By John A. Nichols
Published Online – Slippery Rock University, 2001
Introduction: Did you ever wonder what people did for entertainment in times past? For a number of years, as part of my research on the history of women, I have been collecting images of medieval women in manuscript illuminations and church sculptures. I was struck by the quantity of scenes in which women were physically engaged in sporting activities. My definition of sport in this regard is a term that applies to games, play, pastimes, and recreational amusements. I am aware that the modern definition of sport would not take these activities into consideration but the idea of a physical contest requiring highly trained athletes in an organized competition is, with the exception of the tournament, rarely to be found in the Middle Ages. Rather than use our twentieth century definition of sport, what I am offering is an alternative way to look at the manner in which women physically participated in activities that had them throwing, running, jumping, riding, etc. in behavior that aids in understanding the roles of women in this past time period.
Medieval society was divided into two classes: the aristocracy and the commoners. Since the duties and responsibilities differed for these two classes, it is evident that the pastimes and physical activities would differ for the women of these classes as well. Before illustrating the differences, however, I want to touch on some of the games or sports from the twelfth through fifteenth centuries that were enjoyed by women of both the common and the upper class especially in the countries of northern France and England.
The sport most everyone participated in was ball games. In a famous, illustrated manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University there is a medieval group of clergy playing at one such ball game. The person at bat is a Franciscan friar while the catcher with the ball in her hand is a Benedictine nun. The fielders consist of more nuns and priests who have their hands up ready to catch the ball. In ball games such as this, the balls were small about the size of a modern baseball so they could be batted or thrown. But if the ball game required the participant to kick the ball it was made of pig’s bladder filled with dried peas and covered with a cloth. In Scotland, for example, there was an annual football contest in which single women played against married women. According to medieval records, the playing fields for football were very large, extending from one village to another, to accommodate great numbers of participants. The object was to kick or carry the ball across the opponent’s goal, which might be a known landmark such as a church or craft hall. Such football games were played with few rules. So violent was the sport that the local authorities tried to limit the play to specific days of the year. If that did not work then contests were permitted only for a short time period such as in the afternoon from five o’clock until sunset.