10 Pages

Merry England

However, as life was undoubtedly more picturesque in the 14th century, so the enjoyment also was more on the surface. Fitzstephen's brief catalogue of the Londoners' relaxations is charming; and, even when we have made all allowance for the poetical colours lavished by an antiquary who saw everything through a haze of distant memory and regret, Stow's descriptions of city merrymakings are among the most delightful pages of history. Hours of labour were long,· and for village folk there was no great choice of amusements; yet there is a whole world of delight to be found in the most elementary field sports. Moreover, the most expansive enjoyment is often natural to those who have otherwise least freedom; witness the bank-holiday excitement of our own days and the negro passion for song and dance. The holy-days on which the Church forbade work amounted to something like one a week; and though there are frequent complaints that these were ill kept, equally widespread and emphatic is the testimony to noisy merriment on them; they bred more drunkenness and crime, we are assured by anxious

Churchmen, than all the rest of the year. '" Indeed, it is from judicial records that we may glean by far the fullest details about the games of our ancestors; and a brilliant archivist like Simeon Luce, when he undertakes to give a picture of popular games in the France of Chaucer's day, draws almost exclusively on Royal proclamations and court rolls.t

From the Universities, sacred haunts of modern athleticism, down to the smallest country parish, we get the same picture of sports flourishing under considerable discouragement from the powers in being, but flourishing all the same, and taking a still more boisterous tinge from the injudicious attempts to suppress them altogether. "Alike in the Universities and out of them," writes Dr. Rashdall on the subject of games, " the asceticism of the medieval ideal provoked and fostered the wildest indulgence in actual life." Even chess was among the" noxious, inordinate, and unhonest games" expressly forbidden to the scholars of New College by William ofWykeham's Statutes,t and indeed throughout the Middle Ages this was a pastime which led to more gambling and quarrels than most others. A very curious quarrel at cudgel-play outside the walls of Oxford is recorded in the" Munimenta Academica" (Rolls Series, p. 526). At Cambridge it was forbidden under penalty of forty pence to play tennis in the town. At Oxford we find four citizens compelled to abjure the same game solemnly before the vice-chancellor; and readers both of Fro iss art and of the preface to "Ivanhoe" will remember violent feuds arising from it.§ In 1446

the Bishop of Exeter, while pleading that he has always kept open the doors of the cathedral cloisters at all reasonable times, adds, "at which times, and in especial in time of divine service, ungodly-ruled people (most customably young people of the said Commonalty) within the said cloister have exercised unlawful games, as the top, queke, penny-prick, and most at tennis, by the which all the walls of the said cloister have been defouled and the glass windows all to-burst." *

As early as 1314, the laws of London forbade playing at football in the fields near the city; and this was among the games which, by Royal proclamation of 1363, were to give place to the all-important sport of archery. Others forbidden at the same time were quoits, throwing the hammer, hand-ball, club-ball, and golf. Indeed, from this ancient and royal game down to leap-frog and II conquerors," nearly all our present sports were familiar, in more or less developed forms, to our ancestors. In 1332, Edward III. had to proclaim II let no boy or other person, under pain of imprisonment, play in any part of Westminster Palace, during the Parliament now summoned, at bars [i.e. prisoners' base] or other games, or at snatch-hood"; and John Myrc instructs the parish clergy to forbid to their parishioners in general all II casting of ax-tree and eke of stone . . . ball and bars and suchlike play" in the churchyard.t Wrestling, again, was among the most popular sports, and one of those which gave most trouble to coroners. The two great wrestling matches in 1222 between the citizens of London and the suburbans ended in a riot which assumed almost the dignity of a rebellion. Fatal wrestling-bouts, like fatal games of chess, are among the stock incidents of medieval romance; whether the enemy was to be got rid of through the hands of a professional champion (as

Moreover, the same tragedy might only too easily be played unintentionally, as in the ballad of the "Two Brothers "-

Or, as it is recorded in the business-like prose of an assize-roll: Ii Richard of Horsley was playing and wrestling with John the Miller of Tutlington; and by mishap his knife fell from its sheath and wounded the aforesaid John without the aforesaid Richard's knowledge, so that he died. And the aforesaid Richard fled and is not suspected of the death; let him therefore return if he will, but let his chattels be confiscated for his flight. (N.B. He has no chattels)." * In this same assize-roll, out of forty-three accidental deaths, three were due to village games, and three more to sticks or stones aimed respectively at a cock, a dog, and a pig, but finding their fatal billet in a human life. Ecclesiastical disciplinarians endeavoured frequently, but with indifferent success, to put down the practice of wrestling in churchyards, with the scarcely less turbulent miracleplays or dances, and the markets which so frequently stained the holy ground with blood. Even the State interfered in the matter of churchyard fairs and markets "for the honour of Holy Church"; but they went on

gaily as before. Dances, as I have already had occasion to note, were condemned with a violence which is only partially explained even by Chaucer's illuminating lines about the Parish Clerk-

To quote here again from Dr. Rashdall, /I William of Wykeham found it necessary for the protection of the sculpture in the Chapel reredos to make a Statute against dancing or jumping in the Chapel or adjoining Hall. His language is suggestive of that untranslatable amusement now known as 'ragging,' which has no doubt formed a large part of the relaxation of studentsat least of English students-in all ages. At the same College there is a comprehensive prohibition of all 'struggling, chorus-singing, dancing, leaping, singing, shouting, tumult and inordinate noise, pouring forth of water, beer, and all other liquids and tumultuous games' in the Hall, on the ground that they were likely to disturb the occupants of the Chaplain's chamber below. A moderate indulgence in some of the more harmless of these pastimes in other places seems to be permitted." t

In this, the good bishop was only following the very necessary precedent of many prelates before him. As early as 1223, when the reform of the friars had stimulated a great effort to put down old abuses throughout the Church, Bishop Poore of Salisbury and his diocesan council decreed /I we forbid the holding of dances, or base and un honest games which provoke to lasciviousness, in the churchyard .... We forbid the proclaiming of scot-ales in church by layfolk, or by priests or clerks

either in or without the church." Similar prohibitions are repeated by later councils with an emphasis which only shows their inefficiency. The University of Oxford complained to Henry V. in I4I4 that fairs and markets were held /I more frequently than ever" on consecrated ground; and the Visitation of I 5 I9 among churches appropriated to York Cathedral elicited the fact that football and similar games were carried on in two of the churchyards. These holy places sometimes witnessed rougher sports still; especially cathedral cemeteries during the great processions of the ecclesiastical year. /I Moreover," writes Bishop Grosseteste in a circular letter to all his archdeacons, /I cause it to be proclaimed strictly in every church that, when the parishes come in procession for the yearly visitation and homage to the Cathedral church, no parish shall struggle to press before another parish with its banners; since from this source not only quarrels are wont to spring, but cruel bloodshed." Bishop Giffard of Worcester was compelled for the same reason to proclaim in every church of his diocese" that no one shall join in the Pentecostal processions with a sword or other kind of arms"; and a similar prohibition in the diocese of Ely (I364) is based on the complaint that "both fights and deaths are wont to result therefrom." Even more were the minds of the best clergy exercised by the corpse-wakes in churches, which "turned the house of mourning and prayer into a house of laughter and excess"; and again by "the execrable custom of keeping the I Feast of Fools,' which obtains in some churches," and which /I profanes the sacred anniversary of the Lord's Circumcision with the filth of lustful pleasures"; yet here again the tenacity of popular custom baffled even the most vigorous prelates. *

We must not pass away from popular amusements without one glance at these above-mentioned scot-ales,

~79 which were probably relics of the Anglo-Saxon semireligious drinking-bouts. In the later Middle Ages they appear as forerunners of the modern bazaar or religious tea; a highly successful device for raising money contributions by an appeal to the convivial instincts of a whole parish or district. In the early I 3th century we find them denounced among the methods employed by sheriffs for illegal extortion; and about the same time they were very frequently condemned from the religious point of view. The clergy were not only forbidden to be present at such functions, but also directed to warn their parishioners diligently against them, II for the health of their souls and bodies," since all who took part at such feasts were excommunicated. But the custom died hard; or rather, it was probably rebaptized, like so many other relics of paganism; and the change seems to have taken place during Chaucer's lifetime. In I364 Bishop Langham of Ely was still fulminating against scot-ales; in 14I9, if not before, we find an authorized system of "church-ales" in aid of the fabric. These were held sometimes in the sacred edifice itself; more often in the Church Houses, the rapid multiplication of which during the 1 5th century is probably due to the equally rapid growth of church-ales. The puritanism of the 13th century was by this time somewhat out of fashion; parish finances had come far more under the parishioners' own control; and it was obviously convenient to make the best of these timehonoured compotations, as of the equally rough-andready hock-day customs, in order to meet expenses for which the parish was legally responsible. Earnest Churchmen had, all through this century, more important abuses to combat than these quasi-religious convivialities; and we find no voice raised against church-ales until the new puritanism of the Reformation. The Canons of 1603 forbade, among other abuses, II church ale drinkings ... -in the church, chapel, or churchyard." While Bishop Piers of Bath and Wells testified that he

saw no harm in them, the puritan Stubbes accused the participants of becoming "as drunk as rats, and as blockish as brute beasts." No doubt the truth lies between these extremes; but church-ales must not be altogether forgotten when we read the numerous medieval testimonies to the intimate connection between holy days and crime. *

Perhaps the most widespread and most natural of all country sports was that of poaching. As Dr. Rashdall has pointed out, it was especially popular at the two Universities, where the paucity of authorized amusements drove the students into wilder extremes. We have also abundant records of clerical poachers; and in 1389 Richard II. enacted at the petition of the Commons "that no priest or clerk with less than ten pounds of yearly income should keep greyhounds, 'leetes' or other hunting dogs, nor ferrets, nets, or snares." The same petition complained that (I artificers and labourers -that is to say, butchers, cobblers, tailors, and other working-folk, keep greyhounds and other dogs; and at the time when good Christians are at church on holydays, hearing their divine services, these go hunting in the parks, coney-covers, and warrens pertaining to lords and other folk, and destroy them utterly." It was therefore enacted that no man with an income of less than forty shillings should presume to keep hunting dogs or implements.