Friday, February 1, 2019

Football, 19th Century Style

I am told there is a substantial match of some sort happening this Sunday. The male members associated with my household are all agog. The younger male members decided to gift their father a large-screen TV and a sound bar in preparation (his birthday is on the same day). They will be coming on Saturday to install it and stay on Sunday, just to be sure it works, you see. But football matches were no stranger to the nineteenth century, even if they were a different sort of sport.

Some of the most infamous football matches in England happened on Shrove Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent. In one version of the sport, goals were placed at least a mile apart. Some towns even set up monuments to indicate the location of the goal. Two groups of any number of men squared off in the middle between the goals. There are anecdotal accounts of women playing as well. These opposing groups had some sort of connection. Merchants might match up against gentry, country dwellers against city dwellers, one town against another, or one guild against another. Some unlucky soul threw up a round ball of stuffed leather about the size of an inflated pig’s bladder and ran for his life while the two sides converged. The objective was to throw, kick, roll, or otherwise get the ball through the opposing team’s goal. Teams of up to 1,000 were not uncommon, and sides did not have to be equal. Any land between the goals was far game for the playing field, including church yards and cemeteries. 

In another version of the sport, popular in Cornwall and Devon, a much smaller ball the size of an orange, made from apple wood and coated with silver was fought over. The objective was to carry it by force or sleight of hand over the Parish boundary or through a particular goal. Teams were also huge and crossed town and country. At least one scholar of the sport asserts that the game was played by “gentlemen,” although another asserts that the gentry and aristocracy merely provided the silver ball and allowed their estates to be used as goals. A mayor or official generally started the match by throwing out the ball.  Games lasted approximately four hours. Sometimes the person holding the ball at the end would win a small prize, such as the silver ball itself. 

These were free-for-alls, wild pell-mell pursuits. They were so energetic that, according to the International Federation of Association Football, a number of monarchs attempted to outlaw the sport in parts of England from the 1300s through the 1600s. Says the FIFA website:

“Primitive football was more disorganised, more violent, more spontaneous and usually played by an indefinite number of players. Frequently, games took the form of a heated contest between whole villages - through streets and squares, across fields, hedges, fences and streams. Kicking was allowed, as in fact was almost everything else. Sometimes kicking the ball was out of the question due to the size and weight of the sphere being used—in such cases, kicking was instead limited to taking out opponents.”

I certainly hope the Superbowl teams will have more decorum. I’m not sure my family will. Think of me on Sunday. I’ll be the only one attempting to read around the sound of cheering.

1 comment:

Marissa Doyle said...

We had a very pleasant Superb Owl Sunday, thank you. ;)