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Medieval Leisure: How Did People Spend Their Free Time in the Middle Ages?

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What did medieval folk do with their leisure time?

What did medieval folk do with their leisure time?

We associate the Middle Ages with bedraggled peasants slaving away in the fields while their lords battered each other to death on the battlefield. But medieval folk had more leisure time than you'd think.

After all, the nobles needed something to keep them occupied between military campaigns, and the serfs needed an escape from their daily drudgery.

So what did medieval folk do with their free time? As with most things in the Middle Ages, it varied depending on one's status within the feudal hierarchy.

Here are a few examples of medieval leisure activities.

Medieval Leisure Activities For Peasants

Since our world is a product of the industrial era, we forget there was a time when the work calendar was dictated by the seasons. Peasants lived in an agricultural society, and farming could only occur during certain parts of the year.

In fact, historians estimate that peasants only worked for 160 days a year. Furthermore, Sunday was a day of rest, and there were plenty of religious holidays.

So what did peasants do when they weren't toiling away in the fields?

Peasant pastimes included:

1. Drinking
2. Archery
3. Church
4. Fairs
5. Pilgrimages

Vintage engraving showing a scene from the story of the Anglo-Saxon English hero Hereward the Wake

Vintage engraving showing a scene from the story of the Anglo-Saxon English hero Hereward the Wake

1. Drinking

The life of a peasant was hard, and getting drunk provided an easy escape.

Ale could be brewed at home, although it wasn't particularly strong (still strong enough to cause drunken brawls on a regular basis though). Higher quality brew could be purchased from visiting monks (many monasteries were dedicated to producing beer).

Barley, oat, wheat and malt were common ingredients, and the women of the village usually brewed the ale.

Inns and taverns began popping up around the 10th century, although they were mostly found in towns, where they catered to merchants, craftsmen and freemen. For a peasant, the home of whoever was brewing the ale was the closest thing to a tavern.

A painting by David Teniers the Younger shows peasants at archery.

A painting by David Teniers the Younger shows peasants at archery.

2. Archery

This was the sport of the commoner. Jousting was reserved for the nobility, and the authorities discouraged rowdy sports such as football (which existed in a very primitive form in the Middle Ages).

Archery was not only accessible; it was obligatory. In 1363, King Edward III made archery practice compulsory on Sundays after mass.

This contributed to the rise of the longbowmen, an elite English fighting force that devastated French armies during the Hundred Years' War.

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It's no wonder archery played a prominent role in English folktales, such as that of the legendary outlaw Robin Hood.

Chipping Campden church in Gloucestershire.

Chipping Campden church in Gloucestershire.

3. Church

Believe it or not, the church was the highlight of the week for many peasants. A trip to the local abbey on Sundays made for a welcome escape from their daily routine of working and drinking.

Many churches boasted dazzling architecture that would lift the spirit. This was especially the case if you were lucky enough to live near a cathedral.

Choral music was prominently featured in church ceremonies, much to the enjoyment of the peasantry. We take for granted how easy it is to access music nowadays; for the medieval peasants, the church was one of the few opportunities they had to experience such sophisticated music.

Churches fostered a strong sense of community; and as a bonus, many of them brewed strong ale.

A fair in Champagne in the 13th century.

A fair in Champagne in the 13th century.

4. Fairs

Fairs were held on holidays and religious days, providing an opportunity for entertainment and revelry.

Peasants were too poor to buy the exotic goods on sale at fairs, but they could still enjoy the festive atmosphere. There were musicians, magicians and jugglers. Plays were performed, and there were a variety of games on offer. It was a special experience for children and a rare luxury for adults.

A group of medieval pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, Kent

A group of medieval pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, Kent

5. Pilgrimages

Religion played a central role in medieval life. Pilgrimages were not only spiritually uplifting; they were an excuse to travel and see the world. Even if you weren't particularly pious, it was the closest thing to a holiday.

Peasants who were bound to the land (villeins) required permission from their lord to travel, but this was granted more often than you'd think.

Walsingham in Norfolk was an oft-visited shrine, believed to possess healing powers. But pilgrims could travel much further than that, perhaps even to Rome or Jerusalem. The routes were well known, and food and lodgings would be available along the way.

How safe was it to travel? This depended on how effective the local authorities were at keeping order, which in turn varied according to economic and political factors. A benevolent monarch ensured the roads were well protected and would be given credit for doing so.

Either way, pilgrims usually travelled in groups to avoid trouble.

Jason Kingsley of Modern History TV discusses travel during the Middle Ages.

Medieval Leisure Activities for Noblemen

The peasants did all the work, so the feudal lords had plenty of time to fill.

The sacred duty of a lord was to fight in wars, so much of his free time was spent engaging in activities that emulated the experience of being on a battlefield.

Medieval pastimes for nobles included:

1. Hunting
2. Hawking
3. Jousting
4. Chess
5. Banquets

A depiction of King John hunting a stag with hounds (dating back to the 14th century).

A depiction of King John hunting a stag with hounds (dating back to the 14th century).

1. Hunting

A lord loved nothing more than to gallop through the forest and plunge his spear into some wild beast. The thrill of the chase; the fresh air of the countryside; and the opportunity to explore his own private piece of the realm all contributed to his enjoyment of this princely pursuit.

It was a privilege reserved for the aristocracy. Peasants were not allowed to hunt in the forest; doing so was punishable by death.

Hunting was an elaborate affair; not the reclusive pursuit it is today. The Lord was accompanied by a large entourage; basically a war party. This included ladies of the court, spectators, dog-handlers, and high-ranking officials such as the chief huntsman. An open-air banquet in a scenic location was often part of the proceedings.

Hounds were used to chase down the prey until it was exhausted, at which point the king or lord would dismount and strike the killing blow, usually with a bow or spear.

Deer and boars were common prey; the latter was a particularly prized trophy as it would put up a fight, and there was a chance of it seriously injuring or even killing members of the hunting party.

Speaking of which, hunting was viewed as an effective way to prepare young men for war. It was a violent pursuit that could result in death. There's no shortage of nobles who died during a hunt. For example, Richard of Normandy, the second son of King William II, was mauled by a stag.

Of course, a lot of deaths that were reported as "hunting accidents" were probably assassinations. Hunting trips presented the perfect opportunity to eliminate a political rival.

The gyrfalcon — a species of falcon that only kings were allowed to use for hawking.

The gyrfalcon — a species of falcon that only kings were allowed to use for hawking.

2. Hawking

Hounds were used to hunt harts, and hawks were used to hunt birds. Only noblemen possessed the wealth required to breed hawks for hunting.

The Book of St.Albans, written in 1486, includes a number of essays on hawking. Of particular interest is its "hawking hierarchy", which links various types of birds to corresponding classes of medieval society.

For example, only the king was allowed to keep a gyrfalcon. A prince was allowed to own a peregrine falcon, a duke could keep a rock falcon, and so on.

A 19th-century depiction of a medieval tournament.

A 19th-century depiction of a medieval tournament.

3. Jousting

Tournaments were grand affairs that provided an opportunity for knights to earn renown without having to kill each other, although they sometimes did anyway.

The iconic medieval tournament as we know it originated in France around the 11th century. It started as a genuine attempt to capture the chaos of the battlefield. Mock battles known as mêlées would be staged, with knights battering each other on horseback or on foot.

Over time, the joust became the most prominent event at a medieval tourney. Originating in the Latin term iuxtare ("to meet"), jousts occurred as depicted in numerous films with two mounted knights charging at each other and attempting to dislodge their opponent with a lance. The arena where the joust took place was referred to as the list field.

As the code of chivalry became more influential, so did the joust become more ritualistic. It served as an opportunity to win honour as well as financial remuneration.

Pageantry also played an increasingly prominent role, to the point where tournaments were as much about demonstrating good breeding as they were about martial prowess.

Two Spanish damsels playing chess on a chequered board from the book of Alfonso X the wise

Two Spanish damsels playing chess on a chequered board from the book of Alfonso X the wise

4. Chess

The game of chess was introduced to Europe around 1000 AD; an import from Arabia which in turn received it from India.

Of course, the pieces were changed to reflect medieval society. The king, queen and bishop held positions of authority. Knights were ranked highly in feudal society but still subservient to clergy and royalty. The pawns represent peasants, who vastly outnumbered the nobility yet lived to serve them and were deemed expendable.

The power of the queen probably reflected the belief that many kings were under the influence of their wives. A famous example of this is the Wars of the Roses, where Margaret of Anjou essentially commanded the Lancastrian faction on behalf of her husband, King Henry VI.

The rook, at first glance, appears to be a stand-in for the castles that were the basis for military strength and the centre of feudal society, but it may also have been based on siege towers, which knights used to scale walls.

As with most pastimes that medieval nobility engaged in, chess was not just for recreational purposes but also a form of military preparation. After all, the lord's highest calling was to command armies on behalf of his king.

A medieval feast.

A medieval feast.

5. Banquets

Few things so perfectly illustrate the gap between rich and poor as food in the Middle Ages. For the nobility, nary a few weeks passed without a banquet, and the amount of food served at a single banquet could feed a peasant family for an entire year.

Banquets were an opportunity to demonstrate wealth and status. Not only was meat from common livestock such as pigs available; but exotic animals like peacocks and porpoises were consumed.

For the rich, it was important that food not just taste good, but look good too. The dishes served at banquets were presented in elaborate ways. Complex sculptures crafted from sugar, known as sotiltees (subtleties), decorated the table.

Thus did feudal lords dine on roasted boar and custard tarts while the peasantry slaved away in the fields.

References

D.G Hewitt. 2018, 14 September. The Intriguing Past Times of Peasants in the Middle Ages (historycollection.com).

Mark Cartwright. 2018, 31 May. Leisure in an English Medieval Castle (worldhistory.org).

Jones and Bartlett Publishers. Early History of Recreation and Leisure.

Hawking, Medieval Chronicles (medievalchronices.com)

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