5 deadly sports in the Middle Ages

1. Baiting bears and bulls

Bull-baiting, painting by Samuel Henry Alken. Image: Wikimedia Commons

It looked like this: we take a bull or a bear, as well as our fighting dog (preferably several) on a short leash and try to kill one animal with another. Everything is simple.

There were many entertainment options. For example, an unfortunate animal could be put in a pit or chained to a post to enjoy the spectacle while being relatively safe itself. At the same time, bets were made on how long the beast would hold out and how many dogs it would have time to break and trample on before they knocked it to the ground.

But it was much more interesting to let the brutalized bulls and bears off the chain in a field or a wide paddock, so that the participants in the persecution with their dogs had the opportunity to chase him. Fascinating physical education for both the owners and their faithful mastiffs is much more interesting than football and hockey, right?

The original idea was to tenderize the meat of an ox or a bear before cooking. But it is inconvenient to beat off a whole carcass with a hammer, but to bait a dog is quite handy.

Naturally, the blood sport was dangerous, and not only for dogs. Firstly, beaters often died or were injured by approaching a wild animal too close. Secondly, even the audience was not immune from trouble.

For example, in 1583 in Paris Garden in London, an excited crowd in the midst of a persecution inadvertently collapsed the arena, and several dozen visitors were under the rubble. And then they got to know the bear a little closer than expected, and the meeting became fatal for many. The English Puritans saw this as the wrath of God, but decided that it was not caused by animal abuse, but by the fact that the games were held on Sunday.

This entertainment appeared in England in the Middle Ages and was popular until 1835. Then the peers of Britain decided that animal cruelty was somehow wrong, and banned bull-baiting, cockfighting and other pranks. Prior to this, Queen Victoria herself took part in such competitions.

2. English football without rules

Football at Shrove Tuesday in Kingston upon Thames. Image: Penny Illustrated Weekly News/Public Domain

What happens if you give a crowd of stern medieval men a ball from a pig’s bladder stuffed with peas – heavy and hard, like a stone? That’s right, there will be traditional English football.

It was usually played at Maslenitsa, before Lent. The goal was the same: to drive the ball into other people’s goal by any means. Sometimes they were located several kilometers apart. And sometimes they didn’t even bother building the gate – in this case, it was necessary to throw the ball onto the balcony of the opponent’s church.

The rules did not prohibit hitting your opponents, taking the ball from them, and inflicting serious injuries and fractures on them. Protective equipment, of course, was not. Lying opponents could be trampled.

Why, there are references to the fact that for some matches the participants brought knives with them. Well, what is it.

There was no fenced field – the ball was driven along city streets, shopping areas and agricultural land, causing considerable material damage to unwitting spectators of the match. Sometimes the number of participants in the team reached hundreds of people. The chroniclers mentioned that many football players had broken arms and legs after the matches, knocked out their teeth and eyes, and in general, deaths were not uncommon.

This game was deservedly considered incredibly dangerous, and some kings even passed laws prohibiting playing football. Henry VIII, for example, was an avid gambler in his youth. However, later, when it dawned on him how much damage to royal property was caused by football fans who went into a rage, he called this sport a “plebeian game” and in 1548 banned it on pain of death.

However, the severity of the law was compensated by the optionality of its implementation: the players continued to drive the ball, the sheriffs turned a blind eye to this, and by 1603 the ban was canceled.

3. Irish stick tournaments

Stick fighting, illustrations from Old English Sports, Peter Hampson Ditchfield. Image: Public Domain

Sheelale (from the Gaelic s iúil éille – “oak club”) is a traditional weapon in Ireland, also used as a cane. To make one for yourself, you need to cut a strong oak branch, carve beautiful traditional patterns on it, and then bury it in a pile of dung or stick it in a fireplace chimney for several months to make a stick black and shiny.

The ancient Celts held regular fencing matches with such clubs, and in the Middle Ages the English and Irish did not lag behind them. The game had clear rules – this is not a drunken fight.

Stick fighting served not only as entertainment, but also as a standard judicial method for settling the rights of tenants.

Usually, the rules were to knock the opponent down and drag him along the ground so that the judges counted the victory. Often fencing on shileyls led to serious injuries.

Modern Scottish shillies. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, women were allowed to participate in tournaments. Moreover, it was forbidden for men to strike them – it was possible to beat only on the shileyla in the hand of the opponent. The lady could beat the opponent as you like.

And after that, who will say that in the Middle Ages women were infringed on their rights?

4. Hammer throw

Scottish hammer throw. Image: Public Domain

Another sport that has ancient Celtic roots. Hammer throwing has been practiced by the Celts since at least 1600 BC. e. at the so-called Tiletinn games. These were sports that included jumping, running, javelin and hammer throwing, boxing, fencing, archery, wrestling, swimming and horse racing.

Just like the Olympics, you say. Except the Tiletinn competitions were held at funerals.

Yes, the stern Celts believed that when some important figure like a king or a military leader dies, just throwing him into a funeral pyre is too boring. Therefore, it is necessary to arrange three-day festivities and competitions in hammer throwing, boxing and vaulting. The Celts generally believed that a funeral is a reason to rejoice, not to be sad, because the deceased goes to a better world.

Over time, the Tailtinn competitions were forgotten, but the hammer throw remained from them, and it was a very popular sport in England in the Middle Ages. In principle, anything could be thrown – the Irish, for example, used heavy cart wheels.

Medieval hammer throwing was a rather dangerous sport, since at the fairs where it was held, no fences and protection were provided for either the athletes or the spectators.

Therefore, when some athlete unsuccessfully threw a projectile at a target and it flew into the crowd, human casualties were inevitable. However, what is sport without risk?

5. Boat jousting

Knightly tournament on the water in Paris. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Everyone knows about jousting tournaments. Two healthy men in heavy armor mount their horses, pick up blunted peaks and gallop at each other with all their horsepower. Whoever stays in the saddle after a collision, well done. The rules are simple, you can’t go wrong.

But riding horses is kind of boring, don’t you think? It is much more interesting to arrange tournaments … on boats.

They came up with such knightly clashes in France – the first mention of them refers to the tournament in Lyon on June 2, 1177. The mechanism of the duel is as follows: we take two boats, we put teams of rowers in them. On the ships we fix simple ladders, on which, in fact, the knights should stand.

The boats are launched into the water – and full speed ahead! The knight who throws the opponent down the stairs wins.

Despite the apparent comical nature of this competition, it is quite dangerous. The fact is that because of the armor , falling into the water could not be survived: 25 kilograms of steel do not add buoyancy. When fighting with a single shield, one could get serious injuries in a collision.

Tournament in Frontignan, 2008 Image: Wikimedia Commons

Boat tournaments are still very popular in France. Modern athletes, imitating their ancestors, regularly organize traditional competitions in the communes of Cognac, Merville and other places.

Read also 🧐

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.