Wednesday, 19 Jun 2024

Medieval Folk Football

Modern football is a widely known and popular sport, but many people are not familiar with its historical roots and how it evolved into the game we know today. However, there is a lesser-known predecessor to modern football called folk football, which was prevalent during medieval times and influenced the development of association football. This article aims to shed light on the origins and characteristics of this ancient sport.

The Sport’s Origins

The earliest recorded mention of a ball game in post-classical Europe comes from a text called Historia Brittonum, believed to have been written by a monk named Nennius in Wales. The text briefly mentions boys playing at ball, but does not provide much detail.

Folk football games were commonly played on Shrove Tuesday, with school students and workers from different crafts each having their own ball. They would gather in fields to kick the ball around, supervised by their elders. These games gradually evolved, leading King Edward III to ban the version of football that was popular in 1363. The ban remained in place until 1667, but it did not deter people from playing the game, albeit with the knowledge that they could face imprisonment.

How Folk Football Worked

Medieval folk football was a rough and chaotic game with few rules. It involved large groups of people, often from different villages or divided into teams based on their location. These games were often associated with significant dates, such as Shrove Tuesday.

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The distance between goals could be as long as two or three miles, using the captains’ houses as the goalposts. Accounts of these games resembled reports on modern-day rugby matches, with intense competition and players giving their all to win. However, the violence and lack of rules in folk football led King James I to prohibit his son, Henry, from participating. The game was described as a bloody and dangerous activity, with tripping and hacking of opponents being common. In some instances, injuries and even deaths occurred during violent matches.

Modern Day Folk Football

While contemporary folk football has abandoned the extreme violence of its medieval counterpart, it continues to be played in various towns and villages across the United Kingdom. In fact, it has experienced a revival in the latter part of the twentieth century, despite its legal prohibition and opposition from law-abiding citizens.

For instance, every January 1st in Kirkwall, Orkney, players take to the streets at 10:00 AM to play their own version of folk football. In Workington, Cumbria, a Hocktide game is played on the first Sunday following Easter. Duns in the Scottish Borders also hosts folk football games during Relvers Week in July, pitting single men against married men.

Ashbourne boasts a continuous tradition of folk football, with locals claiming its origins date back to the 12th century. The game’s reputation attracted tourists, and though it is not as violent as other variations, it remains an exciting spectacle. Some villages even have unique variations of folk football that do not involve a ball, like the one in Haxey Hood, Lincolnshire, where teams aim to get a tube containing a rope into the pub of their choice.

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The Lead-In To The Modern Game

Although the connection between contemporary football and folk football is not direct, there are some notable similarities. For example, kicking was allowed in folk football, but it mainly involved kicking other players rather than the ball. In fact, the ball used in folk football was often too large and heavy for effective kicking. The standardized size and weight of the modern football was established nine years after the establishment of the 1863 rules, during a match between London and Sheffield in 1866.

Another significant link between the two versions of football is their British origins. While ball games existed worldwide, the development of football into its structured form primarily occurred in Britain over a thousand-year period. From a free-for-all game involving as many players as desired to a highly regulated sport with numerous rules, football has undergone a remarkable transformation.


1. Were there any specific rules in medieval folk football?

Medieval folk football had few rules, which contributed to its chaotic and violent nature. Tripping and hacking opponents were common tactics, and injuries were frequent. The games were often characterized by fierce competition and intense physicality.

2. Is folk football still played today?

Yes, folk football has survived and experienced a revival in various towns and villages across the United Kingdom. While it is less violent than its medieval counterpart, it remains a beloved tradition with unique variations and events held throughout the year.

3. What is the origin of modern football?

The modern version of football evolved over centuries in Britain. While the precise origins are unclear, the game gradually transformed from a free-for-all activity to a structured sport with standardized rules and regulations.

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Folk football provides a fascinating glimpse into the historical roots of modern football. Despite its violent nature and lack of rules, this medieval sport laid the foundation for the organized and regulated game enjoyed by millions today. The survival and revival of folk football in various British towns and villages highlight its enduring appeal and cultural significance. To explore more about the fascinating world of football, visit Movin993.