Although the Romans introduced Harpastum to their northern empire, it is unclear how enthusiastic locals from Gaul and Britannia were about it. There are records of ball games being played in England and France from the 9th century onwards, but it is unclear what these sports specifically involved, and thus we must wait until the late 12th century for a description of the violent and terribly dangerous game of medieval football. Medieval football games usually took place once a year, on Shrove Tuesday, and the aim was to carry a ball to a determined point guarded ferociously by the opposition.
William FitzStephen was a clerk of Thomas Beckett, and later his biographer, but also has the distinction of being the first person to write a football match report (c.1174-1183) on a Shrove Tuesday clash: ‘the students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.’
The earliest reference to a ball being kicked during a game of football comes from a 13th-century lyric about St Hugh of Lincoln, whose death was used as a pretext for persecuting the Jews in England: ‘four and twenty bonny boys, were playing at the ball… he kicked the ball with his right foot’. Generally, though, kicking the ball was rare, and the usual means of ferrying the large, inflated pig’s bladder, to the predetermined place in order to win the game was with the hands. The ‘pitch’ could be the distance of several miles, often between two neighboring villages.
In fact, it was probably more common to kick an opponent than the ball itself. Medieval football was horrifically violent, and in 1303, one Thomas of Salisbury, a student at Oxford University, was shocked to find his brother, Adam, dead, killed by Irish students during a game of football being played in the city. Not long before, a game in Northumberland resulted in one player being stabbed to death by an opponent. Shockingly, this is not the only player-stabbing recorded in the history of medieval football. Although stabbing was frowned upon, general brutality was both encouraged and permitted to win.
We know little of the rules (if any) of medieval football. However, we do know that the game could involve hundreds of players, depending upon the sizes of the towns and villages involved. Despite the churlishness of beating up your neighbors once a year to carry the ball into their village (often to their church, shockingly), football was nevertheless described or alluded to by some of the greatest medieval authors. In Laʒamon’s 12th century Brut, King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table are described playing the game for fun, and Chaucer uses a football simile in his 14th-century Canterbury Tales.