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Checkmate! Medieval People at Play


Sports

detail of Stoolball batter

Huzzah! Ah, the fanfare of the joust, the whiz of arrows in an archery contest, the cheers as the batter rounds the bases... Jousting might be the sport most often associated with the Middle Ages, but many of our modern sports, such as baseball and hockey, have their roots in this period as well. Sometimes played purely for pleasure, sports could also be a way of peacefully settling differences or proving one’s worthiness. Sports such as archery, however, had a very serious undertone, for the playing field was often preparation for the battlefield. Yet whatever the underlying reason for playing them, medieval competitive sports, much like our own today, offered an exciting blend of mental skill and physical prowess that was enjoyed by players and spectators alike.

(image: W.851, detail of Stoolball batter)

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Medieval hockey
Hockey Title
Flemish (Bruges?), ca. 1490 Period
W.435, fol. 87v, acquired by Henry Walters, ca. 1912 Accession
The term “hockey” was first documented in 1363. Here, several youths play a rigorous game, wielding their curved sticks with great skill. The sport of hockey is surprisingly paired on the facing page with monks enjoying a game of blind-man’s bluff, a form of tag. Together, these images demonstrate how very different games and their players could be! About
A game of blind mans bluff
A Game of Blind-Man's Bluff Title
Flemish (Bruges?), ca. 1490 Period
W.435, fol. 88r, acquired by Henry Walters, ca. 1912 Accession
The sport of hockey is surprisingly paired on the facing page with monks enjoying a game of blind-man’s bluff, a form of tag. The seated monk’s hood covers his eyes so that he only hears his teasing companions. Blindly, he must tag another player and make him “it.” Together, these images demonstrate how very different games and their players could be! About
Mihr and King Kayvān of Kharazm Playing Polo
Mihr and King Kayvān of Kharazm Playing Polo Title
Iran (Shiraz), a.h. 881 (1476–77 c.e.) Period
W.627, fols. 8v–5r, museum purchase, made possible by the Women’s Committee, Octavo Plus, and Mr. and Mrs. James Ulmer III, 1999 Accession
Polo has been played in Iran for at least 2,000 years. Originally a training exercise for cavalry units, it was not long before it was played as a game in royal tournaments. In this image from an epic love poem, the poem’s hero, Mihr, uses the game of polo to demonstrate his skill and cleverness to his opponent, King Kayvān of Kharazm. Mihr succeeds, winning the game in front of the stunned spectators. About
Stoolball is a medieval sport like Baseball
Stoolball (?) Title
Flemish, ca. 1301 Period
W.851, fols. 8v–5r, museum purchase, made possible by the Women’s Committee, Octavo Plus, and Mr. and Mrs. James Ulmer III, 1999 Accession
Stoolball may have been an early version of baseball. Dating to the 11th century, it was a folk game that men and women played together. While many variations existed, typically one person threw a ball at a stool, which a “batsman” would try to defend by hitting the ball away. If the batsman succeeded, he would run around to several stools (like bases) to score, while others tried to get him out. And the traditional prize? A cake, or even a kiss! About
Jousting and Juggling
Jousting and Juggling Title
Northern French (Arras?), ca. 1300–25 Period
W.104, fols. 5v–6r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
The artist has populated the busy margins of this page with an array of entertaining figures. In the top margin, two bizarre creatures, half-man and half-beast, joust for our amusement. Jousting was an honorable and dangerous sport, but here the artist disregards these serious aspects in favor of a lighthearted parody. In the side margin, a juggler performs tricks, sending a golden plate high into the air and preparing to catch it again with his sticks. About
Medieval Archery Contest
Archery Contest Title
Flemish, ca. 1480–90 Period
W.439, fols. 53v–54r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
Archery contests were not only fun but also a way of encouraging medieval men to learn this valuable skill. Excellent archers could make all the difference in battle; in England, men were required by law to learn how to use a bow. Note the artist’s irreverently playful juxtaposition of imagery here; just above the archery contest, St. Sebastian is being martyred in a barrage of arrows! About