Behold Medieval Snowball Fights: A Timeless Way of Having Fun

You can’t get too much win­ter in the win­ter

– Robert Frost, “Snow

Snowy win­ter then respond­ed with a voice severe:
May the cuck­oo not come, let it sleep in dark hol­lows.
He is accus­tomed to bring hunger with him.

Anony­mous poem in Medieval Latin, trans­lat­ed by Heather Williams

Win­ter may starve and freeze, but in each place where snow accu­mu­lates, we also find depic­tions of infor­mal hol­i­days — snow days — and one of their most exu­ber­ant pur­suits. “Few sea­son­al activ­i­ties are as uni­ver­sal — across time, place, or cul­ture — as the snow­ball fight,” writes Pub­lic Domain Review. Some have even made it “into the annals of his­to­ry.… Accord­ing to what might be more fable than his­to­ry, the teenage Napoleon Bona­parte famous­ly orga­nized a ten day snow­ball fight at his mil­i­tary school, com­plete with trench­es, reg­i­mens, and rules of engage­ment.”

Snow­ball fights weren’t “con­fined to chil­dren either,” Arendse Lund writes. In the pages of illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval man­u­scripts, “peo­ple of all ages, men and women, can be seen heft­ing an icy ball.” Such images defy a “con­ven­tion­al topos” — “the threat of win­ter” found in Old Eng­lish poet­ry.

In one cal­en­dar poem, The Menologium, for exam­ple, “win­ter comes in like an invad­ing war­rior,” notes A Clerk of Oxford, “and puts autumn in chains, and the green fields which dec­o­rate the earth are per­mit­ted to stay with us no longer.… There are many, many exam­ples of win­ter as dan­ger and sor­row” in Medieval poet­ry.

The tra­di­tion of win­ter as a mar­tial invad­er con­tin­ues in mod­ern verse. In Robert Frost, snow forms “soft bombs.” Even when one is safe and warm at home, snow banked high around the walls out­side, win­ter threat­ens: the house is “frozen, brit­tle, all except this room you sit in.” But along­side these lit­er­ary scenes of unbear­able cold, we have the play­ful­ness and sub­lim­i­ty of win­ter, its abil­i­ty to ele­vate the ordi­nary, break up monot­o­ny, put a tem­po­rary end to dai­ly drudgery. Win­ter brings its own form of beau­ty, and its own fun: the soft bomb of the snow ball.

In one Mid­dle Eng­lish poem by Nico­las Bacon, titled “Of a Snow balle,” spring has noth­ing on win­ter even when it comes to love; the snow­ball fight becomes a pre­text for a roman­tic encounter:

A wan­ton wenche vppon a colde daye
With Snowe balles prouoked me to playe:
But the­is snowe balles soe hette my desy­er
That I maye calle them balles of wylde fyer.

In the delight­ful images here, culled from a num­ber of illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts (and one fres­co, at the top), see Medieval Euro­peans play, flirt, and scoff at win­ter’s warn­ing in light­heart­ed snow­ball fights of yore.

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts of Medieval Europe: A Free Online Course from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­orado

Medieval Scribes Dis­cour­aged Theft of Man­u­scripts by Adding Curs­es Threat­en­ing Death & Damna­tion to Their Pages

Killer Rab­bits in Medieval Man­u­scripts: Why So Many Draw­ings in the Mar­gins Depict Bun­nies Going Bad

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • HARMON DOW says:

    Win­ter is icu­men in

    Win­ter is icu­men in,
    Lhude sing God­damm,
    Raineth drop and staineth slop,
    And how the wind doth ramm!
    Sing: God­damm.
    Skid­deth bus and slop­peth us,
    An ague hath my ham.
    Freezeth riv­er, tur­neth liv­er,
    Damm you; Sing: God­damm.
    God­damm, God­damm, ’tis why I am, God­damm,
    So ‘gainst the win­ter’s balm.
    Sing god­damm, damm, sing god­damm,
    Sing god­damm, sing god­damm, DAMM.

    Ezra Pound

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