I have been collecting skating images from the sixteenth century onwards for some time, but one thing was eluding me: a picture of a pair of animal–bone skates, which were commonly used in the medieval and early modern eras. I finally found one (along with a nice little blog post) at a great source for the material culture images: the Museum of London. These are from the 11th century, but the practice of strapping the lower-limb bones of horses or cattle to one’s feet during the skating season lasted for centuries.
I couldn’t find an image from the era of these skates, but after the appearance of printing they become far more plentiful, beginning with the wonderful images from the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus of Olaus Magnus, which was first printed in Rome in 1555. Scandinavia is depicted as a winter wonderland, with people (and animals) cavorting about on skis, sleds, snowshoes, and skates. Magnus’s skaters navigate the ice with long poles, making them resemble paddleboarders.
Skating scenes become more common in southern Europe in the sixteenth century as well, most especially in the printing and paintings of Flanders and the Netherlands, where it was embraced in both reality and imagery: the Dutch seemed to have lived on the ice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, celebrating it more than merely tolerating it–and their blades appear to be evolved from bone to iron by this time.
Pieter van der Borcht, The Large Skating Festival at Malines, 1559; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, 1608; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Different climate, different skating culture: for the most part, with the exception of those wondrous winters in the later 17th and 18th centuries when the Thames froze over and “frost fairs” ensued, ice skating appears as more of a sideline/ background activity for the English, symbolizing the seasons or the months on their periodical prints and providing lots of opportunities for caricatures in the early nineteenth century: they satirized the Dutch, and were in turn mocked by the French for their “Skating Dandies”.
“A Wonderful Fair or a Fair of Wonders”, 1684, British Library; Robert Dighton, “January” watercolour, c. 1785, British Library; Thomas Heath, “Dutch Steamers on the Frozen Zuyder Zee”, c. 1822-40 & “Les patineurs Anglais”, published by Paul André Basset, c. 1814-18, both © British Museum.
Just around this time what is generally acknowledged to be the first entire manual devoted to figure skating was published: Le Vrai Patineur (The True Skater) by Jean Garcin, which features eight engraved plates as well as detailed instructions for what would soon become standardized movements (you can read more about it here). While this text might mark skating’s transformation from pastime to sport, the majority of images for the rest of that century and well into the next depict the activity in a more leisurely and social manner. I particularly like the “skating chairs” that I spotted in several 19th century images; they seem to have disappeared by 1900.
A page from Le Vrai Patineur, 1813; Johann Adam Klein, “Woman in Sled with an Officer on Skates (Der Eisschlitten), 1824, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.