Making Merry in the Middle Ages (Medieval Mondays #6a)

Medieval piggyback wrestling

Medieval piggyback wrestling

People knew how to have fun in the Middle Ages.

In truth, in any age of history, people sought to amuse themselves during whatever moments they could spare from their workdays, however brief these moments of respite might be.

The medieval times was actually rather unique in this regard.  During the 13th century, people had more holidays and days off work than are granted in the modern western world.

Most of these days off were, as the name indicates, “holy days”, meaning days of obligation to the Church.

However, at the conclusion of the associated service or ceremony, a celebration of some sort almost always took place that hearkened back to the pagan origins of these occasions.  Among these celebrations featured any number of popular leisure activities.

The course of the medieval year and its many holidays is a subject for another Medieval Mondays post, but these popular leisure pursuits can tell us a lot about the medieval ethos and sense of fun.  According to Margaret Wade Labarge, author of Mistress, Maids and Men: Baronial Life in the Thirteenth Century,

The class distinctions, which are so noticeable in other matters, applied here also.  Certain sports were reserved to the barons, as privileges of their higher status, and the common pastimes of the peasant and the townsman were considered demeaning and unsuitable. (p. 166)

In spite of this class division, there was considerable overlap in the pastimes of the upper and lower class.  The medieval times was an often brutish era of history, and popular forms of entertainment reflect this.  In Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages, authors Marty Williams and Anne Echols reveal,

Everyone … enjoyed watching and participating in a variety of rougher sports.  Among the lower classes, throwing and wrestling contests were particularly popular, as were cock fights and bear baiting (which might actually involve several different types of animals). (p. 200)

Noblemen also enjoyed roughhousing, both in informal contexts (e.g. during a stroll through an orchard) and more formal ones, such as the melee during a tournament.  Joseph and Frances Gies, authors of Life in a Medieval Castle describe a melee as, follows:

[T]he mass melee intentionally resembled a real battle.  The combative ardor of the participants was often very akin to the spirit of genuine war, especially if knightly loyalties were enlisted.  Serious and even fatal injuries were common. (p. 179)

The tournament will be discussed in much greater detail in a future Medieval Mondays post.

These games we play

Noblewomen, while not rough to the same extent as men, nonetheless enjoyed horseplay in the form of parlour games (men engaged in these games as well).

Medieval chess

Medieval chess

One such was called bric, which, although its purpose is unknown, Labarge explains was played with a little stick, either inside or out.  Pinch me is another whose purpose remains a mystery.

Hot cockles, meanwhile, involved one player kneeling while blindfolded and was being struck by the other players, whose identities the kneeling player than tried to guess.  And blindman’s buff – which has survived to modern day, now known as blindman’s bluff – involved a blindfolded person trying to catch other players.

Another activity universally enjoyed by both high and low classes were dice and gambling, regardless of moralists’ objections to such.  According to Labarge,

The moralists’ impassioned denunciations were ineffectual[.]  [G]ambling was common to all ranks of society, students as well as magnates, clerics as well as laymen. (p. 177)

Bowls, essentially lawn bowling, was another game commonly played and bet upon.

Many board games were also played with dice, including tables (a type of backgammon), merels (a modified form of tic-tac-toe), and a version of chess known as dice-chess.

Chess was incredibly popular during the medieval times, at all levels of society.

Originating in the Muslim world, the game was brought to Europe in the 10th century in two forms: one that required skill and resourcefulness for the making of moves similar to our modern version of the game, and a second, simplified form that used dice.

According to Labarge, chess became popular among noblemen because, when not engaged in their various feudal duties, they enjoyed long hours of leisure time to engage in lengthy chess matches.  Labarge goes on the explain that,

[C]hess was originally linked with social standing.  The more popular it became among the barons, the more it was adopted by the lower ranks of society who found it a delightful way to ape their superiors. (p. 175)

Chess was also popular because its play was not restricted to men, thus providing a convenient pretext for a man and woman to sit together for hours.

A little song and dance

Two forms of entertainment that were not of the 13th century are playing-cards and books.  The former, according to Labarge, were unknown in Europe until the 14th century, while laypeople only possessed books of devotion, such as psalters or breviaries.

Another activity that was around in the 13th century, again enjoyed by all classes, was plays.  According to Williams and Echols,

The first medieval plays were directed by church officials and performed with clerical casts inside monasteries or churches.  By the eleventh century, liturgical drama had become a popular way to explain biblical history to illiterate parishioners. (p. 202)

The viele

A minstrel playing the viele

They go on to explain how eventually, plays had to be moved into the churchyard owing to the longer, more complex staging of the productions, which came to include elaborate costumes, scenery, props, and even special effects requiring intricate machinery.

The subject matter of these plays drew heavily on the legends of saints and martyrs, the playwrights of the day having “virtually exhausted the Bible” (p. 202) as the source of their inspiration.

Storytelling, music, and dancing are another three universally enjoyed entertainments, which were often interrelated.

The professional entertainers of the day – known as minstrels – regularly enlivened mealtimes with stories, songs, or jokes.  Stories were typically romances of the chivalric literary convention out of France or epic poems on the lives of saints and other great men.  Songs likewise, according to the Gies,

[W]ere sophisticated in form and stylized in subject matter, usually falling into established categories: dawn songs, spinning songs, political satires (sirventes), laments, debates, love songs.  They might sing May songs …[.]  Or they might be songs of the Crusade…[.]  Or lively, picturesque songs. (pp. 118-120).

According to Labarge, there existed a number of different types of minstrels, which included serious musicians, acrobats, jugglers, storytellers, or some combination of the above, for she adds that many minstrels could play instruments.  Among the most common medieval instruments were the lute, harp, flute, viele, drums, cymbals, timbrels, and even the bones.

A medieval carole

A medieval carole

Preachers were often highly critical of all minstrels save those who told stories about saints.  The preachers disapproved of minstrels’ dancing, which was often acrobatic in nature, and occasionally performed by female minstrels as well.  The preachers deplored this even more.

In wasn’t just the dancing of minstrels the preachers found troublesome.  They also disdained the popular carole – a round dance where people held hands and sang and moved in a circle – which occurred at all festive occasions.

Dancing was denounced as everything from frivolous, lewd, and “obviously evil because the dancers circled to the left like the damned” (Labarge p. 182).

This being said, Thomas of Cantimpre, a 13th century preacher and Dominican, grudgingly conceded to dancing at weddings since, as quoted by Labarge,

It is right for those folk to have the consolation of a moderate joy, who have joined together in the laborious life of matrimony.  For according to the vulgar proverb, that  man is worthy to have a little bell hung on a gold chain around his neck, who hath not repented of taking a wife before the year is out. (p. 182)

A/N: Coming next month: entertainments that were exclusive to the nobility.

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

(Image source #1, #2, #3, and #4)

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