The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages
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

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?” Medievalists.net.

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

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

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