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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Some more Renaissance Pastimes

Many pastimes were Medieval in origin or even older; various forms of games with skittles were played, including Claish, or Closh which involved hoops and skittles and some form of stick and ball action.  It may have been a forerunner of croquet.  Bowls is the oldest game in this group of throwing or knocking a ball towards a target.  Skittles were known as kyles [Scotland] or kayles [England] from the Frenche quilles.  Skyttel meaning shuttle is a Scandinavian name and was not recorded for the game before 1630 when the version of ninepins more familiar to us today was formalised.  Earlier versions often used a cylinder or ‘cheese’ to bowl rather than a ball for greater challenge. 
Another stick and ball game is Billiards which was played on the ground but had come indoors in the late 15th century.  It would not be generally played on a table until the last part of the 16th century though Louis XI of France [1461-83] had a billiards table.  A short mallet was used to strike the balls, but the tail of it was often used for more precision strokes, from whence the word cue from the French queue meaning ‘tail’. 

Shuffleboard was a version of shove ha’penny; for pure board games there was Fox and Geese, Chess, and Draughts all of which are pretty much identical to the games as we know them today.  Tables  is now known as Backgammon.

Gambling was common with dice and cards alike.
Dice players had to be careful because of the various tricks professional cheats might use, from the simple loaded die – called fulhams -  with a piece of lead or drop of mercury in one side, for the cruder and more obvious version, or in the corner for the more sophisticated cheat who wanted a small edge without it being as obvious; whiskers protruding from the sides of dice [remember these games probably took place in a badly lit tavern which would be dark and smoky even in daylight] to prevent it rolling on to one side.  A cheat well versed in legerdemain could change fair dice and cheating dice by sleight of hand at will to have ‘highs’ or ‘lows’ to roll as he desired.
This might have been particularly useful for Raffle which required for a win to roll three dice the same number; Hazard required more skill when cheating, being not unlike the modern game of craps.

Card Games like Cent were popular: Cent was a favourite of Henry VIII. The court cards of the time were King, Queen and Jester, the princely Jack of later packs retaining something of the roguish nature of the Jester.  Cent is similar to piquet and requires a lot of counting to play well.  It is played with a pack of 36 cards, all cards under 6 discarded, and ace counting high [counting like the other picture cards as 10].

Betting on horse racing was also very popular; many towns had horse races, effectively steeple chases, on Whitsun or at Easter.  Local horse owners would enter in hopes of the purse that was put up for winners; side bets were also rife.

The less pleasant pastimes from our point of view were things like cock fighting  and bear baiting.  Betting took place on cock fighting naturally, and too on how long a bear might last, whether it killed any of the dogs set to bait it and so on. I suspect it is and English characteristic to bet on anything. 

Children’s Games
 children playing from a book of heraldry, showing a ball and a hobby horse
and some mechanical toy

Children played at skittles too, and similar games, and with balls, often home made from scraps of fabric or leather.  The bladder of the slaughtered pig blown up was a great toy to play with, nowadays simulated in latex as a balloon. 

Marbles were originally made of marble, but poor children used nuts or clay balls to play, and would doubtless be familiar with many modern variants of shooting at a rival’s marble, or at some ‘goal’ or the miniature version of bowls where marbles are shot into a circle scored in the dust to knock another marble out of it. 

Hopscotch was another simple game that could have the playing ground scored in the dust; and running and chasing games have been played since there have been children.

Boys and girls alike might play at diabolo – a game revived in the Victorian era and briefly again in the 1980’s – where a dumbbell shaped wooden toy was tossed from a string between two sticks, run up and down the stick and made to perform tricks by the most skilled. 
Diabolo: image from 'Antique toys and games' by Constance King

We would also recognise whipping tops and cup-and-ball though the latter was initially an adult toy and fascinated Henry III of France so much  he carried it with him everywhere. 
Hobby horses too were ridden by boys and girls alike; often these were no more than sticks held between the legs and ‘ridden’ and the horse’s head pure imagination.
Peter Bruegel gives lively images of leapfrog and pick-a-back games in his painting ‘Children’s games’; though he was painting after the period I describe it seems likely that the games of peasant children had not changed significantly.

For boys alone there was the game of bandy as described in my previous post ‘Pastime with or without good company’; or bowling hoops which might be bowled along the ground or tossed in the air and kept there with the controlling stick; or jump-rope.  Skipping did not become the preserve of girls for many a century and was in the Renaissance an exclusively male preserve.  Boys would also wrestle and compete in throwing the bar in emulation of their elders. 
A German manuscript of 1405 tells a boy how he might construct a kite and suggesting flying it from horseback as the most effective way of playing with it.

Girls had their poppets, or dolls; early room boxes might make a home for the very early Grodenthal type jointed wooden dolls from Nurenburg made their appearance in the early 15th century.  I’ve seen a late 15th century woodcut of a chapman with such dolls in his tray. Toy utensils were made, often of tin or wood, for playing with dolls and would be considered good training in housewifery for a little girl too.  
Dollmakers in Germany, images from the 'Hortus Saniatus' 1491

 Stump doll, later than my period being 1600 but doubtless similar to earlier examples
Another slightly later doll alleged to belong to Alicia Boleyn, cousin of Queen Anne Boleyn
this and above from 'Dolls' by Antonia Fraser

Boys and girls alike might play with puppets – a word derived from poppets – but usually at the time called mammets or mawmets, often clever kinetic toys that might be knights who jousted or acrobats who tumbled as well as simplified versions of the sorts of puppets professional puppet players used to put on a variety of plays mimicking the tastes of the time with live actors.   
 the best image I could find is this late 12th century one from the 'Hortus deliciarum'

Clay, wood and metal figures of horses and other animals including mythical ones were made as toys.  Sometimes the horses had riders.
Little girls might also play at crèche cradle – nowadays cat’s cradle – with a length of twine or wool. Clapping games were also played.

Children also gamed; the idea that it was an adult pastime was still in the future.  Indeed the future Henry VIII won half a mark from his father when he was seven years old. 
This despite laws against gaming passed by Henry VII.  Hmmm.


  1. Children gambling!! Yikes!!

    Perhaps this is where our young king learned his appreciation of risk...whether it was taking the risk to break with the church, or marry over & over& over....

    Extremely interesting to learn that billiards wasn't played on a table until the sixteenth century, or even later, but I'm also interested in the whole completely re-configured history of is clear to me, as I've noted in several private correspondence threads with the author, that there were compulsive
    gamblers in the pre-modern period...and yet this was an entirely respectable way to spend one's time and money...whereas now, gambling has been criminalized in some of its forms, and marginalized, in others. I am interested in the author's take on when tht happened and why...when did gambling stop being a gentleman's game and start becoming a more problematic activity??

    Meanwhile, great to read about children's pastimes!! It is good to know that at least some children got to play a little in the Renaissance and early modern period...although here too, I'm betting class rears its ugly head???


  2. Gambling was only recognised as a potentially addictive illness in the late 20th Century, but even so, I don't think that many people consider it a problem today, it's still a sport anyone can join in with. I was reared strict Methodist so my views are a little different; but betting shops are still common enough, regularising off track betting. I understand it is illegal in America which, in criminalising it, as with criminalising liquor during prohibition, associated gambling in general with the criminal elements in society rather than merely being an activity in which cheating methods could be applied. Gambling has never been a sport of Gentlemen but the sport of all. It is an activity that has always cut across the classes as I should have made clear.

    Indeed the pastimes I've written about here are those for the whole populace - just that the complexities of toys of the children would vary with class. The children playing with hoops in Bruegel's painting are peasant children; a peasant child would not have an elaborate hobby horse but merely a stick, and might have a crudely carved stick for a doll.

  3. Not all gambling is illegal in America...we have two major legal venues: off-track betting (for those who like to play the ponies), and our state lotteries, whose proceeds are used, in the United States, for education costs, or other public works...although there are various schools of thought about whether this is a good thing...I do think of Georgina, and her gambling, however, and the monstrous debts the Prince of Wales was wont to run up, and find myself wondering if there was compulsive gambling before we had a name for it...

    what about chess?? did people play it in Renaissance and early modern England??