The “medieval turn” in Ice Hockey

While the medievalists of Massachusetts are busy working on our various summer projects, we’re also being hopelessly distracted by the ongoing drama of the Stanley Cup finals. Obviously, we’re a bit partial here at MassMedieval (I, for one, am wearing my Bruins sweatshirt while typing this), and since it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to keep from thinking about tonight’s game, it’s time to talk ice hockey.

A contest recognizable as the modern game of ice hockey can only be reliably traced back to the 19th century, when it was already a popular pastime among Canadians.  The origins of the game, however, go back much, much further, with roots in medieval sport and even older games. Most people who have given thought to the matter argue (sometimes passionately) that hockey belongs among the descendants of one of three games: hurling, bandy, or kolf. I, armed with half an hour’s research in the OED and Encyclopedia Britannica and the iron-clad hubris of the blogging medievalist, offer the following assessment.

First, there are these “ancestor” games. Hurling, for those unfamiliar with this terrifying sport, is a game played in Ireland, and has been for a long, long time. It’s actually pre-historic, having been around since before records of Celtic activity on the island, and may stretch back more than 3000 years. The legends of Cú Chulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhail both include reference to games of hurling, and the game is referenced in documents surviving from every period of Irish history. It’s known to have been brought to North America by Irish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries, and remains a niche game in many cities with a history of Irish immigration.

Why is it terrifying? Well, it’s played with sticks called hurleys, with which players pass or hit a hard ball (the sliotar, pronounced approximately as “slither”) at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour while trying to work their way to the opposing team’s net…and only last year did the Gaelic Athletic Association mandate that players must wear helmets during match play. Interestingly, the sliotar, when it’s not being called “a hard missile moving at speeds capable of shattering bone,” is often colloquially referred to as the “puck.”

The second contender is bandy, a Russian game dating back to 11th century monasteries. The modern game does date back at least to the 17th century, though, and hasn’t changed a great deal since. The game, like hurling, is played with a cork-center hard ball hit with sticks; unlike hurling, bandy is played on an ice surface, and has offside, substitution, and face-off rules similar to those of ice hockey. Its playing field size, however, is massive (closer to the size of a soccer field than to an ice hockey rink), and, like hurling, it involves many more players in-game at any one time than ice hockey.


Kolf, the third game sometimes mentioned in connection with ice hockey, seems to me to have much the weakest claim to kinship. The game of kolf is of medieval, or possibly pre-medieval, Dutch origin, and resembles a combination of croquet, shuffleboard, quoits, and curling. While it is most frequently played on an ice surface, its resemblance to hockey is otherwise questionable (it’s a lot closer to golf, as its name may suggest)—and no one seems to be able to substantiate the connection in any case. Unable to work out any satisfying reason for the supposed link between hockey and kolf, I did a little Googling (is that the appropriate verb form?); most of the connections I found were either highly speculative or parroted a Wikipedia entry (even to the extent of repeating a typo from the entry over and over again). Wiki-creep aside, no one seems to have any valid reason for including kolf in the conversation (though I’m not ruling out a global conspiracy of Netherlandish kolf enthusiasts protecting a secret list of kolf’s descendants hidden under an inverted pyramid in a museum in Utrecht. Has anyone checked the underside of the Stanley Cup for cryptoglyphs?).

An intriguing possibility is that ice hockey may actually be a hybrid of both bandy and hurling—another team sport called bando, highly popular in Wales by the 18th century, appears to have followed this route, having been adapted from games with characteristics of both sports (bandy through importation of the game by Britist sportsmen, and hurling through its Scots cousin shinty). Though the rules and play of bando aren’t entirely understood today, the game involved teams of players using sticks very similar to modern ice hockey sticks to bat a ball around a field laid out in the usual rectangular shape. The game was apparently hugely popular in Wales and may have been known elsewhere in the British Isles. If hurling and bandy jointly inspired bando, what are the chances that other games—some unrecorded, some surviving—were similarly derived? And how likely is it that hockey deserves an invite to the Bandy/Hurling family reunion?

Now, the OED steps in here with an interesting tidbit: the word “hockey” used in connection with a team sport can first be found in a single Galway document dated to 1527 and catalogued in 1885 during a survey of historical manuscripts undertaken by royal commission under Victoria. The manuscript records a statute banning the play of a game (probably either hurling or a closely related game) described as “the horlinge of [a] litill balle with hockie stickes or staves”; since the reference here appears to be to a kind of stick called a hockie rather than to a game by that name, speculation has been offered about the likelihood that the name derives from the Old French word hoquet, a kind of shepherd’s crook. Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence linking hoquet staves to the 1527 game—and, frustratingly, there isn’t another surviving reference to an equivalent game (or stick) called “hockey” for three hundred years, when William Holloway records a game called “hawkey” played with “hawkey-bats” and a ball; this is, I would suspect, most likely another of the stick-and-ball games related to either bandy or hurling. At least one 19th century observer agreed—an 1857 edition of Chambers’ Information for the People  (also cited in the OED) noted that “Shinty in Scotland, Hockey in England, and Hurling in Ireland seem to be very much the same out-of-door sport.”

One last (and, from what I can tell, unlikely) possibility is that the modern game is actually an invention of the New World, and may have only a thin cloak of rules and regulations imported by Europeans. Stick-and-ball games were certainly known to the indigenous North American peoples, and a number of them are recorded. There are even hints of games more directly akin to ice hockey being played; in 1865, for example, the quirky archeologist John Lubbock wrote in his Pre-Historic Times that an informant had observed Eskimo children “playing hockey on the ice.” While this is certainly possible, it is impossible to know whether this game predated European contact—John Franklin, the explorer, wrote in 1825 that his men enjoyed “the game of hockey played on the ice” while exploring northwestern Canada. And in any case, a degree of convergent evolution is entirely possible–after all, we’re talking about using sticks to hit things across the ice. To work out that this is fun, you really only need sticks, things, and ice.

Taken all in all, it seems most likely that ice hockey, though recognizable in its current form for only a couple of centuries, has a lineage that stretches back much further—to Tudor English folk contests, medieval Russian monks’ pastimes,  Celtic warriors’ sports, with perhaps a hint of indigenous peoples’ games in the New World. There’s a “medieval turn” to the sport after all…or, at least, that’s my story—and as a medievalist rooting hard for Boston tonight, I’m sticking to it.

Go Bruins!



1 Comment

Filed under History, Pop Culture

One response to “The “medieval turn” in Ice Hockey

  1. Kisha Tracy

    I approve! And just would add another Go Bruins! to yours.

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