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A target game in which a projectile such as a ball or bowl—sometimes called a ‘cheese’—is launched at a set of wooden pins. It was a popular recreation in Germany, France, and Britain during the Middle Ages in France the game was known as quilles. Joseph Strutt (Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 1801) noted that the kayle (from quille) pins became known as kittle-pins and then skittle-pins. Strutt described both nine-pins and skittles, with varying modes of play: but what they had in common was the bowling at the pins, with the basic aim ‘to beat them all down with the fewest throws’. In earlier periods, kittle-pins were made with animal bones, and he quotes an author of the Merry Milk-Maid of Islington (1680) who gave the following words to one of his characters: ‘I'll cleave you from the skull to the twist, and make nine skittles of thy bones’. Skittles, on which wagers were often made, was banned in royal edicts, and in the early 19th century still forbidden in the City of London. But its popularity reflected its simplicity, edicts were widely ignored, and English monarch Henry VIII became an enthusiast, even having a skittle alley built for his personal use.

The game has retained some popularity in local settings across many regions of Europe, though taking differing forms even in the one country: Old English Skittles in the London area, Western Skittles in Wessex, and Long Alley Skittles in the north Midlands are variants of the game that have been popular in England. In Ireland, an Irish Skittles Association has endeavoured to keep the game alive by including it in Community Games. In any genealogy of the game itself, its most thriving legacy is *(tenpin) bowling, which Dutch colonists are said to have introduced to the USA. The language of skittles has entered the idiom or lexicon of sporting achievement, so that a bowler in cricket is often said, on taking a number of wickets of the opposition, to have ‘skittled’ out the opposing batsmen.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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