06 December 2013

Children’s Stories and Pastimes: Medieval children's games

By Lisa J. Yarde

What did medieval children do for recreation? Their parents had cards, dicing games like six-ace, and the Philosopher’s Game, but what would a medieval child have played? Play was as important to development then as it is now and it started with toys for babies. Rattles were readily available in the medieval period, as were spinning tops, hobbyhorses, and poppets made of wood, wax and cloth, which became dolls in later centuries. Wealth or lack of it did not preclude children from inventing games to entertain themselves. When the famed Anglo-Welsh monk and chronicler Gerald of Wales was a boy in twelfth-century Pembrokeshire, he and his brother made castles and churches of sand. Medieval hopscotch courts, scratched onto a stone pavement, could be up to one hundred feet. Miniature models of knights, cups, plates, and ewers existed in England from the fourteenth century. As children aged, their games evolved. Noble sons played at war-games, learning techniques with the sword and other weapons. Non-nobility would have trained at archery, as contests became popular in England. Child’s play in medieval times allowed children to mimic adult lives.

Children's Games, Pieter Bruegel (1560) -
source: Wikimedia Commons
One of the most popular games were prisoner’s base or barres, a game of chase and confinement in which children divided into two teams with the goal of capturing all of the members of the opposing team. Boys and girls played the game.

“Object of the Game: The team with the most prisoners at the end of the time limit wins.

Required: A minimum of ten players, a stick or chalk, large playing area

How to play: The group divided in half and a line of chalk was placed down the middle between the two teams. About 20-30 feet behind each team a large square (prison) was drawn on the ground using chalk. Each team picked one person to be the prisoner of the other team (usually someone who could run fast). Then each team would try to free their prisoner by sending a team member to the prison through the opposing team to bring him/her back without being captured by a member of the opposing team. If the person attempting to rescue their own prisoner made in to the prison through the opposing team without being caught, he/she was safe while in the prison and could pick their own time to run with the prisoner back to their own side of the line. If the team member was caught by the opposing team, they also became a prisoner needing rescue. So each team was busy both trying to rescue their own prisoners and protect the prisoner(s) from the opposite side from being rescued. At the end of time, the team with the most prisoners won.”

Another was queek, a game of chance played on a cloth of squares with alternating colors, which the Anglo-Normans introduced to England through their heraldic symbols. “This game is played by using a large, checkered cloth and spread on a hard, smooth surface, or on a chessboard, then the children would toss pebbles on the board, calling out in advance whether the pebble would land on a light color or dark color board.”

There was also a children’s version of bear baiting, in which two played the role of bear and keeper. The goal was to touch the “bear” and simultaneously avoid being grabbed.
Medieval Children by Nicholas Orme
Sports and Games of Medieval Cultures by Sally E.D. Wilkins
Medieval Games and Recreation

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the medieval period. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written three novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana,  Sultana’s Legacy and Sultana: Two Sisters, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.