Pole Vaulting in the Middle Ages

While we associate Pole Vaulting today with the Olympic track and field competitions, the sport actually has an interesting history as a means of practical transportation. Practical? Transportation? Yep. I just learned about this myself, while I was listening to Hereward the Wake. Immediately, I wanted to know why I hadn’t hear of it before, though it did bring to mind one of my childhood favorites, The King’s Stilts, by Dr. Seuss.

the "lantern" of Ely Cathedral rising above the fens

the “lantern” of Ely Cathedral rising above the fens

Hereward’s region of north-central England is riddled with fens, swampy areas of deep water with occasional islands of ground solid enough to build bridges, houses, or Ely Cathedral. . . “Ely” actually takes its name from a contraction of “Eel Island,” ie, an island from which the eel fishery was especially strong, and the famous lantern (that octagonal cupola on top of the church) contained a light to help guide people across the dangerous fenland to the safety of solid ground. Fighting in this area gave William the Conqueror no end of grief, and some stories say that he drained the fens to make troop movement easier and give rebels like Hereward no place to hide.

In fact, the fens had been channeled, dammed and guided for centuries, for the ease of those already living there, who depended on small boats to get around, or on their trusty poles. A long, sturdy pole could aid the experience fenlander to leap these channels and pools on their way to check their fishtraps, bring in their eels, or perhaps attend service at the church. So the original pole vaulting competitions were not about height (which serves little use in progressing across the wetlands) but rather about distance–making sure you didn’t land with your feet in the muck.

There’s even a town in the area called “Hop Pole,” a name shared by a number of pubs, and attributed to the poles used to train hops plants for brewing. But if I get a chance to hoist a pint at the Hop Pole in Brighton during this week’s World Fantasy Convention, I’ll be thinking not of the brew, but of Hereward and his companions, vaulting the fens with easy, athletic grace while William and his French knights flounder in the mud.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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1 Response to Pole Vaulting in the Middle Ages

  1. Michelle says:

    And I always thought pole vaulting was what happened if you didn’t keep your lance tip up at the tilt!

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