Life for peasants in the Middle Ages was difficult, to say the least - Medieval peasant jobs could often involve long hours of back-breaking labor in less than sanitary conditions - but it wasn’t all bad. Peasants actually had a lot more free time than you might expect. They got every Sunday off, as well as special holidays mandated by the church, not to mention weeks off here and there for special events like weddings and births when they spent a lot of time getting drunk. One estimate is that during the 1300s, peasants might only have worked 150 days a year.
And that might make you wonder, just what exactly did peasants do with all their free time in the Middle Ages? Well, much like we do, they wasted a lot of it. Sure, they didn’t have access to sweet video game consoles or Candy Crush or even mindless binge-watching marathons, but they still found time to fill up their day with games (and even riddles). Lots of creativity went into coming up with some really fun and random ways to fill time.
- Photo: Johann Ludwig Ernst Morgenstern / Wikipedia
Bobbing For Apples Helped You Find Your True Love
Sure, you could just eat an apple by shaking or climbing a tree and taking your pick, but where is the challenge in that? Medieval British peasants decided to make a fun game out of it, and mix in a bit of romance as well.
Bobbing for apples was originally created as a courting ritual. Each apple was assigned the name of one of the cute village studs. Then a girl would risk drowning herself in a bucket to get the one of the guy she liked. If she got it on the first try, awesome, they were destined to be together. Two bites and they would date but it wouldn’t work out. Three bites and it was never going to happen.
Once you got an apple you didn’t just eat it; that would be too logical. No, you took it home and put it under your pillow so you would dream of the guy you fancied. How long you kept it there is up for debate.
- Photo: Public Domain / WikiMedia
Early Forms Of Soccer Were A Riot
These days soccer (or football) is often plagued by ridiculous stories of the hooligan fans who follow it with a animalistic passion, but back in the day it was the antics of the players that were scary.
Folk football was an absolute riot. There was no field, and the number of players was basically whoever showed up, which could mean hundreds of people. Whole towns would take part. The goal was to kick the “ball” (really a blown-up pig’s bladder) to the other village’s church before they could get it to yours. That meant the “goals” might be miles apart. There weren’t any other rules and violence was absolutely part and parcel to the game. Injuries and even deaths were expected.
It might sound terrifying, but folk football was so popular that numerous kings in both France and England tried to ban it. They thought it took up too much time from important things people could be doing, like practicing archery, and they didn’t want to lose good fighting men to such a deadly game.
- Photo: Penny Mayes / Wikipedia
Archery Was An Important Pastime
Unlike knights, who needed to be able to house and feed horses, medieval archers just needed access to a bow and some arrows. However, knowing how to be good with them took some work, so in the Middle Ages there was actually a law passed that all men between the ages of 15 and 60 had to practice every week. This was especially important during the 100 Years War when peasants were called up to fight. Some of them even used crossbows.
Archery was so important that kings tried to ban other things that they thought took up too much of their potential war force’s time - included high on the list was the rough and tumble old-time soccer.
- Photo: National Maritime Museum / Wikipedia
Playing The Lottery Meant A Stronger Military
Gambling is right up there with prostitution when it comes to “stuff people have always done.” Lotteries are so old the Romans liked to get in on them and they are even mentioned in the Old Testament. But during the Middle Ages they took on a whole new meaning.
Sometimes lotteries were used for smaller things, like when people in 13th century Flanders used one to determine who got the sweetest spots in the market. Sometimes public officials were even picked using a lottery system. But lotteries as we know them, where people win stuff, started in Utrecht and Ghent in the 1440s to raise money to make better fortifications. The connection between the lottery and the military was born. When Milan went to war against Venice, they used a lottery to help raise the cash to pay for it. Later lotteries would be used to strengthen England’s royal navy.
Usually the lottery was used in place of a tax. And we all hate paying taxes, but wasting money on the lottery is a lot more fun! Maybe they should consider bringing this system back.
- Photo: Hull Museums Collection / Hull Museums Collection
Dice in the Middle Ages were usually made out of carved bone, most often the knuckle bone. One of the most popular dice games to play was Hazzard. It may have been brought back from the Middle East by crusaders who played it during their down-time... you know, when they weren't killing people. The official rules were even codified by King Alfonso X of Spain in 1283.
The game was played with three dice and the goal was to roll them and get between 15 and 18 points or three and six points. All other ranges are losers. Of course, statistically, hitting these scores was harder than any others. Two players, or two sides, played against each other.
But just like today, the odds were stacked against the house. Some knuckle bone dice have been x-rayed and found that they were weighted with small mercury weights. These would be used in places like inns where the weighted dice would be used to trick travelers into losing their money.
- Photo: National Gallery / Wikipedia
Skittles Was A Creative Form Of Bowling
Skittles is the generic word for a couple different types of games. The first started with monks in Germany as early as the 3rd century. They used to carry around large clubs for self-defense, assumedly because some jerks liked beating up poor innocent men of God. They played a game where the club was used like a bowling pin, and they threw stones at it until it fell over. Sounds like a bit too much fun for monks, but they kept it religious by saying the club represented sin and they were destroying it.
A later version of skittles used lots of small pins surrounding a larger pin. The idea was to throw a long club at it underarm and knock over the protected big pin. But one of the most popular games in the Middle Ages was the version closest to today's bowling. It shows up in lots of books of the time. The main difference was that there were nine pins instead of ten, but you still used a ball and tried to knock them all over.