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
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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