By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Closely related to tennis, but much more ubiquitous and popular, then as now, are the many kinds of ball games developed and played throughout medieval Europe, often involving entire villages pitted against one another. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Football as Played Back Then
Of course, kicking and hitting balls are pastimes as old as humanity, but there is a pretty straight line to be drawn from what we know about medieval football and the modern sport, including the use of goalposts or nets to mark the scoring of points.
It has even been suggested that the doorways or balconies of parish churches, at either end of a town square, could have been used for the goals of rival teams.
Game for the Young Boys and Men
The carved underside of wooden misericord—that is, the merciful little wooden seat that a weary monk or chorister could perch on during a long church service—depicts two young men from opposing sides skirmishing over a ball.
In this example, from the English cathedral of Gloucester, the boys are warmly dressed and wearing hoods, suggesting that their match was part of a game associated with winter holidays. This is corroborated by a famous description of medieval London and its sports, or ludi—Latin word that has the same range of meanings as our English synonyms for any type of game or play.
A highlight of the year was a festive football tournament played by all the city’s lads on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), which marked the end of the carnival. The description is featured in the earliest biography of Saint Thomas Becket, who had been born and raised in London and must have participated in these activities as a boy.
After midday, all the youths of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own balls; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls.
Older men, fathers, and wealthy citizens on horseback come to watch the youngsters competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously; you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
A Violent History
As we would expect from the passions roused by football matches today, medieval authorities often moved to ban these games at times of urban unrest or particularly bitter rivalries between teams.
In the 14th century, for example, the Oxford coroner had to investigate the circumstances in which a student had been killed in the course of a football game between his friends and a group of Irish students. This could mean, either that this form of the game was more dangerous—like the rough sport later associated with the grammar school founded at Rugby in the 16th century—or that something had occurred during the game to become a catalyst for violence.
Prohibition on Games
In 1314, to take another example, the mayor of London issued a decree prohibiting a variety of sports and pastimes that were known to disturb the peace, on the grounds that King Edward II was embarking on a war against the Scots and had charged his officials to maintain order in his absence.
As a result, the carrying of arms was forbidden within the city walls, even for use in fencing schools, and there was a specific ban on football games. The decree, originally in Anglo-French, reads: “And because there is great uproar in the city due to certain rageries de grosses pelotes de pé”—that is, big, heated football matches, being played on common land—from which “many evils can arise from time to time,” he forbade that these games be played within the city precincts.
However, the wording of this injunction would have been a clear indication to his listeners that it was okay to play outside the city, across the Thames, where other forbidden ludi were traditionally allowed.
Violence in Other Ball Games
Ball games, as tests of skill and accuracy, could also take the form of bowling, for which there are terms in a range of languages—boules, bocce, pétanque—and a related category of sports involved competitive projectile throwing, from horseshoes to hammers to quoits. These games, too, could go awry.
Another coroner’s report, from London in 1275, said that two friends called John Fuatard and John le Clerk “were playing together with their tiles in the churchyard” when the latter, “throwing the tile in his turn, and quite against his own will, struck the said John Fuatard on the right side of the head, making a wound two inches long and penetrating to the brain.” This unfortunate John died six days later. There is no record of the verdict against his friend, but it was probably ruled involuntary manslaughter.
Common Questions about Ball Games Played in the Middle Ages
It has even been suggested that the doorways or balconies of parish churches, at either end of a town square, could have been used for the goals of rival teams. After midday, all the youths of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game.
In 1314, the mayor of London issued a decree prohibiting a variety of sports and pastimes that were known to disturb the peace, on the grounds that King Edward II was embarking on a war against the Scots and had charged his officials to maintain order in his absence.
Ball games, as tests of skill and accuracy, took the form of bowling, and a related category of sports involved competitive projectile throwing, from horseshoes to hammers to quoits.