By Danièle Cybulskie
There is a general impression of the Middle Ages as a time of all work and no play that is hard to shake. It’s true that much of the work was definitely grueling, and that the stakes were high when it came to making a living (although the same can be said of today in many places, and in many ways). But there was plenty of joy and fun and laughter to be had during the Middle Ages, too.
William Fitzstephen, better known as Thomas Beckett’s biographer, wrote a lush description of London in the late twelfth century that features the games and sports that the citizens took part in all year round. Rather than simply listing a series of events, Fitzstephen takes the time to show us medieval Londoners in all their human glory, enjoying themselves in the time they have off.
In the early part of the year, Londoners took part in pastimes which are familiar to us as typically medieval pursuits. At Carnival, Fitzstephen says, “boys from the schools bring fighting-cocks to their master, and the whole forenoon is given up to boyish sport; for they have a holiday in the schools that they may watch their cocks do battle.” Following the cockfights, scholars and tradesmen played ball, to the nostalgic delight of onlookers, rich and poor. Fitzstephen writes,
Elder men and fathers and rich citizens come on horseback to watch the contest of their juniors, and after their fashion are young again with the young; and it seems that the motion of their natural heat is kindled by the contemplation of such violent motion and by their partaking in the joys of untrammeled youth.
The season of Lent is given over to jousting every Sunday, he says; a way for young men to sharpen their skills before they’re invested with knighthood. The men charged at each other with trained warhorses, doing their best to unseat their opponents with wooden lances “with the steel point removed.” The stakes were higher when the king was in town, and more nobility were to be seen amongst the jousters.
As the year went on, the people of London took to the River Thames for fun and games. At Easter, “they make sport with naval tourneys, as it were,” Fitzstephen reports. This, apparently, involved setting up a shield on a post in the middle of the river, and tilting at it:
a small vessel, swiftly driven on by many an oar and by the river’s flow, carries a youth standing at the prow who is to strike the shield with his lance. If he break the lance by striking the shield and keep his feet unshaken, he has achieved his purpose and fulfilled his desire. If, however, he strike it strongly without splintering his lance, he is thrown into the rushing river, and the boat of its own speed passes him by.
Fortunately, medieval lifeguards were on the scene in the form of two boats full of people on either side of the target, ready to “snatch up the striker who has been sucked down by the stream, as soon as he emerges into sight or ‘once more bubbles on the topmost wave’.” Presumably, the striker would want to have a strong team of oarsmen to propel him towards the target, because the citizens of London came out in force, once again, filling the city’s bridges and banks with an audience ready to cheer on the lancers – or, as Fitzstephen notes, “to laugh their fill”.
Fitzstephen’s commentary on summers full of love and laughter is beautiful enough to quote in its entirety, and speaks to the timelessness of a season spent outdoors with the promise of love and flirtation on warm nights:
On feast-days throughout the summer the youths exercise themselves in leaping, archery, and wrestling, putting the stone, and throwing the thonged javelin beyond a mark, and fighting with sword and buckler. ‘Cytherea [Aphrodite] leads the dance of maidens and the earth is smitten with free foot at moonrise.’
As the seasons grow cold, blood sports are the entertainment of the day once again, with boar fights before dinner (the participants “themselves soon to be bacon,” Fitzstephen points out unsympathetically), bullfights, or bear-baiting. But not all of the pastimes are so violent. “When the great marsh that washes the northern walls of the city is frozen,” Fitzstephen writes, “dense throngs of youths go forth to disport themselves upon the ice.” And these medieval youths of London do just what people always have done on ice. They run quickly and then let themselves glide as far as they possibly can. They allow themselves to be pulled and slid along by friends, “on seats of ice like millstones”. And they “fall, every one of them, upon their faces.” They even skate, using “the shin-bones of beasts, lashing them beneath their ankles” and propelling themselves along with the medieval equivalent of ski poles. Sometimes – you guessed it – using their speed to tilt at each other.
This small snippet of life in medieval London shows us how much we have in common with those long-ago citizens. Even if we wouldn’t show up at a cockfight these days, the allure of enjoying ourselves outdoors and giving ourselves the freedom to just play and have fun from season to season is something that connects us through time.
For more of William Fitzstephen’s description of London sports, as well as much more fascinating information about urban life in the Middle Ages, check out Maryanne Kowaleski’s Medieval Towns: A Reader. This translation, from Kowaleski’s collection, is by H. Morley.
Top Image: Detail of a drawing of the skyline of the city of London from the 14th century. British Library MS Royal 13 A III fol. 14