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

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

By John Marshall Carter

Sport History Review, Vol.35 (2004)

medieval sport  - photo courtesy the Walters Art Museum

In 1988, the German sports history journal Stadion published my bibliographical essay entitled “The Study of Medieval Sports, 1927-1987.” In that piece I tried to assay the field of studies on medieval sports and pastimes from the pioneering essay of Charles Homer Haskins in 1927 to the 1987 North American Society for Sport History annual conference. Although I used these two events as mileposts, I realized that I had to go backward in time from 1927 to give credit, where it was certainly due, to British and European scholars such as Joseph Strutt and J. J. Jusserand.

From Haskins’ generation, including G. G. Coulton, H. S. Bennett, and Johan Huizinga, to the formation of Sports History as a viable discpline in the 1970s, the study of medieval sports, games, and pastimes has grown sporadically. The period from World War II to the 1970s was somewhat barren in the history of the slowly emerging subdiscipline. During the 1970s, scholars in North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere began to mine the sources (mostly secondary) in search of medieval sports, games, and pastimes. Interestingly, almost none of those second-generation pioneers were trained medievalists, and one would suspect, had a rather difficult time with the sources. They all apparently decided that: (a) The field was wide open and needed some original studies in the wake of important works published on ancient and modern sports history topics; (b) Medieval historians were probably not interested in the sports and pastimes of the medieval period; or (c) There were really no such activities as sports in the Middle Ages in the modern sense of the word. The efforts of these scholars, however, must be applauded. They widened the scope of sports history by pointing to the need for research into the sports, games, and pastimes of the Middle Ages and challenged trained medievalists to pick up the gauntlet.


Although some noteworthy studies by trained medievalists appeared in the 1980s, 90s, and the beginning of the new century, especially from scholars working in medieval literature, they were only a beginning. Nevertheless, I wish to chronicle the next stage of the development of medieval sports and pastimes—from 1988 to the present. A reflection on medieval sports history studies over the past fifteen years is an obvious addendum to my previous bibliographical essay; however, it might be a useful and handy addition to our bibliographical knowledge of medieval sports, and could possibly suggest some avenues for further research.

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