Urban Living: Recreation and Riot

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Urban Living: Recreation and Riot


Processions. Medieval towns were the sites of many festivals, some of which included processions or parades. For example, a city commemorated the holy day of its patron saint or a day on which the town was delivered from plague or siege with a procession. It generally began at a fairly large church and wound its way through the main streets until it arrived at the primary church in the community. All participants were dressed in their finest clothing. If they were members of guilds, they might be required to wear cloaks or mantles that bore their guild crest, and frequently participants carried large candles, relics, and statues relevant to the theme of the procession. Precedence mattered a great deal, and it was not uncommon for groups to fight with each other over their places in the procession. Sometimes these combats set clergy against laity. Prior to a parade, the town government attempted to clean the roads and remove any wandering animals. People who had houses along the street where the procession passed might be required to drape cloth from their windows or to provide some other festive decoration. When the procession was to honor a visiting dignitary, the city might stage small plays on specially built platforms at key sites on the processional route. Often these plays were tableau vivant, that is, with actors frozen in place to create living pictures to illustrate major historical, mythological, or allegorical scenes or themes. Some processions included hundreds of participants, but they could also be much smaller. For example, in fourteenth-century Dijon the bodies of dead urban leaders were accompanied to their burial by several representatives of the town council bearing large candles.

Community Sports. Medieval town councilors and other community leaders made many attempts to control youth violence through the development of community sports, generally linked to major religious festivals. Often these activities took the form of mock combats. On a designated day, young men from two opposing factions met in a preassigned area, generally a town square, and the combat began. Free-for-alls, these mock combats involved men in full foot-soldier armor swinging wooden maces at each other until one side yielded the


Like many other Italian cities, Siena faced repeated feuds and gang warfare. By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries its government attempted to control these groups through staged and regulated “civic” battles, which became quite popular.

Faced with an already centuries-old culture of intramural violence, Siena’s earliest communal governments sought to condone and control what they could not eliminate by also initiating an annual Sicnese version … the Game of the Helmet, it was a city-wide group combat, pitting Siena’s most populous temere [neighborhood] against the other two. For generations, thousands of Sienese, participating under their military banners, wielding wooden weapons (maces, swords and spears) and throwing stones, sought to drive their fellow citizens from the Piazza del Campo under the watchful eyes of their elected officials looking on from the windows of the Palazzo Pubblico, the seat of government. Sheer numbers, however, made effective control nearly impossible. When even the intervention of the city’s police forces still failed to prevent ten fatalities in 1291, sufficient political will was finally generated to ban the “’game” permanently… . the Fist Fight, was a favourite pastime in medieval Siena. Wearing cloth caps with protective cheek-pieces tied togerher under the chin similar to the sparring head-gear of modern boxers, and with their fists wrapped in cloth bindings to protect their knuckles, participants sought to drive their fellow citizens from one of the city’s piazzas. Whether arranged in advance or held impromptu between just two neighbourhoods in a nearby piazza, or organized by the communal government..., the [fist fight] seemed to satisfy the blood-lust of the Sienese, judging from the participation of 1,200 in a city-wide [fight] in 1324.

Source: Raymond E, Role, *The War Games of Central Italy,” History Today* 49 (June 1999), on-line at http://www.btstoiytoday.coiB/article/artiele.cfm?articieid1428.

field of battle. In some towns there were separate battles, one for aristocratic youth who fought on horseback and a second for craftsmen or poorer citizens who fought hand to hand on foot. Governments encouraged such ritual battles and provided a “field of honor” marked off by chains and with set entrances. Just because they had community sanction, however, does not mean these “mock” battles were safe. Since these battles took place in a public square, if a combatant fell he hit hard-packed dirt or stone. By this time in medieval European cities, particularly in Italy, the public squares that were large enough for such battles were surrounded by houses of several stories. Partisans from each side watched the battles and were known to throw rocks or other projectiles at members of the opposing factions; bricks, sticks, water, and even the contents of chamber pots were fair game. Moreover, the battles themselves were brutal. A blow to the head from a wooden club

could easily fracture a combatant’s skull or do worse damage. By the fourteenth century, with such consequences in mind, many medieval towns were attempting to ban these combats, but similar events occurred in cities such as Venice well into the seventeenth century.

Gangs. Violence was always a problem in medieval towns. Knives were a standard part of male costume, and social standards required both men and women alike to respond promptly and forcefully to any threat to their honor. Moreover, the cities of later medieval Europe had a growing itinerant population that was difficult to police and had few social ties to the city itself. As opportunities for young craftsmen and laborers in general lessened along with population growth during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a restive group of young men emerged. They ranged in age from their late teens to thirties and could not afford to marry and establish households of their own. After work there was little for them to do but to hang out on street corners, to drink, talk, and fight. The judicial records of medieval towns are filled with stories of young men breaking into shops, getting into knife fights, and playing practical jokes. Town councils attempted to curb them by instituting curfews and even legalizing prostitution in specific neighborhoods. Despite these efforts, gangs and youth violence remained a threat in most medieval towns, and people avoided going out after dark.

Rape. With such gangs loitering on medieval streets, it is probably not surprising that rape was a hazard to many young women. Cities attracted rural dwellers of both sexes. Generally the women became servants; if they were particularly lucky they married craftsmen. Because their family was distant, these women had few, if any, protectors and were easy targets for predatory gangs. Young women walking on the streets at night or even at twilight might be accused of being prostitutes, which legitimized rape in the eyes of medieval judges. Sometime gangs of young men even broke into the house of a woman’s employer to rape her, if they felt they could argue before the court that the young woman had behaved in a wanton fashion, “inviting” such attentions. Once a young woman was raped, the burden of proof that she had not willingly participated was on her. She had to show that she had fought her attackers, that she had repeatedly cried out for help, that she had a good reputation, and that she had never sought sexual attention in the past. Even if she was able to prove her innocence, and few were able to do so, her reputation was affected, injuring her ability to arrange a marriage or to find other employment if necessary. Thus, it seems that many medieval women tried to hide the information that they had been raped.

Police. Gangs could have a powerful influence on cities after dark because there were no urban police forces. In many cities powerful individuals or their supporters policed their own neighborhoods and anyone who was affiliated with them. The cities did have small staffs of “sergeants,” who were usually unwilling or unable to take the initiative in preventing or solving crimes. A sergeant’s job was basically to support an urban administrator who might be arresting an offender or collecting back taxes. Most cases that were brought before city courts originated in complaints made by one or more residents; if a person was murdered and had no relatives, or if he was injured and did not wish to prosecute his assailant, there was no case. At night citizen patrols led by town councilors policed sections of the city, but if they were outnumbered, they could do nothing but beat a hasty retreat.


Robert Brentano, Rome before Avignon: A Social History of Thirteenth Century Rome (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

Vito Fumagalli, Landscapes of Fear: Perceptions of Nature and the City in the Middle Ages, translated by Shayne Mitchell (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press / Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994).

Barbara A. Hanawalt and Kathryn L. Reyerson, eds., City and Spectacle in Medieval Europe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

E. Raymond Role, “The War Games of Medieval Italy,” History Today, 49 (June 1999), on-line at http://www.historytoday.com/article/arti-cle.cfm?article_id=1428.

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