Medieval period ball games entertained commoners and royals, clergy and laypeople, males and females, and young and old alike. Ball games, whether played in a clearing or churchyard, were both recreational and educational. Several of our favourite modern sports originated with these medieval period ball games.
Stool ball, also called stow or stump ball, was the medieval ancestor of both baseball and cricket. This folk game's rules varied by region but centred around one player hitting a stool (ball) while the batter defended a target with his hands or a wooden bat. Versions of the game included the batter running to one or more bases. Men and women played the game together, leading to the sexual euphemism "playing at stool ball." A springtime ritual, stool ball was often played during Easter celebrations.
Medieval shinty was the forefather of modern ice hockey. Originally created as a form of sword fighting practice, this game used curved sticks called "camans" and a leather ball. Two goals, called "hails," were set apart on a grassy field, and each was protected by a goalkeeper. This team sport was similar to hockey, as each team passed the ball to each other with the camans in order to hit it into the opposing hail. Tackling, blocking and fouls were part of the original game. Shinty was often played in the winter months, so the transition to playing on ice was natural. The original game of shinty is still played today in England and Scotland.
Shrovetide football, or medieval football, dates back to the third century. This highly competitive and dangerous sport was regularly played during Carnival between neighbouring towns, villages or guilds. As in modern football, each team passed a leather ball in an effort to reach the opposing team's goal. There was no limit to the number of players allowed on the field and no rules against excessive force. Some variants only allowed passing with the hands while others allowed for the use of a player's entire body.
The medieval game of tennis closely resembles modern handball games. While peasants played in open fields, royals built enclosed courts for their private tennis matches. Tennis balls were originally cloth pieces wound tightly into a sphere and stitched together. Players passed the ball to each other by hitting it with open palms. Later, players wore gloves to protect their hands, which were then wrapped with rattan or cording to give the ball more spring. Eventually, rackets made of parchment stretched across a wooden frame were introduced. The parchment was later replaced with catgut strings, which directly influenced our modern tennis racket designs.
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