Ball Games in the Medieval Period
Playing at Ball
A popular misconception equates the European Middle Ages with the "Dark Ages." Such a term implies that this period of time was without light of any kind—invention, creativity, intellectual and artistic rigor. None of this is the case, to the point that the term "Dark Ages" has fallen out of favor with contemporary scholars.
The Middle Ages, like every other period in history, experienced times of prosperity alongside desperate times. The people of the Middle Ages used sports as a way to both celebrate the good and remove themselves from the bad; whether a person was rich or poor, clergy or lay, man or woman, he could use popular ball games for many of the same purposes they still serve today. In fact, several contemporary ball games—American football, rugby, baseball, bowling—have their origins in the ball games of the medieval period.
Ball games were played throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and each game had a number of variations both across the continent and throughout individual countries. This article will only touch upon a few of these games, as a detailed discussion of even a handful of medieval ball games would turn into a book-length treatise.
Also called mob football or Shrovetide football, medieval football may have developed out of the ancient Roman game Harpastum and certainly informs several versions of contemporary American football. While medieval football has several versions, mob football accurately describes a typical game: there were very few rules to the game, which often allowed an unlimited number of players, both men and women, to participate. A game could begin anywhere, at any time, so teams often had an unequal number of players; the nature of the competition determined the creation of the ad hoc playing fields, so that the goals could range from several yards to a couple of miles apart.
Joseph Strutt describes the English version of the game in his Sports and Pasttimes:
The ball, which is commonly made of a blown bladder, and cased with leather, is delivered in the midst of the ground, and the object of each party is to drive it through the goal of their antagonists, which being achieved the game is won. (94)
Medieval England's version of the Super Bowl was played on Shrovetide: Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. Legends link the Shrovetide competitions to historical British victories: the Shrovetide game at Chester, for example, may celebrate an older version of the game, in which the players kicked around not a ball, but the "head of a captured Dane" (Strutt 95). So medieval football games, particularly in England, served not only as physical opportunities to bring communities together, but also served as metaphors that inspired nationalism and solidarity among the people.
Shinty, hurling, bandy, and cammag
Shinty is an ancient Gaelic game that shares its origins with the Irish game of hurling, the Welsh bandy, and a game called cammag, played on the Isle of Man. While shinty today is played mostly in the Scottish Highlands, it was more widely played throughout England during the Middle Ages.
The game used a ball and a hooked stick called a caman (Scottish Gaelic cam, "crooked, bent") and was traditionally played during the winter with a huge communal game being played on New Year's Day. Nineteenth-century Scottish immigrants brought shinty to Nova Scotia where they played it on a field of ice, making the game the predecessor of modern-day ice hockey.
Jeu de paume
While the contemporary tennis game is more closely related to nineteenth-century British lawn games like croquet and lawn tennis, even those games have older roots in the medieval French game called jeu de paume, which dates to at least the 12th century. Imagine a game of handball: players hit the ball back and forth using the palms of their hands, often wrapped in cloths.
Jeu de paume evolved into "real tennis," a name that may derive "from the French tenez, meaning 'to take,' or tendere, 'to hold'" (Crego 115). As Robert Crego suggests, this game was popular in French and English courts from the 16th through the 18th centuries; the tennis court itself was developed at this time period to serve the aristocracy who favored the game. Rackets also came into use during this time. The oldest tennis court survives at the Hampton Court Palace, where Henry VIII had a court built in 1530 (115).
The Icelandic Sagas make mention of a ball game played in medieval Iceland. For example, chapter 40 of Egilssaga describes the joy Skallagrim finds in playing—and bragging about—trials in strength and games. Knattleikr ("ball-play") was, according to the story, a common game played in early winter at White-riverdale; the game drew huge crowds of players and spectators alike, who gathered to form teams and make up the game.
Other stories mention ball-play, too: Grettissaga and Eyrbyggjasaga both talk about the ball games whose victories were sources of pride and bragging rights for both the victors and their communities. While the sagas do not recount the details or rules of the game, several contemporary groups have resurrected the medieval knattleikr and play it in modern times.
Crego, Robert. Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Connecticut: Greenword Press, 2003.
The History of Hockey. http://www.historyofhockey.net.
Icelandic Saga Database. http://sagadb.org.
Strutt, Joseph. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England from the Earliest Period: Including the Rural and Domestic Recreations, May Games, Mummeries, Pageants, Processions and Pompous Spectacles. Methuen & Company, 1801.