Medieval Studies Games and Recreations
Nicholas Orme
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0025


The history of games and recreations found an early exponent in Joseph Strutt in 1801 but attracted little attention from writers on social and cultural topics until recent decades, except with regard to certain individual pursuits. As one would expect, however, such activities were widely enjoyed by young and old, male and female. Children played individually with toys and socially in games. Adults engaged in board games, often for money, and in active pursuits. Some sports, such as tournaments and hunting, were monopolized by the nobility and gentry and acted as marks of status, but archery and ball games were common throughout society, and common people encroached on hunting through poaching. The most physical sports tended to be dominated by men, but some women used bows and both genders joined socially in music and dancing. More research needs to be done on individual games such as football (meaning any traditional game played with foot and ball), and on relating recreations to wider social and cultural attitudes and activities.

General Overviews

Overviews of sport in medieval England (mainly adult sport) are provided in Strutt 1903, Henricks 1991, and Reeves 1995, of which Strutt covers the most ground and Henricks is based on the most up-to-date research. Orme 2001 surveys England in relation to children and adolescents, while Elyot 1531, Orme 1984, and Orme 2005 focus on young nobility and gentry. Mehl 1990 and Mehl 2010 provide complementary material on France, also chiefly in relation to adults, while Zeigler 1973 considers medieval games in the context of the history of sport as a whole.

  • Elyot, Sir Thomas. The Boke Named the Gouernour. London: Thomas Berthelet, 1531.

    Elyot’s work was an influential treatise in 16th-century England and includes a discussion of several physical sports and indoor recreations appropriate to the nobility and gentry. In this respect it reflects late-medieval approaches to education as much as it proposes new ones.

  • Henricks, Thomas S. Disputed Pleasures: Sport and Society in Preindustrial England. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

    A survey of all the major adult physical sports in England from 1066 to 1830, with two chapters on the Middle Ages that give particular attention to social stratification.

  • Mehl, Jean-Michel. Les jeux au royaume de France du xiiie au début du xvie siècle. Paris: Fayard, 1990.

    A detailed and deeply referenced survey of active and sedentary games (not field sports) in late-medieval France. The first of its three parts describes each major game, the second locations and participants, and the third contemporary attitudes for and against the games. There is a good bibliography.

  • Mehl, Jean-Michel. Des jeux et des hommes dans la société médiévale. Paris: Champion, 2010.

    A collection of studies, mainly relating to late-medieval France, including the terminology of games, attitudes toward them, Jacques de Cessoles and his work on chess, games of chance, active sports such as tennis and falconry, and the relationship of games to social groups, women, and children.

  • Orme, Nicholas. From Childhood to Chivalry: The Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066–1530. London: Methuen, 1984.

    Pages 163–210 describe the physical sports of young members of the aristocracy, arguing that they constituted an important element in the education of kings, noblemen, gentlemen, and even some women during the Middle Ages, and that this did not change materially during the Renaissance.

  • Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Children. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

    Chapter 5 discusses children’s play in medieval England, from toys for young children to active games and sports for older ones. It attempts to construct a seasonal calendar of games and examines contemporary attitudes toward them.

  • Orme, Nicholas. “Education and Recreation.” In Gentry Culture in Late-Medieval England. Edited by R. Radulescu and A. Truelove, 63–83. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005.

    This chapter discusses the recreations of the gentry and contends that these were important in defining the status of this section of society and in forming bonds between its members.

  • Reeves, Compton. Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England. Stroud, UK: Alan Sutton, 1995.

    A popular account of medieval English culture based on secondary sources. The topics covered include sedentary and physical games, hunting, poaching, and tournaments.

  • Strutt, Joseph. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. Revised and edited by J. C. Cox. London: Methuen, 1903.

    First published in 1801.The pioneer survey of games and sports in England up to the early modern period, and still valuable.

  • Zeigler, E. F., ed. A History of Sport and Physical Education to 1900 (Selected Topics). Champagne, IL: Stipes, 1973.

    A wide-ranging history of the subject, of which the Middle Ages forms only a small part.

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