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Medieval Toys: Leather Balls

By Lady Caoilfhionn inghean ui Magil Ruanaidh

The simplest of toys for any child is a ball. Throughout history there have been a small amount of depictions of children playing with or holding balls of some kind. In the Museum of London there is a small headless statuette of a child holding a ball, that dates roughly between 43 AD and 410 AD . The Institute of Realienkunde of Medieval and Early Neuzei, houses a book of heraldry (ÖNB 12820, fol. 182r) dating to the 1480’s, that shows children at play, but to my eyes it looks as though a mother is getting ready to throw a ball for her son. Another manuscript, Book of Hours of the Ango Family, (1500’s) shows two boys teasing a baby with a ball.

But perhaps the best example of children playing, and the use of various toys and games of the medieval period that includes balls, is Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Children’s Games painted in 1560. This painting shows over 200 children playing at 80 different activities. There are 2 depictions of the use of balls in Brueghel’s painting, both are a form of bowling, one from of bocce or lawn (outdoor) bowling and the other seems to be more of a target game. Outdoor bowling is a game with many variations depending on which country you are in at the time and is thought to have been brought into Europe by the Romans as they moved throughout the continent. Normally this game was played by adults and the balls made out of harder materials than leather such as wood, metal or a hard rubber.

The second area of the painting was of more interest to me. It shows children with small brown balls
piled in their arms and aprons. In this one little area of Brueghel’s painting there are over 25 balls shown. The children are playing a variation of bowling that seems to be more of a target game than the more traditional game that we know of today.

Balls were made with a variety of materials such as inflated animal bladders, wood and leather, although the wood and leather examples are the ones that have survived to the present day, found in such places as Novgorod, Russia and York, England.

The balls that I have made were based on the archaeological finds of York, England. These finds date from the 10th century up to the mid-15th to early 16th centuries (Mould pg. 3406). It has been theorized that there are at least three separate styles of balls, one of 2 pieces of leather with a seam running from the center to help create a round ball like shape. The second has three parts, two round circles and a connecting middle strap and the third with a ‘beach ball’ type of appearance usually made with four pieces. The balls made of three pieces have also been found in Novgorod sites (Brisbane) that date to the 11th century and peak during the 13th century. In Brisbane’s study the balls were of the three piece style and were stuffed with felt, moss, waste linen or hemp. Bisbane also mentions that over 300 balls were found and recovered (Brisbane, pg.173-176).

The York Archaeology Book mentions that the balls were made from a couple of types of leather, along with calfskin there was also sheep leather.

I decided to try and replicate 2 of the styles of balls for this arts and science competition and instead of filling the balls after the outside covering was made, I tried making the interior core first. The core was made from an old flannel sheet that had gone thread bare, torn into 1/2” strips and then wrapped tightly to be a solid core. I find that this method works well if you are sewing the leather to the core and the seams show but not so well when trying to stuff the outside covering after sewing and turning right-side out.

The first ball I made was constructed using three pieces of leather like the example in York Archaeology Book (ex.C). My supplies were simple, a soft chrome tanned cow leather chosen for its color and thinness and the resemplence to the balls in Breghel’s painting; 4-ply undyed, unwaxed linen thread that I dyed brown using spirit dyes, broke down to 2-ply and waxed with beeswax; and a glovers needle which is easier to use than an awl and blunt needles on this project because the glover needle is three sided with a cutting point and cuts through the leather instead being pre-punched. As for the measurement of the center piece and circles, it more of a hit and miss. I sewed the center piece together using the pre-made core as a guide as to how tight it should be. The outside circles were slightly larger and had to be glued and eased into place before sewing, both sides were completed this way. Once it was all sewed together the center had to be cut to allow the core to be placed. Because the core was pre-made the cut was almost 3/4 around, the example shows a much smaller hole. After fitting the core inside the covering, I sewed the cut shut with a flat stitch, when the cut was closed I decided to continue sewing all the way around the ball to make it look more uniform and to make it look like it was an intentional motif.

The second ball was based on the four part ‘beach ball’ style. This time I used vegetable-tanned calfskin for the outside cover because I wanted to be able to decorate the cover with a simple stamping and incised design. In Olaf Goubritz’s book, Purses in Pieces, he discusses several everyday pieces that designs were put on, example after example of sheaths, cases, and belt bags. And after finding the example from The Institute of Realienkunde of Medieval and Early Neuzei, (ÖNB 12820, fol. 182r), I decided it would be fun to try to make a colorful little ball that might have been given to a child of noblity or the elite.

The pattern for the covering is based on the circumference of the core divided by 2 which gives you the length of the pattern and half of that number gives you the width. With the pattern made I was able to cut the 4 pieces out of the calfskin and then did some simple stamp work and incising to give the ball a bit of a design. I used watered down acrylic paint in red and gold to give the ball some brightness because at this time I do not have a source for medieval dyes. The sewing was done with waxed 2-ply natural linen thread with right sides together. After three of the panals were sewn, the core was put inside and the last side was finished. The last side had to be sewn with the seam on the inside, this means the sewing must be kept loose and long to sew the whole seam then pulled tight to close.

I do think that it would be interesting to make the balls again and this time stuff them instead of making the core like I did this time just see what the difference would be. I do like the feel of the solid core and more practice would produce a tighter cover.

Bibliography and Sources

Mould, Quinta, Ian Carlisle and Ester Carlisle, Craft,Industry and Everyday Life (Series): Leather and Leather working in Anglo-Scaninavian and Medieval York, The Small Finds 17/16. York, York Archaeological Trust, 2003

Brisbane, M, (ed). The Archaeology of Novgorod, Russia: Recent Results From the Town and its Hinterland, J. Judelson (trans.) Lincoln, The Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph Series, No.13, 1992

Goubritz, Olaf, Purses in Pieces, Netherlands, Stichting Promotie Archeolgie, 2007

Elliott Avedon - Virtual Museum of Games http://www.gamesmuseum.uwaterloo.ca/VirtualExhibits/Brueghel/

Cassandra’s Website - Juggling ball pattern http://www.jordanclan.net/cassandra/sewing/juggling.cfm

Bibliotheque nationale de France - the Book of Hours of the Ango Family (BNF NAL 392, fol. 26 bis) http://classes.bnf.fr/ema/grands/185.htm

Institut für Realienkunde des Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit http://tarvos.imareal.oeaw.ac.at/server/images/7009225.JPG

Museum of London Prints http://www.museumflondonprints.com/search.php?page=1&numperpage=12&idx=0&keywords=child+statuette+ball