Fourteenth-Century Monkey Baseball (Mmm… Marginalia #87)

Yesterday was the last day of Major League Baseball’s regular season, and the playoffs start on Wednesday,* so it seems the proper and fitting time to answer a question a reader sent me recently. To wit: “Is this really the first ever picture of people playing baseball in Western history?”  And by “this,” said reader meant this:

The image in question is found in the margins of the calendar that was originally part of the Ghistelles Hours, a 14th-century Flemish book of hours probably made for John III, Lord of Ghistelles and Inglemunster or his wife. Since John died in 1315 and the calendar begins its cycle of years on Sunday, it’s usually dated to either 1301 or 1307. (If the name of the manuscript sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because the Ghistelle Hours was broken into pieces and sold as individual leaves and quires, so fragments of it are perennially on sale at Sotheby’s and Christies and the like.**)

The calendar pagers were kept together and sold all as one unit and are currently in the possession of the Manuscript Library of the Walters Art Museum, which featured the image recently as part of an exhibit titled “Checkmate! Medieval People at Play”.  A few media outlets picked the story up from the exhibit’s press release, and it’s been bouncing around the web lately with various claims about its origin and subject.***

So, is it the first ever image of baseball?  If you’re willing to count proto-proto-proto baseball as baseball, and put an “extant” in front of image,**** well sure. Though there’s no base in sight, various historians of sport have identified this game as a version of “stool ball” or “stump ball”, which was baseball played with only one base, where the object was for the pitcher to hit a stump or a stool or other handy protrusion with the ball while the batter protected it by batting away the pitcher’s balls.  Each player stood on or near what was essentially a “base” If the batter made contact, he was expected to run around the pitcher’s base and back to his own.  Various fielders could catch the batted ball and throw the ball at the stool while the batter is occupied running. We have no clue how the scoring might have worked, but apparently the game was co-ed and the sort of thing you’d play at an Easter festival.  Here’s a slightly later image, from the same manuscript as my last marginalia post, MS Bodl. 264:

As I’ve written before, a favorite medieval joke is to take a conventional image and re-cast the parts.  So here the Alexander illuminators are having fun by putting monks and nuns into the game.  (In other words, I think we should be very suspicious of claims that this image is evidence of the actual game-playing habits of those who wear habits.)

But all this is so much prelude to the real image I want to discuss today.  Found in Bodleian Library MS Douce 6 (which I affectionately call “The Big Ol’ Book of Medieval Monkeys”), a 14th-century book of hours that’s about twenty years younger than the Ghistelles Hours, I give you the oldest extant image of monkeys playing baseball:

It beats this image by at least twenty years.  And I’m not sure, but I think they might be playing the game with a communion host, to boot.  Oh, you sacrilegious sport-loving monkeys!

*Go Braves!
**The most recent piece I’m aware of sold at Sotheby’s for £20,000 in 2009.
***Baseball historians have been talking about this picture since the 60’s.  It’s used as the cover illustration on Baseball Before We Knew It, a recent popular history of the sport’s pre-history, for example.
****And willing to discount at least one harder to decipher earlier image.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • mpb

    Cricket, anyone? [isn't that a square bat?)

  • Blaise Pascal

    I concur with mpb. Not necessarily on the bat shape, but the description of the rules given.

    In cricket, the bowler (pitcher) throws the ball with the intent to knock over a fragile arrangement of sticks stuck in the ground (the wicket). The batsman is attempting to defend the wicket with his bat by striking it away. He then runs back and forth between two wickets until either the wicket is knocked over by a fielder or he chooses to stop running while at a wicket.

    Take stool ball, reduce it two two stools with the pitcher stands between, and make a couple of other relatively minor changes in the game, and it's virtually identical to cricket. A lot more changes need to be made to make it baseball.

  • Garden Groans

    I'm also joining in to say the game sounds like cricket. Much more exciting than baseball with very little spitting and scratching by participants. Although with monkeys on the team…hmm…

  • limpey

    In the picture from the ms. Bodl. 264, it looks like the monk with the bat is threatening the nun unless she hands over the ball she is holding — probably some sort of castration metaphor. The ranks of nuns and monks on the other side appear to be clapping in approval.

    Or they are playing stool-ball.

  • EdwardM

    I also concur. Definitely cricket – the one-ended version, as played by children and college students with whatever impromptu stumps come to hand. My old college had an intramural competition whose rules matched your description almost exactly.

  • Got Medieval

    I'm not going to fight the cricket/baseball battle myself. Just reporting that many baseball historians point back to stoolball as closer to baseball than to cricket. If I actually knew anything about cricket I might be able to weigh in foolishly, but lacking that I'll just bow out.

  • artaxerxes-blog

    All you need to know about cricket is that it takes days and ruins the TV schedules

  • litlnemo


    The rules of stoolball during the medieval period are, for the most part, unknown. The rules as you’ve described them here (“If the batter made contact, he was expected to run around the pitcher’s base and back to his own.”) seem likely to be based on the reconstructed version I wrote about at That version is tons of fun, but it really is only a modern “medievaloid” version. It’s probably inappropriate to make any conclusions about stool ball’s relationship to baseball and cricket based on those rules. (Having said that, I think the actual medieval game was likely the common ancestor to both baseball and cricket.)

    The earliest-known versions of the rules (which are mid-17th century, I think — don’t quote me on it) seem to indicate no bat was used for stool ball, just hands. (And probably no running around the base.) The manuscript illustrations of bat and ball games might not be stool ball at all (you don’t see a stool in them). But they could still be stool ball. And clearly people enjoyed walloping a ball with a bat then just as we do now, so when I reconstructed stool ball (specifically to have a game to play at a local event) I chose to use the bat because it is fun, and because we do have the medieval illustrations showing it — we just don’t know if they are stool ball. I included running around a base because it also makes it way more fun. But that could be my modern baseball fan bias showing.

    It’s also likely that the game varied from place to place. So I justify my version as a local variant. ;D At any rate, the game has been very successful whenever we’ve played it, and I recommend trying it. It’s tons of fun and easy for just about anyone.

    Modern organized stool ball (mostly played in Sussex) is really, really similar to cricket. But it seems (to me) that this may not be because cricket and stool ball were that similar to start with, but because when organized stool ball was developed in the 19th century it was intentionally designed to be cricket-like, perhaps as a sort of “girls’ version” of the other game.

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  • Carolyn Rissanen

    That’s cricket!

  • Paddy

    Agreed – this is clearly cricket. Knowledge outside of Nth American sport for the win. 

  • Got Medieval

    People coming here from Neatorama, Retronaut, et al.: Howdy!  Also, I’m not the one who identified anything about either of the first two images.  I leave the discussion of whether proto-baseball is distinct from proto-cricket to people who actually do sports history.

    I did come up with the communion wafer identification in the monkey image, though. Monkeys I actually do know something about.  (And yes, I know they’re apes and not monkeys. But monkey is a funnier word.)

  • asghar ahmed

    monkey is a funnier

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