VIII. SOCIETY AND SPORT

The general coarseness of medieval manners was smoothed by certain graces of feudal courtesy. Men shook hands on meeting, as a pledge of peace through unreadiness to draw a sword. Titles were innumerable, in a hundred grades of dignity; and by a charming custom each dignitary was addressed by his title and his Christian name, or the name of his estate. A code of manners was drawn up for polite society in any circumstance—at home, at the dance, on the street, at tournament, at court; ladies had to learn how to walk, curtsey, ride horseback, play, carry falcons gracefully on the wrist…; all this, and a like code for men, constituted courtoisie, the manners of the court, courtesy. The thirteenth century saw the publication of many guides to etiquette.130

In traveling, one expected courtesies and hospitality from persons of his own class. The poor for charity, the rich for fee or gift, would be sheltered en route by convents or monasteries. As early as the eighth century monks established hospices in the passes of the Alps. Some monasteries had great guest-houses capable of sheltering 300 wayfarers, and stabling their horses.131 Most travelers, however, put up at wayside inns; rates were low there, and a wench might be had at a reasonable rate, if one guarded his purse. Offered such comforts, many braved the dangers of travel—merchants, bankers, priests, diplomats, pilgrims, students, monks, tourists, tramps. The highways of the Middle Ages, however discouraging, were alive with curious and hopeful people who thought that they would be happier somewhere else.

Class distinctions were as sharp in amusement as in travel. The mighty and the lowly mingled now and then: when the. king held a public assembly of his vassals, and distributed food to the crowd; when the aristocratic cavalry performed martial maneuvers; when some prince or princess, king or queen, entered the city in panoplied state, and masses lined the highway to feed on pageantry; or when a tournament or trial by combat was opened to the public eye. Planned spectacles were a vital part of medieval life; church processions, political parades, guild celebrations, filled the streets with banners, floats, wax saints, fat merchants, prancing knights, and military bands. Traveling mummers staged short plays in the village or city square; minstrels sang and played and strummed romantic tales; acrobats tumbled and juggled, and men and women walked or danced on tightropes across mortal chasms; or two blindfolded men belabored each other with sticks; or a circus would come to town, exhibit strange animals and stranger men, and pit one animal against another in combat to the death.

Among the nobility hunting rivaled jousting as the royal sport. Game laws restricted the season to brief periods, and poaching laws kept game preserves for the aristocracy. The woods of Europe were still inhabited by beasts who had not yet acknowledged the victory of man in the war for the planet; medieval Paris, for example, was several times invaded by wolves. In one aspect the hunter was engaged in maintaining man’s precarious ascendancy; in another he was adding to the food supply; and, not least, he was preparing himself for inevitable war by hardening body and spirit to danger, combat, and the shedding of blood. At the same time he made this, too, a pageant. Great olifants—hunting horns of ivory, sometimes chased with gold —rounded up the ladies and gentlemen and dogs: women sitting daintily sidesaddle on prancing steeds; men in colorful attire and varied armament—bow and arrow, small ax, spear, and knife; greyhounds, staghounds, bloodhounds, boarhounds pulling on the leash. If the chase led across a peasant’s fields, the baron, his vassals, and his guests were free to cross them at whatever cost to seeds and crops; and only reckless peasants would complain.132 The French aristocracy organized hunting into a system, gave it the name of chasse, and developed for it a complex ritual and etiquette.

The ladies joined with especial flair in the most aristocratic game of all—falconry. Nearly all great estates had aviaries housing a variety of birds, of which the falcon was most prized. It was taught to perch on my lord or lady’s wrist at any time; some piquant dames kept them so while hearing Mass. The Emperor Frederick II wrote an excellent book on falconry, running to 589 pages, and introduced into Europe from Islam the custom of controlling the nerves and curiosity of the bird by covering its head with a leather hood. Different varieties were trained to fly up and attack diverse birds, kill or wound them, and return to the hunter’s wrist; there, lured and rewarded by a bit of meat, they allowed their feet to be snared in straps until fresh prey flew into view. A well-trained falcon was almost the finest gift that could be made to noble or king. The duke of Burgundy ransomed his son by sending twelve white hawks to the captor, Sultan Bajazet. The office of grand falconer of France was one of the highest and best paid in the kingdom.

Many another sport made tolerable the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold, and turned the passions and energies of youth to vital skills. Practically every lad learned to swim; and in the North all learned to skate. Horse racing was popular, especially in Italy. All classes practiced archery; but only the working classes had the leisure to fish. There were divers games of bowling, hockey, quoits, wrestling, boxing, tennis, football…. Tennis developed in France, probably from Moslem antecedents; the name was apparently derived from the tenez!—“play!”—with which a player announced his serve.133 The sport became so popular in France and England that it was sometimes played before large crowds in theaters or the open air.134 The Irish played hockey as early as our second century; and a Byzantine historian of the twelfth century gives a vivid description of a polo match played with cord-strung racquets as in lacrosse.135 Football, says a horrified medieval chronicler, “is an abominable game wherein young people propel a huge ball not by throwing it into the air but by striking and rolling it along the ground, not with their hands but with their feet.”136 Apparently the game had come from China to Italy137 to England, where it became so popular and violent in the thirteenth century that Edward II banned it as. leading to breaches of the peace (1314).

Life was more social then than later; group activities stirred the monasteries, nunneries, universities, villages, guilds. Life was especially hilarious on Sundays and solemn holy days; then the peasant, the merchant, and the lord dressed their best, prayed the longest, drank the most.138 On May Day the English raised Maypoles, lit bonfires, and danced around them in semiconscious recollection of pagan fertility feasts. At Christmas time many towns and châteaux appointed a Lord of Misrule to organize pastimes and spectacles for the populace. Mummers in masks and beards and jolly garb went about performing street plays or pranks, or singing Christmas carols; houses and churches were decked with holly, ivy, “and whatsoever the season afforded to be green.”139 There were festivals for the agricultural seasons, for national or local triumphs, for saints, and for guilds; and rare was the man who on those occasions did not drink his fill. Merrie England had “scot-ales,” or money-raising bazaars at which ale flowed fast but not free; the Church denounced these festivities in the thirteenth century, and adopted them in the fifteenth.140

Some festivals adapted the ceremonies of the Church to boisterous parodies that ranged from simple humor to scandalous satire. Beauvais, Sens, and other French towns through many years celebrated on January 14 a fête de l’âne, or Festival of the Ass: a pretty girl was placed on an ass, apparently to represent Mary on the Flight to Egypt; the ass was led into a church, was made to genuflect, was stationed beside the altar, and heard a Mass and hymns sung in its praise; and at the end both the priest and the congregation brayed thrice in honor of the animal that had saved the Mother of God from Herod, and borne Jesus into Jerusalem.141 A dozen cities of France celebrated annually—usually on the Feast of the Circumcision—a fête des fous, or Feast of Fools. On that day the lower clergy were allowed to revenge themselves for their subordination to priest and bishop during the year by taking over the church and the ritual; they dressed themselves in feminine costumes, or in ecclesiastical vestments turned inside out; they chose one of their number to be episcopus fatuorum or fools’ bishop; they chanted ribald hymns, ate sausages on the altar, played dice at its foot, burned old shoes in the censer, and preached hilarious sermons.142 In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries many towns in England, Germany, and France chose an episcopus puerorum, or boys’ bishop, to lead his fellows in a good-humored imitation of ecclesiastical ceremonies.143 The local clergy smiled on these popular buffooneries; the Church closed her eyes to them for a long time; but as they tended to ever greater irreverence and indecency she was forced to condemn them, and they finally disappeared in the sixteenth century.*

In general the Church was lenient with the lusty humor of the Age of Faith; she knew that men must have a moral holiday now and then, a moratorium on the unnatural moral restraints normally necessary to a civilized society. Some ultra-Puritans like St. John Chrysostom might cry out: “Christ is crucified, and yet you laugh!”—but there continued to be “cakes and ale,” and wine ran hot in the mouth. St. Bernard was suspicious of mirth and beauty; but most churchmen in the thirteenth century were hearty livers who enjoyed their meat and drink with a good conscience, and took no offense at a well-turned joke or ankle. The Age of Faith was not so solemn after all; rather it was an age of abounding vitality and full-blooded merriment, and tender sentiment, and a simple joy in the blessings of the earth. On the back of a medieval vocabulary book some wistful student wrote a wish for all of us:

And I wish that all times were April and May, and every month renew all fruits again, and every day fleur-de-lis and gillyflower and violets and roses wherever one goes, and woods in leaf and meadows green, and every lover should have his lass, and they to love each other with a sure heart and true, and to everyone his pleasure and a gay heart.145

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