I bought a pack of these Christmas cards at the Fitzwilliam Museum shop a couple of weeks ago (don’t all rush, because sadly they are showing as out of stock on the website at the moment), partly because it’s a nice winter scene to send to my more secular-minded friends, but mostly because I love the insouciance of the laid-back, leaning-back skaters.
One has his walking stick – or is it a kolf club, for primitive ice-hockey (see below)? – over his shoulder and a cosy-looking turban on his head. The other two have just swept past each other at close range but with no danger of collision. The two men facing us are apparently chatting: is the one on the right turning his head away to peer down through the ice at what lies beneath? To the right, an elaborate sleigh, now empty of passengers or cargo, is being hauled by what could almost be a reindeer, while in the background the traditional features of Dutch landscape art – the farm cottage, willow trees, church steeple and windmill – are sketched in with the same deft economy which delineates the figures’ shadows.
The image on the card is in fact only a section of a Dutch, tin-glazed earthenware tile, of which the whole surface can be seen below. A second, closer windmill becomes visible, as well as more cloudy sky, and, at bottom left, the canal bank, where another man can be seen tying on his left skate, while a companion either urges him to get a move on, or perhaps is trying to balance himself after the initial push-off from the side. Does the short post indicate that this is a mooring point for barges, perhaps with a convenient step down to water-level?
This tile comes, unsurprisingly, from the collection of Dr J.W.L. Glaisher. A note on its provenance reveals that it was acquired, seasonably enough, from ‘Mr Whittaker, Cambridge from whom purchased with three unrelated tiles for 7s. 6d. [38p, O inflatio, o mores] on 17 December, 1909’, and it was last on display in the lovely Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment exhibition in 2015. The style is usually called Delftware, after the greatest centre of production of this blue-and-white ceramic, though it is not known where in the Low Countries this example was made.
The earliest skates made in Europe appear to have been made of bone: there is a serious disquisition here. These primitive artefacts, often found in Viking-Age excavations, were lashed on to the shoe, but because they did not cut (and therefore grip) the ice, forward movement was possible only by using a single pole between the legs, or a pair of poles, to drive oneself forward, as in this woodcut from Olaus Magnus’ Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, published in Rome in 1555, and still a terrific resource for medieval Scandinavian lore.
Horse bones – the metatarsals – seem to have been the preferred material, as they are longer than those of cows. On the other hand, cows’ bones would have been the cheaper and more commonly available option? It is possible that skates originated in Finland: a recent experiment has demonstrated that the more the surface of the terrain is covered by flat ice, the more ergonomically effect such skates are, and the Finnish lakes match this description better than any other environment.
Metal skates with double-edged blades and a turned-up point (to stop the blade tip driving into the ice) came into use at the end of the fifteenth century (probably invented by the Dutch): these made it possible to achieve forward motion by using the legs, so poles became unnecessary. They were an economically important tool: canals were better thoroughfares than roads for the transport of goods as well as for individual travel, and in winter (in the Little Ice Age), skates and sledges kept the population moving.
In London, when the Thames froze over (the Little Ice Age again, as well, of course, as the relative shallowness of the much wider river in pre-Embankment days and the slowing of the current by the piers of old London Bridge), there were Frost Fairs with all sorts of attendant excitements, and thus (doubtless) opportunities for making a quick buck from the public. John Evelyn recorded the famous freeze of 1683–4 as being all ‘sleds, sliding with skeetes [sic], a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water’. An ox was roasted at Whitehall Stairs, and the king and queen sampled it; coaches plied up and down the ice from Westminster to Temple Stairs; souvenirs were sold, and handbills describing the event were printed from presses set up on the ice.
The Dutch, by contrast, seem to have taken a calmer, more matter-of-fact view – presumably because the freezing of the canals was a more normal event than that of a major river. But skating seems undoubtedly to have been used for fun as well: the genre scenes of the various Bruegels, Henrik Avercamp and other Dutch artists show people out with their families (and their dogs), stopping and chatting, eating and drinking – the canals sometimes look busier than the roads would have been in summer.
Some skaters are dressed in their finery for the occasion; others are going about their business, and some of the children larking about are suitably scruffy.
A recurring sight is a group of men playing kolf on the ice: the modern version of the game is played indoors in the Netherlands, but it was originally an outdoor sport, and it is claimed that the game of golf arrived in Scotland through trade with the Low Countries.
Kolf is related to the French jeu de maille (which Charles II popularised on Pall Mall), and consisted of two teams trying to hit agreed targets – either marks set up for the game, or simply local landmarks – with the smallest number of strokes. Games could go on for days, and damage to property (especially windows) caused many towns, including Amsterdam, to limit the areas in which players could operate, some requiring any matches to take place outside the boundaries.
It must have been great fun on the ice, as the wooden ball could have skittered a considerable distance, rather than sinking into mud or grass, or crashing through the Burgemeester’s window. And it gives a different insight into the lifestyle of all those men portrayed in the group portraits of their guilds and companies, looking portentous and solmen in black with their collars and ruffs starched stiff. Nice to think of them nipping out afterwards for a quick skate …