Snow Castles and Horse Racing on Ice: Winter Fun in the Medieval North

Although the winters could be long and harsh in medieval Sweden, the people still found time to have fun and games. In the following article, we take a look at some of the activities recorded by Olaus Magnus, one of the most important writers about Scandinavia in the late Middle Ages.

Olaus Magnus was born in Sweden in 1490 and as a young man began an ecclesiastical career. His own brother Johannes was Sweden’s last catholic archbishop. In 1524 the King of Sweden sent Olaus to Rome on a diplomatic mission, and he remained there for the rest of his life (soon after the Protestant Revolution would take hold of his home country). While he would hold various positions until his death in 1557, Olaus is best remembered as the author of the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (Description of the Northern Peoples), which was printed in Rome 1555. It soon became a popular success, as it revealed to the rest of Europe the fascinating customs and habits of people in Scandinavia. He wrote about a wide variety of topics, including the environment and weather of the region, how war was fought in these cold lands, and even some of the superstitions and stories of magic that he had heard.


Magnus even offers a few paragraphs about the fun pastimes people took part in. For example, he tells how children made giant snow castles and took part in snowball wars:

Every winter, while the snow lasts, the young fellows, urged on by their elders, assembled in bands at some elevated spot, all working alike to fetch huge masses of snow. With these, at least while they are on holiday, they busily erect defences shaped like the walls of a military camps; a building of this sort, which is fitted with windows, they sprinkle continually with water, so that snow, being bound together by the water, may become more effectively hardened as the cold comes on. By their care and enthusiasm the forts are made so strong that they could stand up not only to light blows but to brazen balls and even, if necessary, to the shock of tortoise formations.

Once the snow castle was completed, the boys would be divided into two teams, one to defend the castle and the other to attack. A banner would be raised over the castle, but if one was not available a juniper bush could be used instead. The boys would then begin the battle for the castle: the only weapons they could use was to throw snowballs – those who tried to attack with wood, iron or ice would be be punished by being thrown naked into the icy water! Some of the besiegers might also try to burrow through the snow so they could enter secretly into the castle and try to seize the banner.


Magnus adds that those boys who tried to flee the battle would “have snow put down their backs between their skin and clothing when they have been caught and, after being chastened with insults and abuse, are set free, so that they may come back on a later occasion with more courage and perseverance to defend the camp with greater zeal.”

While boys played at war with the snow, men in medieval Sweden were more interested in contests of speed. Magnus explains that on December 26th, the horses wold be brought to frozen lakes and rivers and raced against each other. “The distance to the goal,” he writes, “or winning-post, in a race of this sort is between four and six miles. The prize consists of some measures, or pecks, of seed-corn, and the winner is decked in new clothes; lastly, any horse that does not reach the post falls to the lot of the victor.” Magnus adds that this sport has been taking place since ancient times and that it draws huge crowds of spectators.

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

Men were also eager to race against each other on the ice as well, using primitive forms of skates:


[They] attach to the soles of their feet a piece of flat, polished iron, a foot long, or the flat bones of deer or oxen, the shin bones, that is. These are slippery by nature because they have an inherent greasiness and achieve a very great speed, though only on smooth ice, and continue to shoot forward without pause as long as the ice remains level. Among this sort too there are found everywhere men who take pleasure in racing for a prize. Their race-course over frozen lakes as smooth as a mirror is fixed at eight to twelve Italian miles (12-18 km) from one end to the other, or it can be less. The prizes are silver spoons, copper pots, swords, new clothes, and young horses, but more often the last. The rest are outrun by those competitors in the race who attach to the soles of their feet the shin-bones of deer thoroughly smoothed and greased with pork fat, since, when the cold drops of water rise as it were through the pores of the ice during fierce cold, the bones smeared in this way cannot be hampered or kept in check, as iron can however much it polished or greased. For no greasing suits iron as much as it does the shin-bones of deer or bullocks, which have an innate slipperiness of their own.

Magnus adds that as long as the ice is strong, this sport is safe, but it can be dangerous if they go out in thin ice that can break underneath them: “sometimes rash skaters, ignorant or scorning the properties of ice and racing with more temerity than caution, are drowned, their bodies lamentably left under the ice and on top of it their heads, which have been sliced off by the sharp edge of the ice as if by an axe.”

Description of the Northern Peoples has been translated by Peter Fisher and Humphrey Higgins in the 1990s and was published in three volumes by the Hakluyt Society.


See also: Oar walking, underwater wrestling and horse fighting – historian examines the sports and games of the Vikings


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