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Sports in the Middle Ages

Life the Middle Ages was filled with more than farming, feudalism, and warfare: entertainment for those living in the Middle Ages consisted of sports, many of which resembled modern games. Sporting events often meant for battle training, too, which helped many knights and nobles earned money and respect.

Sports in the Middle Ages

Tournaments

By far, the most popular sports of the Middle Ages were those in tournaments. Tournaments not only gave the opportunity to gain wealth and esteem, but also provided training for battle. Games in the tournament were dangerous because most of the participants were well-practiced and, in most cases, battle-tested. Jousting is a well-known sport where two men on horseback race towards each other with giant lances with the goal of knocking your opponent off or scoring more points. Typically, a clean hit was worth one point and knocking a rider off was worth two. The first to score three points won the match.

Many games in the tournament involved fighting with a weapon of some sort, like a sword, dagger, lance, or battle axe. The goal of many battles was not to kill your opponent, but to render them weaponless or force them to resign. However, it was not uncommon for participants to accept massive blows to the armor or helmet. One of the main purposes to joining a tournament was to practice skills.

Another favorite tournament game was archery. Skilled bowsmen would travel from miles away to attend a tournament that boasted high winnings and extreme fanfare. While archery contests pitted man against man, towns would sometimes fight as teams against other towns to grab bragging rights. Many of these types of tournaments catered to nobles, knights, and royalty, but some games were played by peasants.

Peasant Games

Most games for those in the lower social classes were less-organized. To appease the commoners, especially when a tournament was scheduled to be held, other, less-civilized games were allowed so the peasants could participate. The basic contests for running, wrestling, and jumping were meant to satisfy the peasants need for sport. However, they found time to play the following games even during non-tournament times:

  • Lifting games—a simple test of strength where men lifted heavy objects like stones or grain bags.
  • Smock Races—women would run races, competing for smocks.
  • Folk Football—a more barbaric version of today's organized and safer sport. In the Middle Ages, men would gather into teams and play a combination of what is now recognized as rugby and football. Teams were decided in a number of ways, but the most common teams were married men versus bachelors or town versus town. Teams could be even or one side could have many more, depending on who showed up. Players didn't use any safety equipment and there were few rules to be followed. Despite the violence of the game, folk football lasted until the end of the 19th century.

Other Games

  • Tennis has an early history, dating all the way back to the 12th century. At first, the hand was used to hit the ball, but sometime during the 16th century, rackets were introduced. Many noblemen and members of royalty played tennis because it was usually played indoors and only high-ranking members of society could afford a special room for this game.
  • Battledores and shuttlecocks resembled badminton but without a net. Teams of two attempted to keep the shuttlecock in the air as long as possible.
  • Golf, sometimes called colf in the Middle Ages, was a primitive precursor to modern golf.
  • Skittles was a form of bowling also played indoors and on an alley that took on many variants. For example, instead of hitting all the pins down, the player had to hit specific bowling pins.

Old Versus New

Many sports in the Middle Ages resembled some form of a modern game people play today. Before attempting to replicate those ancient sports to see their entertainment value, remember that new versions of those games focus on safety first.