Sports in the Middle Ages


Women and men participated in sports during the Middle Ages, with class and gender determining which games were the most popular. The leisure classes developed formal rules, restricted playing fields and specific equipment for some sports. The lower classes created their own versions of more accessible sports, and free time was often spent engaged in a contest of skills. Many antecedents of modern competitions emerged or evolved in the 5th to the 15th centuries.

Jousting and Melees

  • Competition in the Middle Ages was as much for battle-readiness as sport. Knights and nobles participated in elaborate jousting tournaments in which contestants on horseback ran at each other with lances from opposite ends of the playing field, each trying to unseat the other. The nobility observed from bleachers -- some rather ornate -- and the peasants had the cheap seats, standing room only, on the opposite side of the corridor. The joust was often mortal combat between two seated knights, galloping head-on with shields and lances, and then swords and axes. Jousts could get bloody. The melee was a kind of Capture the Flag activity -- a team of squires or knights in armor, presumably shining, had to grab the flag off the back of every contestant. The team that collected the opponents' flags first won, but not before the slashing about with axes, swords and clubs exacted a heavy toll in injuries and deaths.

Archery and Falconry

  • Archery contests were a kind of William Tell meets "The Hunger Games" sport -- crossbows and longbows wielded in demonstrations of skill and daring that could be applied to hunting and battle in real life. Archery was so important in the Middle Ages that a 1252 English law mandated ownership of a bow and arrow for every man between the ages of 15 and 60. Archery matches featured ceremonial entry marches with statues of the sport's patron saints; games such as wrestling, running and jumping for the lower classes; and post-competition drunken revelries. Falconry was an ancient sport, practiced with formal protocols and attendant pageantry by royals and nobles. The trained birds were released to bring down kill by their owners, who developed strong bonds with their birds to finesse the best performance. The lower classes merely used their less exalted trained raptors to acquire dinner.

Ball Games and Bowling

  • Bowls or lawn bowling was around in one form or another from ancient times, but it became a particular problem for medieval kings. Two British monarchs outlawed the sport because soldiers were spending hours on the greens and ignoring their archery practice. Southampton, England, claims to have the oldest bowling green in the world, in continuous use since 1299. Skittles was bowling for those with access to an indoor bowling alley. Players followed various rules -- knock down certain pins; take out the entire set; or roll the ball to hit another player. A game with bats and softball-sized balls that involved pitching, hitting and catching was played by men and women. Medieval folks' football was as violent as its modern version -- vast fields were commandeered to kick a pig's bladder filled with peas across an opponent's goal. Football had few rules and many rowdy players, leading to severe limits on when and how long it could be played.

Racquets, Clubs and Bones

  • Tennis began as racquet-free handball and evolved into a game of racquets and balls, played on an indoor court that was part of a king's castle or a wealthy estate. Medieval players shouted, "Tenez," from the French word for "hold," as they prepared to serve. A badminton-like doubles sport called battledores and shuttlecocks, played without a net, consisted of keeping the birdie in the air longer than the opposing duo. Colf was the earliest version of modern golf, played by teams using a ball and clubs with heads -- first of wood, later of iron. The objective was to hit a target with the least number of strokes. Winter weather didn't slow the medieval sports enthusiasts who skated on frozen lakes and rivers by strapping the shinbones of cows or horses to their boots. Skaters pushed themselves over the ice with a pair of iron poles resembling primitive ski poles.

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