6 Ways to Pass the Time in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages, like today, had their times of fun and frivolity, with many forms of entertainment taking place.

May 7, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History

middle ages entertainment


There is a common misconception that life in the Middle Ages was extremely harsh and depressing. This couldn’t be further from the truth! While it is true that, at times, war and disease spread across the land, not all was doom and gloom. People (including peasants) had plenty of free time to enjoy life, and there were many ways to enjoy it. Here is the entertainment that was on offer during this time.


1. Board Games

pieter bruegel the elder childrens games detail
Detail from Children’s Games by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, depicting a game of Knucklebones. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Board games were a very popular form of entertainment in the Middle Ages. They challenged the mind, requiring deep thought within a competitive environment. Many of these games are still popular today, such as Chess and Checkers.


Modern Backgammon is a direct descendant of a game called “Irish,” played throughout Britain, and was, in turn, a direct descendant of a game called “Tables,” with various versions of the game going back to Greco-Roman times. Other board games, such as Nine Men’s Morris and Fox & Geese, were also extremely popular.


nine mens morris
Nine Men’s Morris was a popular board game during the Middle Ages. Source: The Historic Games Shop


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Games involving dice, bones, and other paraphernalia were played besides board games. Of particular note was “knucklebones,” especially popular among children. The object was to throw a knucklebone (or a substitute) into the air and manipulate other knucklebones before the thrown object landed.


Mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “Hazard” was a dice game that was popular as well as complicated.


Naturally, many of these games involved a fair amount of gambling!


2. Eating!

royal feast british library
A scene of a royal feast. Source: British Library


Contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages was not a time of poor nutrition. Everybody, from peasants to lords and ladies, had, for the most part, access to plenty of food. While the peasantry was a bit more conservative in dealing with their supplies, the wealthy could afford to eat extravagantly, and many did so with great enthusiasm.


Feasts and banquets were an excellent way to enjoy life and display wealth, impressing guests by procuring the fanciest foods with the most exotic herbs and spices. These dinners were large affairs and required a tremendous amount of preparation, with teams of cooks working many hours and even days to make things ready.


The main difference between feasts and banquets is that feasts were generally large dinners for any occasion, often accompanying religious ceremonies. In contrast, banquets were feasts held to honor a special guest or guests. Whether a banquet or just a regular feast, the dinners were often accompanied by entertainment, such as jugglers and jesters who would amuse the guests with their antics.


An interesting note about medieval dinners is that there was no separation between the courses. Everything was brought out at the same time, which required many more servers than was actually necessary. Although the idea for separating dinner into courses originates in Spain with a Persian man named Ziryab, who insisted his food be brought out in separate stages, the modern three-course service originated from Russia and is known as service à la russe.


3. Hunting and Hawking

hawking middle ages
Illustration from the Codex Manesse, 14th century. Source: Public domain via World History Encyclopedia


For the peasantry permitted to hunt, the activity was a way of sustaining oneself and one’s family. For the nobility, however, it was a sport that involved a great deal of socializing.


Horses and hounds were used to find and chase down prey, and the art of hunting was closely associated with military training. Hunting required skillful horseback riding, an essential part of being a nobleman during the Middle Ages. Large tracts of land were set aside for the nobility, where peasants were not permitted to hunt. These forests were kept populated with game and tended to by gamekeepers.


Hunting in this fashion is still prevalent among the English nobility practicing fox hunting. This has led to a massive backlash from the public, and a widespread campaign in the early 2000s saw the sport banned. Despite this ban, there is little enforcement of the law, and foxes are still being chased and killed by terriers, hounds, horses, and human beings.


The use of birds of prey in hunting was also popular in medieval Europe and was a widespread pastime among the nobility. Admired for their agility and speed, falcons were the most popular bird used. Small prey such as squirrels, rabbits, and birds constituted the quarry for this form of entertainment.


Hawking or falconry is still a popular sport today, although along with traditional horseback hunting, it has received a lot of negative attention in that it is regarded by many as a bloodsport, as well as being inhumane to keep falcons and other raptors caged.


4. Minstrels, Music, Mummers, and Medieval Plays

goreston psalter marginal image
Marginal image from the Goreston Psalter. Source: British Library


Music, dance, and song were extremely important parts of medieval culture. Group singing was especially prevalent, and traditional songs would be learned and sung by families and groups of people on all occasions.


pieter van der heyden peasant dance
The Peasant Wedding Dance by Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Traveling minstrels were popular and would journey to villages and towns, taking their music with them and putting on performances for the locals. Troupes of theatrical actors also took their shows on tour. Different types of plays were presented for various occasions. There were religious plays, often produced by the church, as a way to teach the Bible to the masses. There were pantomimes performed by mummers, morality plays, mystery plays, and a host of other styles of theater, enrapturing audiences from all over.


play critique bl
The first work of theater criticism in English, the Treatise of Miraclis Pleyinge. Source: British Library


Plays were written down and disseminated; many were available for different troupes to perform. Of course, playwrights and their skills were in high regard during the Middle Ages, as were the services of writers and poets. Storytelling was an essential part of medieval life and need not have been done by trained actors. Family members entertained one another by telling tales, made-up or memorized!


5. Fairs and Festivals

Village Fair by Gillis Mostaert, 1590. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Medieval fairs were huge socio-cultural events that served as a way to break the monotony of everyday life and to provide a way for merchants to sell their wares. Originally beginning as far back as Roman times, fairs were held by French royalty during the early Middle Ages, and by the 7th century, they had become a regular event, being held in churchyards and usually on the feast days of certain saints.


The heyday of Medieval fairs was the 12th and 13th centuries. Traveling merchants made good use of these fairs, which served as a way to introduce and spread exotic items from far and wide. As such, fairs attracted people from all classes, from peasants looking to buy a pig to middle classes interested in procuring wool or linen to nobles fawning over expensive jewelry.


pieter bruegel the elder childrens games
Children’s Games by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1560. Source: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


Of course, fairs weren’t just about buying and selling. They were also a way for people to socialize and experience life outside their often insular state of existence. Fairs also drew their own entertainment, with minstrels busking for music and troupes of actors putting on productions to catch the people’s attention.


Festivals were regularly held and were celebrated in the name of famous religious figures or events. Every month, there was a festival with a different theme, such as spring harvest or veneration of the dead. Many forms of entertainment were included in these festivals, which were held across much of medieval Europe.


In June, the Midsummer Eve festival included much fire and celebrated the tale of Saint George and the Dragon in England. A big pyre was lit in which bones would be thrown. This practice resulted in the term “bonfire.”


6. Medieval Sports

jousting modern reenactment
Modern jousting re-enactment. Source: Pseudopanax / Public domain, via World History Encyclopedia


Various sports were played throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. While children played made-up games as well as ones with established rules, much like today, adults played sports that were associated with their status in society.


The noble classes engaged in sports that required a great deal of preparation and equipment that the lower classes could ill afford. Martial games such as jousting and armored combat required armor that cost a fortune and was the preserve of the exceptionally wealthy.


Archery, however, was a sport practiced by all men, especially in England, where it came to be an important part of English culture. These sports served an important function in honing skills that would be used in warfare. They could be the difference between life or death and the kingdom’s safety. Apart from the martial sports, the forerunner of tennis was popular. This medieval version is known as “real tennis” and was played with a glove instead of a racquet.


For the less wealthy folk, simpler games involving balls and skittles were popular. Many of the sports played by the lower classes were particularly violent. Games similar to rugby or soccer were played. These games had few rules and could involve entire villages and utilizing vast tracts of land as the playing field.


Boxing and wrestling were also very popular and were practiced in various forms throughout the medieval world.


jacob cornelisz van oostsanen the laughin fool
The Laughing Fool by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, ca. 1500. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Unlike today, where we can entertain ourselves in front of the television or computer screen, the people of medieval Europe had a generally more social outlook on entertainment.


It helped create and maintain the bonds of family and friendship while also providing happiness and meaning to life. In a world that could often be brutal, entertainment in the Middle Ages was a great source of love and laughter.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African history, he has authored over 200 articles. A former English teacher with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town, he excels in academic writing and finds artistic expression through drawing and painting in his free time.