Friday, May 8, 2015

Medieval Games

Medieval games and pastimes didn't look all that different than the ones we engage in today. Where we might go out for dinner and a show, in medieval times inhabitants of a castle gathered for a good meal, then watched the antics of minstrels, jugglers, acrobats, or even trained dogs or monkeys. A storyteller might regale the crowd with stories of heroic deeds from past glory days or tantalizing descriptions of far-away marvels, and pause now and again to collect coins for his purse.

Medieval games included chess. Two knights are enjoying a chess match in this public domain image from "Livre des Echecs" (Libro de Ajedrez, dados y tables).

When professional entertainers were in short supply, gentlemen and ladies amused themselves by playing billiard or games similar to today's croquet, nine pins, and tennis. Adults were as likely as children to play blindman's buff, hot cockles, and ring-around-a-rosy. Certain dances resembled games. In the torch dance, for example, each participant carried a lighted candle and tried to prevent others from blowing it out.

Chess was popular and inspired elaborate matches that must have been phenomenal to witness. Gambling with dice could be justified by citing the Biblical casting of lots. Playing cards probably were introduced in the 13th-century but didn't come into common usage until after the development of mass printing techniques. The queens and knaves (jacks) on playing cards today still wear late 15th-century fashions.

The noblest of medieval games was the sport of hunting. Every year, eight bucks were killed in Windsor Forest and laid with ceremony on an altar in WesWindsor Forest and ceremonially laid on an altar in Westminster Abbey. Ladies joined the hunt, abandoning the sidesaddle to ride astride. The sport of hunting evolved over time into the form it retains today. Laws implemented to reserve hunting as an activity for the peerage created hardships for the poor. The killing of a deer could be severely punished, despite an abundance of the creatures ravaging food crops, and nobles pursuing a quarry might trample planted fields.

Hawking became a particular passion of the nobility. Knights and ladies carried hooded falcons about on their wrists and kept the trained birds nearby while they took meals. Bishops and abbots even officiated at church with their falcons strapped to the altar rail.

Knights sharpened their fencing and horsemanship skills with regular practice. They would also ride with spears against a quintain an armored and shielded manikin holding a sword and mounted to a post. A quintain might revolve on a pivot, spinning around to strike an unwary assailant.

Other horsemanship games included capturing a small ring on the point of spear. In more modern times this activity evolved, it is thought, into merry-go-rounds that contained a brass ring riders tried to catch in order to gain a free ride.

Knights honed their fighting skills during mock battles known as tourneys. These contests gained
popularity to counter the boredom of inactivity after the Crusades. Abuses occurred, and at one
tournament more than sixty knights died. Papal and royal regulations limited the number of fighters and required them to use blunted weapons. Armor grew heavier and more protective, and participants
fought to capture banners instead of one another. Ladies awarded prizes, and their presence at tournaments provided a leveling influence. The addition of feasts and dances made tournaments festive occasions.

Medieval games alleviated boredom, provided opportunities for social interaction, and helped fighters
stay fit. In modern times, we play games for the same purposes.


The Horizon Book of the Middle Ages, American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc. ©1968

About the Author

Escape into creative worlds of fiction with Janalyn Voigt, an author whose unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and fantasy creates breathtaking fictional worlds for readers.

Beginning with DawnSinger, Janalyn's epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, carries readers into a land only imagined in dreams.

Janalyn is represented by Sarah Joy Freese of Wordserve Literary. Her memberships include ACFW and NCWA. When she's not writing, she loves to discover worlds of adventure in the great outdoors with her family.


  1. About six months ago my husband and I attended the Medieval Times Dinner Club in Dallas and enjoyed watching the knights competing in some of the games you mentions. They are always fun and exciting to watch, especially when you get to cheer four your designated knight. There's a part of me that wishes we had more community times like in the past.

  2. Interesting information, Janalyn. I've always thought it would be fun to go to a Medieval Dinner, but haven't done so.

    1. With your beautiful hair, you would look stunning in medieval garb, Nancy.