French La Soule (Medieval Hockey-Football)

French La Soule (Medieval Hockey-Football)

an 1852 illustration of a la soule match - French La Soule (Medieval Hockey Football)
an 1852 illustration of a la soule match

La soule was a medieval French ball sport of massive scale, with matches taking place across vast distances and often taking up all day.* In this game, teams of typically 10 to 100 players would skirmish for possession of a ball in an attempt to run it across miles of variable landscape to a goal located within their parish.

La soule was typically played by two teams, usually representing their respective parishes. However, sometimes three or more teams could be involved. As such, the number of players in a game could range from 20 to a few hundred (though even these numbers pale in comparison to the upwards of 2,000 in the similar Welsh sport, cnapan). The goal of each team was to get the ball to a predetermined goal, typically the porch of their own parish’s church. Games involving more than two teams likely lasted longer than those with only two, as more teams and more goals would have increased the chances of interceptions.

If you want to play la soule today, you’ll need a wooden hockey ball and some standard hockey gear. See Play Today! below for a full explanation.

The game was known for being fairly violent. Broken limbs were not too uncommon, though more serious injuries and deaths seem to have been less common than within some other European mob football sports of similar scale, such as the aforementioned cnapan. La soule seems to have been only played by men, likely due to this violence.

In addition to the most basic version of la soule, several other specialized versions of the sport were played in different regions. La soule au pied had players only using their feet to handle the ball, much like within modern soccer. Another variation, called shouler a la crosse, had players only using sticks to handle the ball, likely in a style comparable to field hockey sports.

La soule is one of several medieval European sports thought to have influenced the development of soccer, rugby, and football. Other medieval ball sports that contributed to the development of these modern games include Irish caid and Welsh cnapan.

*Some sources claim that la soule games could last several days without pause, but there are no actual historical sources to suggest this. 

Origins and History

The earliest solid reference to la soule lies in 1283, when a man was charged fatally striking another man with a stone during a game referred to only as soule. Other references to European ball sports go back as early as the 9th century, for example, in the Historia Brittonum. As such, it is not unreasonable to assume la soule was played for some significant time before 1283, though pinpointing a specific year isn’t feasible.

Despite several attempts to suppress the game, la soule remained fairly popular for several centuries. Its last literary references lie in the 19th century, during which the sport seemingly dropped out of practice, perhaps due to the rise in popularity of modern football sports during that period.

How to Play

To start la soule, participating teams would meet in a fairly central location between their goals – usually the border of their parishes. As stated above, the goal of each team was to get the ball to their predetermined zone, typically the porch of their parish’s church.

The ball, also called the soule, could be constructed of wood, leather, or an animal bladder. In the case of wooden balls, the soule could be crafted to be either solid or hollow. Balls made of animal products were typically stuffed with animal hair or plant life, such as moss or grains. The ball varied in size considerably throughout the life of the sport, though it was typically around the size of a baseball, or perhaps slightly larger.

Like several other medieval European ball sports, players were not very restricted with regard to how they could handle the ball when playing the general, non-specialized version of the sport. As the soule was sometimes made of leather, they could kick the ball in addition throwing and running it. However, unlike other medieval European football games, la soule players sometimes wielded sticks with which to hit the ball, presumably when using a ball made of wood. While it is not specifically stated whether players used these sticks to strike the ball in a manner similar to baseball or in a manner similar to field hockey, it’s fair to assume the latter is more likely. This is largely due to the fact that field hockey sports such as the Gaelic predecessor to Irish hurling and Scottish shinty seem to have had a fair presence in European sports history.

When one team successfully reached their goal with the ball, the game was over. While it is not specifically stated, it’s likely that a tie was called if neither team had won by sundown, as playing in the dark would have been dangerous and impractical. This practice is seen in other medieval European ball games, such as cnapan.

Play Today!

To play la soule today, you’ll need a wooden hockey ball (or some standard field hockey balls if you want to reduce the risk of injury) and some hockey sticks. These rules are modeled after the shouler version of the sport, which bore some similarities to field hockey. If you want the game to feel authentic, you’ll need a really large play area, such as a local park or rural fields (the game was usually played across two entire villages).

Divide any number of players into two teams and have them each chose a base at opposite ends of the play area. Place the ball in the very middle of the play area and have the teams meet there. After moving the teams a set distance away from the ball (such as 100 paces), have someone blow a whistle to indicate the start of the game. The goal of each team is to get the ball back to their own base. They can only touch the ball with their hockey sticks and feet – no grabbing allowed. (If you’re playing with a wooden ball, be careful not to hurt your feet when you kick it!)

If your play area isn’t massive then you can play for a set period of time, such as two 30-minute halves, and give the victory to the team with the most points. If you are playing over a really large area, then the team to bring the ball back to their base first wins outright.

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

Nauright, J. (2012). Sports around the World: History, Culture, and Practice. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

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

Baker, W. J. (1982). Sports in the Western world. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

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