Leisure in the Middle Ages

By Tim Lambert

In the Middle Ages, the main pastime of the upper class was still hunting. Lords hunted deer with packs of dogs and killed them with arrows. They also hunted wild boars with spears. Both men and women went hawking. In the evenings they feasted, danced, and played board games such as chess and backgammon. In the mid-15th century playing cards arrived in England.

Knights also took part in tournaments. These events drew large crowds of spectators. At them, knights fought with wooden lances, swords, or maces. This was called jousting. There were also tourneys (fights between teams). Tournaments often lasted four days. Two days were for jousting, one was for tourneys and one was for archery competitions.

In the Middle Ages, wealthy people also played board games. We are not certain where or when chess was invented. It was probably invented in India in the 6th or 7th century AD or possibly earlier. At any rate by the 10th century, it was being played in Europe.

Games similar to draughts were played by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The Arabs played a similar game and by the 11th century, a form of draughts was being played in Europe.

Golf is believed to be a corruption of the Dutch word ‘kolve’, which means club. The Dutch played games with clubs in the Middle Ages but golf developed in Scotland in the 15th century. Meanwhile, the first recorded bowling green was laid out in Southampton in the 13th century.

Even for Medieval peasants life was not all hard work. People were allowed to rest on Holy Days (from which we get our word holiday). During them, poor people danced and wrestled. They also played a very rough form of football. The men from 2 villages played on a ‘pitch’, which might include woods and streams! There were no rules so broken limbs and other injuries were common. Furthermore in the Middle Ages, people made skates from cow’s shoulder blades and went ice skating.

People also enjoyed cruel ‘sports’ like cockfighting and bear-baiting. (A bear was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it). Gambling was also common.