The ancient game of football

In the first twenty minutes or so of a foolish movie called First Knight, cinemagoers were treated to the Hollywood spectacle of a young and beautiful Lady of the Manor playing football with the burly hoi-polloi of her village. The scene was set in the twelfth century. It would not occur to the American writers and the director of this film that no 12th century castle-dweller would get within smelling distance of the peasantry, let alone play football with them.

The game itself, however, is another thing. I am not sure why the name ‘soccer’ was imposed on football, and I am sure I will be told – but a distinction had to be made when American Football, a variety of rugby, became popular in the United States. English-style football was replaced by soccer.

In the 12th century, English sporting life in the countryside took place on Sundays and major saints’ days, Men and the older boys practised with the longbow which by law they were obliged to do, and prove their proficiency as well. Youths liked to show off with the quoit, tossed the horseshoe and huge beams (not just in Scotland by the way), wrestled in seemly garments (unlike in Ancient Greece) and fought each other with staves and cudgels. Most of these sports were very rough, but the Oscar for foolhardiness, beastliness and danger must go to football. Thomas Elyot said, “it is nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence; wherefore proceedeth hurt and consequently rancour and malice do remain with those that are wounded; wherof it ought to be put into perpetual silence.” But it wasn’t. In Tudor times authorities like Thomas Cromwell began cleaning up the game, and inventing sensible rules some of which were accepted.

In the 12th century there were no rules at all, and no restrictions on the number of players or techniques employed to wrest the bladder from another player. Boundaries and goals were decided on by the terrain of which the game was played. It was not unusual that villages played villages with selected players from each village: the beginning of the club system. There were no goal posts, the object being to kick the inflated bladder against a market cross or some other appointed landmark. The ‘game’ continued from dawn to dusk, often without result, except the count-up of broken heads and damaged limbs, or even deaths; there was no referee.

By the 19th century the authorities had taken over and teams were kept down to below twenty of the strongest and swiftest, referees were introduced, boundaries decided upon, and goalposts invented. The original ill-discipline, foul play and violence of 12th century football were siphoned off into the new games such as Rugby, Australian Football and American Football though the last-named was so crowded with Rules and Prohibitions as to become unintelligible to anyone not lucky enough to be born American.

To revert for a painful moment to First Knight, if a young Lady of the Manor descended from her drawbridge to witness a game of early medieval football, she would be accompanied by a dozen armed knights bearing no resemblance to Richard Gere, to prevent instant rape by the gambolling swains. She could not take part, Hollywood screenwriters please take note, because she would not have been allowed to, there being no democracy or equality in the golden times of the good King Richard the Lionheart.

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