A blast in the past

No TV? What on earth did they do? Compton Reeves's new book charts the pleasures of medieval England
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The game was not too tightly organised... The goals could be any distance apart, from a few dozen yards to miles if, for example, the game was being played between men of two villages with a pair of goals in each village... Initially the ball was made of leather and was about the size of a modern cricket ball; later in the Middle Ages the ball was made of a pig's bladder filled with dried peas, which could be kicked as well as thrown... The number of players could range into the hundreds...

The potential for injury or worse while playing ball games is illustrated by an incident from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1280 when some fellows were playing at ball... when Henry de Ellington ran into David le Keu, who was wearing a knife hanging from his belt. The knife cut through the sheath and stabbed Henry in the belly, and Henry died from the misadventure.


On Shrove Tuesday boys had a holiday from school, and in the morning brought their fighting-cocks to their masters... and then the boys spent their time watching the battling cocks. Variants on cock-fighting were no less cruel. Cock-throwing involved chasing a cock while throwing objects to strike and stun it, and the objective was to get in the first good hit. Then the bird was propped up in some fashion, and projectiles were thrown at it until it was killed. Although anthropologists argue about the relationship of games to the ancient association of cocks with fertility and virility, medievals thought of cock-fighting and throwing at cocks as children's games, along with spinning tops, catching butterflies, blind man's buff, and other more gentle activities.


While taverners strove to maintain respectable establishments for customers of the upper and middle classes, keepers of alehouses seem not to have been so inspired... The quantity of ale brewed as well as its quality undoubtedly varied enormously among alehouses. The basic procedure was to use barley (though wheat, oats and millet were also tried) which was steeped in water until germination took place. The germinated seeds were then dried, ground, and infused in water to await fermentation. Various spices, like long-peppers, might be added for taste and as preservatives. The resulting ale was apparently rather like a thick soup, even chewy if the grinding stage had been lazily done, and the taste can hardly have been deeply satisfying.


Sexual activity in the form of prostitution was thought to be an evil thing, but at the same time necessary to keep sinful men driven by lust from corrupting respectable women, including their own wives, or from turning to homosexuality. If the established authorities of society could accept prostitution as an unfortunate necessity, the same equanimity was not extended to prostitutes, who most authorities believed had chosen their profession because of the innate lustfulness of womankind...

The only English example of officially regulated brothels... is that of the brothels of Southwark...

It was probably not to protect customers, but to cut down on people wandering the streets at night, that lay behind the requirement that a prostitute spend the entire night with a customer...


The sort of lesson the public was expected to derive from executions is captured in the lines prepared early in the 16th century by the grammar master Robert Whittinton for his students to translate into Latin:

"Upon London Bridge I saw three or four men's heads stand upon poles. Upon Ludgate the forequarter of a man is set upon a pole. Upon the other side hangeth the haunch of a man with the leg. It is a strange sight to see the hair of the heads (fall) or (mould) away and the gristle of the nose consumed away, the fingers of their hands withered and clunged (that is, shrivelled) unto the bare bones. It is a spectacle for ever to all young people to beware that they presume not too far upon their own heedness (or, self mind)."

'Pleasures & Pastimes in Medieval England' by Compton Reeves (Alan Sutton Publishing) pounds 19.99