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Sports In The Middle Ages

Sports In The Middle Ages

Sport in the middle ages was sometimes considered nonexistent; However, nothing could be further from the truth. While the games played in those times bear little resemblance to today’s events, there is no question that it is from these early times that the format of many modern games has evolved.

Sports In The Middle were actively played. Even though these were often called the dark ages, many popular games in modern times can trace their roots back to these times.

They include the following: Archery, Bandy, Boxing, Football, Golf, Horse Racing, Jeu De Paume (Tennis), Jousting, Fencing, Wrestling, and Hunting.

Have you ever wondered how the games you play today originated? In many instances, these owe their existence to similar forms of the game played thousands of years ago.

Sport of Archery

The use of bows and arrows can be traced back 70,000 years to the later Middle Stone Age.

Around the beginning of the middle ages, the bow and arrow were used for hunting and warfare and remained the preeminent weapon until it was surpassed by firearms.

In  1363 King Edward III issued the edict banning handball, football, hockey, coursing, and cock-fighting. 

Following this, he mandated 

“that every able-bodied man on feast days when he has leisure shall in his sports use bows and arrows, pellets or bolts, and shall learn and practice the art of shooting.”

The early form of archery as a sport involved shooting at artificially made earth mounds covered in turf and roof butts – called butts.

Another form of the sport was called “Roving.”

The rules of this were as follows.

  1. One player would designate a tree stump or other natural object as the target.
  2. Each player would have a single shot, and the one whose arrow landed closest would choose the next target – and so on.

A 14th-century version of the game was called shooting the “popinjay.”

The rules of popinjay were as follows.

  1. A wooden bird was attached to a log pole from a clock tower.
  2. The first archer to hit the bird wins.

Game of Bandy

Detail from Brueghel's 1565 Jagers in de Sneeuw, showing bandy being played informally before it became an organized sport.
Detail from Brueghel’s 1565 Jagers in de Sneeuw, showing bandy being played informally before it became an organized sport
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The first record of the game “Bandy” is on one of Canterbury Cathedral’s painted glass windows.

The window portrays a young boy holding a curved stick in one hand and a ball in another.

These were produced and installed in the 13th century. Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) references the game Bandy in Romeo and Juliet.

The name originates from the Teutonic term “bandja” (curved stick.)

Originally the names hockey and Bandy were used interchangeably. The distinction was eventually made that hockey was played on grass and Bandy on ice.

Ice hockey grew out of Bandy, however, not as a replacement.

The early games of Bandy were played with a ball or a puck. A ball was eventually settled on and became the standard. Ice hockey grew out of Bandy, where a puck is used.

The modern game of Bandy grew out of the early format, and particularly after the 18th-century rules were developed, it evolved into the current structure. 

Sport of Boxing

Tom Molineaux (left) vs Tom Cribb in a re-match for the heavyweight championship of England, 1811.
Heavyweight boxing championship of England, 1811
George Cruickshank, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pugilism (Boxing) can be traced back to the 23rd Greek Olympics in 688 BC.

After this, the earliest records exist in some Italy provinces between the 12th and 17th centuries. These described games where contestants fought each other with bare knuckles.

In the 16th century, with fewer people wearing swords, there was renewed interest in fighting with fists. The sport grew in popularity with the resulting organization of the sport and the first set of standardized rules.

  1. The first set of rules, “The London rules,” were published  in 1743 by Jack Broughton (1704 – 1789)
  2. These were superseded by the “London Prize Ring rules” being established in 1838.
  3. These were eventually replaced by the Queensberry rules in 1867.

Game of Cricket

The generally accepted theory is that children in the South East of England played a form of the middle-age game of cricket during the 11th to 13th century.

There is no definitive agreement regarding the source of the name. However, it may be from one of the following words.

  1. Old English words “cryce” or “cricc,” which means “crutch” or “staff.”
  2. An old Saxon word, “cryce,” means “stick.”
  3. A middle Dutch “krick,” which means stick or crook.

Some historians have theorized that cricket was first played in Flanders (as opposed to England), and the name originated from the high Dutch phrase, “met de (krik ket) sen,”  which translated literally means “with the stick chase.”

The earliest mention of cricket being played formally is in the Renaissance period (1611 AD). Court records show that two men were fined 12d each for missing church On Easter Sunday.

In 1654 Jasper Vinall was knocked on the head with a cricket ball and died – was this the first recorded death in cricket?

By the 17th century, huge crowds would assemble to watch.

In the game’s early form, bowlers would roll (or skim) the ball. Later this was changed into an underhand toss, which changed to a round arm, and finally, the overhand bowling action in use today.

The Sport of “Playing Ball” or “Game Ball” (Football)

An illustration of "mob football", a variety of medieval football.
An illustration of “mob football”, a variety of medieval football
Here, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1180 the middle age game of “mob football” was played between towns and villages.

The purpose of this game was to drive the “ball” through the opposing team’s goal. It is believed that the goals were only a few yards apart.

The rules were quite simple – there weren’t any.

Any number of people could play on each side, resulting in mismatched numbers playing against each other. 

The game was open to both men and women playing together. 

The game was started with a neutral person throwing the ball into the air; after that, each team would rush forward to gain possession. There were no rules to protect the refs, so they would stay clear of the action.

The mobs of people on each team would rush forwards “en masse.” 

The ball was commonly made from a pig’s bladder, which is why it is still called a “pigskin,” even though it is made from cowhide or synthetic material.

In the middle ages, the game experienced a huge rise in popularity when it was sometimes called mob football (with good reason.)

In 1308 AD William FitzStephen, a cleric and administrator in the service of Thomas Becket described the mob football played by youths in London. During the match, a spectator was stabbed. 

In 1314 AD, The Lord Mayor of London, Nicholas de Farndon, banned football.

This cannot have been very successful because, in 1349, King Edward III banned  “The playing of handball, football, and hockey.”

Included in this order was a ban on “coursing as well as cock-fighting, or other such idle games.”

In 1424 AD, the Scottish Parliament of James  I introduced the “Football Act 1424,” which banned ‘fute-ball.’ 

Over the years, the following monarchs attempted to ban football.

  1. Kings Edward II and III
  2. King Richard II
  3. Kings Henry V and VI
  4. Oliver Cromwell
  5. Queen Elizabeth I

There were two reasons which were used.

  1. The game was dangerous and caused injuries and death.
  2. It took time away from the much more civilized game of archery!

Clearly, they were not successful in their legislation.

Sport of Golf

A scene from the Golf Book, circa 1540, shows a game with similarities to modern day golf e.g. knocking a ball down a hole with a crooked headed club.
Medieval golf
RickyBennison, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Some historians suggest that Golf was developed in the 12th century.

The early game may have involved shepherds knocking rocks into rabbit holes at a site that is now known as the Royal St Andrews Golf Club.

Some academics suggest that Golf has grown out of the ancient Roman game of “Paganica.” This game used a ball stuffed with feathers that was hit by a bent stick.

Yet others theorize that Golf originated in China during the Ming dynasty, where a scroll dating back to 1369 AD shows someone swinging a “golf” club at a ball. He seems to be attempting to sink the ball into a small hole.

The first formal record is of King James II of Scotland, who banned it because it distracted people from their archery.

In 1502 AD James IV lifted the ban because he enjoyed playing Golf.

In 1503 AD and 1504 AD, a royal record listed “For golf clubbes and balles” in reference to the King’s own equipment.

The Sport of Horse Racing

SIENA, ITALY - AUGUST 16: Riders compete in horse race "Palio di Siena" in  medieval square "Piazza del Campo" on August 16, 20014 in Siena, Italy. The race is held twice every year.
SIENA, ITALY – Riders compete in horse race “Palio di Siena” in medieval square “Piazza del Campo”

The first record of a horse racing meeting in England was in 1174, during the reign of Henry II, at Smithfield, in London, during a horse fair.

In ancient Greece, between 7400BC and 40AD, records exist of mounted chariots being used in races during the Olympic games.

During this time, organized horseracing events were held in China, Persia, Arabia, and other Middle Eastern and in North African countries.

Some of these horses were brought back to Europe and England during the Crusades. At sales fares, jockeys would ride the horses at speed to demonstrate their ability to buyers.

The first record of a winning purse being offered in a horse race was during the ten-year reign of Richard the Lionheart, which ended in 1099 AD. The race was run over 3 miles (4.8 km.)

By the 16th century, racehorses were bought and sold across Europe.

Sport of Jeu De Paume (Tennis)

Jeu de paume in the 17th century.
Jeu de paume in the 17th century.
See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The game Jeu De Paume dates to at least the 12th century and is generally believed to be the foundation of the modern game of tennis.

Instead of tennis racquets, Jeu De Paume, translated into English, means “Palm Game”; the players used the palms of their hands to whack the ball back to each other. 

This is very similar to volleyball.

To protect the player’s hands, they would often be wrapped in cloth.

In the 16th century, in the Renaissance period, the game evolved into one that used racquets instead of palms.

The oldest known tennis court is found at Hampton court palace and dates back to 1530 (AD.)

Sport of Jousting

Two knights compete during a re-enactment of a medieval jousting tournament.
Two knights compete during a re-enactment of a medieval jousting tournament

Jousting was the quintessential sport of the Middle Ages, and it remains one of the most iconic sports of all time. Knights would ride on horseback towards each other with lances in hand, attempting to knock their opponent off their horse.

Jousting tournaments were held throughout Europe, and they were often attended by royalty and nobility. The sport was dangerous and required skill, strength, and courage, making it the ultimate test of a knight’s abilities.

Sport of Fencing

Angelo Domenico Malevolti Fencing Print from 1763.
Charlesjsharp (talk) (Uploads), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fencing was another popular sport in the Middle Ages, particularly in Italy. It was considered a noble sport and was often practiced by the upper classes. Fencing involves using a sword to strike an opponent while also defending oneself.

It required skill, agility, and quick reflexes, making it a challenging and exciting sport to watch and participate in. Fencing tournaments were held throughout Europe, and the sport remains popular today as an Olympic event.

Sport of Wrestling

Wrestling was a popular sport in the Middle Ages, particularly in England. It was often practiced by peasants and lower classes, but also by knights and nobles.

Wrestling involves grappling and throwing opponents to the ground and can be quite violent. It was often used as a form of entertainment at fairs and festivals, and was also practiced as a form of training for combat.

Today, wrestling remains a popular sport around the world, with various styles and competitions.

Sport of Hunting

Falconry display at a Medieval festival.
Falconry display at a Medieval festival

Hunting and falconry were popular sports among the nobility in the Middle Ages. Hunting involved tracking and killing wild animals, often with the use of trained hunting dogs.

Falconry, on the other hand, involved using trained birds of prey, such as falcons and hawks, to hunt small game. Both sports required skill and patience and were often associated with the aristocracy.

Today, hunting and falconry are still practiced in some parts of the world, although they are often regulated to protect wildlife populations.


Historians are beginning to push back against the term “Dark Ages” being used to describe the middle ages. While the great artistic works of Michael Angelo and cohorts were produced in the Renaissance period, there were huge changes in society during the middle ages.

One of these was the creation of new sports (some adapted from older games’ forms). Almost all modern sporting disciplines can trace their origins back to the middle ages.

Header image courtesy: 152089538 © Jaroslav Moravcik –