Like many aspects of medieval life, Middle ages games and entertainment depended greatly on social class. Peasants are more likely to play games that require minimal equipment, but the wealthy are able to afford special pieces and components for more complex types of entertainment.
Many people worked long hours so adults were not able to play games with great frequency. Church and seasonal holidays provided brief reprieves from the work of the lower class and allowed more time for enjoyment. Christmas, May Day, and saint feast days were causes for celebration that often included games, sports, and other forms of entertainment.
Children need the opportunity to play and despite the limited means of production, there were a number of types of toys to choose from. It is apparent that the toys below are relatively simple, produced either at home or within the village. There was not often an excess of materials expressly for making toys, so children had to be content with the spare and discarded pieces used to create their toys.
Spinning Tops: Surviving examples of tops are primarily made in wood. Some are smooth and round while others are multi-sided.
Hobby Horses: Images survive of young children, primarily boys, playing on hobby horses. Not all of the examples show horse’s heads on the sticks and required more imagination on the part of the children to see the shape of a horse.
Dolls: Children throughout history have played with dolls. Due to being made from fabrics and other elements that do not withstand centuries of aging, there are few examples of the types of dolls produced. It can be presumed that peasant children would have rough and simple dolls whereas wealthier children might have more refined and better-dressed dolls.
Ceramic Animals and Figures: Figurines made of ceramics have survived indicating that children created stories or reenacted events with the human and animal forms.
Miniature Ceramic Crockery: An excavation near a Carmelite friary found miniature versions of contemporaneous crockery. It can be imagined that these, like modern tea sets, would be used by children playing simulation domestic games, quite probably with the figurines and dolls mentioned above.
Rattles: Some of the recovered examples of rattles are made in terracotta. Babies and toddlers were able to play and be stimulated by the noise produced by the rattles.
Marbles: Primarily produced of clay, marbles were a popular game played by children. While the rules of the game have barely changed since the Middle Ages, a medieval variation includes arches to shoot the marbles under.
Hoops: Late in the Middle Ages, around the early 16th-century, images are found with children playing with hoops. They roll the hoops with a stick as part of a race.
Stilts: Images from the 14th-century show older children and adults walking on stilts.
Gambling and Other Games
Both children and adult could play games for entertainment as well. While games for children were generally tame, games for adults focused on chance and hand-eye coordination. Unlike sports, women and girls could participate in a majority of games.
Chess: The game of chess has been popular throughout most of history with subtle changes and variations. It appears that medieval chess sets were very similar to modern sets, though some versions feature crudely carved figures.
Dice: Dice games have been used in divination games and gambling games. Games of chance were popular for individuals in all social classes for gambling.
Card Games: There is evidence of decks of cards surviving beyond the Middle Ages, but the exact Middle ages games played have not been adequately discovered. It is probably safe to assume that some of the games were similar to more modern games.
Ring Toss: A game that could be played by all ages and both men and woman was Ring Toss where small rings were aimed at two stakes attempting to toss more accurately than the other team or opponent.
Knucklebones: This game is similar to modern-day jacks, but it was played using the knucklebones of a sheep.
Bobbing for Apples: Placing apples within a barrel of water, participants had to attempt to pick up the apples using their teeth.
Skittles: A predecessor of modern bowling, players rolled a ball attempting to knock over bottles or pins to score points.
In addition to toys and games, sports and sporting events provided entertainment in the Middle Ages. Children played running games like tag and hide and seek.
Popular among adults were tournaments and jousting. These dangerous sports involved use of swords, daggers, and lances, and were seen as practice of military skill. Tournaments were extremely dangerous activities and the competitors were viewed as a sort of celebrity.
It was not uncommon for competitors to be severely wounded or die during a tournament. Because of the skill and bravery required for jousting and other tournament events, these often drew large crowds and involved a sort of fair or fete.
Archery competitions were also very common, and general skill with a bow and arrows were necessary for survival in the Middle Ages. Hunting, both with birds and on horseback, was a common sport because it provided entertainment and also fulfilled the need for food.
As with so many other aspects of medieval life, the emphasis on practicality permeated the realm of entertainment. Materials were not wasted on toys and many games required minimal materials. Also, for children, games were not particularly gender specific allowing for more participants with less equipment. For adult games and sports, the most popular emphasized real-world skills and favoured men – there were few sports in which women could participate.
While many of the Middle ages games and sports are no longer practiced today, the sense of enjoyment and coming together has led to the development of modern day activities. Into the 20th-century children frequently played with marbles and many community fairs in the autumn feature apple bobbing as an activity.