Party like it’s 1099: an overview of Medieval entertainments

One aspect of Medieval life typically glossed over by most published Dungeons & Dragons rulesets and supplemental materials is entertainment. While one could justly argue that adventuring is entertainment enough – that is why people play the D&D game, after all – adding authentic Medieval entertainments to the background details provided by the dungeon master (DM) can produce a more believable setting and allow the players to interact with the setting by joining the fun.

The entertainments described below could be commonly found in a D&D setting similar to Medieval Western Europe, either as leisure pastimes in themselves or as part of a much larger celebration. Major events, including coronations, knightings, military victories, religious festivals, seasonal celebrations, marriages and even successful D&D adventures might lead to  several such entertainments being held simultaneously. At particularly wealthy noble courts, some form of entertainment was often held daily.

On the next occasion that your heroes visit a town, one or more of the following entertainments might be present:

  • Acrobats, animal trainers, jesters and jugglers were perrennial favorites with both common folk and nobles.
  • Animal fighting, inclusive of bull- or bear-baiting, as well as fighting cocks or dogs, was a popular entertainment.
  • Board games were enjoyed by people of all ages and social classes. Popular games included Alquerques (a precursor of checkers), chess (which remains virtually unchanged), hazard and knucklebones (both dice games) and tables (an ancestor of backgammon).
  • Just as it is today, dancing was a popular activity in the Middle Ages. Most dances of the period required participants to move in circles, chains or processions. Common dances could be positively riotous, while the steps to most noble dances were performed more slowly and stiffly. Masquerade dances, where the identities of participants were concealed, were also popular.
  • Drama, both refined and boorish, was extremely popular in Medieval times. These productions could be performed by traveling acting troupes, puppeteers (typically shadow puppets or, later, hand puppets or marionettes) or, in larger settlements or especially wealthy noble courts, resident actors. Popular drama topics included religious plays, legends, mysteries and comedies.
  • Faires were elaborate holidays, attracting an array of entertainments, in addition to nobles, peddlers, and merchants. Any or all pastimes described here could be present at a faire.
  • A feast, or large, laboriously prepared meal, may be held for the population in observance of a secular or religious holiday. Such meals were few and far between during the Middle Ages, and greatly anticipated by noble and commoner alike.
  • Music was an important part of Medieval life. Traveling musicians sang of love and legend, and many commoners were adept with bagpipes, recorders and drums.
  • Sports of the period included football (a primitive precursor to modern football/soccer), games of strength and distance (like hammer-throwing or caber-tossing), horseshoes (a game unchanged for centuries), quoits (an ancestor of the ring toss, closely related to horseshoes), skittles (an ancestor of bowling), sparring with quarterstaves and wrestling.
  • Tournaments, featuring the classic jousting matches between knights, as well as archery contests and field lists for common infantry troops, drew enormous crowds and can provide numerous adventure opportunities.

Noble Pastimes

  • Banquets – ceremonial dinners honoring a guest or guests – were often held when religious or political dignitaries visited a court, or may be held when heroes complete especially dangerous missions.
  • Hawking was the practice of training falcons to prey upon other birds upon command.
  • Hunting, typically involving mounted hunters and a pack of hounds seeking a potentially dangerous quarry, like a bear or boar.

Of course, these entertainments don’t need to be only background details; depending upon player interest, they can become part of the game. What if a sphinx, dragon or other intelligent monster will only assist the heroes if they can beat it at chess? Or if a rogue will only provide information to the party after a game of knucklebones?

Lastly, there is potential for the DM to set a campaign culture apart by inventing unique sports or entertainments, but that is a topic for another post.

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