hist-games: Freq. Asked Questions -- Part II

Jeff Singman jsingman at umich.edu
Tue Oct 21 05:44:10 PDT 1997

> Games involving throwing or rolling balls towards various numbers of
> target pins go back at least to the 12th century, and probably earlier. 
> Some of these games were played with weighted or non-spherical balls that
> rolled in an arc rather than a straight line.  Other related games
> involved throwing sticks at pins rather than rolling a ball at them.
> Non-pin bowling, where the aim is to come closest to a smaller target
> ball, is also very old.

As indicated in my previous posting, I think there are some dubious points
with such a description. There are two basic classes of games in question:

a) Games in which the goal is proximity to the target (eg. Bowls, Quoits).
17c descriptions of such games specify a single target, at which all
players cast in a given round, the winner being the one who ends up
closest to the target. The target may be a smaller quoit or ball, or a
stick fixed in the ground. By the late 16c at least, Bowls often,
perhaps normally, involved asymmetrically weighted balls. The earliest
evidence I know of for such games off the top of my head are the illuss in
Strutt, which are of the 14c, or perhaps 13c.

b) Games in which the goal is to knock down the target(s), eg. Kailes,
Loggats, Ninepins, etc. Again, the earliest actual descriptions come from
the 17c, and specify multiple targets, with each player taking turns, and
the targets set up again between players, points being scored according to
how many or which targets were knocked down. These games can be further
subdivided according to what sort of object was thrown at the targets. In
Kailes and Loggats, it was some sort of a stick; games of this sort are
clearly illustrated in Strutt in illustrations apparently dating to the
14th or 15th century, perhaps 13th. Such games survived at least to the
beginning of the 17c. In Ninepins, Tenpins, Skittles, etc., the players
threw or rolled a ball; I know of no evidence for this version prior to
1500--this doesn't mean that there is none, but does suggest that the
burden of proof rests with those who would argue for earlier origins.
I am also uncertain whether biased balls were used for this game, although
I haven't particularly examined this aspect of its history.
  Incidentally, it should be borne in mind (by NOrth Americans in
particular), that the terms bowls, bowling etc. in this period referred to
the (a) version of these games (as it still does in England). The North
American usage appears to be connected to the disappearance of English
Bowling in the US--itself rather an interesting phenomenon in the history
of games.
  I think David Kuijt is quite right to point of the refinement of bowling
in the later centuries of the period under consideration--certainly true
of Bowl; Skittles certainly has a fairly complex system of scoring by the
late 17c, although I'm not sure whether it also had purpose-built greens
and alleys. By Shakespeare's time Bowls seems to have become very popular
in fashionable circles, with a well-developed vocabulary of its own (used
metaphorically in several passages in Sh's plays); the descriptions of the
game in Cotton and Holme reflect this passion for the game among the
privileged classes.

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