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Ice Skates

Updated on September 3, 2009

In Hungary, Germany and the northern countries into the modern age it was the metacarpal bone of horse or ox from which skates were fashioned. The bone was split. Holes at either end admitted the thongs by which the skate was tied to the foot, and the skating surface was actually the rounded side of the bone. Skating for pleasure goes back long before the era of Dutch paintings or winter landscapes by Bruegel: young Londoners amused themselves on the frozen Moorfield marsh in the time of Henry II, according to the description of William Fitzstephen in his twelfth-century Vita Sancti Thomae: bones tied to their feet, they pushed themselves, he says, with a spiked staff, sliding on the ice as swift as birds in the air or arrows from a cross-bow. This spiked stick thrust between the feet is also shown by Olaus Magnus in the- Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus in 1555 (Olaus Magnus had shown two skaters on the Gulf of Finland in the map which he printed in 1539). It was difficult to get a start on bone skates without a stick, though the stick was also an aid to propulsion. Sometimes the skater had a couple of sticks to which he fastened a sail for greater speed over the ice, in a favourable wind.

Contrivances similar to these bone skates seem to have been worn in some areas even on hard icy snow. Thus a Persian writer of the thirteenth century describes people in the country called Jura (i.e. the Voguls, living on the eastern side of the Urals) running on snow with the aid of ox bones. The medieval traveller William of Rubru-quis also recorded in the thirteenth century that the Ulryankhes (i.e. the Soyots) west of Irkutsk fastened smooth bones to their feet for moving over icy snow fields; and in the last century the Cheremisses on the upper reaches of the Volga still used wooden skates for snow travel.

Bone and wood gave way to iron, and then to steel. Before the development of the skate made altogether of steel and screwed to special boots, the metal runner was fixed to a wooden plate, which in turn was strapped to the foot. Just as 'ski' comes to English from the Norwegian, so skate, it may be mentioned, has been borrowed from the Dutch schaatzen.


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