FIND SPOTLIGHT: The art of medieval ice skating

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Image credit: University of Leicester

With the recent cold spell in mind, let us first look at winter pastimes in medieval Leicester. These are perhaps best illustrated by the discovery of a late 13th century bone ice-skate in the town’s north-eastern quarter, near the site of St Michael’s church (today located beneath the John Lewis multi-story car park on Vaughan Way).

The skate is 24.6cm long and is carved from the metapodial bone of a horse or cow. It would have been fixed to the bottom of a shoe by leather thongs threaded through holes drilled through the ‘toe’ and ‘heal’ end of the skate. The bone’s distal end has been trimmed to a point with the tip curved upwards and the anterior surfaces have been worn smooth.

Bone skates do not have sharp gliding edges like modern skates. Instead, pictorial and literary evidence shows that momentum on the ice was achieved using metal-tipped poles, more akin to cross-country skiing. This was wonderfully described in the late 12th century by William Fitz Stephen, a secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket.

‘…when the great marsh…is frozen over, numerous bands of young men go out to play on the ice. They arrange their feet at a set distance, and gaining additional rapidity as they move, they traverse enormous space… Others of them are more knowing in their play, for they fit leg-bones of animals to their feet, binding them firmly around their ankles, and hold in their hands poles shod with iron, which they strike against the ice, and thus impel themselves on it with the swiftness of a bird or a ball from an engine [cannon]. Sometimes it is agreed that two of them shall advance against the other in this way from a great distance; they rush together, each lifts his staff to strike the other, and the contest ends by one or both falling, and receiving some severe bodily injury…’

From William Fitz Stephen’s description of the city of London in 1173 in his Life of Saint Thomas of Canterbury.

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