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Sports of Medieval Europe

Sports of Medieval Europe

Sporting events in Europe’s Middle Ages were popular among the wealthy classes and the poor. The medieval church calendar offered many holidays when work ceased, and games of leisure became popular pastimes.  Contests such as archery, horseshoe tossing, and jousting remain well-known today.  There were other games in the middle ages, too, such as colf, gameball, shinty, and skittles, which are less familiar to most people today.  Some of these games evolved into sports we would now recognize.

A game called “colf” (or “kolf”) was mentioned in continental European literature in the mid-13th century.  Mainly played in the low countries of Holland and Flanders, it used a curved club to hit a ball through the lanes, churchyards, and fields around a town.  The object was to get the ball to some kind of target (for example, a tree, a hole, a gap in a hedge) by using the least number of hits.  During the 16th and 17th centuries, the game was also played on frozen rivers and lakes.  It is believed by some to be the precursor to modern golf, having been brought to Scotland by Flemish craftsmen who found employment in the royal courts there.

Modern kolf is played in the Netherlands today.  It is played on an indoor court measuring 19 yards long by 5.5 yards wide.  There is a pole at one end which serves as the target.  The object is to get the ball as close to the pole as possible, earning points for closeness.

The medieval game of shinty probably started as large team games between Scottish highland clans maybe as early as the 17th century.  The game of shinty grew out of the same root as the Irish game of hurling and the Welsh game of bando.  Shinty is still played in Scotland today.

Often compared to field hockey, the two games have important differences.  The stick used by shinty players is called a “caman” (from the Gaelic word, cam meaning "bent or crooked").  It’s made of wood and slanted on both sides.  Unlike field hockey, a shinty player is allowed to use both sides of the stick and is allowed to hit the ball in the air.  Also unlike hockey, the stick may be used to block and to tackle an opponent.  Players may also tackle other players with their bodies as long as it is shoulder-to-shoulder.  The object of shinty is to hit the ball into the other team’s goal.

You may think rugby and American football are rough games, but they are child’s play compared to a medieval gameball match.  Basically, there were no rules.  Teams could have an unlimited number of players, and matches between rival villages often lasted for several days.  Competing teams tried to get the ball (usually a stuffed animal bladder) over a line to score.  Goalposts were sometimes two miles apart. Some versions of the game called for the ball to be kicked up to the balcony of the church in the opposing team's village.

Medieval gameball allowed violent behavior such as pushing or trampling of opponents. Some team members could even be stabbed, as knives were not banned from play.  The game was so dangerous that the English king Edward IV forbade this savage sport in his realm.

A more genteel game called skittles was popular in the middle ages as early as the 14th century.  It was first a lawn game played by European nobles but caught on in the general populace when it was reduced in size and brought indoors.  Since the peasantry could not afford large properties on which to play lawn games, the miniature version of skittles became popular in the usual haunts of common people -- the pubs and taverns.  The modern sport of indoor bowling has its roots in skittles.  The game remains a popular indoor pub game in parts of the British Isles today. 

Skittles is usually played indoors on a tabletop alley, with one or more heavy balls and several skittles, or small bowling pins (usually nine). The object of the game is to use the ball(s) to knock over the skittles, either specific ones or all of them, depending upon the various regional rules.

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