Popular Ball Games of the Medieval Era

Popular Ball Games of the Medieval Era

The Middle Ages were a time of knights, castles, and battles. But did you know that medieval people also enjoyed playing ball games? These pastimes provided a fun escape from daily life for people of all ages, and some are even still played today.

The origins of these games are not well-documented, but references to ball games can be found in ancient texts. The popularity of ball games in the Middle Ages is evident in artwork and literature from the time period. While some games were played for exercise or amusement, others were used as training for military or hunting skills.

Key Takeaways:

  • Medieval ball games were a popular pastime during the Middle Ages.
  • The origins of these games are not well-documented.
  • Ball games served a variety of purposes, from exercise to military training.

The Evolution of Ball Games in the Middle Ages

Ball games have been played for centuries, and the Middle Ages were no exception. The origins of medieval ball games remain unclear, but it is believed that games involving balls were played in Greece and Rome. As the Middle Ages progressed, the popularity of ball games increased, and various types of ball games emerged.

The evolution of ball games in the Middle Ages was a result of both social and technological advancements. As society became more prosperous, the leisure time of the wealthy increased, providing more opportunities for pastimes like ball games. The development of new types of balls, such as leather balls, and the improvements in ball-making technology further enhanced the evolution of ball games.

During the Middle Ages, ball games were not only a form of entertainment, but they also served as a means of physical fitness and as a way of honing one’s reflexes. As a result, ball games became increasingly popular among all social classes, and various types of ball games were invented to cater to different preferences.

Handball: A Popular Pastime

Handball is a medieval ball game that was enjoyed by people of all ages, from peasants to nobles. It is said to have originated in France during the 12th century and quickly spread throughout Europe.

The rules of handball were simple. Players would form teams of two or more and use their hands to hit a leather ball against a wall. The objective was to score points by making the ball bounce off the wall in a way that made it difficult for the opposing team to catch.

The court on which handball was played varied depending on the location, but it was typically a rectangular area with walls on three sides. The fourth side was open, allowing for easy access to the players.

Handball was a popular game for several reasons. It did not require any expensive equipment or complex rules, making it accessible to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Additionally, it provided a fun way to stay active and socialize with friends and family.

In fact, handball is still played today, with various variations of the game existing all over the world. It remains a beloved pastime that has stood the test of time.

Fives: A Strategic Game of Skill

While many medieval ball games were played for fun and entertainment, fives required a high level of skill and strategy. The game, which originated in England, was typically played in a courtyard or against the wall of a church or castle, with players hitting a ball with their hands.

The rules of fives varied depending on the location and time period, but the basic premise was to hit the ball in such a way that the opposing player could not return it. This required precise aim, quick reflexes, and a good understanding of angles and geometry.

Game Type Number of Players Equipment
Eton fives 2 Ball and gloves
Irish handball 2 Ball and gloves
Welsh fives 2 or 4 Ball and gloves

Over time, fives evolved to include variations such as Eton fives and Welsh fives, each with their own unique rules and equipment. While the popularity of fives waned in modern times, the game remains an important part of the history of medieval ball games, showcasing the skill and strategy required to succeed in traditional sports.

It is no surprise that fives was considered an important game in medieval times, as it required both physical and mental agility. The game was not just about hitting the ball, but also about outsmarting your opponent. Fives required players to think ahead, anticipate their opponent’s moves, and adjust their strategy accordingly.

As a game of skill and strategy, fives continues to be played today in some schools and clubs in England and Ireland, preserving the legacy of this unique and challenging sport.

Stoolball: A Team Sport from the Past

Stoolball is a medieval ball game that was played in England as far back as the 14th century. It was a popular pastime among both men and women, and it evolved into a team sport during the 17th century. The game was traditionally played in a field, and the wickets were originally stools, hence the name.

The rules of stoolball were similar to those of cricket. A ball was bowled towards the batter, who tried to hit it with a bat. The fielders then attempted to catch the ball and get the batter out. The team with the most runs at the end of the game was declared the winner.

Equipment Used: Bats and balls
Number of Players: Traditionally, two teams of 11 players each.
Objective: To score the most runs by hitting the ball and running between the wickets.

Unlike cricket, stoolball was a game for the common people and was not played by the aristocracy. It became a team sport during the 17th century when matches were played between villages and towns. The game was eventually standardized, and a governing body was established in the 19th century to regulate the rules and organize competitions.

In modern times, stoolball is still played in some areas of England, although it is not as popular as it once was. The game has seen a revival in recent years, and there are now leagues and tournaments for both men and women. The equipment used has also changed, with wooden bats replacing the traditional sticks and leather balls replacing the woolen balls of the past.

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Knattleikr: A Norse Ball Game

The Vikings were known for their skill in battle, but they also enjoyed playing sports. One of their favorite pastimes was knattleikr, a medieval ball game that involved throwing and catching a ball with the hands. Knattleikr was played across Scandinavia during the Middle Ages, and its origins can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman ball games.

The rules of knattleikr were simple. Two teams, each with six to eight players, played on a rectangular field with goals at either end. The ball was made of leather or a pig’s bladder and could be thrown or hit with a stick. Players could not run with the ball, but they could pass it to their teammates. The objective was to get the ball into the opponent’s goal, and the team with the most goals at the end of the game was the winner.

Rules Field Equipment
Throw or hit a ball with hands or stick Rectangular Ball made of leather or pig’s bladder
No running with the ball allowed Goals at either end Stick for hitting the ball (optional)
Team with the most goals wins

Knattleikr was not just a game for entertainment; it was also a way for the Vikings to hone their battle skills. The game required agility, strategy, and teamwork, all of which were essential on the battlefield. In addition, the physical demands of knattleikr helped the Vikings build strength and endurance.

Today, knattleikr is making a comeback in Scandinavia. Modern-day players use replica equipment, including leather balls and wooden sticks, and follow the original rules as closely as possible. Knattleikr is not just a way to relive the past; it is also a way to celebrate Norse culture and heritage.

La Soule: A Rough and Tumble Game

La Soule is a medieval ball game that was popular in France and England. It was a rough and tumble game that involved two teams trying to score points by carrying a ball to their opponents’ goal. The game was played on a field, and there were very few rules. Players could use any means necessary to get the ball to the goal, including punching, kicking, and pushing their opponents.

The origins of La Soule are unclear, but the game was played throughout the Middle Ages. In some areas, the ball used in La Soule was made from an animal bladder, while in other areas, it was a wooden ball. The game was often played during festivals and other celebrations, and it was enjoyed by people of all ages and social classes.

The Rules of La Soule

As mentioned before, there were very few rules in La Soule. The game was played on a field that was roughly the size of a soccer field, but there were no markings or boundaries. Each team had a goal, which was typically a tree, a post, or a pile of stones. The ball was placed in the center of the field, and the two teams would begin the game by trying to gain possession of it. Once a team had possession of the ball, their goal was to carry it to their opponents’ goal and score a point.

Players could use any means necessary to get the ball to the goal, including punching, kicking, and pushing their opponents. There were no teams or positions in La Soule, and players could move anywhere on the field. There was no time limit, and the game would continue until one team scored a predetermined number of points or until the players were too tired to continue.

The Rough and Tumble Nature of the Game

La Soule was a very rough and tumble game, and injuries were common. Players would often emerge from the game with broken bones, bruises, and other injuries. Despite the danger, the game remained popular throughout the Middle Ages, and it was enjoyed by people of all ages and social classes.

In many ways, La Soule was a reflection of medieval society. It was a game of skill and strength, but it was also a game of chance. There were no guarantees in La Soule, and players had to rely on their own abilities and the abilities of their teammates to win the game. The rough and tumble nature of the game also emphasized the importance of physical strength and endurance, which were highly valued in medieval society.

Calcio Storico: The Ancient Football of Florence

Calcio Storico, also known as historic football, is a medieval ball game that originated in Florence, Italy. Played during the Middle Ages, this game has been around for over 500 years, making it one of the oldest ball games still played today.

The game was initially played by the rich and powerful aristocrats of Florence, and it soon gained popularity among the working-class people. The game is known for its rough physical nature, and players often engage in fistfights and wrestling matches during the course of the game.

Rules Court
The game is played on a rectangular field, with a goal at each end. The court is a sand-covered field that is 80 meters long and 40 meters wide.
Each team has 27 players, and the game lasts for 50 minutes. The goals are located at each end of the field and are eight meters wide.
The objective of the game is to score goals by getting the ball into the opponent’s goal. The court is surrounded by a net to prevent the ball from going out of bounds.

Calcio Storico is a game of skill, strategy, and endurance. The players often use their bodies to block and tackle opponents, and the game is physically demanding. The game has become an important cultural tradition in Florence, and it is celebrated every year during the Feast of Saint John the Baptist.

If you ever find yourself in Florence, make sure to catch a game of Calcio Storico. It’s a unique and exciting experience that will transport you back to the medieval era and give you a taste of what life was like during the Middle Ages.

Harpastum: A Roman Ball Game

Harpastum was a popular ball game played during the Roman Empire, and is considered one of the earliest forms of football.

The game was played on a rectangular field with a small ball made of leather or animal bladder, filled with air or feathers. The objective of the game was to keep the ball in the air and pass it among the players, without letting it touch the ground.

Harpastum was a fast-paced game that required speed, agility, and quick reflexes. It was also a physically demanding game, with players often getting tackled or tripped by their opponents.

The origins of harpastum are believed to date back to ancient Greece, where it was known as “phaininda.” The game later spread to Rome, where it became popular among soldiers and gladiators.

Harpastum remains one of the most well-known and beloved medieval ball games of the Roman Empire, and its legacy has influenced the development of many other ball games throughout history.

Palla: The Ball Game of Renaissance Italy

Palla was a popular ball game played in Renaissance Italy. It originated in Florence during the 15th century and was loved by people of all ages.

The game was played with a large, leather ball and involved striking it with hands and feet between two teams of players. The objective was to get the ball into the opposition’s goalpost without using any physical force or hitting the ball with anything but the hands and feet.

Palla was a game of skill and strategy, incorporating elements of teamwork and individual athleticism. It was a popular pastime among nobility, who often organized tournaments and competitions.

Although it was primarily played in Italy during the Renaissance period, Palla is still played today in certain regions of the country. Its legacy lives on in the form of modern sports such as football and rugby, which have similar rules and gameplay.

Trigon: A Ball Game of Skill and Accuracy

Trigon, also known as Trigno, is a lesser-known medieval ball game that originated in Italy during the Middle Ages. Played with a soft ball made of leather, it was a game of skill and accuracy that required players to be adept at hitting targets with the ball.

The game was typically played outdoors on a rectangular court, marked with lines to divide the playing area into zones. Each team would consist of three players, and the aim was to hit the targets on the opposite end of the court while avoiding obstacles in the playing area.

Accuracy was key in this game, as players had to hit the targets with precision in order to score points. The targets were often positioned on poles or raised platforms, adding an extra level of difficulty to the game.

Trigon required players to be agile and quick on their feet, as they had to move around the court to avoid obstacles and get in position to hit the targets. The soft leather ball was easy to handle and control, allowing players to make precise shots and passes.

Although it is not as well-known as some of the other medieval ball games, Trigon was a popular pastime in Renaissance Italy and was even played by nobility and royalty.

Today, Trigon has largely fallen out of favor, but it is still played in some parts of Italy and has gained a small following among enthusiasts of historical ball games.


In conclusion, medieval ball games were a popular pastime during the Middle Ages, providing both entertainment and exercise for people of all ages. These games had their origins in ancient civilizations and evolved over time, with each game having its unique set of rules and playing styles.

From handball and fives to stoolball and calcio storico, medieval ball games required skill, strategy, and accuracy. Each game had its equipment, such as bats and courts, and was played in specific regions and countries.

Whether played by peasants or nobles, these games offered a reprieve from the daily rigors of life and fostered competition and camaraderie. While some of these games have fallen out of favor, their legacy lives on in modern sports such as football, basketball, and baseball.

Overall, medieval ball games were a fascinating part of history that gave people an outlet for fun, exercise, and community. They may have been a product of the past, but their impact continues to be felt today in sports, culture, and entertainment.


Q: What were some popular ball games during the Medieval Era?

A: Some popular ball games during the Medieval Era included handball, fives, stoolball, knattleikr, la soule, calcio storico, harpastum, palla, and trigon.

Q: What were the origins of these ball games?

A: The origins of these ball games varied, with some having ancient Roman or Norse roots, while others were developed during the Middle Ages.

Q: What were the rules of these ball games?

A: The rules of each ball game differed, but they generally involved teams or individuals trying to score points by propelling a ball towards a designated target, using various methods and strategies.

Q: Were these ball games purely recreational pastimes?

A: While these ball games were primarily recreational pastimes, they also provided opportunities for physical exercise, competition, and social interaction.

Q: Did these ball games require any specialized equipment?

A: Yes, some of these ball games required specialized equipment such as bats, courts, or specific ball types, while others could be played with simpler items like a ball made of animal bladder or cloth.

Q: Are any of these ball games still played today?

A: Some ball games, like handball and fives, have evolved and are still played in modern times, while others have become obsolete and are only known through historical records.