Medieval Sports: An interview with John Marshall Carter

Medieval Sports: scene of two men playing a hockey-type game.  Royal 10 E.IV, f.95 (det)

John Marshall Carter is the leading historian in the field of medieval sports. Through exploring diverse sources such as eyre court records and chronicles, Dr. Carter has written over a dozen books and articles on sports in the Middle Ages.  We had the opportunity to send him a few questions:

Although games and sports in the Middle Ages is a topic that has a lot of interest from medievalists, it is also one which has few and scattered sources about it. How were you able to get started into researching this topic and what were the challenges you had?

I have always been interested in sports. However, it was while pursuing the doctorate in history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that I became seriously interested in conducting research on medieval European sports and pastimes. Of course I read as many of the older works, such as Joseph Strutt’s SPORTS AND PASTIMES OF THE PEOPLE OF ENGLAND, F.H. Cripps-Day’s THE HISTORY OF THE TOURNAMENT IN ENGLAND AND FRANCE, R.C. Clepham’s THE TOURNAMENT: ITS PERIODS AND PHASES among others. My work with medieval English legal history led me to primary sources that revealed evidence of sports and games in medieval England. However, as was mentioned in your above question, the scattered nature of primary sources on medieval sports an pastimes made for a rather bewildering pursuit of the subject.

What kind of resources do historians need to research to learn about medieval sports and games?

The list is almost limitless: medieval legal documents (such as the eyre and coroner rolls: the eyre rolls are preserved legal documents kept by itinerant justices in their shire-by-shire handling of criminal cases; the coroner’s rolls recorded the context of a crime and the results of a crime; in many instances, crimes were committed within the context of sporting activities; medieval literature; medieval troubadour songs; folklore; in medieval biographies such as the HISTOIRE DE GUILLAUME L’MARECHAL (HISTORY OF WILLIAM MARSHALL), among others.

Did medieval people have a concept of sporting competition? Or should it be considered that people in the Middle Ages just did as a pastime?

Sometimes there was fine line between sports and pastimes in the middle ages. I believe that where you find sports records you can conclude that medieval people (if not in general then certain segments of the society) had a fairly well-developed concept of sporting competition. Surely, the many medieval tournaments ( with existing records of winners) attest to a developed (or at least developing0 concept of sporting competition.

What are some of the issues that you have explored when looking at sports in the Middle Ages? What areas of research do you think are still out there to explore?

One major issue was the existence or not of sports records in the Middle Ages which is the subject of a book that I co-authored with Arnd Krueger of the University of Goettingen: FROM RITUAL TO RECORD: SPORTS RECORDS AND QUANTIFICATION IN PRE-MODERN SOCIETIES.

We thank John Marshall Carter for answering our questions. You can also read his articles:

Sports and Recreations in Thirteenth-Century England: The evidence of the Eyre and Coroners’ Rolls

The Study of Medieval Sports, Games, and Pastimes: A Fifteen-Year Reflection, 1988-2003

Here is a select bibliography of works by John Marshall Carter:

Carter, J.M. 1980. Sport in the Bayeux tapestry. Canadian Journal of History of Sport. May: 36-60.

Carter, J.M. 1981. Ludi Medi Aevi: Studies in the history of Medieval sport. Manhattan, Kansas: Military Affairs Publishing.

Carter, J.M. 1984. “William Fitzstephen and London Sports in the Late Twentieth Century,” American Benedectine Review 35:2: 146-152.

Carter, J.M. 1985. Sport, war, and the three orders of feudal society, 700-1300. Military Affairs. 49: 132-139.

Carter, J.M. 1988. Sports and pastimes of the Middle Ages. New York: University Press of America.

Carter, J.M. 1988. Sports and recreations in thirteenth-century England. The evidence of the Eyre and Coroners’ rolls. A research note. Journal of Sport History. 5: 167-173.

Carter, J.M., 1988. The Study of Medieval Sports. Stadion: International Zeitschrift für Geschichte des Sports. 14: 149-161.

Carter, J.M. 1990. Games Early Medieval People Played. Sidonius, Apollinaris and Gallo-Roman-German Sport. Nikephoros. 3: 225-231.

Carter, J.M., and A. Krüger. 1990. Ritual and record. Sports records and quantification in pre-modern societies. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Carter, J.M. 1991. A Research Note: Further Evidence of Sports Records in the Middle Ages. International Journal of History of Sport. 8: 417-419.

Carter, J.M. 1992. Medieval games: sports and recreations in feudal society. New York: Greenwood Press.

Carter, J.M. 2000. “Sportgeschichte im mittelalterlichen Biographien: William Marshal (ca. 1146-1219)”, in Aus Biographien Sportgeschichte lernen: Festschrift zum 90 Geburtstag von Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Henze, ed. Arnd Krueger und Bernd Wedemeyer (Hoya: Niedersachsischen Institut fur Sportgeschichte) pp. 67-78.

Carter, J.M., “Sport in the Bayeux Tapestry,” Reprinted in A History of Sport and Physical Education in the Middle Ages, ed. Earle F. Zeigler (Victoria, B.C., Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2006), pp. 11-18.

Carter, J.M., “The Study of Medieval Sports: A Fifteen-Year Reflection” Sport History Review (Spring, 2006), pp. 18-27.

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