Medieval Games - What games did people play in the Middle Ages? answers questions

Medieval Games

painting of white women playing chess
Women playing chess

September 2016 - The games of medieval Europe were mainly the same as those of Egypt, Greece, and Rome: dice, knucklebones, marbles, checkers.

Chess came to Europe from the Islamic Empire. When the Arabs took over Spain, in 711 AD, they brought chess with them, and it began to spread from there to the rest of Europe.

a large paper playing card
Men playing cards England, 1340s
(now in the British Library)

Several hundred years later, in the 1300s AD, playing cards also finally reached Europe. A lot of cities banned playing cards at first, because people used them for gambling. After a while cities allowed cards. The first European cards were hand-painted, but soon they learned to use Chinese block-printing to make the cards cheaper.

We also see more children's toys from this time: whistles and little dishes and dolls. People didn't sit still all the time- they liked to go swimming outside in ponds and rivers, too.

Men and women swimming in a pond
(Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 1400s)

As for spectator sports, the gladiatorial games of the Roman Empire ended with the fall of Rome. In the Christian era, men no longer fought men to the death in the arenas.
But many similar entertainments survived and flourished. In the old amphitheaters, many of which people were still using, men kept on fighting animals: bears and bulls were the most popular of these, because they were the most dangerous. You can still see bull-fights today in Spain (and in Mexico), and they are still fought in amphitheaters. And people who had been convicted of crimes kept on being executed as entertainment.

In the old circuses, also, horse-racing and chariot-racing continued to be popular for a long time. This was especially true in Constantinople, where the charioteers (the drivers) were divided into teams (the Blues, the Greens, the Whites, and the Reds, though the Blues and the Greens were the most important) and which team you rooted for was tied to your politics and your religion, and often led to violent riots and murders in the circus and in the streets. But on a smaller scale, horse-racing continued in Spain and Italy also, throughout the Early Medieval period. You can still see a medieval horse-race today at the Palio in Siena, which is held every year.

Roland jousting (Chartres Cathedral, France, 1200s AD)

Medieval European people replaced the old gladiatorial combats with the tournament, in which armed and armored knights fought each other for prizes, and for the entertainment of the king and queen and the public. Tournaments were different from the old gladiatorial games in two ways. First, they were not intended to end in death, though men did sometimes get killed anyway. Second, tournaments were fought by rich men, not by slaves and poor men. Still, they presented men fighting each other for entertainment, just as the older gladiatorial games had.

These tournaments probably were influenced by the popular Islamic sport of polo, which was invented in Uzbekistan around the time of the Parthians, and became common in West Asia around 800 BC, in the time of the Abbasid Empire. Maybe the popularity of polo encouraged the people who organized tournaments to emphasize fighting on horseback, rather than on foot as the gladiators did.

Learn by doing: medieval tournaments
More about medieval swimming
More about dice games

Bibliography and further reading about medieval games:

Medieval Europe home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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