ‘hurley’, hurling is a fast-paced, high-intensity field game. The objective is to score points by hitting the sliotar between the opposing team’s goalposts either over the crossbar (for one point) or under the crossbar into a net (for three points).

The game is played on a rectangular grass field, and teams consist of 15 players each. The rules of modern hurling have been standardized by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).

Hurling is more than a sport in Ireland; it’s a part of the national identity. Matches, particularly the All-Ireland Hurling Final, draw immense national attention and pride.

Shinty

Shinty, or Camanachd in Gaelic, is a traditional Scottish game with a history that dates back thousands of years. It shares a common ancestry with hurling but has evolved separately.  Similar to hurling, Shinty is played with a ball (called a ‘shinty ball’) and sticks (known as ‘camans’). The game’s objective is to score goals by hitting the ball into the opposing team’s net.

The playing field for shinty is typically larger than that for hurling, and the rules differ in terms of permissible contact and stick handling. Teams are traditionally composed of 12 players each.

Shinty holds a significant place in Scottish Highlands culture. It’s more than a sport; it’s a community event that brings together players and spectators in a celebration of heritage.

Both hurling and shinty are renowned for their speed, skill, and physicality. They are not just sports but symbols of Celtic heritage, celebrated through festivals and competitions that uphold tradition and community spirit. While modern incarnations of these games have become more regulated and less rough than their medieval counterparts, they continue to be played with the same fervor and passion, connecting the present to a rich and storied past.

Bowls

Bowls, also known as lawn bowls, is a sport with a rich history that traces back to the Middle Ages. The game of bowls is one of the oldest known sports, with a history that can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. However, it gained significant popularity in medieval Europe, particularly in England. Historical records, including paintings and writings, depict British monarchs and commoners alike enjoying the game.

The objective of bowls is to roll a ball, known as a bowl, as close as possible to a smaller target ball, called the jack or kitty. The bowls are asymmetrically shaped, allowing them to curve as they slow down. This aspect of the game requires skill and precision, making it a challenging and strategic sport.

Interestingly, bowls became so popular in England that it was perceived as a distraction from archery, which was crucial for national defense. King Henry VIII famously banned his troops from playing the game, reserving it for the nobility.

Wrestling

Wrestling in the Middle Ages was not just a popular sport but also an important aspect of martial training and physical culture. Wrestling was one of the most common and popular sports in medieval Europe. Its simplicity, requiring no equipment except for the combatants’ bodies, made it accessible to all social classes.

Different regions had their own styles and rules for wrestling. These styles varied greatly, from the Cornish and Devon styles in England, which allowed holding the opponent’s clothing, to the more grapple-focused styles of mainland Europe. Wrestling was not only a sport but also a form of combat training for knights and soldiers. Many medieval fighting manuals included wrestling techniques, emphasizing its importance in hand-to-hand combat skills.

Unlike modern wrestling, which has a standardized set of rules, medieval wrestling rules varied by region and event. Some matches were more about showmanship and technique, while others were more aggressive and could result in serious injury.  Wrestling matches were common at medieval fairs and tournaments. These events provided an opportunity for wrestlers to demonstrate their strength and skill, and for spectators to enjoy a thrilling and dynamic sport.

Falcons and Falconry

Detail of two falconers from De arte venandi cum avibus, 1240s
Detail of two falconers from De arte venandi cum avibus 1240s

Falcons and Falconry in the Middle Ages were not merely a sport but a significant aspect of medieval culture and society, especially among the nobility. Falconry, the art of training birds of prey to hunt, was a highly esteemed sport among medieval European nobility. It was considered a symbol of status and prestige, with different species of birds being reserved for different social ranks.

Practicing falconry was seen as more than just hunting; it was a demonstration of skill, patience, and control. It was also a social activity, providing opportunities for the nobility to gather, display their prized birds, and engage in competition.

While the term ‘falconry’ suggests the use of falcons, a variety of birds of prey were used, including hawks, eagles, and goshawks. The choice of bird often depended on the type of game being hunted and the status of the falconer.  Training a bird for falconry required a deep understanding of the bird’s behavior. Falconers would spend significant time training and bonding with their birds, a process that could take years to perfect.

In medieval times, there were strict laws and social codes regarding who could own and hunt with certain birds of prey. These laws were a reflection of the rigid class structure of the time.  Falconry was used for hunting various game, including rabbits, ducks, and other small animals. The trained bird of prey would chase and capture the game, demonstrating not only the skill of the bird but also the training expertise of the falconer.

Horse Racing

Horse racing in the Middle Ages was a sport that combined the thrill of competition with the display of wealth and social status. While horse racing as a structured sport dates back to ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome, it began to gain popularity in medieval Europe, particularly in England and France. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 introduced new breeds of horses, which were faster and stronger, thus enhancing the quality of racing.

In the Middle Ages, horse racing was primarily a pastime of the nobility and royalty. It was not only a sport but also a demonstration of the wealth and prestige of the participants, as owning, maintaining, and training horses for racing required significant resources.  Races often took place during public fairs and festivals and were a source of entertainment for both the upper class and common folk. These events sometimes coincided with other major gatherings, such as market days or religious festivals.

The most common form of medieval horse racing was match racing, where two horses would compete head-to-head. This form of racing was quite different from the large-field races that are common today.  Betting was an integral part of horse racing, with wagers placed on the outcomes of the races. This aspect of the sport added to its excitement and appeal.

Sword Fighting and Fencing

Sword fighting and fencing in the Middle Ages were not only pivotal for combat and self-defense but also evolved into an art form and a sport. In the Middle Ages, proficiency in sword fighting was essential for knights and soldiers. It was a crucial skill for warfare, personal defense, and dueling. Training in swordsmanship was a significant part of a knight’s education.

Over the centuries, as the design of swords evolved from broadswords to longswords and eventually to lighter rapiers, so too did the techniques of sword fighting. Each type of sword required different handling skills, influencing the styles and methods of fencing.  By the late Middle Ages, fencing schools began to emerge in Europe, particularly in Italy and Germany. These schools were often led by fencing masters who developed systematic techniques and wrote treatises on the art of swordsmanship.

Dueling with swords became a formalized way of resolving personal disputes, especially among the nobility. These duels were governed by specific codes of conduct and could be to first blood, submission, or, in more serious cases, to the death.  Sword fighting was also a feature of medieval tournaments, where knights would compete not just in jousting but in melee combat as well. These events were grand spectacles that drew large crowds.

Alongside swords, medieval warriors trained with a variety of weapons like daggers, spears, and axes. The training was comprehensive, covering various aspects of combat.  Over time, the practice of sword fighting transitioned from a combat skill to a sport. This change was particularly evident as firearms became the dominant tools of warfare, reducing the emphasis on close combat skills.

Quarterstaff Fighting

Line drawing of quarterstaff held by pugilists

Quarterstaff fighting, a historical form of combat and sport, was prevalent in the Middle Ages and holds a significant place in martial arts history. The quarterstaff is a long wooden pole, typically about 6 to 9 feet in length. It was called a “quarterstaff” because the wood was originally cut into quarters and then rounded, making it both strong and lightweight. It was an accessible weapon for commoners, as it was inexpensive to make and could be crafted from readily available materials.

The quarterstaff was a versatile weapon, used for both attack and defense. It could be wielded with one or both hands and utilized various techniques, including striking, thrusting, and blocking. The length of the staff provided a significant reach, which was advantageous in combat.  Training with the quarterstaff was not only about learning to fight. It also developed agility, strength, and coordination. In the Middle Ages, this training often took place in local militia groups or as part of a young man’s upbringing.

The quarterstaff was an effective weapon for self-defense, especially for those who could not afford swords. It was also used in warfare, particularly among foot soldiers, as it was effective against both mounted and unmounted opponents.

In addition to its practical use in combat, quarterstaff fighting was practiced as a form of sport. Friendly matches and competitions were common, and they provided an opportunity for displaying skill and technique.

Pall-Mall

Drawing of a game of "pell-mell" between Frederick V of the Palatinate and Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, by Adriaen van de Venne, c. 1620–1626.
Drawing of a game of pell mell between Frederick V of the Palatinate and Frederick Henry Prince of Orange by Adriaen van de Venne c 16201626

Pall-mall, a sport that gained popularity in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, bears resemblance to modern-day croquet and golf. The game of pall-mall is believed to have originated in France or Italy during the Renaissance. The name “pall-mall” is derived from the Italian words ‘palla’ (ball) and ‘maglio’ (mallet), indicating its nature. It spread to England, Scotland, and other parts of Europe, becoming particularly fashionable during the 17th century.

The game involved striking a boxwood ball with a heavy mallet through a high arch or hoop made of iron. The aim was to hit the ball through the hoop with the fewest number of strokes possible. The game was played on a long, rectangular, level alley bordered by raised edges, which helped keep the ball within the playing area.

Specific areas were designated for playing pall-mall, known as pall-mall alleys. These were often lengthy, straight courses with well-maintained surfaces to facilitate smooth play. One of the most famous pall-mall alleys was in St. James’s Park in London, which gave the name to the famous street Pall Mall.

The mallets used in pall-mall were long-handled and the heads were typically made of metal. The balls were made of boxwood, a hard, dense wood ideal for the game. The equipment’s quality often reflected the player’s social status.

Stoolball

1767 Illustration of Stoolball in the children's book A Little Pretty Pocket-Book

Stoolball, a sport with medieval roots, is considered an early precursor to modern cricket and baseball. The exact origins of stoolball are unclear, but it is believed to have been played in medieval England. Early references to the game date back to the 14th century. It was originally a folk game, played in rural areas.

Stoolball involved teams and was played with a bat and a ball. The objective was to score runs by striking the ball and running between two targets, which were originally stools. Over time, these were replaced with wickets, similar to those in cricket.  The bats used in early stoolball were shaped like frying pans or paddles, which evolved into more bat-like forms over time. The balls were typically made of wood or stuffed leather.

Interestingly, stoolball was one of the few athletic games in medieval times that women actively played, and it was sometimes referred to as a game for milkmaids. This makes it a significant sport in the history of women’s participation in athletics.

Gameball

Gameball, a medieval precursor to modern-day football (soccer) and rugby, was a popular and rough sport that varied significantly in its form and rules across different regions.  Gameball’s origins are somewhat obscure, but it is believed to have been played in various forms across Europe since at least the Middle Ages. It was a folk game, played by peasants as well as nobility, and its rules and style of play varied widely from one place to another.

The essential objective of gameball was to move a ball to a designated spot, which could be a simple marker, a geographic feature, or an area in a village or town. The game was typically played with a ball made of an inflated pig’s bladder, later covered with leather.  There were no standardized rules for gameball; they could vary not only regionally but also from one game to the next. Some versions were relatively tame and focused more on skill with the ball, while others were much more physical and resembled mob football.

The number of players in a gameball match could vary widely, sometimes involving entire villages or towns. Matches could be played between rival parishes, towns, or even counties, often drawing large numbers of participants.  Many forms of gameball were extremely physical and could be quite violent. It wasn’t uncommon for injuries to occur, given the lack of protective gear and the rough nature of the game.

Gameball was often played during festivals, fairs, and on specific holidays like Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day). These occasions provided an opportunity for communities to come together in both competition and celebration.

Mob Football

Shrove Tuesday Football in Kingston upon Thames (1865)
Shrove Tuesday Football in Kingston upon Thames 1865

Mob football, a medieval precursor to modern football (soccer) and rugby, was a popular and chaotic game that played a significant role in the social and cultural life of medieval Europe. The origins of mob football are obscure, but it is believed to have been played in Europe since the early Middle Ages. The game was characterized by its lack of rules, large number of players, and often chaotic and unstructured gameplay.

Mob football involved getting a ball, often an inflated pig’s bladder, to a specific goal or target, which could be miles apart. The game was played between neighboring towns and villages, with goals set at significant landmarks. There were few, if any, rules, and the game was more about mass participation than structured competition.

The game was notorious for its roughness and lack of regulation. It often involved entire communities, and the chaotic nature of the game frequently resulted in injuries. The matches were a blend of a sport and a physical contest, with very little off-limits in terms of gameplay.

Mob football was a communal event and often coincided with significant festivals, particularly Shrove Tuesday. It brought together people from all walks of life, creating a sense of community and tradition. Due to its unruly nature and the potential for injury and disruption, mob football was often frowned upon by the authorities. The game was banned several times in England by different monarchs and local governments.

Skittles

Skittle Players outside an Inn by Jan Steen.
Skittle Players outside an Inn by Jan Steen

Skittles, a game with deep historical roots, is an early predecessor to modern bowling and was a popular pastime in medieval Europe. The game of skittles is believed to have originated in Europe, possibly as early as the 14th century. It evolved from an older game of throwing objects at a target, which was common in many ancient cultures.

The essence of skittles is knocking down wooden pins, known as skittles, using a ball or a disc. It is similar to modern bowling but typically involves a smaller number of pins arranged in various formations.  The skittles themselves were usually made of wood and varied in size and shape. The balls used were also wooden and could be tossed or rolled, depending on the variation of the game.

Skittles was a popular social activity, often played in public houses (pubs) and community spaces across Europe. It was a game enjoyed by all social classes, making it a common leisure activity.  The game was traditionally played in alleys, hence the name Alley Skittles. These alleys were often located in taverns or outdoor spaces in villages and towns.

Bare-knuckle Boxing

Tom Molineaux (left) vs Tom Cribb in a re-match for the heavyweight championship of England, 1811.
Tom Molineaux left vs Tom Cribb in a re match for the heavyweight championship of England 1811

Bare-knuckle boxing, a form of prizefighting without gloves, has a long and storied history, particularly prominent in the 18th and 19th centuries.  While forms of fistfighting date back to ancient civilizations, bare-knuckle boxing as a structured sport gained prominence in England during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was initially a form of entertainment for the working class and gradually gained popularity across different social strata.

Early bare-knuckle boxing had few formal rules. The London Prize Ring Rules, introduced in 1743 and later revised in 1838, brought some structure, stipulating fair play and the role of a referee. These rules included no hitting below the belt and no wrestling moves.

Unlike modern boxing, which involves padded gloves, bare-knuckle fighters relied on different techniques, focusing more on stance and defense to avoid injury to the hands. Matches often involved grappling and throws alongside punches.  Matches were significantly more brutal and longer than modern boxing. Without time limits for rounds and the fight ending only when one fighter could no longer continue, bouts could last for hours.

Bare-knuckle boxing was a major form of entertainment, with fighters becoming celebrities and matches drawing large crowds. It also attracted gambling, with considerable sums wagered on bouts.

Running and Leaping

Running and leaping, fundamental athletic activities, have been part of human culture and sport since ancient times, including the Middle Ages. Running and leaping (jumping) are among the oldest forms of athletic competition, dating back to ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome. In the Middle Ages, these activities continued to be important for both practical purposes, such as military training, and entertainment.

Medieval running events were less structured compared to modern track and field. These events were often held in conjunction with festivals, fairs, or market days and varied from short sprints to longer endurance runs.  Jumping or leaping competitions in the Middle Ages likely included various forms such as long jump and high jump. These events tested an individual’s strength and agility and were a common feature of medieval athletic contests.

In a more practical sense, running and leaping skills were vital for soldiers and knights. Proficiency in these physical activities was crucial for battlefield maneuverability and effectiveness in combat. Unlike some medieval sports that were restricted to certain social classes, running and leaping were more inclusive, allowing broader participation across society.

Quoits

Ringtoss quoit game ca1815
Ringtoss quoit game ca1815

Quoits, a traditional throwing game with roots dating back to ancient times, enjoyed widespread popularity during the Middle Ages. The game of quoits is believed to have ancient origins, possibly dating back to the Greeks and Romans. It was akin to the game of horseshoes and was popular in medieval Europe, particularly in Britain.

The basic objective in quoits is to throw rings, usually made of metal or rope, over a set distance to land on or encircle a spike (called a hob, mott, or pin). The game requires skill and precision, as the quoits must be thrown accurately to score points.  Quoits are typically flat, circular rings. The game is played on a quoits pitch, which consists of a clay bed or a patch of soft earth where the hobs are placed. The hobs are usually around 18 inches high and set apart at a specific distance, varying based on regional rules.

Played by all social classes, quoits was a popular pastime at pubs, fairs, and social gatherings. It was a recreational activity that brought communities together and offered a platform for both casual play and serious competition.

In medieval times, quoits pitches were often constructed near public houses or in village greens, making the game accessible to the local community.

Quoits, like other traditional games, played a role in the cultural and social fabric of medieval and post-medieval societies. It was often featured in local folklore and communal events.

Calcio Fiorentino

Calcio Fiorentino, also known as Calcio Storico (historic football), is a traditional and ancient game played primarily in Florence, Italy. It’s a notable example of a sport from the Middle Ages that has survived to the present day. The game originated in the 16th century in Florence and was initially played by rich aristocrats, and even Popes were known to play.

Calcio Fiorentino is a mix of soccer, rugby, and wrestling. It is much more violent and physical than its modern counterparts.  The game is played on a field of sand with a goal running the width of each end. It’s played by two teams of 27 players, and the aim is to get the ball into the opponents’ goal by any means necessary. The use of hands is allowed, and often the game involves intense physical tussles.

Indoor Games in the Middle Ages

Most of the sports played in the Middle Ages were designed to increase fighting skills of knights, soldiers, as well as peasants. But aside from these sports, the medieval society of Europe also enjoyed some peaceful and entertaining games such as chess, backgammon, nine men’s Morris, and alquerques. These were all strategy games which were considered as the ancestors of checkers, and fox and geese and they certainly had unusual sports equipment as well.

These were the type of sports that were played in the Middle Ages. Even though this era was known to be dark and gloomy, it’s interesting to know that it also had a part where people were able to have fun.

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