Medieval Mob Football

an 18th century illustration of mob football - Medieval Mob Football
an 18th century illustration of mob football

Medieval mob football is a term given to a collection of large-scale ball sports played in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. These sports were played with different regional variations throughout Europe, though they typically shared the same format; teams of a few dozen to a few hundred players each would vie to capture the ball and take it to their village. Matches of such massive scale often took all day, with players dropping out throughout the hours due to fatigue. These unruly games were subject to a high level of chaos and violence – thus the name mob football. Notable examples of such games include French la soule, Welsh cnapan, and Irish caid.

Mob football matches were organized between villages, and any number of citizens from each could participate in the game. Such massive swarms of players often led to injuries such as broken limbs – and, occasionally, deaths. Despite this, medieval mob football maintained a high level of popularity throughout Europe for several centuries. In its later history, these sports led to the development of modern football sports including soccer, rugby, and American football.

The word “football” in the term “mob football” is somewhat of a misnomer for several reasons. First, these sports were not usually called football during the Middle Ages, but rather were referred to with ambiguous terms such as “ball game” and “play at ball.”  In fact, the earliest recorded use of the English word “football” lies in the 14th century, 5 centuries after the earliest record of European ball sports. Second, not all of these sports involved kicking the ball. For example, a variation of la soule called shouler a la crosse had players use hockey-like sticks to handle the ball. The use of the word “football” here is more of an reference to the fact that these sports were early predecessors to a collection of modern sports called “football.”


Origins and History

The earliest literary reference to ball sports in Europe lies in the 9th century historical text Historia Brittonum. Though it is difficult to establish references to specific mob football sports because distinct names weren’t always used, such records verify the existence of these sports in different periods and regions. For example, a record of a nameless sport as observed by the cleric William FitzStephen in 12th-century Britain matches descriptions of a variant of mob football.

There were a few attempts at banning football games in a few regions throughout medieval Europe, most notably by King Philippe V of France in 1331 and King Edward III of England in 1363. Despite these attempts, these variations of mob football and other ball games remained pervasive in medieval European societies.


How to Play

As medieval mob football had many variations and few codified rules among them, its guidelines were very broad. In general, two or more teams representing their respective villages would meet in a fairly central location. At the start of the game, each team would attempt to capture the ball and take it back to their predetermined zone – often their village’s church porch. Ordinarily, there were no restrictions with regard to team size or playing field size and no restrictions with regard to ball handling. Naturally, there were a few exceptions, such as the variation of la soule that only allowed for hockey-stye handling, or the variation of caid that was played on a small pitch instead of cross-country. In the majority of these variants, the team that successfully brought the ball to their village’s zone immediately won the match.

Bibliography

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Magoun, F. P. (1929). Football in medieval England and in Middle-English literature.

Elliott-Binns, L. E. (1955). Medieval Cornwall. London: Methuen & Co.