Skip to main content

Pastimes and Play

Many of your favorite games have Medieval or earlier origins.

by Gael Stirler

(October 1, 2013)

Bocce, was an early form of bowling played with
spherical stones, or wooden, or clay balls.From the
"Golf Book of Hours" by Simon Bening in the British Library.

Bowling Type Games

Fall is a great time to get outside and enjoy playing games on the green. Medieval folk loved to play lawn games and many are still familiar to us today. Bocce was a game played either on flat ground or on bare ground shaped like a shallow bowl. A small chase ball called a pallino was thrown into the playing field. Then each player vied to see who could toss their ball closest to the chase ball. Over time the size, number, and material of the balls was standardized to make the game we know today. Another outdoor throwing game was called "Skittles" and used pins or blocks of wood that the players would try to topple by throwing a ball or stick.

The earliest Egyptians played a bowling game with balls and pins over 5 thousand years ago. In Germany a similar game called Kegels dates back to the 4th century A.D. A site in Southampton, England claims to be the oldest continuously used bowling green having been established in 1299 A.D. King Henry VIII is said to have used cannonballs to bowl. He also banned the game because workers were neglecting their jobs to play. So to avoid the law they played in alleys behind the taverns, usually by rolling a ball at nine pins. When in 1841 a law in Connecticut banned ninepin, a tenth pin was added and this turned it into the game of bowling as we know it in America. For indoor play, ninepins was played on a table either with a ball or an egg-shaped wooden puck and became "Table Skittles".

Another variation of skittles was played with bones, specifically the ankle bones of horses. There are paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Simon Bening of children playing this game in the 16th century but it went out of fashion for hundreds of years until revived in Siberia, Russia in the early 1800s. German and Russian immigrants brought it to North American in the early 20th century and now it is very popular in parts of Canada where it is called Bunnock or the Game of Bones.

Bunnock, or the Game of Bones
is played with the ankle bones of horses.
From the "Golf Book of Hours" by Simon Bening.

Other Skill Games

Tables were also used in a skill game called "Shove Groat" or "Shove a Penny" where the table was marked with a series of lines. Each player had a groat (an English coin) marked so that it was identifiable, that was then set on the edge of the table. The player used the flat of his hand to whack the table and send his groat scooting to the other end. Points were awarded for where it came to rest and forfeited if it fell off the table. This evolved into the floor game of Shuffleboard.

Quoits was a lawn game that began in Ancient Greece and was played with a throwing discus. The discus was a ring made of bronze that was thrown for distance in the early Olympic games but in Quoits, the 5 pound metal ring was tossed for accuracy. The object was to toss the quoit closest to the stake (called a pin, hob or mott) and extra points were awarded for getting the ring around the pin. Discarded horseshoes were often hammered into rings to play Quoits until someone tried to just play the game with the "u" shaped shoes. The rules changed a little and by the Middle Ages both Quoits and Horseshoes were popular. Quoits played with light-weight rope rings is known as "Ring Toss" or Hoopla.

Golf Type Games

Pall Mall (pronounced Paul Maul, or Pell Mell) was recorded as an extremely popular game among the French aristocracy in the 16th century but probably had a much earlier origin. It was played on long narrow lanes of manicured lawn with an iron hoop at each end as goals. The object was to use a mall (long-handled, wooden hammer) to drive a boxwood ball about the size of a softball called the pall, through your goal in the least number of hits. Pall Mall was a forerunner of the game of Trucco or Trucks, Croquet, and Lawn Billiards. The playing field continued to be called a mall even after the game of Pall Mall lost popularity. Now long, flat, grassy public areas are called malls (example: the National Mall in Washington D. C.) and shopping malls get their name from the shops that naturally sprang up around these public spaces.

Closh or Koff was an early form of golf
that was played across the countryside.
From the "Golf Book of Hours" by Simon Bening.

A Celtic game called hurley or creag meaning Bishop's Crook, was a team sport similar to field hockey or La Crosse. Each team member had a club and used it to drive a ball across a large field and into a relatively large hole. They also used the clubs to prevent their opponents from scoring so it was a very violent game. On the continent, a similar racing game called Koff was played across the countryside with each player having their own leather ball. The players ran from shot to shot until reaching the hole. The first one to sink their ball was the winner. Another Dutch game, Chole was played on a small field or "pitch" using short shots at a pin. Each player got so many shots and the one with the most balls within a target drawn around the pin was the winner. Three Scottish soldiers who learned theses games in the Netherlands, combined them, added a few twists of their own, and created the game of golf. It became so popular that it was outlawed by the King of England in 1457 and 1471. More on the origins of the game of golf.

Ball Batting Games

Catch eventually led to games that hit the ball back to the thrower rather than catching and throwing. These games could be rough on the hands and in the Middle Ages players took to wrapping cloth or leather straps around their palms or wearing specially padded gloves. The "Game of Fives" was like modern handball in that it took two players and was played by hitting a ball against a wall.

Small batons or paddles were used to protect the hand from damage which lead to Squash and Tennis. To make a more gentle game for ladies, the ball was replaced with a "cock" which was a cork with tail feathers making it look like a rooster. It was batted back and forth with long handled rackets made of woven gut or rawhide. The goal of the game of "Shuttlecock" was just to keep the cock in the air as long as possible. With the addition of a net and a new set of rules it became the game we know as Badminton.

Some games sound very cruel to us today but were considered normal in the Middle Ages. One involved tying a bird to a stick or stool and throwing pins or balls at it until it was dead. From this we get the terms "Stool Pigeon" and "Sitting Duck." This bird game is depicted in the Golf Book of Hours. A game called Stoolball grew out of this. Two players or two teams could play. The first player batted a ball at a stool and tried to knock it over. The second player tried to defend the stool by catching the ball. If the first player succeeded, he scored a point. If the defender caught the ball, the first player's turn was over and they switched sides. Another version of this game has the first player throwing the ball and the defender batting it away. Stoolball was an early precursor to both Cricket and Baseball.

In the game of Tip-Cat, the batter
knocked the "cat" into the air and the others try to catch it.
From the "Golf Book of Hours" by Simon Bening.

Another precursor of baseball was the game of Tip-Cat. The "Cat" was a 6-inch pin that was narrower at the ends than in the center. The cat was balanced on another stick or a rock so that one narrow end was elevated. The batter then hit the elevated end of the cat causing it to jump into the air then he would strike it again with the bat. The other players would try to catch it. In Lancashire, England only one end of the cat was narrowed and it was called a "pyggy" because it looked like a snout. In the picture below a pyggy is balanced on the end of a long stick similar to tee-ball and the catchers are trying to catch it in their hand, a bowl, a hat, or an apron. Tip-cat is believed to be derived from a very ancient game from India called Gilli-danda.

Hoop Games

Hoop rolling is the oldest documented skill game in the world. According to Wikipedia it predates ancient Greece and can be traced to pre-Egyptian Africa. A baton about a foot long was used to keep the hoop rolling. It has been found in all cultures and was the most popular children's toy for thousands of years in the Middle East, Persia, Asia, and Southern Europe being depicted in art more often than balls, dolls, or tops. During the 14th century hoops became especially popular with adults and based on the writings of several doctors it seems the people in England were using them like hula hoops. Hoop rolling remained popular until the second half of the 20th century when using the hoops as Hula Hoops supplanted hoop rolling. Games for hoop rolling included racing, rolling the hoop through obstacle courses, rolling it up or down hills, throwing the baton like a javelin through the rolling hoop, and throwing the hoop and catching it with the baton. Hoops are still used in rhythmic dance in the Olympic Games. Dancing with a lighted hoop is called "Hooping" or, "Fire-hooping" when on fire, and is popular at outdoor concerts and events like "Burning Man."

Childrenat play with hoops and batons.
From the "Golf Book of Hours" by Simon Bening.


If you want to add this article to your list of favorites or email it to a friend, please use this permanent URL, Permission is granted by the author to quote from this page or use it in handouts as long as you include a link back to

 Previous Article Next Article