by Wenyeva atte grene
The game we know as baseball may be relatively modern, but it has medieval roots. Many bat-and-ball games were played throughout the Middle Ages at religious festivals and events. One game, stool ball (sometimes possibly stow ball, or stob ball, or stump ball) dates back at least to the 14th century, and many historians believe that it is the common ancestor of both baseball and cricket. It was also the first bat-and-ball-type game known to have been played in North America (at Plymouth in 1621 at Christmastime, no less, much to the chagrin of Governor Bradford). In this game, the pitcher tries to hit a stool or stump with the ball, while the batter tries to defend the target using bare hands or a bat.
Stool ball was known for being played by both women and men together, and there are indications that it was a sort of springtime ritual, played at Eastertime. Some of the poetic mentions of the game imply an undertone of sexuality; "playing at stool ball" was used at least once as an euphemism.
In many stool ball games, tansy-cakes were the traditional winners' prize. Tansy-cakes were a traditional Eastertime food (see here, and a recipe here), so this is another connection of stool ball to Easter celebrations.
Unfortunately, no one knows exactly what the rules of the period versions of stool ball were. Since it was a folk game, it was likely to have varying rules at various times and places. From post-period references to the game, we know that in some versions of the game, there was no bat, and bare hands were used instead. Other versions had no baserunning, just a single stool or stump base that the batter was expected to defend. But bats and running the bases were included in some versions, too. For more about stool ball, see the sources listed at the end of this page.
This is a "historically plausible" version of the game. Since we don't know much about how the medieval game was played, I tried to extrapolate from what little we do know about stool ball and related historic bat and ball games, as well as making the game simple, friendly, and safe for players of all ages and abilities. The result is a game that bears some resemblance to both cricket and baseball, though it is much simpler than either, and is quite believable as a medieval game -- and it's a lot of fun!
The field dimensions aren't strict. This is just a suggested size. The game can be played in a smaller area or even indoors, though it's harder to score runs on a smaller field.
A stool, chair, or stump is placed at Home, and another one (or a similar marker) as the Base. Mark the Batter's Line with something visible, like a stick or a strip of fabric, etc. The pitcher stands near the Base and throws the ball underhand toward Home, trying to hit the Home stool with the pitch. The batter stands at the Batter's Line and tries to prevent the pitcher's throw from hitting the Home stool, by hitting the ball away with the bat. If the batter hits the ball, he can run around the Base and back Home, and if he does this before the fielders can hit the Home stool with the ball, he scores a run. Team with the most runs wins!
Equipment is simple. You need a very soft ball. (Not a softball or a baseball!) A soft ball can be walloped pretty hard, but no gloves or helmets are necessary for safe play. You can use a medieval pattern that will provide a ball of just about the perfect softness, though if you don't have time to make a ball, you will probably be able to find a ball at a toy store that will work. A Nerf ball might work.
The ball pictured on the right was made from a pattern that was used for many leather balls throughout medieval Europe. The pattern is pictured on the left (not to scale). The three pieces were cut from soft leather. They were sewn together inside-out until only a slit remained. Then the ball was turned rightside-out and stuffed with scraps of woven wool fabric until it seemed to be the right amount, and has become ball-shaped instead of cylindrical. The last slit was then stitched up. Then I topstitched over the entire ball for durability.
Amazingly, this ball has some bounce to it, and it's easy to catch bare-handed because it has some give. With the topstitching, it has held up through several games so far, and I haven't had to resort to the spare toy store balls I brought in case of emergency.
The bat can be anything that seems to work for you. A baseball bat is probably overkill (as well as obtrusively modern), but in a pinch, it will work. I decided to make something that sort of resembled a cricket bat, or a bread paddle, or a butter paddle. The modern-day stool ball players in Sussex use something that looks like a table tennis paddle with a long handle. Early stool ball players just hit the ball with their hands, so you can do that too!
My stool ball bat, as seen in the photo to the right, is about 24 inches long, cut from a poplar board. I finished it with wood stain and painted my badge on it. The handle is wrapped with a strip of leather. The bat is fairly lightweight, so players of all ages have had no trouble with it.
You will also need a stool to serve as Home (a short three-legged stool, like a milking stool, works really well, but a tree stump works too. In a pinch we use camping chairs, but their larger size tends to make it easier to hit the stool with the ball, and so the game is more low-scoring), and something to mark the base (another stool, or a post, etc.). Something to mark the batter's line, such as a piece of string, is good to have as well.
That is all the equipment necessary!
Every village probably had its own way to play, just as many households today have their own "house rules" for Monopoly. So if you want to change the game, go right ahead! Here are some ideas, marked with a * if they are period or likely-period variations:
The top photo is from The Romance of Alexander, 1344.
Wenyeva atte grene, August-December 2005, May 2006
© 2005-2006 Wendi Dunlap.