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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Sport and Sportsmanship

A ball game illustrated in the calendar pages of the "Ghistelles Hours" c.1400 (ms Bodl. 264)

When I grew up in Melbourne, one of the most popular sports was Australian Rules Football. For me, never a great sportsman, footy was something to be avoided like a particularly virulent infectious disease. I did not like the idea of having a large oval-shaped leather object violently kicked or tossed at me. On the rare and regretted occasions when I found myself on a field, usually after a heavy shower when the ground consisted mainly of mud enhanced with skid marks and puddles, and surrounded by a pack of physically developed hooligans seemingly intent on causing me a violent injury, my only aspiration was to be anywhere else. My arms would become limp and useless and if, by misfortune and no one’s intention the ball was heading my way, my desire to curl up on the ground or vanish like a Cheshire cat became overwhelming. I much preferred those types of sport where a person had a reasonable likelihood of surviving without physical injury or death.

While there are both written evidence and occasional archaeological finds relating to passive games in the Latin East, such as board games and dice which have been discussed in an excellent paper by Elizabeth Lampina*, and there are several references in sources to hawking and hunting (which some people regard as sport), we don’t read very much about physical sports in Frankish sources. There is, however, abundant evidence for ball games being played in the medieval West, for example those recorded in such manuscripts as the fourteenth century, Flemish Ghistelles Hours shown above. It is reasonable to assume such activities were not uncommon in the Crusader states as well, despite the dearth of references. One source, the Syrian chronicler, Usama ibn Munqidh gives a description of a rather cruel game played during a jousting tournament, an unpleasant example of Frankish spectator sport that we can assume occasionally took place, although we should keep in mind that this account is no doubt coloured by Usama’s usual disapproving attitude towards the Franks. Nonetheless, it throws some light on what may well have been the manner in which knights occasionally found ways of entertaining themselves, in this case at the expense of the local population and the elderly, albeit with a reward for the victor:

I was in Tiberias during one of their feast-days. The knights had gone out to practice fighting with spears, and two decrepit old women went out with them. They positioned the two women at one end of the practice-field and at the other end they left a pig, which they had roasted and laid on a rock. They then made the two old women race one another, each one accompanied by a detachment of horsemen who cheered her on. At every step, the old women would fall down but then get up again as the audience laughed, until one of them overtook the other and took away the pig as her prize.**

* Elizabeth Lampina, "Gambling and Gaming in the Holy Land: Chess, Dice and Other Games in the Sources of the Crusades", Crusades 12, 2013, pp. 121-32.

** Usama ibn Munqidh, The Book of Contemplation, trans. Paul M. Cobb, London, 2008, pp. 150-51.

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