Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Baseball in the Middle Ages

With the Super Bowl behind us, football is over for the season, so it's time to think about baseball!  Pitchers and catchers will soon be reporting for spring training.

But what, you say, are you doing posting about baseball in a blog about the Middle Ages?  Wasn't the sport invented in the nineteenth century in the US?  Short answer, no.

Games where you hit a ball with a bat and run around bases have a long history, indeed going back to the Middle Ages.  In England school children still play "rounders," what Americans would call a simple version of baseball, and what is probably fairly close to the medieval game.  Both modern baseball (and softball in its various versions) and modern cricket are derived from this game.

The baseball Hall of Fame is now in Cooperstown, NY because legend has it that Abner Doubleday, who later was a hero of the Civil War, first laid out the baseball diamond and created the rules of the game there in the 1830s.  The Hall of Fame itself now says that this is not even vaguely true.  There are references to games of "base-ball" (sometimes bass-ball or baste-ball) being played in the American colonies in the eighteenth century, and all the variant versions of games played with bat and ball did not really settle down to become modern baseball until the twentieth century.

The rules of modern baseball are derived ultimately from rules written by Alexander Cartwright in the 1840s in New York City; he has a lot better claim to being "father of baseball" than Abner Doubleday, who may never even have visited Cooperstown.  During the American Civil War the soldiers of North and South sometimes played baseball rather than trying to kill each other, and the first professional teams were established once the war was over.

And the Middle Ages had baseball!  There is a book of simple Latin, intended for novices in the monastery, that describes activities the boys might be doing.  It was written in a semi-humorous way to try to engage the readers (and teach them Latin).  Among other things it describes the boys horsing around until they see the master approaching.  "He is coming, quick quiet down, he is almost here, look studious, he is at the door!"

And one of the things it describes is what looks a lot like baseball.  After being drilled on their conjugations, the novices would go outside, with their master, for a little exercise.  He would pitch, and they would try to hit the ball and race around the bases.  Life as a boy being trained as a novice monk would have been tough by our standards, but at least the monks realized that boys needed to run around outside, and sometimes the monks even had a sense of humor.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval entertainment and so much more, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

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