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.