Medieval Spare Time, Sports & Popular Culture

*There was a general intermingling of work, leisure and spirituality during the Medieval period. Not so much of a demarcation line between work and leisure, in particular, as we have today.

*Nevertheless, there were certain times of the day or the year when people were more likely to engage in ‘pass-times’, sports and other entertainments. Night-times, weekends and festival times being the obvious ones.

*The Medieval period also saw the beginning of what we might call ‘degrees of specialisation’ in relation to popular cultural activities – part-time highly localised cultural pursuits co-exist with travelling artistic milieus ran by full time specialist singers, acrobats etc.

Some Important Dichotomies – different entertainments were indulged in by different groups of people at different times of the year:

1) Men, Women and Children often indulged in different entertainments

2) There were also individual activities, family activities and more social activities (related to village, town, guild, church etc.).

3) There were Indoor & Outdoor activities for different seasons (winter, spring, summer and autumn).imgres-13

4) Various estates – nobles, ecclesiastics, peasants – engaged in activities expressive of those estates.

5) We also note localised entertainments v travelling (or itinerant) entertainments

6) We also note that activities today considered mere entertainment (i.e. confined to leisure time) were in medieval times linked to a person’s: a) life-stage transitions, b) work c) spiritual life, and d) community existence.


General Comments on Popular Culture, Sports etc. and the Rest of Life


* Church Ambivalence re: Leisure and Work: Though the church taught that work kept peasants from laziness and sin – it nevertheless seems to have ordained many more ‘non-work’ days than we enjoy today. During ‘Creation’ God had worked in various ways and then rested – so too must mankind. The ‘days sacred to God’ were not days for work but for reflection and celebration. Too much work was seen as a flight from the deity – an over-valuing of the material world at the expense of God. Medieval clerics would be appalled at the levels of ‘work-addiction’ we have in the modern world.


*Sport as Military Training (especially for men). Many sports (especially among the noble classes) were thinly disguised forms of military training, e.g. hunting, gymnastics, horsemanship, archery etc..imgres-14


*Individualism, competitiveness versus spirituality and we-feeling: Sports seem to have been seen in a less competitive light than they are seen today. This did not mean that the sports were not sometimes competitive, even blood thirsty – indeed the general ‘physicality or Medieval life’ made sure that blood was often spilled – but competitive sport as we know it did not sit well alongside the group consciousness required by village life. This was less the case among the nobility – there sport was often related to ‘warrior’ roles required of many nobles. Interestingly, many nobles complained about the sports and pass-times of peasants – because they supposedly distracted peasants from the idea of sport as military training.


*No entertainment or culture industry in the sense that we understand it today. No mass media certainly – people often had to make up their own entertainments.


* Immediacy of Entertainments and Oral Culture: The live performer and the resonant human voice were much more fundamental to entertainment than they are today. There were also few books and very little visual art – books and art only existed, usually, among the elite. Words evoked worlds!


*Communal Expectations for all members of society to engage in Singing, dancing, story telling etc. When was the last time all the students in this room sang publicly? Who of you have danced publicly of late? In Medieval society everybody was expected to have some skills in entertainment. Medieval culture was not a ‘watching’ culture such as we have today when it came to sports and the arts, it was a ‘doing’ culture. One took one’s turn entertaining (singing, dancing, acting, playing an instrument, telling a story) and being entertained, or one entertained others by joining in on group entertainments.


*Singing, dancing, acting, playing instruments was seen as a method of linking one to the divine in a way that we have more or less completely lost touch with today. Thus consuming art as an unimportant diversion from the real stuff of life was an unheard of concept – art was central to life, accompanied many serious aspects of existence and evenimgres-17


  1. magically protected quickened various aspects of one’s work,
  2. helped ensure that crops grew and game was plentiful and one’s domestic animals were healthy (and marked the passing of the seasons)
  3. protected the soul and the physical body through various stages of the life cycle (e.g. birth, Christening, courting, Marriage, death, etc.),
  4. Aided mankind in healing – calling down the deities in order to gain spiritual mana in order to heal wounds etc.
  5. one learnt spells, charms, songs etc. to call down the magical and spiritual benefits of supernatural forces – and this was an extremely serious business. When one (or one’s village) sang songs in praise of God one sought his blessing, or the blessings of some saint or pagan deity, in such a way that the psycho-spiritual safety of the village or one’s individual soul was guaranteed.


Where Did people Engage in Sports, Games, Cultural Pursuits etc.?


Family Hearth: family or individualistic pass-times, Medieval people enjoyed: story-telling, performances by local musicians, folk tales, jokes, philosophising by itinerant preachers (even heretics), quieter games (chess) and dances.


Village Green or Marketplace: Communal entertainments and sports took place here – e.g. executions/punishments; Outside sports like wrestling, gambling, boxing, Tug of War, football (pig’s bladder), archery contests, tournaments, etc. This is also the place where group cultural activities (especially related to folk customs) were carried out/performed, e.g. larger performances by musicians/actors, jongleurs/minstrels. Many were out of town performers. Fire festivals, announcements by town criers (sort of like living newspapers!) and other sorts of seasonal dances and celebrations also took place here, as well as performances by itinerant preachers, herbalists and assorted charlatans, e.g. freak shows, circuses, performing animal shows etc. Many of these events were often mixed in with market activities.


Inns/Bathhouses: These were sites for gambling, drinking games, lascivious dancing, folk songs, swimming and washing (with all the fun and ‘gossip’ we associate swimming pools).


The Local Castle or Lord’s Home – especially the Great Hall. These were places where some seasonal celebrations took place. Also, where travelling jongleurs /minstrels etc. put on performances. Some noble families employed bands and fools for entertainment purposes. Also, books and public art were sometimes on display e.g. the Books of Hours, Bestiaries and even more scholastic works.images-2


Churches/Cathedrals etc.: Miracle Plays (though these were often staged elsewhere in a village or town), religious singing, itinerant preaching, and music, acting, pomp related to the many religious feasts and festival days. Religious art was also on public display in these places. These religious establishments were also a kind of local treasure house of ancient books and parchments – making them something like today’s libraries and places of learning. Note: Books/parchments were very expensive in those days.


Guild Halls: Celebrations/Pass-times artistic performances etc. were often put on by guilds to bring about group feelings and generally entertain members and their families (a bit like today’s ‘work parties’?)



Wandering Minstrels, Tumblers, Jugglers, Singers, Harpists, Jongleurs, Fools, Mimics, Itinerant Rhymers, Mummers and Acrobats.


*”At a time when books were rare and theatre, properly so-called, did not exist, poetry and music travelled with the minstrels and gleemen along the roads.”


*Minstrels were made welcome by peasants and lords alike – expected to be present at every feast. Mirthmakers made life meaningful … sang away care, also they were a kind of aphrodisiac for jaded lovers.


Sang or recited in French, Vernacular English, etc. the “loves and deeds” of ancient heroes, “war stories”, “sweet tales”, “lively songs to excite laughter”.


*Ancient Traditions Survived Through Minstrels: It has been argued that the minstrels, troubadours and jongleurs inherited an ancient and serious oral literary tradition. The tradition had its roots in pagan Celtic, Roman and Germanic cultural belief systems.


* Guilds of Minstrels eventually formed – both men and women admitted.


*People’s Poets: Often minstrels accused of ‘sowing strange, disquieting doctrines’ under cover of song, among peasants and other oppressed minorities. Ballads and popular songs often recommended revolt – social and political revolutions. Minstrels were often anti-church – belonging to the ‘church of poetry’ which was much more amenable to love, sexuality and the like.

  • Welsh Minstrels particularly famous for their revolutionary songs: they sang about the equality of all men. Also songs warning the rich to look after the poor.


*Age of the Minstrels: We can talk about an “Age of the Minstrels” – 9th to 14th centuries. After that period a degeneration of the form took place as literary tastes changed and the book entered centre stage along with theatres and urban entertainments related to towns.


*Arrival of Minstrels for the Night: Often arrived at castle moat /gates in the afternoon or early evening. Announced themselves (accompanied by dozens of the village’s children) by singing a little enticer. It was expected that the village/town nobles or high ranking officials in the peasant community would give them food and lodgings, perhaps some money, before their eventual departure. Many noble houses had ‘minstrel’s galleries’. Some even had resident minstrels and fools.


  • Prestigious for a noble to keep a band of well-known travelling minstrels in his household. However, as these story telling professions gradually fell into ill-repute – due to associations between minstrels and highway crime, the wayfaring life and political insurrections – many minstrels seem to have lived fairly marginalised lives after the 1400s.
  • Fools and minstrels often took their pick of the women in noble households – before moving on! They were seen as being outside ordinary life to some degree – possessed as it were by god or the devil, but generally in touch with the supernatural. Many were believed to have powers of cursing and curing – one didn’t cross them!
  • Performances would often go on deep into the night – ending sometimes in drunken debaucheries.
  • Minstrels often lead singing sessions – especially on repeated refrains/choruses where they were part of a song.

What Lays the Minstrels Sang:


Arthurian Songs:

The Prowess of Charlemagne:

The Song of Roland:

Extracts from National Oral Literatures: Eg. The Mabinogion

Tales featuring local heroes, barely disguised pagan deities, demigods, devils and monsters.

imgres-19Contemporised Greek and Roman Epics

Apocryphal Tales of the Saints and Holy Men

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Courtly Romances)

Ghost/folk stories, tales, legends and ballads/roundels

Tales from the Robin Hood Cycle





1) The vielle – a kind of violin or fiddle

2) tabor (tambourine)

3) harp

4) lute

5) guitar

6) bag-pipe

7) rota (small Celtic harp)

8) Celtic style drums



Entertainments Attached to Festivals, Seasonal Change, Major Changes in Agricultural Year etc.


*Though we’ll have more to say about Medieval festivals and feast days in the lecture of the same name later in the semester, we do nevertheless need to discuss the kinds of entertainments people got up to on Medieval feast days.


*Often folk customs, spiritual traditions, superstitions, work and seasonal changes gave birth to particular kinds of entertainments which were both: a) entertaining – fun, often humorous, b) of serious religious import.


*Particularly interesting were the public displays of superstition and custom which sought to protect villages – more specifically ‘souls’ – human, animal, vegetable – from bad luck, evil, witchcraft, sickness, disease, etc.




*Peasant Rain Dances/Processions in Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. During droughts a procession of children went round to all the local wells and springs. Heading the procession was a girl adorned head to foot in flowers, grass and herbs. She was drenched with water at every water-hole while the other children sang an invocation as follows:


Perperia, all fresh bedewed

Freshen all the neighbourhood

By the woods on the highway

As thou goest, to God now pray!images-9

Oh my God upon the plain,

Send thou us a still, small rain:

That the fields may fruitful be,

And vines in blossom we may see;

That the grain be full and sound,

And wealthy grow the folks around!

[From Frazer’s The Golden Bough]


– A genuine public magical rite BUT also, we might imagine, lots of fun!


*Tree Worship: Reverence for the soul of trees and other plants:

– [Slavonian and Bulgarian peasants] Threatening fruit/nut trees (ie to cut them down!) by way of public rituals. The goal: to try and get them to bear fruit

– [German peasants] “Marrying” and tying fruit trees together – with all the ceremony of a human marriage. Goal to make them bear fruit.

– [German and French peasants] “Harvest-May”. Peasants brought home (in careful but celebratory manner) a tree or a large branch decked out with the last ears of corn harvested. This was placed in a barn to dry where it stayed put until the next year. It was believed to harbour the spirit of the corn.

– [Europe-wide] Dancing round the May-Pole and setting up May-trees and May-bushes at stable doors, and, for young men, near the house of a beloved. The rite was supposed to protect women and cattle from infertility, and could produce milk in cows since tree-spirits embodied the spirit of Spring – ie. the bursting forth of new life that occurs at that time.


*Seasonal Celebrations/ Rituals:


– Carrying out Death (Winter) and bringing in Life (Spring or Summer) [Bavaria, Bohemia, Slovania, Thuringen]. A group of urchins make a straw image of death which they dress up and parade through the streets during the period of Lent (i.e. the end of Winter). They sing that they are “Carrying out Death” and “Bringing in Spring [or Life]”. After receiving various gifts they take the effigy out of the village and burn it in a field, drown it, or tear it to pieces in a field – often there are conflicts with neighbouring villages if the effigy strays too close – the children are seen as ‘transferring evil’ – ie. giving it to other villages. Often mock ‘fights’ between bands of children from different villages take place. The goal of the rite was to keep Death away.


Some fling it into raging torrents of water/melting ice singing:


Death swims on the water,

Summer will soon be here,

We carried Death away for you,

we brought the summer,

And do you oh holy Saints,images-8

Give us a good year

for wheat and rye?


– Bringing in Summer [Bohemia, Germany] Young tree cut down at end of winter, adorned with a Green Crown, red, green and white ribbons and a female doll representing Summer [Lito]. They sing a song as they march back into town:


Death swims in the water,

spring comes to visit us,

with eggs that are red,

With yellow pancakes!

We carried death out of the village

We are carrying summer into the village!


Battle Between Winter and Summer [Sweden, Austria] Two troops of men on horses – one lead by a man in furs, carrying ice and snowballs, the other lead by a man dressed in fresh leaves and flowers. Summer came off victorious and the ceremony ended in a village feast! Sometimes the boys take on one role, the girls another – boys chase out winter (a person acting the role or a straw effigy dressed in furs) and the girls follow them to the village green with one of their number dressed as the May Queen. She wears a bright dress and is decked with flowers and garlands representing spring.


– Harvest Customs/ Harvest Supper – The Great Mother, the Corn Mother, Rye Mother, oats Mother, Barley Mother, Pea-Mother. [Slavic, Hungary, Poland, England, Germany, France].   The last bundle of corn is treated like a divine being a corn spirit, sometimes an animal is substituted a wolf (The Corn Wolf) or a rooster (the Corn-Rooster), Hare, Cat, Goat, Bull Cow, Pig (Sow or Boar) or Fox   … many customs related to this. The slowest reaper/harvester on the field may end up with ‘The Old Lady’ or the Corn Wolf – believed to be hiding in the Last sheaf. If a woman she may be termed the Old Lady, or the mother of the Corn for a week or even a year . Can be positive (will marry in next year) or negative. Sometimes, the last sheaf is dressed up as an old lady and paraded through the streets to songs and dances – later propped up and becomes the centre of the resulting Harvest Feast – often Eaten symbolically. Often an animal is sacrificed at this time – symbolising the flight of the particular vegetative spirit in question Often her seeds are scattered for her return the following year.


– Public Expulsion of Evil [Europe Wide].“Attempts to expel the accumulated sorrows of a people” Various periods for the ‘The expulsion of witches’. Germany: people armed themselves with brooms and rushed madly about the village to the sound of tolling bells whilst singing songs designed to ‘drive out the witches’, and making a general clatter and uproar as they went. Such rites often took place in March, sometimes on ‘Good Friday’, sometimes on May Day Eve (Walpurgis Night). Houses were cleansed (smoked) with Juniper berries and rue and a ceremony of ‘Burning out the Witches’ began as the sun set. Pots and pans rattled, bundles of twigs were burnt on village green, dogs ran free and were encouraged to bark … people sang:


“Witch flee, flee from here or it will go ill with thee!!”


People then ran 7 times round the village. Witches were thus smoked out of their winter places and driven away out of the village.


– European Fire Festivals


From ancient times peasants practiced customs related to the building then lighting of bonfires on special days of the year. Effigies were often burned at such festivals. Some key days: Spring (First Sunday), Lent, Easter Eve, 1st day of May (May Day), Midsummer (23rd of June), Halloween – All Souls (31st October), Christmas Day etc.


Fire rites were sometimes aimed at ‘driving out evil’ – in the form of witches, wizards, demons of the air etc. – and protecting/purifying domestic animals and people. The days also involved welcoming in particular seasons, e.g. Spring. Fire days were times of great song, dance, merry making, music, sporting contests, drink etc.


NB: many of the examples listed above are detailed in Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic and Frazer’s many-volumed work The Golden Bough.

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