The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages

D.G. Hewitt - September 14, 2018

When we think of the Middle Ages, we usually think of knights and kings in castles. However, it’s estimated that around 85% of Europe’s population in Medieval times were actually peasants. Now, this doesn’t mean that they were all necessarily dirt poor and living in mud huts. The peasantry class encompassed everything from freemen who were able to make a (relatively) comfortable living right down to the lowest of the low, the landless serf.

Life was certainly tough for Medieval peasants. They toiled hard in the fields, usually for little or even no pay. But they had some free time, too. In fact, some historians estimate that, thanks to the fact they were employed doing seasonal work, some peasants only worked 160 days a year. So, what did they do in their downtime? Like the modern-day worker, they liked to relax and have fun. From sports to drinking and from gambling to sex, here are just some of the ways peasants spent their leisure time:

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
The King would require all peasants to be ready to fight with a bow if necessary. Pinterest.

1. Archery was more than just a game for male peasants – a law said they needed to practice once a week

These days, archery is a minority sport. Not so in the Middle Ages. At that time, it was pretty much everywhere. While only nobles could engage in knightly pursuits such as jousting, archery was open to everyone. In fact, it was positively encouraged. Almost every peasant man would have been able to shoot at arrow at a target. And they did it regularly, and not because they had to.

In some European countries, all men aged between 15 and 60 were required to have a bow of their own. What’s more, weekly archery practice was compulsory, usually taking place on a Sunday after mass. In England, for example, the Archery Law of 1252, required that all lower-class males of fighting age be capable of using a bow and arrow. It also stipulated that each village have a ‘butt’, or a designated space for practicing archery. Alongside this, men would also hold competitions among themselves, though most town contests were reserved for the upper classes. These were even supported by the Church, which, as a rule, frowned upon gambling in every form.

As the Middle Ages progressed, other sports started to grow in popularity. In some cases, these were outlawed. Playing football, for example, became a crime punishable by prison. Kings were keen to ensure that the men under their command remained, quite literally, fighting fit, and to keep their archery skills up-to-speed. What’s more, in 1477, Edward IV even banned cricket after he learned that the new sport was interfering with weekly archery drills.

Evidently, such a focus on making archery the prime leisure activity of the peasantry worked. At the Battle of Crecy in 1346, for example, England’s archers used the skills they had honed in their village butts to defeat the French. At the end of that bloody day, the English lost just 50 men, while the French lost an estimated 2,000 soldiers, testament to the power of the longbow over the crossbow, as well as to the skill of England’s peasant bowmen.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
Peasants would often drink, but actual drunkenness was rare in the Middle Ages. The Toast.

2. Getting drunk was easy, cheap and a good way to deal with the grimness of Medieval life

When a peasant’s work was done for the day – or even for the season – there was often nothing much else to do. That meant that there were a lot of hours in the day to be filled. And many people filled them with drinking – much like they do today, of course. After all, getting drunk was fun, easy and, in most cases, a very affordable way of keeping yourself entertained (and, indeed, sane).

That said, however, proper drunkenness did not really become common until the late-medieval period, especially among Europe’s peasants. Up until this point, alcohol was only produced in very small quantities in peasant households, and the usual home brew was not very strong at all. Stronger drinks were available, though this was usually the preserve of the upper classes. In England, for instance, the nobility drank strong ale made and sold by monks, while on the continent, nobles drank wine. Of course, the grapes would have been harvested by peasants, but few would have been able to enjoy the finished product!

After around the year 1500, things started to change. From that point onwards, distilling started becoming a thing across medieval Europe. Whatever a farmer had leftover from market (and after the taxman had taken his share) could be distilled and sold in small amounts the following year. Of course, not all peasants could afford to buy these clear and potent spirits, but most would have found a way of indulging themselves at least a little.

According to most historians, however, while drinking was indeed a major part of peasant life throughout the Middle Ages, the idea that people drank weak beer in place of dirty water is largely inaccurate. Most peasants lived in villages and would have had access to clean water. As such, weak beer was usually made at home and consumed for relaxation. In many cases, the widows of a village would be the ones making the home brew, while the stronger stuff was brought to the villages by local monks to be sold at a time when the Church was in need of extra funds.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, peasants would go to church every week, making it a key part of their life. Wikimedia Commons.

3. Church was often the most fun peasants had all week

In the Middle Ages, religion – and by that, we mean Christianity – was a very big deal indeed. It didn’t matter if you were a lowly peasant, a nobleman or even the King himself, your life would have been dominated by the Church. As well as all the major events of your life, from baptism through weddings and funerals, the Church was also central to the key stages of the peasant year, most notably those relating to the growing and harvesting of crops.

By all accounts, going to Church once a week was a central part of peasant life right across Medieval Europe. Notably, it’s likely that many people would have enjoyed it. Of course, it offered a break from routine, plus most people at that time believed fully in what the Church was teaching. But it was more than this. For many poor people, going to church on a Sunday was a social occasion. It was a chance to meet up with friends, maybe enjoy some ‘Church-ale’, a more potent brew than the weak beer they would be brewing in their own villages.

The weekly trip to church was also something of a Medieval leisure experience. Peasants might walk for several hours to get to an abbey or a cathedral. There, they would be able to enjoy the splendor of the architecture and the interiors. They would also be able to enjoy the choral music, hear readings and generally enjoy a break from the monotony of life working the fields. On occasion, peasants would be able to see a ‘mystery play’, a theatrical re-enactment of a biblical story. These would have been the summer blockbusters of the time.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that, despite being very poor indeed, most peasants gave a portion of their income to the Church and then took great pride in the cathedrals and other holy buildings that they had helped fund. The more devout would even go on a pilgrimage, perhaps to Canterbury, Rome, Santiago de Compostela or even Jerusalem – though tough, such a journey would have been the only ‘holiday’ a Medieval peasant would be ever likely to enjoy.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
It wasn’t all toil for peasants – downtime during the working day meant lots of afternoon naps. Pinterest.

4. Daytime naps were common, though sleeping through the whole night was very rare

Unlike modern workers in the Western world, peasants of the Middle Ages did not sleep for eight hours at night. Rather, most would sleep for two four-hour periods between dusk and dawn, with a short period for telling stories, tending to animals or children, having sex or doing more work, in between. The more devout would pray, and there were special prayers designed for exactly this time of the night, while others would even leave the home and go visit friends or neighbors before going back to bed for their ‘second sleep’.

Many peasants would also nap as and when they could during the day. This was particularly the case during the summer months. While much work needed to be done in the fields, most laborers woke with sunrise. They would then work for a couple of hours and then pause for breakfast. After some more work, there would be lunch and then, according to some sources, many peasants would enjoy an afternoon nap.

According to some historians, though the job of working the fields might be backbreaking and physically challenging, it could be done at a leisurely pace – and often was. The pace of life in the Middle Ages was much slower than it was today. People, including the peasantry, had lots of free time, even if they didn’t have much – or any – money. However, most of the contemporary accounts of the working days of the Medieval peasantry that survive were written by nobles or members of the clergy. They often made a point of condemning the lowest members of society as lazy layabouts, so their accounts should always be taken with a pinch of salt!

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
Minstrels would go from village to village entertaining peasants with song and dance. Wikimedia Commons.

5. The visit of a traveling minstrel show would be a real social highlight for a Medieval peasant

Peasants could not afford to travel into the nearest town or city to see a theater production. Nor could they afford proper musical instruments and put on their own shows. However, from time to time a traveling entertainer, known as a minstrel, might visit their village. In most cases, this might be the only proper entertainment a peasant enjoyed all year – so the arrival of a minstrel was a very big deal. But only, of course, if the village could afford to pay for his services…

There were two types of minstrels in the Middle Ages: those employed by nobles or royalty to be court entertainers, and those who relied on their wits to make a living as and when they could. The latter were known as ‘wandering minstrels’. They might try and earn a few coins in taverns, or they might turn up at a village, advertise their skills and see if there was any interest. Of course, they usually only performed for money, but in many cases, poor peasants might offer them food, shelter and goods in exchange for an evening performance.

Minstrels were, as a rule, accomplished performers. In fact, in some parts of Medieval Europe they were respected professionals. In England, for example, in 1469, King Edward IV, passed a law requiring all minstrels to be part of a professional guild. This ensured that only skilled entertainers could perform for money. Some would juggle, others recite long poems, while others might be magicians, clowns, dancers, fire eaters or perhaps a combination of all of these.

Among peasants, however, the most popular entertainers tended to be the singers and balladeers. Above all, peasants loved hearing tales of bandits and outlaws. It’s no surprise that the legend of Robin Hood grew out of the stories told by minstrels traveling through English villages of the Middle Ages. The poorest people in society loved hearing tales of audacious heroes stealing from the rich and giving to the less fortunate – and they were willing to pay what little they had in order to go so.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages version of soccer pitted village against village, with almost no rules. Pinterest.

6. Medieval soccer was hugely popular among the peasants of the Middle Ages, though it was far different from the sport of today!

When there was no work to be done, medieval peasants needed to find another way of blowing off steam. Young men in particular often needed to find an outlet for their energy. Primitive sports were ideal for this. And then, as with now, football was hugely popular. But Medieval Soccer was a far cry from the ‘beautiful game’ of today. This was brutal, chaotic and, at times, the actual ball was incidental to the action.

Some historians believe that the game was originally brought to Great Britain by the Romans. Certainly, by the start of the Middle Ages, it was already widespread. And while the exact rules changed from village to village, the nature of the game was largely consistent right across the country: two teams would compete to pass an inflated pig’s bladder through a set goal. Usually, villages or towns would play against one another. Goals were placed in the market squares of both villages, usually miles apart, and then teams made up of as many men as could be mustered would kick or carry the ‘ball’ towards their opponent’s goal.

Famously, there were no real rules. So long as nobody was killed, anything went: kicking, punching and grappling were all perfectly acceptable. People broke limbs, noses or simply dropped from exhaustion – hardly surprising since a game could last one or two days, or possibly even longer. Inevitably, players were killed. For instance, the archives of the prestigious Oxford University recall one of its students being killed in a game of ‘mob football’ in the mid-14th century.

Partly due to the fact football could injure players – and so make them unproductive – there were numerous attempts were made to stop the peasants from playing it. In England in 1363, for example, King Edward III ordered that anyone caught playing football or other ‘idle games’ be imprisoned. More than 200 years later, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge banned their students from playing the sport, insisting it was not becoming of a gentleman. In the end, however, it was the passing of the Highways Act in the 19th century that spelled the end of Medieval Football. After that, the game slowly became codified and transformed into the sport we know today.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
Married couples would have fun after dark, even if their children were in the same room. Wikimedia Commons.

7. With little else to do after dark, sex was an easy – and free – way for peasants to have a little fun

Sex was, without a doubt, one of the most common leisure pursuits of medieval peasants. After all, it was not only free and fun, it was also useful too. Once married, a couple would want to start a family, and not just for sentimental reasons. Kids offered an extra pair of hands to help farm the land, gather firewood or prepare meals. And, with infant and child mortality rates much higher in the Middle Ages than they are today, a couple would want to have as many children as possible so as to ensure that at least a couple of them survived into adulthood.

The subject of sexuality in the Medieval period has been the focus of much historical research. However, this has mainly concentrated on the sex lives of the kings and nobles. In comparison, relatively little work has been done investigating the sex lives of peasants. We know that most people lived in one-room houses, with children and parents sleeping side-by-side. In most cases, presumably, the parents would have told their children to go collect firewood and then locked the door for some alone time. But it’s also true that sex was not such a taboo subject then as it is now, and in most families, the parents would have had sex while their children were sleeping next to them.

What records do survive from the time are mainly those kept by the Church. These reveal that priests and other clergy warned against sex before marriage. However, it’s estimated that as many as 1 in 3 brides in Medieval times were married when they were wed – so clearly most people were not following the Church’s teachings. Many of those illegitimate babies were probably also born as a result of a lord or other nobleman asserting his ‘right’ to take the virginity of any peasant woman living on his land. The peasant men, however, just had to wait and hope – though prostitution might be the ‘world’s oldest profession’, no serf or peasant could afford to pay for sex.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
If they were chosen to be the Lord of Misrule, a peasant would live like a king for the day. Pinterest.

8. Once a year, a peasant was named the local ‘Lord of Misrule’ and enjoyed an escape from poverty – but just for one day

In Medieval times, peasants were the lowest of the low. But, for one lucky individual, all that might have changed for one day in December. Across England in particular, villages, towns and other settlements would select a ‘Lord of Misrule’ from the local peasant population. The chosen man – and it was almost always a man – would quite literally live like a king for the day before going back to his abject life of toil and poverty.

In most cases, the Lord of the manor would choose that year’s Lord of Misrule. The practice was also commonplace in the Royal Household in the build-up to Christmas. Plus, the Church even got in on the fun. They would name the youngest priest or, in the case of big cities, the lowliest bishop, to be in charge for the day. The chosen peasant would dress up in a colourful costume and fix bells to their arms and legs. They would then dance around their village, often making their way to the nearest church in time for mass. The Lord of Misrule could also ‘order’ a feast to be laid on for his fellow peasants. In fact, this was often the only time of year the lowest social class got to eat and drink well.

As the Middle Ages progressed, many societies became increasingly puritan. As a result, the tradition of making a peasant the king for the day either vanished naturally or was banned outright. In England, for example, King Henry VIII banned the Lord of Misrule in 1541 as he clamped down on the Church and all its traditions. Though Queen Mary I brought it back, it was banned again under Elizabeth I. The situation was the same in mainland Europe. For example, Pope Martin V banned it as part of the Council of Basle.

In the end, the tradition had died out almost completely by the time of the Enlightenment in Europe. According to some historians, the idea of the poor being treated well at Christmas was only really brought back by Charles Dickens. These days, some villages in Europe have revived the tradition, albeit they also put a positive spin on it.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
Peasant weddings might not have been lavish feasts, but they were often big parties. Wikimedia Commons.

9. Even the poorest peasants would celebrate village weddings, with some parties lasting for a whole week

For the Medieval nobility, weddings were lavish affairs. Vast sums of money would be spent on the ceremony as well as on the celebrations that inevitably followed. What’s more, they were almost always complex events, too: in many cases, they were political unions rather than romantic ones, and they might even descend into violence. Peasant weddings, however, were much simpler affairs. But that doesn’t mean they were insignificant: in a peasant village in the Middle Ages, a wedding might still be the social event of the year and an occasion for the whole community to come together and party.

Right up until the later stages of the Medieval period, the Church played hardly any role in peasant marriages, however much it might have tried. Quite simply, if a couple declared themselves married, they were. In many cases, they might exchange vows in front of friends or family, but no priest was required. Neither did a peasant couple need the blessing of their local nobleman to get wed. What’s more, the idea that the local Lord had a ‘first night right’ to a peasant bride and would be the one to take her virginity is almost completely untrue – indeed, some historians have argued that this idea only really emerged in the Victorian era.

Up until around the 12th century, most peasant marriages were so-called ‘secular’ unions. That is, they didn’t need to be consummated to be deemed valid (a belief that helped explain how Mary and Joseph could be married but have had a son to a virgin birth). After this point, however, a union needed to be consummated. So, after the vows had been exchanged, the couple would retire to their marriage bed.

This was often the source of much entertainment for the rest of the village. While the newlyweds were busy getting to know one another more intimately, their fellow peasants would shout useful ‘tips’ through the thin wooden or mud walls, plus they might also sing naughty songs to get the couple ‘in the mood’. Of course, all of this was usually accompanied by drinking and dancing, even if few peasants could afford to feast like nobles. In some cases, a village might party for several days, but only if the peasants could take time away from working the land.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
Original sources show us that even peasants liked to have fun on the ice in winter. Wikimedia Commons.

10. Ice skating was not just a way of getting around, it was also a leisure activity, even for poor people in the Middle Ages

Winter time was tough for peasants in the Middle Ages. Poor-quality housing and clothing made the cold weather almost unbearable (and, in fact, it was unbearable for some, with many dying from cold), while the lack of work made things even more difficult than usual. But that doesn’t mean that peasants didn’t like to have a little fun. Quite the contrary: there’s plenty of evidence to show that, once the temperatures started to plummet, the village peasants would grab their makeshift skates and head to their nearest pond.

Historians researching the Middle Ages have unearthed plenty of pairs of primitive ice skates. In most cases, these were fashioned from ordinary leather shoes or sandals, with a carved piece of animal bone attached to the bottom. Since animal bones have an oily surface, this allowed the wearer to glide across the ice – albeit at a much slower pace than they would have achieved wearing modern, metallic skates. Of course, for the most part, these were practical items, necessary for getting around in wintry conditions. But they were also used for fun, as accounts from the time show.

Medieval peasants would skate on frozen ponds or even rivers. Popular games included competing to see who could carve the most accurate ‘figure of 8′ into the ice. They also fooled around with the sticks they used like ski poles to propel themselves across the ice. Evidence for peasants engaging in such wintry leisure activities has been found in not just England but in Belgium and the Netherlands, too.

From the 14th century onwards, skates with metal blades started emerging out of the Netherlands. These transformed ice skating as a leisure activity. Since only those with good levels of disposable income could afford these new skates, having fun on the ice increasingly became seen as a middle-or-upper class activity. Indeed, at the end of the Middle Ages, and into the beginning of the Early Modern period, ice skating had started to emerge as a recognised sport, complete with numerous rules and traditions, putting even more out of reach of the poorest members of society.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
Storytelling was often the only way peasants learned of developments outside of their own villages. Wikimedia Commons.

11. Storytelling was not just entertainment for peasants in the Middle Ages, it was also their only link to the outside world

In the Middle Ages, the peasantry generally took a ‘do it yourself’ attitude to keeping themselves entertained. After all, while kings could afford to pay for clowns or theatre troupes, or lay on a feast to keep himself happy, the typical impoverished village would have struggled to pay for even an afternoon’s entertainment from a wandering minstrel. This is the main reason why storytelling was such a big deal. In fact, listening to someone weave a yarn or share gossip was probably the most fun peasants had in Medieval times.

Storytellers would, like minstrels, go from village to village trying to make a living. Usually they would turn up unannounced and not even declare themselves to be a storyteller. Only after a weak beer or two would they begin their show. In some cases, they would amuse their audience with familiar legends, or they might tell new, unknown tales. Since almost no peasants could read, storytellers were the best way of hearing the latest tales and poems, including saucy ones. In return, they would hope to get some beer, some food and maybe a few trinkets. And, according to some accounts from the time, some storytellers even accepted payment in the form of a lady for the night.

Storytelling was not just a popular form of entertainment. It was also the Medieval equivalent of a TV news channel. Since most peasants never left their villages, storytellers were the best way people had of finding out what was happening in the world around them. If a king died or got married, or if their country went to war, chances are, peasants would learn all about it only when a storyteller came to their village. Storytellers have also been credited with helping keep folklore, myths and legends alive. For instance, in Medieval England, the legend of Robin Hood became so popular with the country’s peasants thanks to the work of wandering bards.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
Courtship was made into a fun game by lowly peasants in the Middle Ages. Pinterest.

12. Finding the love of your life was turned into a game, with bobbing for apples a fun way to find ‘the one’

There was no Tinder in Medieval times. Instead, people had to find other ways of getting a date – and, ideally, a husband or wife. But, just like today, peasants liked to have fun while matchmaking and dating, and would often make a game of it. One of the most popular ways of finding ‘the one’, was bobbing for apples. As the few existing records documenting everyday life for the Medieval peasantry show, this was relatively common right across Europe and eventually grew into a normal game rather than just a mating ritual.

The game was simple enough: a bunch of apples leftover from the harvest were collected. Each one was given the name of a single man from the village. The apples were then placed in a bucket and the village maidens then tried to take the apples out using just their mouths. Of course, the girls would always try and grab the apple belonging to the boy or man they fancied the most. They would only get three chances, however. If she managed to get the apple out on the first try, then tradition held that they were meant to be together forever. If she needed two attempts, they would wed but have a troubled marriage. If she needed three tries, then the union was deemed to be doomed from the start.

Away from such quaint English traditions, courtship among peasant societies was pretty much the same across Europe. A young man and woman would court publicly, usually meeting at markets, at church or in the fields whilst working. According to ballads from the time, the man would usually try and woo his intended with gifts, albeit modest ones given that they were peasants. Gifts of food or clothes were usually enough for a man to get his woman and make her his wife.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
The Medieval form of bowling enjoyed by peasants would be familiar to us today. Wikimedia Commons.

13. Medieval bowling was almost the same as today’s game, and even the poorest of peasants could take part in the fun

There were, of course, no bowling alleys in the Middle Ages. But, just as today, people still loved to play games that involved trying to knock things over with balls. Medieval bowling was simply an early version of our modern-day game. Or, more accurately, it was a primitive version of skittles. Not only was it a fun way to pass the time once all the work in the fields had been done, it was also easy to organizes. Plus, it was also very cheap to play – making it the perfect peasant leisure activity.

The earliest mention of skittles in Europe dates all the way back to the third century. Then, monks would use their staffs to try and knock down standing stones. In the centuries that followed, a more familiar version of the game started to emerge. And this was no longer restricted to men of God. In this version, villagers would try and knock smaller pins over using one large pin. Soon after, players started using balls and competing against one another to see who could known down the most pins. The only real difference between then and now is the Medieval game had nine pins compared to the ten we aim for today.

Nobles would have proper ‘ninepin’ sets. They might also have a special room or indoor court for playing in. Indeed, Henry VIII had a skittles court installed in Westminster Palace, and his wife Anne Boleyn was a big fan of the game. Peasants, meanwhile, would make do with what they could make and find. Archaeologists have found bowling pins fashioned from branches or even stones. And instead of playing indoors, peasants would play in a clearing in the woods or on a flattened piece of earth in the middle of their village. By the end of the Middle Ages, however, ‘bocce’ or bowls had become the main sport among rural peasants across Europe, and it remains the number one traditional outdoor game to this day.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
Water jousting was open to all, not just to knights and nobles. Wikimedia Commons.

14. In the Middle Ages, peasants found imaginative ways to get round the ban on poor people jousting

Jousts and other knightly games were massively popular during the Middle Ages. However, they were the preserve of the rich. Indeed, there were strict rules dictating who could take part and who couldn’t – and the lowest rungs of society usually weren’t even allowed to watch the action, let alone take part. But that doesn’t mean that Europe’s peasants didn’t have some fun of their own. In fact, the records show that ‘water jousting’ was hugely popular right across the continent.

As the name suggests, water jousting was like an aquatic version of the knightly sport. Two teams would man small rowing boats. Each team would have one jouster, armed with a pole. The rest of the competitors would man the rows. The two boats would head towards one another and, when they were within range, the jousters would try and knock their opponent into the water. Not only was it fun – and far safer than the real version – but, for the peasants of the time, it was a risk-free way of poking fun at the pomposity and rigid rules of their ‘betters’.

Interestingly, some peasants did get to take part in real jousts. Each knight would have a peasant boy or man serving as his ‘kippa’. If the knight won a joust, he was entitled to his opponent’s weapon and armor. It was the kippa’s job to retrieve this – even if the fallen adversary was still conscious. Since armour and weapons were expensive, no knight wanted to give it up, so the kippa would often have to bash the defeated competitor around the head with a wooden club until he was unconscious. Only then could he collect the spoils for his master.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
Even though it was illegal for them, many peasants would bet money on the roll of a dice. Wikimedia Commons.

15. Even though only knights and kings could gamble, peasants still found a way to play dice – often for money

Even though they might not have had much money to spare, peasants in the Middle Ages were just as susceptible to temptation as workers are today. As well as spending their meagre pay on alcohol, male peasants would often gamble, with dice games especially popular in Medieval times. This is despite the fact that, since betting was often banned, peasant gamblers were risking more than a handful of coins when they had a flutter.

King Richard I was the first monarch to explicitly ban the lower orders from gambling. Under him, placing a wager on anything from a joust or archery contest through to a roll of some dice became the preserve of the elite. Indeed, only a knight or higher could gamble. Of course, such a law was almost impossible to fully enforce, especially in rural villages a long way from the royal court. And so, gambling was actually rife, particularly where there was beer.

Those peasants who could afford to go to a tavern would have found themselves in a den of drinking and gambling. The most popular game among Medieval peasants was a dice game called Hazzard. This was played using dice made out of wood, stone, antlers or even bone. It was essentially an early version of the popular American dice game craps and a player could bet against his opponent – or opponents – and also, sometimes, the house, too.

The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
Bear-baiting was all too common, with kings and peasants both fans. The Lost City of London.

16. Bear-baiting was cruel, gruesome and massively popular with everyone from kings to peasants

Peasants were not allowed to hunt. In fact, being caught hunting could lead to a peasant being thrown in prison or, just as likely, publicly executed. So the poor had to satisfy their bloodlust some other way. Luckily for them, cruel blood sports were incredibly popular right across Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Bear-baiting in particular was a huge hit and enjoyed by every social class, from the King right down to the lowliest of peasants.

Bear-baiting events took place in most towns, and so peasants would often walk many miles to watch a ‘fight’. Here, the bear would be chained to a stake in the ground inside a specially-constructed pit. Then, fighting dogs would be introduced. The bear would fight the dogs, almost always to the death, much to the delight of the baying crowds. Sometimes, the bears – and their trainers – would become local celebrities. In fact, Shakespeare names one of the most famous fighting bears from the 1400s, a huge beast named Sackerson, in one of his plays.

Aside from bear-baiting, which was mainly popular in towns and cities, there were a number of other, similarly cruel and gruesome sports, which the peasantry loved. Cock-fighting was popular in most villages in the Middle Ages. Some peasants also enjoyed bull-baiting, though they were careful never to kill or harm the bulls, merely tease them.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the public appetite for blood sports remained as strong as ever. However, some sections of society had grown uneasy at the cruelty, plus some elites feared such pastimes would damage their nation’s reputations overseas. In England, in 1642 Parliament banned the traveling circuses that brought bear-baiting to rural villages. The activity was then made completely illegal in 1835, even if it carried on elsewhere in Europe.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time than you.” Lynn Stuart Parramore, Reuters, August 2013.

“Sex in the Middle Ages.” Ruth Mazo Karras, Serious Science, August 2016.

“Folk Football: Medieval Sport.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

“Medieval peasants really did not work only 150 days a year.” Tim Worstall, Adam Smith Institute, September 2013.

“Religion through time in the UK.” BBC Bitesize History.

“Wandering Minstrels in the Middle Ages.” Spartacus Educational.

“Did People Ice Skate in the Middle Ages?”

“Peasants and their role in rural life.” The British Library.

“Shakespeare’s competition: the grisly world of bear-baiting.” The Conversation, April 2016.