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Women in Sports and Gaming During Medieval Times

Updated on January 21, 2015
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Jeff Johnston is a medieval reenactor and avid history fan. He is also the publisher at Living History Publications.

Women in Medieval History

We often think of Medieval women as strictly their husbands wives and not much more, they were bound by strict rules of decorum (at least a woman of good repute was) and stuck to these rules. For the most part it seems a life of sewing, and running the household while the men had all the fun, hunting and tournaments were primarily male only activities. There were however several games that we know women could play without risking their dignity.

Monks and nuns playing a bat and ball game, most likely stoolball.
Monks and nuns playing a bat and ball game, most likely stoolball. | Source

Ball Games

Pretty much everyone took part in ball games, games such as stoolball were a common occurrence. Stoolball was commonly a co-ed game being played by mixed teams of both men and women. Rounders was a popular schoolyard game played in Scotland and throughout the British Isles, and like stoolball it was often played by both men and women.

Tennis was one of the most common and popular ball games in period. However women were not welcome on the tennis courts of Medieval Europe. It, and football, are the exception to women taking part in ball games. Football was never played by nobles, and Tennis was restricted to males, primarily clerics.

Mary Queen of Scots playing Golf at St. Andrews
Mary Queen of Scots playing Golf at St. Andrews

Golf

I'd love to report that the image above is evidence that women played golf in period, unfortunately it is not. The famous image of Mary Queen of Scots playing golf was used to discredit Mary, it was most likely purely a work of fiction to make it seem like she was forcing her way in to a men's only activity. No woman of decent character would have played golf during the medieval times.

Otto IV of Brandenburg playing chess with a woman, 1305 to 1340
Otto IV of Brandenburg playing chess with a woman, 1305 to 1340 | Source

Board Games

Board games were suitable for women to play during medieval history. The artwork to the right depicts Otto IV of Brandenburg playing chess with a female opponent and dates to the 14th century. It is likely that other board games were also appropriate for women to play during this period, so games such as the morris family of games, and the tafl family of games would, most likely have been perfectly appropriate.

A manuscript dated 1325-1340 shows a man and a woman playing a board game, the game looks to be a tables variant. It can safely be presumed that backgammon and all other tables variants were also considered fine for women to play.

Card Games

Card games were contentious throughout the medieval time period, generally the church condemned the playing of cards. While card games amongst the nobility was shunned, there are too many very customized, and very expensive decks of cards extant to ignore the reality that cards were played in period by the wealthy and the nobility. That being said it was not something a woman would admit to doing on a regular basis. At best playing cards would be a taboo experience done as much for the rush of it's illicit nature as for the game itself.

Conclusion

There were many games a woman could play without risk to her reputation during the medieval period, but the list is much smaller than games a medieval man would be expected to play. Women's games were primarily limited to bat and ball games such as stoolball and rounders, and board games. Beyond that a woman would have had other leisure activities such as dancing and running the household to pass the time.

Article published for the Avacal Games Guild

Badge of the Avacal Games Guild
Badge of the Avacal Games Guild | Source

© 2015 Jeff Johnston

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