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.

Want to play mob football today? It’s easy! You’ll only need any sports ball that’s comfortable to throw and carry. (A nice vintage leather soccer ball is perfect if you want to look authentic.) See Play Today! below for a full explanation.

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.

Play Today!

To play mob football today, you’ll need a ball that’s easy to handle. A vintage football or soccer ball will work nicely and look the part, but standard balls will do as well.

Since medieval mob football was a chaotic sport with many variations and few rules shared among them, a generic game is easy to set up. Choose a play area of any size, from local parks up to neighboring towns (as long as there are areas without streets where it’s safe to play). Split any number of players into two teams, set a home base for each team on opposite ends of the play area, and have the teams travel to a central point. Place the ball as close to the center as possible and have the teams back up a set distance, such as 100 paces. When everyone is ready, have someone blow a whistle to indicate the start of the game.

Whichever team gets the ball back to their own base first wins. You can choose to play a specific number of rounds beforehand if the play area is relatively small. Traditionally, the ball would be secured and carried without any restrictions or regard for safety, but it would be unwise to play like that today. Vehicles, weapons, and overt violence should not be allowed or tolerated. Players may wish to allow wrestling to maintain the rough-and-tumble spirit of this medieval sport, but caution is advised. Whatever rules you make for this game, ensure that safety is a top priority.

If you would like to learn how to play specific mob football sports, take a look at the following:

  • French la soule (a combination of field hockey and mob football)
  • Welsh cnapan (mob football with a slippery wooden ball)
  • Irish caid (a sport with more similarities to American football and soccer)

Bibliography

Rowley, C. (2015). The shared origins of football, rugby, and soccer. Rowman & Littlefield.

Collins, T., Martin, J., & Vamplew, W. (2013). Encyclopedia of traditional British rural sports. London: Routledge.

Ruff, J. R. (2001). Violence in early modern Europe, 1500-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marples, M. (1954). A history of football. London: Secker & Warburg.

Williams, G. (2007). Sport: A literary anthology. Summersdale LTD – ROW.

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

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