Aelflaed of the Weald (India Ollerenshaw), 2004
Balls have been around for a very long time. Ancient Roman and Egyptian children played with balls of leather and of glazed clay, patterned with the still-traditional vertical stripe we see today on beach balls. Balls were common throughout the medieval period, and all over Europe.
My aim in this paper is to present what information I have discovered about balls and their history in the medieval context. There are commercial and social notes dealing with both the makers and the users of balls, and descriptions of extant pieces, some more fragmentary than others. Quite a few examples survive from various archaeological sites across Europe, and their construction is remarkably uniform. There are apparently only so many ways to create a sphere.
They were made mostly of wood or of leather, stuffed with a variety of substances. The inflated bladders of pigs or cattle were also used. In general, the popularity of wooden balls tended to wane with the centuries, so that the bonanza of eleventh-century wooden balls found at Novgorod has practically disappeared on examination of the sixteenth century contexts, with leather versions now predominating. Within the medieval period, physical evidence of balls is found from about the middle of the tenth century, in various national contexts, and continues, essentially unchanged, from that point to the Renaissance and beyond. In addition to these finds, numerous pictorial sources, such as carvings, manuscripts and paintings, show balls of all shapes and sizes in use.
Inflated cattle bladders were played with in ancient Rome, as the evidence of Pompei shows (Endrei, p. 97). Doris Fischer (Spielzeug im Mittelalter (German language website)) claims that air-filled leather pallone were expensive and only appeared in Germany from the middle of the sixteenth century, although home-made inflated bladders would certainly have been widely available long before this time. Inflated balls were made in France and Italy at least, judging by the very similar names used in these countries (ballone/pallone), although probably not exclusively. Endrei notes the gift, in 1147, of seven ballone to a French monastery (Endrei, p. 100). It is hard to be sure whether inflated balls were made from whole bladders, or whether sewn leather covers were also inflated. An Italian (?) poem of 1530, quoted by Endrei (pp. 108 - 109), speaks of the crafter's need for good leather and skill both in sewing and in the making of valves. This sounds very much like a description of making an inflated leather ball, rather than a bladder. Pumping air into the ball correctly, so as not to damage the valve, is also seen as a skill.
Wooden balls are relatively frequent finds on medieval archaeological sites. They are found from the tenth century onwards, and may be carved or turned. Fritsch and Bachmann mention a Jost Amman engraving from 1568, which shows a turner making balls and skittles. Turning is a very ancient craft and well suited to making all sorts of wooden items, including other playthings such as rattles, jingle-toys and even limbs for jointed dolls (Fritsch and Bachmann, 1966, p. 23).
Russian sites at Novgorod have thrown up large numbers of wooden balls - 180, according to one study (Brisbane, 1992.). They are generally fairly small, most being within the range of 3.5 - 5 cm in diameter. The greatest numbers come from the tenth- and eleventh-century levels, with a marked decline from the twelfth century on. Kolchin's earlier work in the same area identified 113 wooden balls, dating from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries. Only nine of these came from fifteenth-century contexts, in comparison with twenty-one from the fourteenth century, only one level earlier. (Kolchin, 1989). Despite this decline in historical popularity, wooden balls have never been entirely superseded by leather; traditional games such as skittles often still use wooden balls to this day.
Leather ball-covers come in three basic patterns, repeated in material finds from all over Europe. Figure 1 shows a three-piece version, comprised of a long strip and two circles. A slit cut in the strip was often used to stuff the sewn cover, although stuffing could also have been inserted through one of the seams without making an extra slit. Figure 2 shows a multi-segmented ball. This example has four roughly equal segments, but the number is not fixed. Two-piece constructions are also possible, although there is little evidence for their existence in the medieval period.
Russian finds - Leather balls first appear in the Novgorod digs in eleventh-century contexts. Their incidence increases steadily from that point, with a peak in the thirteenth-century level. These balls are generally fashioned of three pieces of leather (Figure 1), sewn together and stuffed with felt, moss or textile pieces (waste linen or hemp). Some examples are 4.5 - 6 cm diameter, while larger ones of 10 - 15 cm diameter are also found. Brisbane records 330 leather balls recovered in total (Brisbane, pp 173-176).
Figure 1 - Leather ball from Novgorod, thirteenth century. (Brisbane)
Germanic finds - Mould mentions, in passing, a three-part ball found in Schleswig, just south of the Danish border, dated to the twelfth century (Mould, 2003, p. 3406). Fischer's website includes a photograph of an early sixteenth-century leather ball from Lübeck, made in four segments. The finds belong as much to Danish tradition as to German; these northern territories were mostly under Danish governance right up to the middle of the seventeenth century. Schleswig came under Danish control with King Cnut in 1025, well before the earlier of the two finds was deposited. The more southerly areas around Lübeck and Hamburg fell into Danish hands in the early thirteenth century, again well before the age of the Lübeck find.
English finds - The earliest survivals are mid-tenth century panels from York and Winchester. The oldest finds from York were constructed with four or more segments, while later tenth-century examples also include panels from three-piece ball covers. Biddle offers a fragmentary three-panel ball-cover from Winchester, dated mid- to late tenth century, which accords well with the York finds. Both three-piece and multiple-segment patterns were in continual use during the medieval period from this point; multi-panel balls were found in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century contexts at York, while a four-panel example dated 1660 has been discovered in Exeter.
Biddle (1990, pp. 707-708) pictures a ball dating from the early- to mid-eleventh century, 6 cm in diameter and designed as in Figure 1. There is a split, once sewn, in the long centre strip. The ball appears to have been stitched inside out with fine wool thread, turned to the right side, stuffed through the slit and, finally, the seams oversewn on the right side.
Geoff Egan (1998, p. 296, fig. 224) depicts a fragment from the period 1330 - 1380, one of the outside panels of a three-part ball. The circle measures 6 cm. Egan also shows a slightly later, well-preserved leather ball from the second half of the fourteenth-century, retrieved from a London dockside site (Figure 2). This ball is sewn in wedge-shaped quarters and is still stuffed with moss. It is less than four centimetres in diameter (34 mm).
Figure 2 - Leather ball from London, packed with moss, 3.4 cm diameter. (Egan, The Medieval Household)
Mould notes a possible two-piece model, the extant fragments dating from perhaps as early as the second half of the ninth century, but concludes that this item may well have been a jeweller's pad, used for working soft metals. Two-piece ball covers are certainly found in post-medieval contexts, but the ninth-century find appears to lack the darts in the circular leathers which would allow the pieces to form a proper half-sphere (see Figure 3 for a diagram showing this method of construction). (Mould et al, 2003, pp. 3406 - 8).
Figure 3 - Patterns for constructing a textile sphere.
As with many medieval trades, guilds with rights and privileges in particular aspects of ball production sprang up rapidly. The masters of each group watched jealously over their prerogatives. In 1292 there were already thirteen esteuf manufacturers in the Paris guild, but they had so much competition from non-guild producers that they eventually appealed to the Crown. In 1480, therefore, Louis XI prescribed the sizes and materials to be used in making a stuffed ball - an esteuf - fillings of sawdust, moss, chalk, pebbles and earth were forbidden (which gives an indication that all these things were being used), while the only allowable filling was to be scraps of cloth from the 'cloth cropper'. The outers of guild-approved balls were to be made of fine leather with a layer of fabric beneath. An amendment of 1504 set the weight of these balls at 33 grammes. (Endrei, 1986, p. 98)
Medieval French records define balls of different kinds, and it appears that each type was made by different craftsmen. Esteuf, as described above, were constructed according to strict guidelines, whereas a separate set of workers made inflated bladders, known as ballone (pallone in Italy). Pelota, a different type of ball, were solid spheres fashioned of twine. Yet another type was the 'balle', which was composed of tightly folded pieces of cloth, probably pressed into a round wooden mould while wet, making a wad of cloth of 4 - 5 cm diameter. Sixteen layers of cord were then twisted around the cloth and the whole was sewn into a cover of white fabric. This was then enclosed in a leather cover, the finished product being eight centimetres in diameter and 170 - 180 grammes in weight. (Endrei, 1986, p. 98.)
These ball-making regulations sit in contrast to the commercial history of other toys, which are largely unrecorded despite the medieval love of grouping craftsmen and regulating their production, and despite increasing evidence that a great number and variety of playthings were created and used by medieval families. Perhaps the existence of guilds and laws in relation to ball-making is a measure of the spread of this pastime, outstripping even the popularity of dolls, and catering to the entertainment needs of adult and child alike.
Balls in pre-modern eras were an amusement that crossed social and political boundaries. Everyone played ball games, from princes and paupers to priests. There was far less spectator sport in the time before television. Specialised balls were used for particular games, just as these days a football would not be used to play cricket or basketball. Games were played both by individuals and teams, with and without additional props. Some were played in the churchyard, while others were relegated to areas outside the city walls. For reasons of space, I will not seek to describe more than a fraction of the games our forebears played. Fun and Games in Old Europe (Endrei) is a good source for the rules and traditions of a great variety of ball games, for those who wish to investigate further.
Balls lend themselves to any number of games, and these can be divided roughly into types, which recur across cultures and outlast dynasties. Balls are versatile and are often the only prop required for a game.
One such variant is tagging games. There is a strong tradition of this type of game in the Germanic areas of northern Europe. Players must attempt to predict where the ball will be thrown, either to avoid being tagged or to intercept the ball successfully, depending on the game. References to these games are found in writings of the Minnesinger poets and in the fifteenth century, testifying to the longevity of the pastime. An English tagging game is known as 'over the house', as the object of one team is to throw the ball over the building, where it is caught by a member of the opposing team, who then runs around the dwelling in order to tag members of the original team. Continental versions of the same type were often played near the village church. The ball was tossed onto the roof of the church and allowed to roll off, thus lending the required amount of randomness to the selection of the tagger. 'Brandy' is a similar tagging game which I remember being repeatedly banned during my own school days, not so very long ago and half a world away from these medieval customs.
'Piggy-in-the-middle' is another vintage pastime. Two players throw a ball back and forth across an open space, while a third player (the piggy) stands between them and tries to intercept the ball, taking their turn at one end of the formation when they are successful. This game, called 'treball' in Danish, is depicted in gold on a fifth-century horn found in Gallehus.
Handball games of many types must also have been passed down and re-invented for generation upon generation; one of Strutt's eighteenth-century re-drawings is of a fourteenth-century game which looks very much as handball does today. (Endrei, pp. 98 - 99)
Football is another enduring pastime. Medieval matches were often played between rival villages, or in urban areas, between the members of different guilds. The points of difference between rugby and soccer variants were by no means formalised in medieval times. In different places, and at different times, it was allowable to run with the ball, to pass it forwards or backwards, and to strike it with almost any part of the anatomy. Football was known in Japan and China from at least the seventh century, while about the first mention of football in European records is from 1137, when a boy is reported to have died of a kick received during a game. The habitual wildness and violence of the game is thus documented from the earliest times. (Endrei, pp. 99 - 102)
An even more extensive list of games can be played with the addition of props such as goal markers and various styles of bat or racket. The lacrosse family of team games, which use a long stick with a curved striking surface at one end, seem to have been played continuously since Ancient Greek times, as is evidenced by a Greek relief dating to the sixth century BC. (Endrei, p. 109) Single-player versions such as golf also existed in the Middle Ages (Endrei, Plate XXXVI). The discovery of curved sticks suggests that the denizens of Novgorod played some form of hockey or lacrosse (Frux, 1998, p. 51), while a royal decree of 1365 banned the game of 'cambuc' (a lacrosse variant) in England. A French manuscript of 1514 proves that the game continued in use all over Europe through several centuries. (Endrei, Plate XXXIV)
While hockey sticks have stood the test of many centuries, most ball-hitting equipment seems to have originated in the Middle Ages. Such devices were presumably first invented as a means of protecting the player from the force of the ball - moving from binding the palm or fist, to more sturdy measures such as a surviving Italian armguard set with thorns (Endrei, p. 103). Bats generally increase the amount of force that can be applied to the ball, while minimising the chance of injury to the hands of the player. Of course, separate allowance must be made for the danger of injury presented to the participant by other players!
Tennis dates from the fourteenth century. In 1356, tennis is referred to as "a game of ball with the palm", while, in the early 1380's, Chaucer in Troilus and Cressida already refers to it as a game using a racket (Endrei, p. 103). Rackets were initially made with parchment stretched upon the frame, but later transformed into the net of catgut that is familiar to modern times. The use of rackets did not quickly supersede the custom of playing by hand; in the sixteenth century, Erasmus gives evidence that both modes of play remain acceptable. In his Familiarum colloquiorum opus, of 1524, he stages a conversation between Nicolaus and Jerome, which weighs the merits of the two methods. (Endrei, pp. 103 - 105)
Medieval ball play was not necessarily restricted by gender or age. Walther von der Vogelweide specifically mentions girls playing ball in an early German text: "when girls come out to play ball, birds will be singing again" (Fritsch and Bachmann, p. 17) and adults in manuscripts from all over Europe are regularly pictured playing ball games together. Incidentally, the German text offers a clue to the seasonal aspect of the pastime - ball games are generally required to be an outdoor sport, and thus somewhat limited, in northern climes, to the warmer seasons of the year.
It seems that the playing of ball games around medieval churches was often tolerated, even to the point where the game involved bouncing the ball off the walls and roof of the church. However, this mixture of sacred site with profane amusement goes much further than a few kids playing ball against a public building. It extends beyond the confines of European culture: ritual games were played in a special arena built into the Aztec sanctuary, and American Indians attributed magical power to ball games. The Japanese held a ceremony called kemari, where noblemen performed a ritual serving of balls in honour of their ancestors. It appears that universal, and certainly pre-Christian, religious needs are served by the use of balls in a ritual context. Medieval Europe was not left out of this fascinating trend.
In the twelfth century, a French theologian recommended that bishops and archbishops should not join in ball games with their priests - a custom apparently maintained even in large churches such as at Rheims. The custom continued for several hundred years, however, until finally banned by a resolution of the Parliament of 1538.
It is unlikely that the monastic ball play thus referred to was merely for amusement. Rules from Auxerre, dated 1396, required that novice friars entering the monastery pay the entrance due of a 'pelota', the size of which was regulated. In fact, 'pelota' remained the name given to this fee until the seventeenth century. The Auxerre ball rules describe the entrance ceremony thus:
The solemn game which took place at Easter was conducted as follows. The dean took the ball over from the novice in a hood, and started the song beginning with "Victimae Paschalis laudes". He danced to the rhythm of the song, with the ball in his hand, while the others holding hands, danced in a chain following the pattern of the mosaic maze on the floor, the friars catching the ball one by one and throwing it back to the dean. The rhythmic dance was accompanied by the organ. (Endrei, p. 97)
It is striking that surviving examples of balls through the centuries adhere to a quite narrow range of construction methods, even though they have been so long and so widely used at every level of society and throughout Europe. Balls appear to be a most consistent and enduring household item, and ball play perhaps the most traditional of traditional pastimes. Balls just like those described here have been around since the times of the Pharoahs, and show no sign of disappearing even in our super-technological age. They are portable, versatile and appropriate to many ages and situations, not to mention amusing both for individuals and for groups. A more simultaneously modern and medieval pastime could scarcely be found. Lets play ball!
Biddle, M., Object and Economy in Medieval Winchester, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. 706 - 708.
Brisbane, M. (ed.) The Archaeology of Novgorod, Russia: Recent Results From the Town and its Hinterland, K. Judelson (trans.), Lincoln, The Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph Series, No. 13, 1992.
Egan, Geoff, The Medieval Household: Daily Living c. 1150 - 1450, Medieval Finds From Excavations in London Series, No. 6, Museum of London, 1998.
Endrei, Walter and Zolnay, Laszlo, Fun and Games in Old Europe, Karoly Ravasz (trans.), Budapest, Corvina, 1986.
Fischer, Doris, Spielzeug im Mittelalter (German language website, updated 2002),
http://www.ausgraeberei.de/spielzeug/Spieland.htm. Visited June 2004.
Fritsch, K. E. and Bachmann, M., An Illustrated History of Toys, London, Abbey Library, 1966.
Frux, Gregory William, Life in Thirteenth-Century Novgorod, Compleat Anachronist No. 99, Society for Creative Anachronism, USA, 1998, p. 51.
Kolchin, B. A., Wooden Artefacts from Medieval Novgorod, (trans.) BAR International Series 495, Parts 1 (text) and 2 (illustrations), 1989.
Kraus, Dorothy and Henry, The Hidden World of Misericords, New York, George Braziller, 1975.
Mould, Quita, Ian Carlisle and Ester Cameron, Craft, Industry and Everyday Life (Series): Leather and Leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York, The Archaeology of York: The Small Finds 17/16. York, York Archaeological Trust, 2003.
Orme, Nicholas, 'The Culture of Children in Medieval England', in Past and Present No. 148, August 1995, pp. 48 - 88.
Schultz, James, The Knowledge of Childhood in the German Middle Ages, 1100 - 1350, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
Strutt, Joseph, Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, Detroit, Singing Tree Press, 1968.
Copyright India Ollerenshaw 2004. Free use for non-profit.
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