Lords and Ladies: Recreation

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Lords and Ladies: Recreation


Hawking. A common recreation, hawking also had a practical application: it provided meat for the table. Carried by men and women on their wrists, hawks were useful aids to hunters. Their importance can be gauged by the large number of manuals on hawking that have survived. The best known of these is The Art of Falconry, written in the 1240s by Frederick II, who ruled the Holy Roman Empire from 1212 to 1250. Frederick stressed the care and patience every falconer must have while training his falcon, as the trained birds were called. After capturing a wild hawk, the handler first placed a hood over its head, tied leather straps (jesses) to its ankles, attached bells to the jesses, and set the bird on its perch. Over a period of weeks and even months the bird grew accustomed to human noises and contact, even beginning to take food from its handler’s hand. When first teaching the bird to hunt and return, the handler tied a long cord (creance) to its leg and threw a piece of meat for the falcon to retrieve. If the falcon picked up the meat and brought it back, the handler rewarded the bird by allowing it to eat a bit of its prize. This process was repeated over increasing distances and with various lures. The telling moment was the first time the hawk was let off its lead to hunt. Birds were sometimes lost at this crucial point in their training.

Gambling and Games. Other common pastimes were gambling and cards. Almost anything could be the subject of a wager, including the number of soldiers in a company, the winner of a mock combat, or the conclusion of a successful hunt. Various dice games, similar to modern craps, could be played on tables or floors, and wagers were frequently made on their outcome. Many board games were also available. Variations on backgammon were played; panquist, tables, and “six, two, and one” were some popular ones. Boards for other types of play have been found as well. Probably the most familiar medieval board game was chess, which was played by rules similar to those in the modern game. One of the best sources for medieval games at court is the Book of Games, written in the mid thirteenth century by Alfonso X “the Wise,” king of Castile and Leon from 1252 to 1284.

Reading. Medieval aristocrats could also pass their time reading or having written works read to them. Some medieval nobles were not literate in the sense that they could sit down and read books, but they often had literate courtiers who were required to read to them. Many of the preferred stories were about classical heroes and knightly bravery, including the tales that developed about the English figure known as King Arthur and his mythical court. Arthurian romances were so popular in the high Middle Ages that the figures of Arthur and his queen, Guinevere, were carved on churches as far from England as Italy. Arthurian romances

are part of a literary genre known as courtly literature that developed in southern French courts during the eleventh century and spread all over Europe. In the process, each region developed its own “Arthurian” heroes and villains. The works of leading twelfth-century writers such as Marie of France, Andreas Capellanus, and Chretien de Troyes were recited at courts and inspired generations of nobles well into the Renaissance to mimic the pride and valor of Arthurian heroes.

Music. Music was another common form of courtly entertainment, and the styles and subjects of songs varied widely. Common medieval instruments for the aristocracy included lap harps, flutes, and the ancestors of modern violins and guitars, such as lutes. Their songs included melodies praising the deeds of the Virgin Mary, bemoaning lost love, celebrating bright spring days, or lauding martial accomplishments. Some songs were sung without instrumental accompaniment (a capella), and some included forms of harmony. Other music was purely instrumental. One kind of music practiced in court society was the canticle, in which the “singer” chanted lyrics to an instrumental accompaniment. One of the best-known musical collections of the Middle Ages, The Cantigas de Santa Maria (Canticles of Holy Mary) of Alfonso X “the Wise,” comprises more than four hundred canticles. Lavishly illustrated, this manuscript is one of the largest collections of medieval solo songs. Alfonso’s court is also the source of another valuable compilation of medieval songs with satirical themes, including jabs at lecherous monks, weak knights, ignorant scholars, and other common objects of ridicule in the Middle Ages. While some nobles, and especially noblewomen, might be able to perform these songs alone or with a small group of musicians, at large and wealthy courts such as Alfonso’s the performers were almost certainly professionals, sometimes known as troubadours, minnesingers, and minstrels. They were either kept on retainer or hired for a set number of performances. In a smaller court or castle a professional might also provide entertainment, but there were far fewer musicians, and the songs they sang were generally less complex.


Meg Bogin, The Women Troubadours (New York: Paddington Press, 1975).

John Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting (New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1988).

Maurice Keen, Chivalry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

Theresa McLean, The English at Play in the Middle Ages (Windsor Forest, U.K.: Kensal Press, 1988).

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