When we think of medieval knights then we usually imagine warriors in suits of armor fighting on horseback. And indeed, knights were highly effective warriors (more on the effectiveness of knights on the battlefield here). And yet fighting in wars was more the exception than the rule.
And that brings us to an interesting question. If fighting in a war was not a common occurrence for a knight, then what did medieval knights do all day? And how did they spend their free time?
The main duty of a knight during peace times was to train his skills as a warrior either alone or by participating in tournaments. Additionally, knights had to manage and oversee the work on their estates. When these duties were done the knight had free time. During their free time, knights liked to play parlor games and board games (like chess), practice poetry and music, or spend time hunting and doing falconry.
Let`s take a closer look!
The daily duties of a medieval knight
The average medieval knight did not spend most of his time at war. Instead, participation in wars and fighting in battle was pretty rare for most knights. However, knights were still members of a social class of warriors.
Even though participating in combat was rare, training for combat was a daily duty that knights performed either on their own (well, with their squires) or with other knights at tournaments.
These tournaments were pure training for war and as such quite different from the jousts that most of us think of when imagining a medieval tournament. Here you can find out more about the purpose and the origins of medieval tournaments.
And here you can find out more about how these tournaments worked.
But while tournaments were held every other week, more on that here, most knights who hadn`t made participating in tournaments a career did only occasionally attend a tournament since knights also had other daily duties that made it necessary for them to be on their estates.
Aside from training for war themselves and training their squires, medieval knights also had to manage and oversee their fief since the income from their estate financed the knight’s livelihood and that of his family.
Depending on the size of the fief knights could also afford to employ a steward who oversaw the agricultural production and made sure that the peasants paid their duties. In that case, the knight could have quite a lot of free time.
But even knights who did not use the services of a steward had substantially more free time than the peasants working on their estates.
And not only the amount of free time differed from knights to peasants, but so did the leisure activities. But before we look at the leisure activities of medieval knights I would also like to recommend you my article here where I talk about how much free time medieval peasants had and what they did in their free time.
But let`s now look at the most popular ways for medieval knights to pass their free time.
What did knights do for fun in their free time?
Now you might expect to see participation in tournaments at the top of the list when it comes to the leisure activities of a medieval knight.
But as I mentioned above, knights as members of a social class of warriors were expected to train for war. So I would make the argument that participating in tournaments and training for war was less of a leisure activity and more the duty (one could say job) of a medieval knight!
Because of that, I decided to exclude tournaments from the list of leisure activities.
However, if you want to find out more about tournaments then I would like to recommend you my articles on that topic. Here you can find out more about how tournaments worked in general (together with links to many other topics regarding tournaments). And here you can find out more about how dangerous medieval tournaments were.
However, participating in tournaments was not a daily occurrence and so most knights had quite some free time that they passed by doing different activities.
Knights liked to pass their free time by playing parlor games (like blind man`s bluff) that allowed them to overcome societal norms and board games like chess, backgammon, or craps. Aside from that knights also spent their free time doing poetry, music, and dancing. But most knights’ favorite way to pass their free time was to go hunting or practice falconry.
Let`s take a closer, more detailed look at individual leisure activities.
Hunting & Falcrony
Hunting was the most popular leisure activity of medieval knights for several reasons.
Not only were the hunted animals a welcome supplementation to the diet of a medieval knight, but hunting dangerous animals like boars or bears was also a chance for the knight to showcase his knightly values (like bravery and courage) and his skills with different weapons.
The animals that both medieval knights and kings hunted were…
- Rabbits and hares
- Wild Boar
- Marmot & squirrel
Wild game was seen as a delicacy in the Middle Ages and was a staple in the diet of medieval kings.
Both trained hounds and birds of prey (like falcons) were used for hunting and were seen as extremely valuable possessions. And as such these animals had a direct influence on medieval literature where falcons are commonly used as a symbol of masculinity. It was none less than the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (the grandson of Frederick Barbarossa) who wrote a manual about the art of falconry that is still used today. That alone shows the status that falconry had in the Middle Ages!
By the way. The death of Frederick II in 1250 is often seen as the end of the High Middle Ages and the beginning of the Late Middle Ages. Here you can find out more about the 3 different periods of the Middle Ages and why dividing the Middle Ages into 3 periods might actually be a bad idea.
But hunting was much more than just a way to supplement the daily meals of a knight and his family.
When medieval knights hunted then that was always also a demonstration of their social status since peasants were prohibited from hunting. Aside from that, hunting was also a way for a knight to prove his knightly virtues (like courage and bravery) and his skills with different weapons.
By the way, not only men hunted in the Middle Ages. Noblewomen also actively participated in hunts during the Middle Ages!
But hunting was not the only way knights could pass their free time. Other ways were parlor games and board games. And especially parlor games had another, more social, advantage.
Parlor games & board games
Both parlor games and board games were very popular in the Middle Ages with both knights and peasants (although knights had a lot more free time to play games than peasants did, more on that here)
Especially parlor games were much more than just a way to pass free time for knights and noblewomen since these games allowed them to breach the societal barriers that regulated and limited the acceptable ways of contact between noblemen and noblewomen. One example of such a game is called „hot hand“ (originally Heiße Hand). There the nobleman buries his head in the lap of a sitting lady while another player touches him from behind. He then has to guess who touched him.
Needless to say that such an intimate game was completely different from the societal norms on how noblemen but especially noblewomen had to behave. However, that was probably also the reason why that game was so popular…
Other games that were played by medieval knights and noblewomen in their free time included bocca, blindman`s buff, backgammon, checkers, nine men`s morris, and chess. Especially chess was popular since it portrayed the feudal system with peasants protecting the king and the queen while the powerful rooks, knights, and abbots portrayed the medieval nobility and their significance in politics and warfare.
By the way, it is no coincidence that the knight is portrayed as a horsehead. Fighting on horseback made knights extremely effective on the battlefield. Here you can find out more about just how effective medieval knights were in combat.
Aside from hunting and playing games, there was one more topic that knights used to pass their free time. And that was arts, especially making music, dancing, and doing poetry.
Music, dance, poetry
During the Middle Ages music played a huge role in both feasts but also in daily life. Worship without music was unthinkable and even construction works were oftentimes accompanied by music to boost the working morale of the construction workers.
Medieval musicians could choose from a wide variety of 29 different instruments like the harp, lute, or fiddle which the musicians often built themselves. Poetry was also extremely popular so knights and even kings regularly played music and practiced poetry.
By the way. The lute (the precursor of today`s guitar) and much of the ancient knowledge that had been lost in Western Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire only came back to Western Europe through the Muslim expansion and the resulting contacts between Muslims and Christians in areas like Spain or Sicily. Here you can find out more about this oftentimes overlook part of Muslim-Christian history in the Middle Ages.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the daily life and the leisure activities of medieval knights. However, outside of their free time and their administrative functions on their estates, knights also fought in battles. Here you can find out more about the types of armor (and their effectiveness) that knights used in battle.
And here you can find out more about what knights wore when outside of battle (for example when hunting or when playing board games).
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Hans-Werner Goetz: Leben im Mittelalter (München 1986).