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Were there any role-playing games in medieval times?

Were there any role-playing games in medieval times?


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Note: This might be a bit of a naïve question, but I imagine it is a valid one. I am not a historian.

That is, were there any "standard" activities (with a set of rules or other concrete description), be them board-based or not, that involved acting/role-playing with the intent of mutual entertainment?

Sure, theatrics themselves are very ancient, but are usually intended as a presentation to a public, not for the entertainment of the actors themselves.

So, was any kind of roleplaying game practiced?


Medieval, and way older; as Saturnalia, Carnival or whatever the name your culture had for it. Festivities about role reversal seem to be abundant.

For example, for Saturnalia:

Saturnalia was characterized by role reversals and behavioral license. Slaves were treated to a banquet of the kind usually enjoyed by their masters. Ancient sources differ on the circumstances: some suggest that master and slave dined together, while others indicate that the slaves feasted first, or that the masters actually served the food. The practice might have varied over time.

Carnivals later developed on top of that, but there are also some local festivities that involve not role but gender reversal, for example mumming1 in England and some celebrations of Saint Agatha

And, of course, this other pagan festivity.


1Don't ask me what exactly "mumming" is, I found it while looking for the Saint Agatha festivities.


Chess and its predecessors are board-based battle games in which players assume the role of various military figures (the specific roles involved depend on which set of pieces are in use). Today's game was standardized in Europe towards the end of the medieval period. It does not require nor prohibit "acting" and "theatrics".


What did people do in a Medieval City?

What did people do in the Middle Ages? If you meet a random person on the street, what is his likely occupation? Or did people work at all? Were the Middle Ages some Communist utopia, where everybody laid around all day and things were magically produced by fairies?

Of course not. They didn't have electronics engineers and computer programmers, but they did have coopers, bakers, blacksmiths, and many other jobs that made their society go around. If you do a little research, there were tons of medieval occupations. Luckily, I've done it for you, so you don't have to!

In the following list, I have made a link to the online version of Webster's Dictionary, so you can find out what things are. In some cases, the definition is also included locally. I am slowly making local definitions for all these occupations, for your convenience.

Is there something on this page you'd like to see that isn't here? Send me an email at [email protected] -- let me know what you were looking for -- maybe I can help. Also, do you know more occupations that aren't on this list? Do you have definitions that I'm missing? Send them in! I'd love to improve this page!


The History of Football: Medieval Football, Pt. 1

Although different kinds of ball game existed throughout the world during the ancient times, the evolution of football took place on the British Isles and there are many documented cases that prove that.

As early as the 12th century, “football” was practiced by people throughout Britain.

The first documented case of football was recorded by William FitzStephenin the year 1170. While he was visiting London he noticed that “after dinner all the youths of the city goes out into the fields for the very popular game of ball.” He also noted that every trade had its own football team.

It is thought that some of these popular games derived from the Roman game “harpastum,” even though the Romans were long gone from these lands (in 410).

The games of ball, of course, were quite different than their modern counterpart.

The name “football” was referring to the game being played on foot and not because it was played by using your feet. Actually, all parts of the body were allowed to be used to propel the ball. The game was simply called “ball” or “gameball.”

Most often, the sessions of “football” took place in the open country but sometimes they were played inside the towns and villages which caused an abundance of commotion and property damage.

Of course, once again, the ball games served different kinds of purposes for the communities. Sometimes the games of ball were used to settle disputes and other times they were used as some kind of ritual, serving some pagan religious need.

The “Goals” were sometimes set a couple of miles apart and there were no or very little amount of rules. The teams may have consisted of 300 to 500 people each. Wrestling, punching, kicking and other aggressive behavior was as normal as it is today in the Mixed Martial Arts fights.

Due to the riotous nature of the game, property damage and injuries to the people involved were quite the usual outcome. In some cases, the injuries were so bad that they led to the death of the participants.

In one documented case, it was written, “Henry, son of William deEllington, while playing at ball at Ulkhamon Trinity Sunday with David le Ken and many others, ran against David and received an accidental wound from David's knife of which he died on the following Friday.”

In another, “During the game at ball as he kicked the ball, a lay friend of his, also called William, ran against him and wounded himself on a sheath knife carried by the canon, so severely that he died within six days.

Due to the rough nature of the game then, it comes as quite a surprise that there were versions of the game reserved only for women. They sometimes played, split into two teams, one of which would be the married women who would play against the other team which would consist of the unmarried ones.

That proves that football was a very popular game during those times.

Even though it seemed that football was set to flourish, its progress was almost put to a hold by King Edward II. He opposed it with full force and attempted to ban the game.

In 1314, he became quite concerned by the effects that came out of playing “football” so he decided to ban it.

According to him, “football” was only a waste of valuable energy and time for his soldiers. He wanted them to practice theirs skills with the bow instead of playing “football.”

He feared that the impact football was having on his archers in particular would be devastating to the monarchy’s future involvements in wars.

Edward II was only the first of a number of monarchs who attempted to ban “football”. In 1331, his father, Edward III was focused on invading Scotland so he reintroduced the ban on “football.”

Another monarch, Edward IV, continued to battle with the constantly spreading game. In 1477, he converted his believes into a reality with a law that ordered: “no person shall practise any unlawful games such as dice, quoits, football and such games, but that every strong and able-bodied person shall practise with bow for the reason that the national defence depends upon such bowmen.”

However, plenty of records show that the young men who were in love with the game refused to accept the bans. Many people were fined or arrested for playing “unlawful games of football.” Nevertheless, people continued to practice this game.

Despite the heavy opposition there were people who continued to believe that football had its benefits as well, especially to the health of its participants.

According to http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ Richard Mulcaster, the headmaster of the Merchant Taylors’ School, claimed that football had “great helps, both to health and strength.” He also added that the game “strengtheneth and brawneth the whole body, and by provoking superfluities downward, it dischargeth the head, and upper parts, it is good for the bowels, and to drive the stone and gravel from both the bladder and kidneys.”

Despite all its enemies during the medieval times, the most popular game today did not stop its progress there. It was in the hearts of the young men and it steadily continued to gain more and more popularity and support around the British Isles.


Why The Middle Ages Wasn't More Violent Than The Modern World (Despite What 'Game of Thrones' Says)

The Violence Research Centre at Cambridge University (UK) just unveiled a new data-visualization project that maps murders in medieval London. Across a city of about 80,000 people at the time, the map shows 142 known homicides committed between 1300-1340 CE, with data taken from so-called "Coroners' Rolls" (legal records of investigations into the cause of someone's death).

In an interview with The Guardian, the director of the project acknowledge that he was building from the work of eminent historian Prof. Barbara Hanawalt, yet came to his own conclusions, namely that the European Middle Ages seem to have been a singularly violent place. Indeed, the time was so dangerous, the director concluded, that if they all had guns, the people of the Middle Ages "would quickly have wiped each other out."

But that isn't really a fair characterization of the period. The Middle Ages wasn't as violent as we often think it was and the conclusion that the Centre's director reaches here have far more to do with common assumptions about the period than the actual experience of medieval life. In fact, saying that medievals "would quickly have wiped each other out" tells us something important about the lies we tell ourselves about the world we live in today.

Cain slaying Abel, detail from Genesis, by Wiligelmus (active ca 1099-1120), marble bas-relief, . [+] facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption and Saint Geminianus (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1997), Modena, Emilia Romagna. Italy, 12th century.

The idea that the Middle Ages was a spectacularly violent time might seem like a fair conclusion to draw, given what most people know about the time period. We tend to think of the European Middle Ages as a particularly violent time and place. It's now such a commonplace that it's almost a cultural norm. Fantasy video games such as The Witcher, TV shows like Game of Thrones, movies like Braveheart, and books such as the Broken Empire series promote the myth of rampant violence, using a background of knights and castles to link their fictional worlds in our minds to the Middle Ages. And academics can be as guilty as anyone else when making sweeping generalizations about violence over time. Historian Johan Huizinga famously wrote in 1921 that "so violent and motley was life [in the Middle Ages], that it bore the mixed smell of blood and roses." Much more recently, psychologist Steven Pinker charted a decline in violence from pre-modernity to today (though that book has now been rightly critiqued as deeply problematic).

In some ways, the "medieval murder map" seems to confirm those suspicions. Look at all the murders, plotted all at once on the map. But let's think for a moment about the data set presented by this mapping project. We, of course, realize that data matters mostly in how it's understood. Sometimes the same data set can both confirm and refute our assumptions about a problem. In the case of this "murder map," we should think about what 142 documented murders in a city of about 80,000 people over a 40-year period really means. According to the US Department of Justice, homicides in Roanoke, VA, a city of comparable size to London in 1300 CE, were higher (306 total) across a shorter time-span (30 years, 1985-2014). More generally, Prof. Warren Brown in his book Violence in Medieval Europe analyzed a trove of historical data on violence across England, but then compared them with similar statistics from the US and EU. He concluded that "counterintuitive as it might seem. thirteenth-century England as a whole was not significantly more violent than the US or EU around the turn of the twenty-first century. [W]hile much of the US or EU experiences far less violence than much of thirteenth-century England, some city dwellers. endure about the same level [and sometimes higher]." So, does this confound our expectations or do we choose another similarly-sized city that confirms a higher medieval murder rate?

And before answering that questions, we should realize that how we answer it depends less on what we want to prove about the past and more about what we want to prove about our own time.

Take for example the quotation above by Huizinga - "so violent and motley was life, that it bore the mixed smell of blood and roses." It paints a vivid picture. But is it a complete picture?

We understandably focus on the "blood" in that sentence but what of the roses? The rest of that same paragraph explains. After the "blood and roses" Huizinga writes that medievals "always oscillate between the fear of hell and the most naive joy, between cruelty and tenderness, between harsh asceticism and insane attachment to the delights of this world, between hatred and goodness, always running to extremes." He's describing a paradox, people who can't easily be categorized. In other words, we must remember that we're talking about real people living real lives. People in the European Middle Ages experienced and perpetrated violence, but they experienced and created joy and wonder too. The exact ratio of one to the other likely depended on a specific person, in a specific place, at a specific time.

The Centre's data visualization project promises to be a useful teaching and research tool but we always have to be careful about making sweeping generalizations from such a small source base, analyzed by non-specialists. This is particularly true when dealing with the Middle Ages because the period carries with it so much invisible baggage. When we talk about the "medieval" we're often talking about ourselves. Talking about the medieval allows us "to deal with potentially uncomfortable issues at a safe distance. Something we call 'medieval' is always a bad thing, a relic of an older time, something we haven't yet - but inevitably will - evolve beyond." In this thinking, the medieval was violent because the modern is not. But we know that's not the case.

So when we say that a group of people are prone to violence, that they would have "wiped each other out" if they had the chance, we're really trying to say that we're better than them. In the end, although we can hope, violence isn't something we've really evolved beyond.


3 The Crusades

In an era trademarked by brutal religious conflict, the Crusades stand in a category of their own. The Crusades were six separate holy wars that took place between 1096-1229, when a series of popes called on Western Christians to come to the aid of their Eastern Byzantine counterparts to ward off increasing Islamic encroachment. Savage battles to reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity led to back-and-forth conquering and re-conquering -- with enormous atrocities committed by both sides -- until Muslim defenders finally drove out the European crusaders and regained control of the modern-day Middle East.


Were there any feared knights from medieval history like the Mountain from Game of Thrones?

Feared? Well, sort of. There were definitely some more famous ones. William Marshal comes to mind. He was a sort of proto celebrity and lived between 1146CE and 1219CE.

He was one of the younger sons in his family, and he didn't really stand much of a chance to inherent land. He ended up finding talent as a knight and spent a lot of time tourneying with friends, where he gained recognition with a few royals. He also had a reputation for playing rather dirty:

"The Marshal made a point of playing to win. Wherever he went he was ruthless on the field, mastering tactics (such as grabbing his opponent's horse's reins) that eluded others." (Nigel Saul, "Chivalry and the Birth of Celebrity").

He lived long enough, married the right person, and won enough tournaments to move up in society enough to live comfortably. One of his children commissioned an historical poem about him, and records tell a decent amount.

PRACTICAL CHIVALRY IN THE TWELFTH CENTURY: THE CASE OF WILLIAM MARSHAL Richard Abels

Saul, Nigel. "Chivalry And The Birth Of Celebrity." History Today 61.6 (2011): 20-25. Historical Abstracts. Web. 29 June 2014.

(Yes, I know, I haven't formatted my citations properly or similarly, but it's a Saturday, it's summer, this is reddit, and I'm tired).

Basically, yes. And I'm sure that for every knight that we know about, there were many who have been lost to history.

Has the poem commissioned about him survived?

Follow-up: Are there any reliable primary sources on Roland? I know there are many myths about him, including the "Song of Roland", but is there a consensus among historians on whether or not he and his deeds were real?

Irish society before the 12th century was a direct inheritor of Iron-Age social structures, meaning it was dominated by a warrior-aristocracy whose legitimacy depended in part on their capacity to fight in battle. And by fight in battle, I mean at the front lines Irish annals sometimes list dozens of kings who perished in combat in a single battle. This means that Irish kings were expected to fight alongside their retinue of household troops in battle, and that a few of them were famous for being relatively fierce warriors.

Cerball mac Dúnlang, king of Osraige immediately comes to mind. He was a 9th century king of Osraige, a small territory wedged between the provinces of Munster and Leinster whose almost constant military campaigns during the Viking Age saw his kingdom become a major power in eastern Ireland. He was renown as a charismatic warrior-king who became feared by Scandinavian raiders:

When the Norwegians saw Cerball with his army, or retinue, they were seized by terror and great fear. Cerball went to a high place, and he was talking to his own people at first. This is what he said, looking at the wasted lands around him: ‘Do you not see,’ said he, ‘how the Norwegians have devastated this territory by taking its cattle and by killing its people? If they are stronger than we are today, they will do the same in our land. Since we are a large army today, let us fight hard against them. There is another reason why we must do hard fighting: that the Danes who are along with us may discover no cowardice or timidity in us. For it could happen, though they are on our side today, that they might be against us another day. Another reason is so that the men of Munster whom we have come to relieve may comprehend our hardiness, for they are often our enemies.’

Afterwards he spoke to the Danes, and this is what he said to them: ‘Act valiantly today, for the Norwegians are your hereditary enemies, and have battled among you and made great massacres previously. You are fortunate that we are with you today against them. And one thing more: it will not be worth your while for us to see weakness or cowardice in you.’

The Danes and the Irish all answered him that neither cowardice nor weakness would be seen in them. Then they rose up as one man to attack the Norwegians. Now the Norwegians, when they saw that, did not think of giving battle, but fled to the woods, abandoning their spoils. The woods were surrounded on all sides against them, and a bloody slaughter was made of the Norwegians. Until that time the Norwegians had not suffered the like anywhere in Ireland. This defeat occurred at Cruachan in Eóganacht. Cerball came back home with victory and spoils.

In an annal entry below, it is said that Cerball "was worthy to possess all Ireland because of the excellence of his form and his countenance and his dexterity", implying that he deserved to dominate all of Ireland because of how mighty a warrior he was - Irish warfare depended on mobility and quick skirmishes without armour, so dexterity would have been an important skill for a fighter. In an entry that relates his victory battle against the king of Tara, it is said that "the learned related that Cerball had great difficulty there because Tairceltach mac na Certa practised magic upon him, so that it might be less likely that he should go to the battle so Cerball said that he would go to sleep then, and would not go to the battle." -- Cerball was such a fierce fighter that only magic could stop him from giving battle!

The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland attest to his fame during his lifetime in an entry for the year 859, after Cerball ⟞spoiled the land of all its goods' in the kingdom of Mide, it is said that:

Many of the poets of Ireland made praise-poems for Cerball, and mentioned in them every victory he had won and Óengus the scholar, successor of MoLua, made the most of all.

Now this is one of my favourite annal entries ever:

The men from two fleets of Norsemen came into Cerball son of Dúnlang's territory for plunder. When messengers came to tell that to Cerball, he was drunk. The noblemen of Osraige were saying to him kindly and calmly, to strengthen him: ‘What the Norwegians are doing now, that is, destroying the whole country, is no reason for a man in Osraige to be drunk. But may God protect you all the same, and may you win victory and triumph over your enemies as you often have done, and as you still shall. Shake off your drunkenness now, for drunkenness is the enemy of valor.’

When Cerball heard that, his drunkenness left him and he seized his arms. A third of the night had passed at that time. This is how Cerball came out of his chamber: with a huge royal candle before him, and the light of that candle shone far in every direction. Great terror seized the Norwegians, and they fled to the nearby mountains and to the woods. Those who stayed behind out of valor, moreover, were all killed.

When daybreak came the next morning, Cerball attacked all of them with his troops, and he did not give up after they had been slaughtered until they had been routed, and they had scattered in all directions. Cerball himself fought hard in this battle, and the amount he had drunk the night before hampered him greatly, and he vomited much, and that gave him immense strength and he urged his people loudly and harshly against the Norwegians, and more than half of the army was killed there, and those who escaped fled to their ships. This defeat took place at Achad mic Erclaige. Cerball turned back afterwards with triumph and great spoils.

Have you ever been so hungover that you vomited and gained immense strength? Cerball mac Dúnlang did! Most of Cerball's deeds from this entry onwards relate to him defeating Northmen in battle and taking their spoils of war, or raiding neighbouring Irish kingdoms and inflicting "total devastation". Unfortunately, Cerball died in the year 888, which is missing from the Fragmentary Annals, so we'll never know what his eulogy looked like (when Irish kings died, the annalists would often include eulogies mentioning their valour, righteousness and prowess in battle).

Cerball mac Dúnlang was a renown warrior-king, and likely feared by his neighbours and by Scandinavian raiders. A lot of what's written in the annals may be dynastic propaganda, but it is still most likely that people during his lifetime did actually believe these stories.


Culture in the Middle Ages

There is one word to describe the culture in the Middle Ages and that is barbaric. While some countries were better than others at maintaining order and the education of their society it was quite a rough time to exist when people had little to no rights. There were certain aspects of the Middle Ages that seemed rather glamorous such as kings, queens, knights, and other rumors that surrounded the time period, but overall the Middle Ages were not a fun and fancy free type of time.

There was a lot that occurred during the Middle Ages, plague, war, famine, and literacy problems plagued many of the countries in Europe. It was not a good time to have beliefs that differed from the church, and there was little to protect any member of the country that spoke their mind if it differed from those in power. The Middle Ages were exactly that a period after the fall of the Roman Empire and Greek influence, but before the enlightenment of the renaissance. The Middle Ages were the transition period that sat smack dab in the middle of those two time periods.

Medieval Times

Most people think of Medieval Times as a place in history where a gallant knight would ride off into the sunset to sleigh a dragon for the love of a princess. They do not realize it was a huge time for superstition, and the lack of education did not provide any support to disprove any of the more outrageous superstitious beliefs.

Medicine was pretty much non-existent, so the treatment for someone that fell ill or had some sort of medical issue was basically to wait it out and see what God decides. Blood letting was a popular treatment for almost any disease, and that was when a doctor would simply cut into an individual and drain blood from their body. The belief was that ridding the body of the toxic blood would allow the body to heal itself. The problem with this was that the blood draining would make the individuals weaker and people would often drain off too much blood which would eventually lead to death.

There were games and fairs that existed and the citizens of a town were often all in attendance. These fairs provided a wonderful time and opportunity for many families. There were shows, games, and many other trading or sales stands available for people to purchase items or sell homemade items that they may have to a wide audience. While there were local trade markets many of these people did not get such a large audience as they would from a fair.

Everyday Life

The average person’s life was filled with a great deal of hard work and modest earnings. The majority of families worked all day in order to grow and gather enough food to feed their family and sell in order to purchase items such as clothing that they may need. Most families were barely able to make ends meet, and their children were often married off at a very young age. All of the children were expected to help work in order to help feed the family, so education was not pushed on the children. The expectancy of life for peasants was very low. Many women experienced a great deal of miscarriages, and the children often died at young ages to illness, disease or simply just accidents.

The wealthier people of society often had a much easier time in life. They did not have to do much hard labor at all and in fact often had live in servants that were there to take care of any need that they may have. Some members would be invited to court which meant that they would go to keep the king or queen company and to wait on them hand and foot.

Some people were just there to provide entertainment, and others were there simply because the king may choose to want them close. This was an extremely common practice for kings that often had affairs with the women that were at court. Eventually the kings would tire of them or the women would become impregnated and they would eventually send them away.

Art & Education

There could not be a bigger difference in a society’s concentration like that of art and education during the Middle Ages. The culture in the Middle Ages had a strong concentration on the artistic talents of many individuals. The Middle Ages saw the sprouting of artists from individuals that lived and worked outside of the monasteries which were completely different than it had been historically. Some of the most famous artists in history were born to farmhands or peasants during this time period.

Education took a back seat during the Middle Ages. It was not until the end of the Middle Ages that the rulers began to realize that without education they would just continue to make the same mistakes over and over again and would never reach peace for their society. It was then that they began to focus on the education of at least the higher end of society so that the countries would be able to grow and flourish.

Branching Out

The culture in the Middle Ages expanded eastward. Due to open trade lines with the east there were many aspects of society that began to change due to the knowledge that they received from their much more educated eastern neighbors. Religions, education, art, and even cooking were influenced by the east. Bland food began to have a more vibrant taste due to spices and herbs that were brought through the trade lines, and made the rest of Europe realize that there was a much bigger world out there.

The culture in the Middle Ages was extremely limited due to strong restrictions placed on society by the church. The church worried that the more education the people received the more likely they were to question their beliefs, so they encouraged the hindrance of the culture.


Did Race and Racism Exist in the Middle Ages?

For generations, race studies scholars—historians and literary critics alike—believed that race and its pernicious spawn racism were modern-day phenomena only. This is because race was originally defined in biological terms, and believed to be determined by skin color, physiognomy, and genetic inheritance. The more astute, however, came to realize race could also be a matter of cultural classification, as Ann Stoler’s study of the colonial Dutch East Indies makes plain:

“Race could never be a matter of physiology alone. Cultural competency in Dutch customs, a sense of ‘belonging’ in a Dutch cultural milieu…disaffiliation with things Javanese…domestic arrangements, parenting styles, and moral environment…were crucial to defining…who was to be considered European.”*

Yet even after we recognized that people could be racialized through cultural and social criteria—that race could be a social construction—the European Middle Ages was still seen as outside the history of race (I speak only of the European Middle Ages because I’m a euromedievalist—it’s up to others to discuss race in Islamic, Jewish, Asian, African, and American premodernities).

This meant that the atrocities of the medieval period—roughly 500-1500 CE—such as the periodic extermination of Jews in Europe, the demand that they mark their bodies and the bodies of their children with a large visible badge, the herding of Jews into specific towns in England, and the vilification of Jews for putatively possessing a fetid stench, a male menses, subhuman and bestial characteristics, and a congenital need to ingest the blood of Christian children whom they tortured and crucified to death — all these and more were considered to be just premodern “prejudice” and not acts of racism.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Christ Accused by the Pharisees, c. 1308-11 (Wikimedia)

The exclusion of the medieval period from the history of race issues derives from an understanding of race that has been overly influenced by the era of scientific racism (in the so-called Age of Enlightenment), when science was the magisterial discourse of racial classification.

But today, in news media and public life, we see how religion also can function to classify people in absolute and fundamental ways. Muslims, for example, who hail from a diversity of ethno-races and national origins, have been talked about as if their religion somehow identified them as one homogenous people.

“Race” is one of the primary names we have for our repeating tendency to demarcate human beings through selected differences that are identified as absolute and fundamental, so as to distribute power differentially to human groups. In race-making, strategic essentialisms are posited and assigned through a variety of practices. Race is a structural relationship for the management of human differences.

Rather than oppose premodern “prejudice” to modern racisms, we can see the treatment of medieval Jews—including their legalized murder by the state on the basis of community rumors and lies—as racial acts, which today we might even call hate crimes, of a sanctioned and legalized kind. In this way, we would bear witness to the full meaning of actions and events in the medieval past, and understand that racial thinking, racial practices, and racial phenomena can occur before there’s a vocabulary to name them for what they are.

We can see medieval racial thinking in art and statuary, in maps, in saints’ lives, in state legislature, church laws, social institutions, popular beliefs, economic practices, war, settlement and colonization, religious treatises, and many kinds of literature, including travel accounts, ethnographies, romances, chronicles, letters, papal bulls, and more.

English Jew wearing the Jewish badge on his chest in the form of the tablets of the Old Testament (BL Cotton MS Nero, D2, fol.180, 13th century. British Library, UK, reproduced from The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages).

Accordingly, the treatment of Jews marks medieval England as the first racial state in the history of the West. Church and state laws produced surveillance, tagging, herding, incarceration, legal murder, and expulsion. A popular story of Jews killing Christian boys evolved over centuries, showing how changes in popular culture helped create the emerging communal identity of England. England’s 1275 Statute of Jewry even mandated residential segregation for Jews and Christians, inaugurating what would seem to be the beginning of the ghetto in Europe and England’s expulsion of its Jews in 1290 marks the first permanent expulsion of Jews in Europe.

Similarly, Muslims in medieval Europe were transformed from military enemies into non-humans. The renowned theologian, Bernard of Clairvaux, who co-wrote the Rule for the Order of the Templars, announced that the killing of a Muslim wasn’t actually homicide, but malicide—the extermination of incarnated evil, not the killing of a person. Muslims, Islam, and the Prophet were vilified in numerous creative ways, and the extraterritorial incursions we call the Crusades coalesced into an indispensable template for Europe’s later colonial empires of the modern eras.

Even fellow Christians could be racialized. Literature justifying England’s colonization of Ireland in the twelfth century depicted the Irish as a quasi-human, savage, infantile, and bestial race—a racializing strategy in England’s colonial domination of Ireland that echoes from the medieval through the early modern period four centuries later.

Statue of the Black African St. Maurice of Magdeburg, at Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany, 1220-1250 (The Menil Foundation, Houston Hickey and Robertson, Houston and Harvard University’s Image of the Black Project, reproduced from The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages)

The treatment of Africans in medieval Europe tracks the pathways by which whiteness ascended to primacy in defining Christian European identity from the mid-thirteenth century onward. Sub-Saharan Africans were grimly depicted as killers of John the Baptist and torturers of Christ in medieval art. Africa also allowed European literature to fantasize the outside world, and imagine what the world outside could offer—treasure, sex, wealth, supremacy—and consider how to make the rest of the world into something that better resembled Latin Christendom itself.

After Greenlanders and Icelanders encountered Native Americans in the early eleventh century, when the Norse founded settlements in North America, Icelandic sagas gleefully show the new colonists cheating Native Americans in exploitative trade relations half a millennium before Columbus. The colonists also kidnap two native boys and abduct them back to northern Europe, where the children are Christianized and taught Norse—an account of forced migration that may help explain why, among the races of the world today, the C1e DNA gene element is shared only by Icelanders and Native Americans.

Europe’s evolving relationship with the Mongol race is traced in Franciscan missionary accounts, the famous narrative of Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, Franciscan letters from China, the journey of a monk of the Church of the East from Beijing to Europe, and other travel narratives, that transform Mongols from a terrifying alien race into an object of desire for the West, once the Mongol imperium’s wealth, power, and resources became known. Mongols even offered a vision of modernity, of what that future might look like—with a postal express, disaster relief, social welfare, populace-maintained census data collection, independent women leaders, and universal paper money. Unlike the other races encountered by Latin Christendom—Jews, Muslims, Africans, Native Americans, and the Romani—Mongols were the only race representing absolute power to a fearful West.

Detail from the Catalan Atlas showing Marco Polo traveling the Silk Road (Wikipedia)

Slavery in the medieval period was also configured by race: Caucasian slave women in Islamic Spain birthed sons and heirs for Arab Muslim rulers, including the famed Caliphs of Cordoba the ranks of the slave dynasties of Turkic and Caucasian sultans and military elites in Mamluk Egypt were regularly resupplied by European, especially Italian slavers and the Romani (“Gypsies”) in southeastern Europe became enslaved by religious houses and landowning elites who used Romani slaves as labor well into the modern era, making “Gypsy” the name of a slave race.

In the Middle Ages and today, it is the Romani—who consider themselves an ethnoracial group, despite considerable internal heterogeneity among their peoples—who best personify the paradox of race and racial identification. Romani self-identification as a race, despite substantial differences in the composition of their populations, suggests to us that racialization—by those outside, as well as by those who self-racialize—remains tenacious, well into the twenty-first century.

* Ann Laura Stoler, “Racial Histories and Their Regimes of Truth.” Political Power and Social Theory 11 (1997): 183-206

Recommended reading:

Madeline Caviness, “From the Self-Invention of the Whiteman in the Thirteenth Century to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art 1 (2008).
A key study on the ascension of whiteness to centrality in European identity, as depicted in medieval art, with fifty-nine full-color images.

Jean Devisse, The Image of the Black in Western Art: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery.” Trans. William G. Ryan. Vol. 2 Pt. 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood (2010).
An extraordinary, indispensable volume, with a vast collection of images of objects, illustrations, and architectural features depicting blackness and Africans in medieval European art. Part of an invaluable multi-volume series on blackness and Africans in art history, that ranges from antiquity to the modern period.

Ian Hancock, We are the Romani People (2002). A major study on the Romani, and Romani slavery, by a distinguished Romani studies scholar at the University of Texas in Austin.

Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (2003).
An important study showing us the implications of the iconography that visualized Jews, Muslims, Mongols, and monstrous humans for medieval audiences. Strickland reminds us that the human freaks depicted in art, cartography, and literature—often celebrated as wondrous and marvelous—shouldn’t teach us that medieval pleasure is pleasure of a simply and wholly innocent kind.

Header image: Alexander encounters the headless people —Historia de preliis in French, BL Royal MS 15 E vi, c. 1445.


  • Cooper - This is the profession of Barrel Maker
  • Cobbler - repaired shoes
  • Cordwainer - Made new shoes. Cobbler and Cordwainer were very distinct job differences.
  • Cartwright - Cart Maker
  • Chandler - A candlemaker. But often times in castles a chandler was also in charge of all the candles making sure they were lit and put out at appropriate times.
  • Hayward or HedgeWarder - HIs duty was to inspect the fences and hedges around the meadows or gardens. And, A blast from teh Haywards horn signals the beginning of mowing or reaping.
  • Bailiff - Was hired by the lord to be his general overseer
  • Reeve - Was elected by the Peasants to be their representative
  • Brewer - Would make various alcoholic beverages, He would hang a green branch over his door which would signify that the brew was ready. I read an interesting anecdote about a brewer who made a bad batch of brew and was punished for it. They made him drink some of his brew and they poured the rest over his head. This is an official case. I wonder if the bailiff was involved in that.

Guilds were a very important part of Medieval life and medieval jobs. They were bands of men and women that joined together for profit and mutual protection. Each guild revolved around a particular craft or the trade of a particular type of item. The Guilds established standards, set prices, and determined skills. A good example of this would be a merchant guild that dealt in wool.

Getting a job in a particular craft meant joining a guild and following the rules for craftsmanship and pricing. A young person could be given a job as an apprentice with a master craftsman. This wasn't a paid job however. It was often the case that the young persons family actually paid the master craftsman to take on the apprentice. After a period of time as an apprentice the young person could possibly be promoted to the position of journeyman. As a journeyman, he would now become an assistant to the master and get paid. He would learn the craft more fully. And eventually, if he had acquired the necessary skills, and had the money to pay his guild dues he could in turn become a master craftsman. This application to become a master craftsman often had some kind of a test where the journeyman would make something that showed he had fully mastered all aspects of the craft. This object was called a "Masterwork".

- There were basically two different types of guilds: The Merchant Guilds and the Crafts Guilds

Merchant Guilds: These were typically guilds of traders who were involved in the various aspects of trading items (commerce). They would typically purchase rights to trade from the king and would establish monopolies. they would set tolls and taxes on outsiders. Wool was one of the most vibrant types of merchant and a Merchant Wool Guild of a city or town would make rules that prevented outsiders from trading in wool. Some of the tasks of a merchant guild of this type would be to set the standards for weight of wool and the standards for price.

Craft Guilds: This type of guild is more well known in modern times and it is what we think of when we think of guilds. Craftsmen banded together to set prices and standards for their craft. They could be stone masons, blacksmiths, cooper or any of a wide variety of crafts where things were made.

The lives of Two Medieval Women - I take a look at two women from the period of time after the black plague and before the Renaissance where life and society, and the roles of men and women began to change and form into the precursors of modern life.


Were there any role-playing games in medieval times? - History

History of Marbles

Marbles have been made of round stones, clay balls, marble, porcelain, glass and steel. Toy makers have found increasingly ingeneous methods for making marbles that are beautiful, durable, inexpensive, and fun.

We are going to look at how the marbles have been made. Of course, we make marbles for play, so we'll look at how people have played with marbles.

American Toy Marble Museum

The American Toy Marble Museum is located in Akron Ohio, where some of the earliest american marbles were produced. The American Marble and Toy Manufacturing Company was founded by Samuel C. Dyke in 1891 in Akron. The museum displays a wide range of marbles and other toys and tools from the industry.

Ancient Marbles

Archaeologists speculate that the small clay balls found in the pyramid tombs of Egyptian kinds were produced for marble games. It is thought that the Aztecs played a form of marbles. Clay marbles have been found in prehistoric pueblo ruins in the southwestern United States, in the classic periods Valley of Mexico ruins, and in the northern plains.

The British Museum in London displays marbles of clay, stone and flint that date back to ancient Roman and Egyption civilizations.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, children played games with round nuts, and Jewish children played games with filberts at Passorver. The Latin expression "relinguere nuces" - putting away childish things - probably refers to the polished nuts in these games. Although most early marble games were played with stone and nuts, some early Roman glass spheres have been found in Europe. Whether they were intended for jewelery or served as childrens' toys is not known.

A second century roman, Athenaeus writes of a game of marbles in which the suitors of Penelope in the Odysseey shot their alleys against another marble representing the queen. The first player to hit the queen marble had another turn, and if he was successful again he was considered to be the probable bridegroom.

Glass marbles are thought to have been some of the many glass objects made in ninth century Venice, but it is not until the late middle ages that the playing of marbles games is again documented. It appears that by then marbles were known throughout Europe. A manustript from the fifteenth centruy refers to 'little balls with which schoolboys played". In 1503 the town council of Nurenberg, Germany, limited the playing of marble games to a meadow outside of town.

The popularity of marbles in England during the Middle Ages is evidenced in the town council statues of the village of Saint Gall, which othorized the user of a cat-o-nin-tails on boys who played marbles under the fish stand and refused to be warned off". A painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, "Children's Games" dated 1560 shows a scene of children playing marbles.

Archeologists have discovered marbles in the ruins of homes from this period, including the home of protestant Martin Luther.

In 1720 Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe wrote of a marble player "so dexterous an artist at shooting the tittle alabaster globe.. that he seldom missed."

Transition Marbles

Toward the end of the nineteenth century American entrepreneurs began to vie for a share of the German-dominated marble industry. Early attempts to compete with Germain production of handmade marbles provided commercially unsuccessful.

James Leighton, who founded and worked for a variety of turn of the century marbles companies, developed a new tool, a mold on a pair of tongs. This tool made it possible to create glass marbles that had only one pontil, the rough mark left on the glass when it was removed from a long steel rod called the punty. These marbles, today known as transitions, were a first step on the path top producing machine made marbles. They were made between 1896 and 1901.

The first truly machine made marbles were manufactured by an inventive Danish immigrant, Martin Frederick Christensen around the turn of the century. By the 1920s, machine -made marbles had supplanted the imports from Germany. World War 1 closed down many German marble mills, and they were never reopened. Imported German handmade marbles were to become a thing of the past as twentieth century progressed, bringing with it automation and mass production.

Marbles Industry

Marbles as we know them today began in the mid 1800's when they were produced in quantities in Germany. The name marble originates with the type of stone that was once used to make marbles. White marble, alabaster marbles were the best playing pieces during the early 1800s. German hand production continued until the earliest forms of machine production began in the early 1900's.

M.F. Christensen and Son – In 1900 Martin Frederick Christensen patented a machine that revolutionized the manufacture of steel ball bearings. Using the same principles, he went on to design a machine that would make balls from glass. It took a team of two people to operate. When marbles were to consist of two or more colors, it was necessary to melt the glass in separate pots of color and then pour them into a third pot to be stirred. A worker would then gather some of the molten glass on a puny, allowing the glass to drip downward over each set of wheels. The other worker would use a tool to shear off the exact amount of glass to make the size marble being produced. Ten thousand marbles could be produced in a ten hour day. With this machine and the glass formulas he acquired from Leighton, Christensen established in Ohio the first company to manufacture machine made glass marbles.

Akro Agate Company – established in Akron Ohio in 1911, the Akro Agate Company originally packaged and sold marbles it purchased in bulk from M.F. Christensen and Son. By 1915, the company was making its own marbles at its marble works in West Virginia. Their significant contribution was the introduction of an automatic cutoff of hot glass, which further automated the machinery by eliminating hand gathering of glass.

The Golden Age of Marbles

The decade that spanned the late 1920s and 1930s is referred to by collectors as the Golden Age of Marbles. On gets a sense of how popular marbles were when one notes that West Virginia companies such as Master Marble, Vitro Agate, Alox Manufacturing and Champion Agate went into business and made a profit during a time in America when thousands of other businesses failed.

Peltier Glass Company – Sellers and Joseph Peltier learned glassmaking from their French immigrant father, Victor, who specialized in stained glass. When a fire destroyed their Novelty Glass Company factory, the two brothers rebuilt the glassworks and renamed it the Pelterier Glass Company. In the early 1920's, Peltier Glass began to make a line of marbles producing brightly colored slags, swirls, corkscrews, and agates. It became one of the leading marble manufacturers from the 1920s to the 1940s. In addition to its regular line of marbles, Pelteir produced picture marbles, a popular series of twelve marbles that each had a decal of a contemporary comic-strip characters such as Betty Boop and Any Gump. Today these marbles are known to collectors as comics. The Peltier Glass Company is still manufacturing marbles in Ottawa Illinois.

Christensen Agate Company – Christensen glass was founded in 1925 and produced some of the most beautiful early machine made marbles. Victims of the early years of the Great Depression, Christensen Agate went out of business in 1933. Because of its short existence and the company's limited capacity, Christiensen marbles are relative scarce. Today this company's guineas, cobras, flames, slags, and opaque swirls are among the most valuable and sought after machine made marbles.

Ravenswood Novelty Company – Founded in 1929 in Ravens wood West Virginia by Charles Turnbull, the Ravenswood Novelty Company produced ceramics as well as marbles. According to company records, Ravenswood produced around one hundred million marbles per year. When Ravenswood was unable to compete with the Japanese Cat's eyes that flooded the market in the early 1950's, the company went out of business.

Modern Marbles and Games

Today you can find hand made glass marbles made by artists from around the world, and machine made marbles produced in vast quantities.

The centuries old composition of glass used for handmade marbles, sand, soda ash and lime is the same basic glass used for machine made marbles. Other ingredients added include zinc oxide, aluminum hydrate, and various coloring agents. In the manufacturing process, the glass is melted in a large furnace to a temperature of 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit for up to twenty-eight hours, until it reaches the consistency of molasses. At this point, the molten batter pours through an opening in the furnace, where shears cut the glass into equal pieces. These pieces move through rollers and cool rapidly, hardening into marbles as they are transported. They then drop into metal containers for annealing. Once cooled, the marbles are inspected, sorted, and packaged for sale.

Billions of machine-made marbles have been produced during this century. Machine-made marbles reached the peak of their popularity in the late 1920s and 1930s when competition between manufacturers made marbles plentiful and cheap. American manufacturers dominated the marble market until the introduction of Japanese cat's-eye marbles in the 1950s. Their enormous popularity over the next decade cause many American By the 1960's interest in marbles had waned.

Contemporary Marble Makers

Marbles still appeal to people of all ages. Kids and adults love to play, collect and trade them. So long as marbles have this natural appeal, there will be marble makers. Marbles are still poduced in vast quanties by several marble manufacturers. There are also a large number of artist, hobbyists, and glass shops who produce fine art marbles.



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