Welsh Cnapan (Medieval Football)

Welsh Cnapan (Medieval Football)

This is a map of cantrefi (comparable to "counties") in medieval Wales. These contrefi were divided into many commotes, a term which is sometimes synonymous with "villages" or "parishes." These commotes played cnapan against each other. - Welsh Cnapan (Medieval Football)
This is a map of cantrefi (comparable to “counties”) in medieval Wales. These contrefi were divided into many commotes (“villages” or “parishes”), which played cnapan against each other.
This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported from Wikimedia Commons. Author: unspecified

Cnapan was a massive, chaotic ball sport played in western Wales as early as the Dark Ages and well into the medieval period. Games were hosted between two neighboring commotes (villages) and any number of men from each could play, leading to games with upwards of 2,000 people. Partially because of this, cnapan was known for its chaotic violence and high risk of injury.

The objective of each team was to get a wooden ball to the church porch of their own commote. As such, the play area spread out for miles without definite borders. In order to reach the goal, the ball could be thrown or carried – or even covertly smuggled. The game typically began around 1 or 2 PM and lasted without pause until sundown. If neither team had won before sunset, a draw would be called. Though the game wasn’t officially won until the ball reached one commote’s church, whenever the ball simply entered the opposing team’s village, the vast majority of the losing team would leave the game, as getting the ball back to their own village before sundown would be unlikely.

If you want to play cnapan today, you’ll need a wooden sports ball and something slippery, like some synthetic lubricant or petroleum jelly. See Play Today! below for a full explanation.

Before the start of each game, everyone playing on foot would strip down to only their trousers to avoid getting their shirts torn to shreds in the fray. With one to two thousand people clashing together, injuries and other damages were common. Cnapan was so violent that players even had their hair and beards ripped out on occasion. In addition, while the vast majority of players were on foot, some of those who could afford to do so would play atop horseback, leading to higher risk of injury to those on the ground.

Cnapan is one of several European medieval mob football sports Europe that eventually led to the development of soccer, rugby, and American football. Other medieval ball sports from the same category include the Irish game caid and the French game la soule.

Origins and History

George Owen of Henllys (1552–1613), a Welsh historian and author, claimed that cnapan had been popular since antiquity. This may be accurate, as similar European ball game have ties as far back as the Dark Ages (5th–10th centuries AD). The 9th century historical text Historia Brittonum establishes that not only were ball games played during that period, but they had been played for several centuries beforehand as well. As such, cnapan likely has ties this far back in time, though specifics regarding its history before George Owen of Henllys’ writings in the 16th century are unknown.

Cnapan maintained a fairly high level of popularity in Wales until the 19th century, during which rugby gained some traction. During this period, cnapan fell out of popularity.

How to Play

Thanks to writings from George Owen of Henllys, as mentioned above, many details of the sport are known. Before beginning the game, the ball, sharing the name cnapan with the sport, had to be prepared. This wooden ball, likely carved about the size of a baseball, would be boiled in animal fat or some other lubricant to make handling more difficult and unpredictable. It is unclear on whom this responsibility fell.

The participating teams would meet between their villages around 1 or 2 PM. When both sides were ready, one player would hurl the ball high in the air between the teams, and whoever caught the ball would throw it toward their own side. The following hours were filled with chases, fights, turnovers, and the like, on the scale of upwards of 2,000 people. When one team successfully brought the ball to their own church, the game was won. Or, as mentioned above, if the ball entered one village without enough daylight left for the other team to take it home after an interception, most of the losing team would forfeit, effectively guaranteeing a win for the other team.

Play Today!

To play cnapan today, you’ll need a wooden sports ball and something to make it slippery. Some synthetic lubricant or petroleum jelly would work well, or you could go for authenticity and boil the ball in animal fat! This game is meant to be humorous, as the ball is supposed to be tough to handle.

The slippery ball is cnapan’s unique feature – the rest of the game is similar to other mob football sports. Find a really large play area, like a local park or some rural fields. The bigger, the better! Divide 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.

The goal of each team is to bring the ball back to their own base. If you have a sufficiently large play area, the first team to do this wins the game outright. If not, you can play for a set period of time or for a set number of points. The ball can be carried with the hands or arms and can be thrown or kicked in any way (though be careful not to injured yourself when kicking it). Since the ball is made of solid wood and could cause head injury, players should wear helmets. If that isn’t an option, a lubricated standard soccer ball would be safer and likely just as difficult to handle.

You may choose to allow wrestling to maintain the rough-and-tumble spirit of the original game. You’ll probably see the ball slip away from players struggling to take it for themselves!

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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.

Jarvie, G. (1999). Sport in the making of Celtic cultures. London: Leicester University Press.

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

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