MEDIEVAL FOOTBALL is a modern term sometimes used for a wide variety
of localised football games which were invented and played in Europe
Middle Ages . Alternative names include FOLK FOOTBALL, MOB
FOOTBALL and SHROVETIDE FOOTBALL. These games may be regarded as the
ancestors of modern codes of football , and by comparison with later
forms of football, the medieval matches were chaotic and had few
Middle Ages saw a rise in popularity of games played annually at
Shrovetide throughout Europe, particularly in
England . The games
England at this time may have arrived with the Roman
occupation but there is little evidence to indicate this. Certainly
the Romans played ball games, in particular
Harpastum . There is also
one reference to ball games being played in southern Britain prior to
Norman Conquest . In the ninth century
Nennius 's Historia
Britonum tells that a group of boys were playing at ball (pilae
ludus). The origin of this account is either Southern
Wales . References to a ball game played in northern
France known as
La Soule or Choule, in which the ball was propelled by hands, feet,
and sticks, date from the 12th century.
These archaic forms of football, typically classified as mob
football, would be played between neighbouring towns and villages,
involving an unlimited number of players on opposing teams, who would
clash in a heaving mass of people struggling to drag an inflated
pig\'s bladder by any means possible to markers at each end of a town.
By some accounts, in some such events any means could be used to move
the ball towards the goal, as long as it did not lead to manslaughter
or murder. Sometimes instead of markers, the teams would attempt to
kick the bladder into the balcony of the opponents' church. A legend
that these games in
England evolved from a more ancient and bloody
ritual of kicking the "Dane 's head" is unlikely to be true. These
antiquated games went into sharp decline in the 19th century when the
Highway Act 1835 was passed banning the playing of football on public
highways. In spite of this, games continued to be played in some
parts of the United Kingdom and still survive in a number of towns,
Ba game played at Christmas and New Year at
Orkney Islands Scotland,
Uppies and Downies over Easter at
Workington in Cumbria, and the Royal
Football Match on
Shrove Tuesday and
Ash Wednesday at Ashbourne in
Derbyshire , England.
Few images of medieval football survive. One engraving from the early
fourteenth century at
Gloucester Cathedral , England, clearly shows
two young men running vigorously towards each other with a ball in
mid-air between them. There is a hint that the players may be using
their hands to strike the ball. A second medieval image in the British
Museum , London clearly shows a group of men with a large ball on the
ground. The ball clearly has a seam where leather has been sewn
together. It is unclear exactly what is happening in this set of three
images, although the last image appears to show a man with a broken
arm. It is likely that this image highlights the dangers of some
medieval football games.
Most of the very early references to the game speak simply of "ball
play" or "playing at ball". This reinforces the idea that the games
played at the time did not necessarily involve a ball being kicked.
* 1 History
* 1.1 9th–12th centuries
* 1.2 14th century
* 1.3 15th century
* 1.4 16th century
* 1.5 17th century
* 2 Present day games
* 2.4 Outside
* 3 Extinct medieval ball games
* 4 Pre-medieval games
* 5 References
* 6 External links
The earliest account of ball games being played in
Europe (after the
Roman occupation) comes from the 9th-century
Historia Brittonum ,
Nennius . The text, composed in what is now northern
Wales , mentions a group of boys "playing at ball" (pilae ludus).
The earliest reference from
France which provides evidence of the
playing of ball games (presumably
La soule ) comes in 1147. This
refers to the handing over of "seven balloons of greatest dimension".
An early description of ball games that are likely to be football in
England was given by
William FitzStephen (c. 1174 – 1183). He
described the activities of London youths during the annual festival
Shrove Tuesday :
After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take
part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball;
the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older
citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch
their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously:
you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and
get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.
The earliest confirmation that such ball games in
kicking comes from a verse about
Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln . This
was probably written in the thirteenth century, being recorded by
Matthew Paris , although the precise date is not known: "Four and
twenty bonny boys, were playing at the ball.. he kicked the ball with
his right foot".
In about 1200 "ball" is mentioned as one of the games played by King
Arthur's knights in "Brut", written by
Layamon , an English poet from
Worcestershire . This is the earliest reference to the English
Layamon states: "some drive balls (balles) far over
the fields". Records from 1280 report on a game at
Ulgham , near
Northumberland , in which a player was killed as a result
of running against an opposing player's dagger. This account is
noteworthy because it is the earliest reference to an English ball
game that definitely involved kicking; this suggests that kicking was
involved in even earlier ball games in England. In
Cornwall in 1283
plea rolls No. 111. mention a man named Roger who was accused of
striking a fellow player in a game of soule with a stone, a blow which
The earliest reference to ball games being played by university
students comes in 1303 when "Thomas of
Salisbury , a student of Oxford
University , found his brother Adam dead, and it was alleged that he
was killed by Irish students, whilst playing the ball in the High
Street towards Eastgate".
In 1314, comes the earliest reference to a game called football when
Nicholas de Farndone ,
Lord Mayor of the City of London
Lord Mayor of the City of London issued a
decree on behalf of King Edward II banning football. It was written in
the French used by the English upper classes at the time. A
translation reads: "orasmuch as there is great noise in the city
caused by hustling over large foot balls in the fields of the public
from which many evils might arise which God forbid: we command and
forbid on behalf of the king, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be
used in the city in the future."
Another early account of kicking ball games from
England comes in a
1321 dispensation , granted by
Pope John XXII
Pope John XXII to William de Spalding
Shouldham : "To William de Spalding, canon of Scoldham of the order
of Sempringham. During the game at ball as he kicked the ball, a lay
friend of his, also called William, ran against him and wounded
himself on a sheathed knife carried by the canon, so severely that he
died within six days. Dispensation is granted, as no blame is attached
to William de Spalding, who, feeling deeply the death of his friend,
and fearing what might be said by his enemies, has applied to the
Banning of ball games began in
France in 1331 by Philip VI ,
presumably the ball game known as La soule. Youths playing ball
depicted on a misericord at Gloucester Cathedral.
In the mid-fourteenth century a misericord at
Gloucester cathedral ,
England shows two young men playing a ball game. It looks as though
they are using their hands for the game; however, kicking certainly
cannot be excluded. It is notable for the fact that most other
medieval images of ball games in
England show large balls. This
picture clearly shows that small balls were also used.
King Edward III of
England also issued such a declaration, in 1363:
"oreover we ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all
and sundry from such stone, wood and iron throwing; handball,
football, or hockey; coursing and cock-fighting, or other such idle
games". It is noteworthy that at this time football was already being
England from handball, which suggests the evolution
of basic rules. Between 1314 and 1667, football was officially banned
England alone by more than 30 royal and local laws. (See the
Attempts to ban football games for more details.)
Geoffrey Chaucer offered an allusion to the manner in which
contemporary ball games may have been played in fourteenth-century
England. In the
Canterbury Tales (written some time after 1380) he
uses the following line: "rolleth under foot as doth a ball".
John Wycliffe (1320–1384) referred to football
in one of his sermons: "and now þei clouten þer shone wiþ censuris,
as who shulde chulle a foot-balle" It may be the earliest use of the
word football in English.
That football was known at the turn of the century in Western England
comes from about 1400 when the West Midland Laud Troy War Book states
in English: "Hedes reled aboute overal As men playe at the fote-ball"
Two references to football games come from
Sussex in 1403 and 1404 at
Chidham as part of baptisms. On each occasion one of the
players broke his leg
King Henry IV of
England provides the first documented use of the
English word "football" when in 1409 he issued a proclamation
forbidding the levying of money for "foteball".
In 1409 on 4 March eight men were compelled to give a bond of £20 to
the London city chamberlain for their good behaviour towards "the kind
and good men of the mystery of Cordwainers" undertaking not to collect
money for a football (pro pila pedali).
In 1410 King Henry IV of
England found it necessary to impose a fine
of 20S on mayors and bailiffs in towns where misdemeanours such as
football occurred. This confirms that football was not confined to
The Accounts of the
Worshipful Company of Brewers between 1421 and
1423 concerning the hiring out of their hall include reference to "by
the "ffooteballepleyers" twice... 20 pence" listed in English under
the title "crafts and fraternities". This reference suggests that
bans against football were unsuccessful and the listing of football
players as a "fraternity" is the earliest allusion to what might be
considered a football club.
The earliest reference to football or kicking ball games in Scotland
was in 1424 when King James I of
Scotland also attempted to ban the
playing of "fute-ball".
In 1425 the prior of
Bicester , England, made a payment on St
Katherine's day "to sundry gifts to football players (ludentibus ad
pilam pedalem)" of 4 denarii. It is noteworthy that at this time the
prior was willing to give his patronage to the game despite its being
In about 1430 Thomas Lydgate refers to the form of football played in
East Anglia known as
Camp Ball : "Bolseryd out of length and bread,
lyck a large campynge balle"
In 1440 the game of
Camp Ball was confirmed to be a form of football
when the first ever English-Latin dictionary, Promptorium parvulorum
offers the following definition of camp ball: "Campan, or playar at
foott balle, pediluson; campyon, or champion".
In 1472 the rector of
Norfolk bequeathed a field adjoining
the church yard for use as a "camping-close" or "camping-pightel"
specifically for the playing of the East Anglian version of football
Camp Ball .
In 1486 comes the earliest description of "a football", in the sense
of a ball rather than a game. This reference is in Dame Juliana
Berners ' Book of
St Albans . It states: "a certain rounde instrument
to play with ...it is an instrument for the foote and then it is calde
in Latyn 'pila pedalis', a fotebal." It is noteworthy that it was
considered socially acceptable for a football to be included in
There is an account from 11 April 1497 of a sum of money "giffen to
Jame Dog to by fut ballis to the King ".. It is not known if he
himself played with them.
The earliest and perhaps most important description of a football
game comes from the end of the 15th century in a Latin account of a
football game with features of modern soccer . It was played at
Nottinghamshire , England. It is included in a manuscript
collection of the miracles of King Henry VI of
England . Although the
precise date is uncertain it certainly comes from between 1481 and
1500. This is the first account of an exclusively "kicking game" and
the first description of dribbling : "he game at which they had met
for common recreation is called by some the foot-ball game. It is one
in which young men, in country sport, propel a huge ball not by
throwing it into the air but by striking it and rolling it along the
ground, and that not with their hands but with their feet... kicking
in opposite directions" The chronicler gives the earliest reference to
a football field, stating that: "he boundaries have been marked and
the game had started. Nevertheless the game was still rough, as the
account confirms: "a game, I say, abominable enough . . . and rarely
ending but with some loss, accident, or disadvantage of the players
Medieval sport had no referee.
In 1510 comes the next description of early football by Alexander
Barclay , a resident of the South East of England:
They get the bladder and blowe it great and thin, with many beanes
and peason put within, It ratleth, shineth and soundeth clere and
fayre, While it is throwen and caste up in the eyre, Eche one
contendeth and hath a great delite, with foote and hande the bladder
for to smite, if it fall to the ground they lifte it up again...
Overcometh the winter with driving the foote-ball.
The first record of a pair of football boots occurs when Henry VIII
England ordered a pair from the Great Wardrobe in 1526. The royal
shopping list for footwear states: "45 velvet pairs and 1 leather pair
for football". Unfortunately these are no longer in existence. It is
not known for certain whether the king himself played the game, but if
so this is noteworthy as his son Edward VI later banned the game in
1548 it because it incited riots.
The reputation of football as a violent game persists throughout most
accounts from 16th-century England. In 1531, Sir
Thomas Elyot noted in
his Boke named The Governour the dangers of football, as well as the
benefits of archery ("shooting"):
Some men wolde say, that in mediocritie, whiche I haue so moche
praised in shootynge, why shulde nat boulynge, claisshe, pynnes, and
koytyng be as moche commended? Verily as for two the laste, be to be
utterly abiected of al noble men, in like wise foote balle, wherin is
nothinge but beastly furie and extreme violence; wherof procedeth
hurte, and consequently rancour and malice do remaine with them that
be wounded; wherfore it is to be put in perpetuall silence. In class
she is emploied to litle strength; in boulyng oftentimes to moche;
wherby the sinewes be to moche strayned, and the vaines to moche
chafed. Wherof often tymes is sene to ensue ache, or the decreas of
strength or agilitie in the armes: where, in shotyng, if the shooter
use the strength of his bowe within his owne tiller, he shal neuer be
therwith grieued or made more feble.
Although many sixteenth-century references to football are
disapproving or dwell upon their dangers there are two notable
departures from this view. First, Sir
Thomas Elyot (although
previously a critic of the game) advocates "footeball" as part of what
he calls vehement exercise in his Castell of Helth published in 1534.
Secondly English headmaster
Richard Mulcaster provides in his 1581
publication the earliest evidence of organised, refereed football for
small teams playing in formation.
The first reference to football in Ireland occurs in the Statute of
Galway of 1527, which allowed the playing of football and archery but
banned " 'hokie' — the hurling of a little ball with sticks or
staves" as well as other sports. (The earliest recorded football match
in Ireland was one between Louth and Meath , at
Slane , in 1712.)
The oldest surviving ball that might have been used for football
games dates to about 1540 and comes from Scotland. It is made from
leather and a pig's bladder. It was discovered in 1981 in the roof
structure of the Queen's Chamber,
Stirling Castle . Whilst other uses
for the ball, such as pallone, have been suggested, most notably by
the National Museum of
Scotland , due to its size (diameter 14–16 cm
), staff at the Stirling Smith Museum and researchers at the Scottish
Football Museum have attributed its use to football, citing the
description of the ball used in the
Carlisle Castle game of 1568.
The violence of early football in
Scotland is made clear in this
sixteenth-century poem on the "beauties of football":
Bruised muscles and broken bones
Discordant strife and futile blows
Lamed in old age, then cripled withal
These are the beauties of football — Anonymous, translated from
The earliest specific reference to football (pila pedalis) at a
university comes in 1555 when it was outlawed at St John\'s College,
Oxford . Similar decrees followed shortly after at other Oxford
Colleges and at
Cambridge University .
Another reference occurred in 1555, when Antonio Scaino published his
treatise Del Giuoco della Palla (On the
Game of the Ball). It was
mostly concerned with a medieval predecessor of tennis, but near the
end, Scaino included a chapter titled, "Del Giuoco del Calcio" ("On
Game of Football"), for comparison. According to Scaino, the game
was popular with students. It could be played with any number of
players. The only rules seem to be that weapons could not be brought
onto the field, and the ball could not be thrown by hand. The goal was
for each team to try to cross the ball across a marked space at the
opposite end of the field. To start, the ball was placed in the middle
of the field and kicked by a member of the team that was chosen by
lots. Scaino remarks that its chief entertainment for the spectators
was to see "the players fall in great disarray "> Illustration of a
Calcio Fiorentino from 1688
Wales , the game of cnapan was described at length by George Owen
of Henllys , an eccentric historian of
Pembrokeshire , in 1603:
"This game... is thought to be of great antiquity and is as
followeth. The ancient Britons being naturally a warlike nation did no
doubt for the exercise of their youth in time of peace and to avoid
idleness devise games of activity where each man might show his
natural prowess and agility...... About one or two of the clock
afternoon begins the play, in this sort, after a cry made both parties
draw to into some plain, all first stripped bare saving a light pair
of breeches, bare-headed, bare-bodied, bare legs and feet....The foot
company thus meeting, there is a round ball prepared of a reasonable
quantity so as a man may hold it in his hand and no more, this ball is
of some massy wood as box, yew, crab or holly tree and should be
boiled in tallow for m make it slippery and hard to hold. This ball is
called cnapan and is by one of the company hurling bolt upright into
the air, and at the fall he that catches it hurls it towards the
country he plays for, for goal or appointed place there is none
neither needs any, for the play is not given over until the cnapan be
so far carried that there is no hope to return it back that night, for
the carrying of it a mile or two miles from the first place is no
losing of the honour so it be still followed by the company and the
play still maintained, it is oftentimes seen the chase to follow two
miles and more..."
The earliest account of a ball game that involves passing of the ball
comes from Richard Carew 's 1602 account of Cornish
states "Then must he cast the ball (named Dealing) to some one of his
fellowes". Carew also offers the earliest description of a goal (they
pitch two bushes in the ground, some eight or ten foote asunder; and
directly against them, ten or twelue score off, other twayne in like
distance, which they terme their Goales") and of goal keepers ("There
is assigned for their gard, a couple of their best stopping Hurlers").
The first direct reference to scoring a goal is in John Day 's play
The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green (performed circa 1600; published
1659): "I'll play a gole at camp-ball " (an extremely violent variety
of football, which was popular in
East Anglia ). Similarly in a poem
Michael Drayton refers to "when the Ball to throw, And drive
it to the Gole, in squadrons forth they goe". In 1615 James I of
Wiltshire and the villagers "entertained his Majesty
with a foot-ball match"
Oliver Cromwell who left
Cambridge University in 1617 was described
by James Heath as "one of the chief matchmakers and players of
football" during his time at the university.
Edmund Waller refers in one of his poems to "football" and
alludes to teamwork and passing the ball: "They ply their feet, and
still the restless ball, Toss'd to and fro, is urged by them all". In
1650 Richard Baxer gives an interesting description of football in his
book Everlasting Rest: "Alas, that I must stand by and see the Church,
and Cause of Christ, like a
Football in the midst of a crowd of Boys,
tost about in contention from one to another.... and may drive it
before him. ... But to be spurned about in the dirt, till they have
driven it on to the goal of their private interests". This is
noteworthy as it confirms that passing of the ball from one player to
another was part of football games.
The first study of football as part of early sports is given in
Francis Willughby 's Book of Games, written in about 1660. This
account is particularly noteworthy as he refers to football by its
correct name in English and is the first to describe the following:
modern goals and a pitch ("a close that has a gate at either end. The
gates are called Goals"), tactics ("leaving some of their best players
to guard the goal"), scoring ("they that can strike the ball through
their opponents' goal first win") and the way teams were selected
("the players being equally divided according to their strength and
nimbleness"). He is the first to describe a law of football: "They
often break one another's shins when two meet and strike both together
against the ball, and therefore there is a law that they must not
strike higher than the ball". His account of the ball itself is also
very informative: "They blow a strong bladder and tie the neck of it
as fast as they can, and then put it into the skin of a bull's cod and
sew it fast in". He adds: "The harder the ball is blown, the better it
flies. They used to put quicksilver into it sometimes to keep it from
lying still". His book includes the first (basic) diagram illustrating
a football pitch.
PRESENT DAY GAMES
Northumberland : the
Scoring the Hales game survives
and begins with the Duke of
Northumberland dropping a ball from the
* Ashbourne in
Derbyshire (known as Royal
Atherstone Ball Game in
Warwickshire . The
Shrove Tuesday Ball
Game is played annually along the line of an old Roman road that runs
through the town known as Long Street. The game has been played for
over 800 years dating back the reign of King John 1166–1216
* Corfe Castle in
Football Ceremony of the
Haxey Hood , actually played on
Epiphany ). In 1752 the
Julian calendar was changed for the Gregorian
calendar . To achieve this the days between 2 and 14 September were
omitted that year. In some villages people thought it was not possible
to remove 11 days from a year so refused to accept the new calendar.
As a result, Christmas Day was celebrated on 5 January in those
Haxey Hood is played the following day on what would
have been the feast of Stephan or
Boxing Day if 11 days had not been
removed from the calendar.
Hurling the Silver Ball takes place at
St Columb Major in Cornwall
: A "Town against Country" match takes place on
Shrove Tuesday and a
return match is played the following Saturday. Another version of
Hurling takes place at St Ives this game used to involve men
who lived at the top of town against those at the bottom end. Nowadays
it is a much gentler version for children only. This version takes
place on Feast Monday, normally February.
Leicestershire . A game played on
Easter Monday which shares common elements with medieval ball games
played during celebrations marked by the Christian calendar.
Game played in
County Durham on Shrove Tuesday.
Cumbria holds three
Uppies and Downies matches over
the Easter period. There are no rules, except those suggested by
cunning and skill, while brute force is of the greatest importance.
The goals are about a mile apart. The Uppies attempt to hail the ball
at the gates of
Workington Hall while the Downies hail at the capstan
at the harbour side.
Scotland the Ba\' game ("Ball Game") can be found at:
Scottish borders . Handba' game played the Monday before
or after Shrove Tuesday.
La Soule in Normandy and Brittany, France.
Lelo burti , a Georgian game similar to rugby.
Knattleikr , an Icelandic revival of an ancient game played by
Hurling (Irish : Iománaíocht/Iomáint) is an outdoor team game
of ancient Gaelic origin played in Ireland
Calcio Fiorentino — a modern revival of Renaissance football
Florence , played in Italy
Cuju , China
Kemari , Japan.
Ki-o-rahi , a Māori game.
Marn grook , an Australian Aboriginal ball game.
* yubi lakpi , Manipur
EXTINCT MEDIEVAL BALL GAMES
* United Kingdom
Chester-le-Street , had a game played between the Upstreeters and
Downstreeters that was played until 1932
East Anglia :
Camp ball was a popular sport in the 15th century.
Newton Ferrers in
Kingston upon Thames
Kingston upon Thames ,
Hampton Wick , all
near London. "The custom was to carry a foot-ball from door to door
and beg money:—at about 12 o'clock the ball was turned loose, and
those who could would kick it. In the town of Kingston, all the shops
are purposely kept shut upon that day, there were several balls in the
town, and of course several parties. The game would last about four
hours, when the parties retire to the public-houses, and spend the
money they had collected on refreshments."The Every-Day Book
Teddington : "it was conducted with such animation that careful
house-holders had to protect their windows with hurdles and
bushes."The Chambers\' Book of Days 9 February
* Torrington in
Devon had Out-
Hurling . "Once played on Trinity
Monday, The sport of 'Out-hurling' was included in the 1922 Great
Torrington Revel' Day. The publication
Cornwall Notes and
Queries 1922, volume 12, carried an account of the game, and noted
that it had previously been a regular sport, and involved a small ball
which was thrown 'over-hand', and a pitch approximately half a mile
long (adjoining a brook)."Folklore, Culture, Customs and Language of
Wales a game known as
Cnapan was once popular, notably at
Ceredigion , and Pwlldu in
* Neolithic Britain -webkit-column-width: 30em; column-width: 30em;
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* ^ "
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* ^ https://www.gutenberg.org/files/12322/12322-8.txt
* ^ "
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