The History Of Medieval Football

Football has been around a long, long time.

Henry VIII ordered a pair of custom-made football boots which would have cost £1,300 in modern money. (source: cnn.com)

It evolved from a very simple game known to us as ‘mob football’ (though they probably just called it ‘ball’), which emerged in the early Middle Ages and became popular in England. Though very few images of Medieval football survive, it seems like this early game was a kind of mass sport, where entire members of a school, profession, or village would compete against another to get a ball to a predetermined area, by whatever means they could – besides outright murder.

By the late 1200s, it seems that the rules were becoming more defined: in 1314, Edward II (who I’ve written about lots before) issued a ban on football in London. Here is the decree:

(source: jstor.org/stable/1838470)

By the wording of it, and the mention of the king going to war, we can assume the ban wasn’t meant to be permanent. It was issued at the request of some London merchants – presumably, the ‘malefactors’ and ‘night-prowlers’ had been causing them trouble. It turns out ‘no ball games’ signs have a much longer history than you might think.

And while the sport itself isn’t referenced here, the phrase ‘striking of great foot-balls’ seems to suggest that, even as early as this, it was becoming an unwritten law that the game had to be played with the feet.

Nearly fifty years later, in 1363, Edward III also tried to ban football, along with handball, hockey and other games – showing at least that football was, by that point, distinct from handball. Instead, he encouraged the youth of England to practise with the bow, which was considered to be a more respectable sport – and great training, for men who were skilled with the bow would make useful soldiers in Edward’s war with France.

We get a great description of football here:

(source: jstor.org/stable/1838470)

Dating to sometime between 1480 and 1500, this leaves us with no question: the chronicler confirms that the game has to be played with the feet, and that it was played within a set area, since they write: ‘the boundaries had been marked.’

On another note, I love his description of it as an ‘abominable’ sport that is ‘common’ and ‘undignified.’ Some still see the sport this way today, so it’s interesting to me to see that its reputation as a ‘basic’ sport of the people extends all the way back to the beginning.

So there you have it: football, an ancient sport played with the feet, at least since 1480 and possibly centuries earlier.

Someone needs to tell the Americans they’re playing it wrong.

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