Monday, February 20, 2012

Shrove Tuesday football

I recently wrote about the ritual warfare of the Dani people of New Guinea. It was warfare because massed warriors would set upon one another with spears and bows and arrows. Its ritual elements lie in the ceremonies that preceded battle and in the withdrawal of both sides as soon as one or at most a few men were killed or wounded. The men fought not in anger but so as to appease the ghosts of their ancestors.

Reading about Dani warfare, I thought of the racket games played by American Indians. These games, which French observers called lacrosse, pitted one village against another in free-for-alls in which injury was frequent and death a possible outcome. The players participated in rituals before games began and these rituals closely resembled the ones they practiced before going to war. Some referred to the game as analogous to war (as in "little brother of war").

There's another traditional game in which participants would put limb and life at risk. It's the ancient football competition within English villages on Shrove Tuesday.

The English games, like the AmerInd ones, shared with Dani warfare a noticeable religious element. While in the former case, Indians would participate in religious ceremonies before each game and gods were seen as guiding play and determining the victor, in the latter, the game was associated with a religious requirement to be shriven, that is to confess sins to a priest, before sundown that day. (This year Shrove Tuesday falls tomorrow, February 21. One of the three days of Shrovetide, it is the day before Ash Wednesday, and thus the last day before the beginning of Lent.)

Shrove Tuesday football games were, like those of the Indians, not so much recreation, as mock warfare. Like Carnival, held in countries to the south, the games offered a release from many, though not all, cultural inhibitions. They were a letting loose of wild spirits. And it's tempting to see them, as it's common to view Dani ritual warfare and Indian lacrosse, as a means of defusing tensions between neighboring groups of men.

The rules Shrove Tuesday football were traditional ones, varying from village to village, and there were few of them. Early in the sixteenth century one observer saw the occasion as one "wherein is nothing but beastly fury, and extreme violence, whereof proceedeth hurt."[1] While this man went on to complain that "rancour and malice do remain with them that be wounded", modern sources tend to believe the games prevented worse conflict from developing and as a result generally led to better relations between opponents.

Similarly, Dani ritual battles seem to have had the character of games. As one witness wrote, "Dani battles have a conspicuous element of play, with one documented instance of a battle interrupted when both sides were distracted by throwing stones at a passing cuckoo dove."[2]

There's no way to know how ancient were the ritual warfare of the Dani and racket games of the AmerInds. The latter were first reported in the 1630s but the former not until 1938. The football contests of Shrove Tuesday can be dated back to the reign of Edward II who attempted to outlaw them in 1349 out of fear that they kept men from practicing archery and thus imperiled the nation's defense. Claims are made that the practice had antecedents in Roman or possibly Saxon Britain, but there's no real evidence for them.

In the early nineteenth century, just as football was catching on as a sport in the aristocratic public schools, it began to die out as a communal sporting competition. In 1829 a French visitor saw the Shrove Tuesday match between two parts of Ashbourne, in Derbyshire: uppers and the downers, that is to say the neighborhoods from different sides of the river that runs through the place. The Frenchman later wrote "if Englishmen call this play, it would be impossible to say what they call fighting."[3]

{Picture showing a Shrove Tuesday battle at London's Crowe Street originally drawn in the year 1721; source: Mob football on wikipedia}

Football match, 1846, at Kingston on Thames.

{Football match, 1846, Kingston on Thames; source: Kingston upon Thames on wikipedia}

Football evolving into rugby.

{Illustration of a public schools game of football in the 1860s; source: History of Football on spartacus.schoolnet}

Football evolving into what Americans call soccer.

{England against Scotland in 1877; source: History of Football on spartacus.schoolnet}

This shows a modern match of Shrove Tuesday football in Alnwick, Northumberland.

{Traditional Shrove Tuesday football in Alnwick, Northumberland; source: Radical History of Football}

The following image shows an American Indian lacrosse game by George Catlin. A source says: "Catlin was a big fan of Choctaw lacrosse, which he witnessed in Indian Territory in 1834. He described ball-play as 'a school for the painter or sculptor, equal to any of those which ever inspired the hand of the artist in the Olympian games or the Roman forum.' Lacrosse was a physical, even violent, game called 'little brother of war' in Choctaw that included no-holds-barred scuffling and wrestling as players struggled desperately for the ball."[4]

{George Catlin (1796–1872). Ball-play of the Choctaw: Ball-up, 1846–50. Oil on canvas; 65.4 x 81.4 cm. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr. Smithsonian American Art Museum; source: Smithsonian American Art Museum}


Some sources:

Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football Shrove Tuesday & Ash Wednesday

The history of Royal Ashbourne Shrovetide Football
Extract: "There are many versions as to the true origins of the game - but the most popular seems to be the theory that the 'ball' was originally a head tossed into the waiting crowd following an execution. ... And in 1878 the game was briefly banned after a man drowned in the Henmore. Local land-owners signed petitions and refused to let the game take place on their properties."

Royal Shrovetide Football in Ashbourne on

'Shrovetide Football at Ashbourne', 26 February 1952 images on

Shrovetide Football: 1 Ball, 2 Days, 3,000 Players on the New York Times, March 7, 2011.

History, topography, and directory of Derbyshire, comprising its history and archaeology: a general view of its physical and geological features, with separate historical and topographical descriptions of each town, parish, manor, and extra-parochial liberty (T. Bulmer & Co, Printed for the Proprietors by T. Snape & Co., 1895)

Old English customs extant at the present time, an account of local observances by Peter Hampson Ditchfield (G. Redway, 1896)
Shrove Tuesday is a day celebrated for its famous football encounters, which are not, like ordinary games, fought out on a level field between goal-posts, but are entirely of another character. At Sedgefield the church clerk and sexton had, according to immemorial custom, to find a ball to be played for by the trades-folk and villagers on this day. The goal of the former is at the south of the village, that of the latter is a pond at the north end. The ball is put through the bull-ring in the middle of the village. The game always begins at one o'clock, and is fought out for three or four hours with much ferocity. There are no rules of "offside," or of "no charging or hacking allowed." All is fair in love or war, and also in the old-fashioned football of England and Scotland. At Chester-le-Street they have an annual match between the "up-street" and "down-street" folk on Shrove Tuesday. The contest takes place in the street, the windows being all carefully barricaded; and a burn lies in the course of the players, who rush into the water, and enjoy a fine scrimmage there. At Alnwick the contest used to take place in the street, but the Duke of Northumberland instituted an annual match, which now takes place in "the Pasture" every Shrove Tuesday between the parishioners of the two parishes of St. Michael and St. Paul. The committee receives the ball at the barbican of the castle from the porter, and march to the field headed by the Duke's piper, where the contest takes place, after which a fine struggle takes place for the possession of the ball.
History of Football
Extract: 'Large football games often took place on Shrove Tuesday. In 1796 it was reported that in Derby, John Snape was "an unfortunate victim to this custom... which is disgraceful to humanity and civilization, subversive of good order and government and destructive to the morals, properties, and lives of our inhabitants."'

History of football: And the Rules of the Game

Something for everybody (and a garland for the year) John Timbs (London, Lockwood & Co. Stationers, 1861)
Extract: "Football is another common Shrove Tuesday sport: it is still played in Derby, Nottingham, Kingston-upon-Thames, and a few other towns. ... The people of Kingston claim their ancient custom as a right obtained for them by the valour of their ancestors. Tradition states that the Danes, in one of their predatory incursions, were defeated at Kingston, and the Danish general being slain, his head was cut off, and kicked about the place in triumph. This happened on Shrove Tuesday; and hence the origin of their football on that day."

Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football Shrove Tuesday & Ash Wednesday.
The game is still carried on at Ashbourne and Derby. Extract:
Football continues to be played at in many parts of England on Shrove Tuesday and Ash-Wednesday, but the mode of playing this game at Ashbourne and Derby, differs very much from the usual practice of this sport. In the town of Derby the contest lies between the parishes of St. Peter and All Saints, and the goals to which the ball is to be taken are, Nun's mill for the latter, and the Gallow's balk on the Normanton road for the former. None of the other parishes of the borough take any direct part in the contest, but the inhabitants of all join in the sport, together with persons from all parts of the adjacent country. The players are young men from eighteen to thirty or upwards, married as well as single, and many veterans who retain a relish for the sport are occasionally seen in the very heat of the conflict. The game commences in the market-place, where the partisans of each parish are drawn up on each side; and, about noon, a large ball is tossed up in the midst of them. This is seized upon by some of the strongest and most active men of each party. The rest of the players immediately close in upon them, and a solid mass is formed. It then becomes the object of each party to impel the course of the crowd towards their particular goal. The struggle to obtain the ball, which is carried in the arms of those who have possessed themselves of it, is then violent, and the motion of this human tide heaving to and fro, without the least regard to consequences, is tremendous. Broken shins, broken heads, torn coats and lost hats, are among the minor accidents of this fearful contest, and it frequently happens that persons fall in consequence of the intensity of the pressure, fainting and bleeding beneath the feet of the surrounding mob. But it would be difficult to give an adequate idea of this ruthless sport: a Frenchman passing through Derby remarked, that if Englishmen called this playing, it would be impossible to say what they would call fighting. Still the crowd is encouraged by respectable persons attached to each party, and who take a surprising interest in the result of the day's sport; urging on the players with shouts, and even handing to those who are exhausted, oranges and other refreshment. The object of the St. Peters' party is to get the ball into the water, down the Morledge brook into the Derwent as soon as they can, while the All Saints party endeavour to prevent this, and to urge the ball westward. The St. Peter players are considered to be equal to the best water-spaniels, and it is certainly curious to see two or three hundred men up to their chins in the Derwent continually ducking each other. The numbers engaged on both sides exceed a thousand, and the streets arc crowded with lockers on. The shops are closed, and the town presents the aspect of a place suddenly taken by storm. — The origin of this violent game is lost in its antiquity, but there exists a tradition, that a cohort of Roman soldiers, marching through the town to Derventio, or Little Chester, were thrust out by the unarmed populace, and this mode of celebrating the occurrence has been continued to the present day. It is even added that this conflict occurred in the year 217, and that the Roman troops at Little Chester were slain by the Britons. — This game is played in a similar manner at Ashbourne, but the institution of it there is of a modern date.
The history of Royal Ashbourne Shrovetide Football

The every day book, or, A guide to the year, describing the popular amusements sports, ceremonies, manners customs & events incident to the three hundred & sixty-five days, in past & present times by William Hone, Volume 1 (W. Tegg, 1826)

This was, and remains, a game on Shrove Tuesday, in various parts of England.

Sir Frederick Morton Eden in the "Statistical account of Scotland," says that at the parish of Scone, county of Perth, every year on Shrove Tuesday the bachelors and married men drew themselves up at the cross of Scone, on opposite sides; a ball was then thrown up, and they played from two o'clock till sun-set. The game was this: he who at any time got the ball into his hands, run with it till overtaken by one of the opposite party; and then, if he could shake himself loose from those on the opposite side who seized him, he run on; if not, he threw the ball from him, unless it was wrested from him by the other party, but no person was allowed to kick it. The object of the married men was to hang it, that is, to put it three times into a small hole in the moor, which was the dool or limit on the one hand: that of the bachelors was to drotun it, or dip it three times in a deep place in the river, the limit on the other: the party who could effect either of these objects won the game; if neither won, the ball was cut into equal parts at sun-set. In the course of the play there was usually some violence between the parties; but it is a proverb in this part of the country that "All is fair at the ball of Scone. Sir Frederick goes on to say, that this custom is supposed to have had its origin in the days of chivalry; when an Italian is reported to have come into this part of the country challenging all the parishes, under a certain penalty in case of declining his challenge. All the parishes declined this challenge except Scone, which beat the foreigner, and in commemoration of this gallant action the game was instituted. Whilst the custom continued, every man in the parish, the gentry not excepted, was obliged to turn out and support the side to which he belonged, and the person who neglected to do his part on that occasion was fined; but the custom being attended with certain inconveniences, was abolished a few years before Sir Frederick wrote. He further mentions that on Shrove Tuesday there is a standing match at foot-ball in the parish of Inverness, county of Mid Lothian, between the married and unmarried women, and he states as a remarkable fact that the married women are always successful.
Humble yet violent beginnings
Extract: "Mob Football was a popular recreation activity recognised by its violent, uncodified and rural exterior, a far cry from the Suarez swan dives of the 21st century. The heartbeat of the game was born in these English Villages, where the locals celebrated their only days off work, known as ‘holy-days’, by taking part in ritual festivals of sport and alcohol."

Local derby on wikipedia.
Extract: "The traditional Shrovetide football match was also commonplace in the city. It was renowned as a chaotic and exuberant game that involved the whole town and often resulted in fatalities. The goals were at Nuns Mill in the north and the Gallows Balk in the south of the town, and much of the action took place in the Derwent river or Markeaton brook. Nominally the players came from All Saints' and St Peter's parishes, but in practice the game was a free-for-all with as many as 1,000 players. A Frenchman who observed the match in 1829 wrote in horror, 'if Englishmen call this play, it would be impossible to say what they call fighting'."

Mob football on wikipedia
"Mob Football has been forever imortalized by the writings of William Shakespeare in his The Comedy of Errors: Am I so round with you, as you with me, That like a foot-ball you doe spurne me thus: You spurne me hence, and he will spurne me hither, If I last in this service, you must case me in leather.[9] "

Pancakes and Football



Shrovetide in the New Advent encyclopedia

folk football in Britain

The Radical History of Football

Shrovetide Football, Ashbourne, Derbyshire

History - US - Lacrosse by Thomas Vennum Jr., Author of American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War
Extract: "Apart from its recreational function, lacrosse traditionally played a more serious role in Indian culture. Its origins are rooted in legend, and the game continues to be used for curative purposes and surrounded with ceremony. Game equipment and players are still ritually prepared by conjurers, and team selection and victory are often considered supernaturally controlled. In the past, lacrosse also served to vent aggression, and territorial disputes between tribes were sometimes settled with a game, although not always amicably. A Creek versus Choctaw game around 1790 to determine rights over a beaver pond broke out into a violent battle when the Creeks were declared winners. Still, while the majority of the games ended peaceably, much of the ceremonialism surrounding their preparations and the rituals required of the players were identical to those practiced before departing on the warpath."

Games of the North American Indians Culin, Stewart, 1858-1929 in Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1902-1903

"American Indian Games" by Stewart Culin in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 11, No. 43 (Oct. - Dec., 1898), pp. 245-252 (American Folklore Society) Stable URL:

History of lacrosse on wikipedia - "Modern day lacrosse descends from and resembles games played by various Native American communities. These include games called dehuntshigwa'es in Onondaga ("men hit a rounded object"), da-nah-wah'uwsdi in Eastern Cherokee ("little war"), Tewaarathon in Mohawk language ("little brother of war"), baaga`adowe in Ojibwe ("bump hips") and kabocha-toli in Choctaw language ("stick-ball")."

Medieval football on wikipedia

Royal Shrovetide Football on wikipedia

Scoring the Hales on wikipedia




[2] From the article on endemic warfare in wikipedia, giving as source eider, Karl Heider's book, The Dugum Dani (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1970).

[3] From the author(s) of the Local derby on wikipedia. Reference is made to Local derby on The Phrase Finder, but the quote is not given there.

[4] George Catlin and His Indian Gallery, Autry National Center

1 comment:

sports live said...

nice pics