Medieval Chess Playing: image from page 46 of "The sweet and touching tale of Fleur & Blanchefleur; a mediaeval legend" (1922) (Via Flickr Commons).
Medieval Chess Playing: image from page 46 of “The sweet and touching tale of Fleur & Blanchefleur; a mediaeval legend” (1922) (Via Flickr Commons).

Humans have always played games. Whether in the form of table amusements, such as draughts or chess, or their antecedents, or in physical contests such as football, hockey, and running, there has been a remarkable consistency through the ages in the games that different societies have enjoyed. And there have always been those who do not appreciate the noise, the willingness to gamble, and drinking, that have often accompanied popular amusements.

Walking through the streets of Rome late at night, one Roman historian lamented the habits of the city’s poorest inhabitants:

Some spend the entire night in wineshops, some lurk in the shade of the awnings of the theatres […] or they quarrel with one another in their games of dice, making a disgusting sound by drawing back the breath into their resounding nostrils.

Ammianus Marcellinus was not one to avoid picking fault with those he distained. For he continued:

From sunrise until evening, in sunshine and in rain, they stand open-mouthed, examining minutely the good points or the defects of charioteers and their horses. And it is most remarkable to see an innumerable crowd of plebeians, their minds filled with a kind of eagerness, hanging on the outcome of the chariot races.

Think of it in slightly different terms:

And it is most remarkable to see an innumerable crowd of workers, their minds filled with a kind of eagerness, hanging on the outcome of soccer matches.

Suddenly the gulf of ages between Roman times and now seems rather less stark. Of course, personal observations of this kind are relatively uncommon in the sources. Then as now historians are relatively less interested in sporting activities than they are in politics, economics, and other aspects of culture. To know about the sporting histories of the past, we have to set to work on reconstructive surgery, pulling elements from disparate source material to create a fuller picture of what went on. At the heart of this process is the law. Legal texts, whether the law codes themselves or the written detritus of legal proceedings, contain a significant amount of material relating to the everyday. This has long been known, and the sources exploited to considerable success in other fields, but for sports historians this is almost uncharted territory. Alas.

Reading – or rather, should I say, re-reading – Martin Johnes’s A History of Sport in Wales for an article I’m writing on the themes of this blog, it was not surprising to see that ‘the origins of modern sport’ are associated with the nineteenth century. Drawing on the work of Richard Suggett, Martin asserts on the first page of the book that ‘the sports and games of pre- and early industrial Wales were not clearly demarcated activities but part of a communal festival culture’. For a long time this has represented the best knowledge we have about recreation (in forms that we might recognise as sports and games) before its industrial-capitalist development. It is not a uniquely Welsh perspective, either. Until very recently, early modern sport in Ireland had no champion, and although the legal frameworks in Scotland and England had long been set out (particularly with regard to football and golf) detail on the everyday experiences had not been brought together. Put bluntly, sport was a modern phenomenon – even those historians who ploughed earlier furrows, such as Dennis Brailsford, Robert Malcolmson, and in recent years Emma Griffin, only went back to the time of the Restoration.

This leaves an enormous range of sporting and recreational evidence aside from the entire subfield of sports history. For the obvious question to ask is this: if sports and games were not clearly demarcated activities but were part of communal festival culture, why were lawmakers (both civil and ecclesiastical) so keen to regulate them in an everyday sense? The answer to that, of course, is that sports and games were everyday activities, played both at festival times and in the course of the day or the week as time arose. Medieval coroners in England from the reign of Edward I, found themselves dealing with the outcomes of sports – particularly football, hockey (not necessarily as we know the game today) and handball – as heavy balls, sticks, and small weapons that were routinely carried, all presented dangers. For instance: a blow to the head, accidental stabbing during tackles and tussles, or the use of sticks as offensive weapons when things got a bit heated, these resulted in homicides and the cases landed on the desks of local coroners who had to deal with them.

Seven hundred years before the reign of Edward I, it was the sixth century Church that made the first moves to regulate recreational activity. Monks and nuns were expected to conform to particular codes of piety and games, which could attract gamblers, were deemed sinful. Over the centuries diocesan ordinances and statutes set out with great care the qualities that priests should have – they should not be prone to gaming, was one such rule for clerics in England, for instance – and what could and could not be done within the grounds of churches, abbeys, and cathedrals. When the English Parliament arrived at Gloucester Abbey in the 1370s, for instance, football was played so often in the cloister that the Abbot complained that all the grass had been worn away. Half a century earlier, give or take, during the reign of Edward III, football was banned from the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster because it caused a nuisance to parliamentary proceedings.

Without labouring this too much, it is clear that there are two forms of sport and recreation to be analysed in the medieval and early modern context: one of them, relatively well known, was linked to festival culture (Shrovetide football, for instance); the other, which was an everyday occurrence, has been more frequently ignored. There is an obvious reason for this: sports historians are, with few exceptions, historians of the modern age and the skills of a medievalist are rather different from those of a modernist. By this I mean that medieval sources demand specialist linguistic, palaeographic, and orthographic skills that are not taught to modernists. To look at a medieval manuscript without being trained to read it is almost to look at a splurge of indecipherable hieroglyphs. Fortunately there are a range of printed editions of many medieval texts but these are not always translated into modern English (or any other modern language for that matter). You still need the linguistic capacities, even if the issues of handwriting are done away with. This is an obvious point to make, but as a subfield practitioners rarely consider the implications of this for how sports history is written.

The lack of medieval and early modern sports history – at least in the Anglophone world, for Jean-Michel Mehl’s twin works Les jeux au royaume de France du XIIIe au début du XVIe siècle (Paris, 1990) and Des jeux et des hommes dans la société médiévale (Paris, 2010) are remarkable studies and indicative of the great possibilities of this type of history – is to be regretted. It is to be regretted chiefly because sports history as it is currently composed is profoundly Anglocentric, and perhaps misleadingly Anglocentric. I attended the annual conference of the British Society for Sports History a number of years ago and posed a question to a leading German scholar of sport along the lines of ‘wasn’t there football in Germany before the British brought their version over?’. The answer was a rather abrupt ‘no, not possible, the British invented sport’. Or something along those lines!

The truth is that that is nonsense.

What the British ‘invented’, if we must persist with such terminology, was a form of industrial-capitalist entertainment that conformed to, and was shaped by, British industrial-urban society from the nineteenth century onwards. Try explaining to the courts of early modern Sweden or Germany that there’s no such thing as football before the British introduced it when you’re being told off for breaking local ordinances that ban it! It was this model that was then exported: to continental Europe, to the United States, to Australia and New Zealand and Canada, and to South America, and so on. In the case of the United States, which underwent its own remarkable industrial revolution, sporting forms altered so that baseball rather than cricket took hold of the popular imagination. But to propose a certain ‘failure’ of ‘diffusion’ and therefore ‘American exceptionalism’ as so many American sports historians have done is to introduce a rather profound misreading of the past.

Let me unpack this rather dense argument with some examples. Recently I discovered football being played on the streets of Boston in the mid-seventeenth century. Yes, you read that right. The reason we can be certain that the authorities in colonial Massachusetts were rather obsessed with trying to stamp out a game they regarded as an everyday nuisance – rather than part of festival culture – is because the selectmen of the town (in effect the town council) passed a law banning it. Across most of colonial America, whether English or Dutch, similar frameworks were established setting out the context in which recreation could be had, when it could be had, and what was acceptable to the common weal of the colony. In structuring the laws governing vice, colonists were drawn to idealised versions of their European identities. Colonial law was based on patterns of control familiar at home. So too, of course, were the habits of those who broke the rules!

On the other side of Massachusetts, in Springfield, it wasn’t football that provided the nuisance but a form of handball common to the largely West of England settlers: fives. In the 1660s, the selectmen of Springfield were so fed up of broken windows in the meeting house that they issued ordinance banning the playing of games in the vicinity. Anyone caught would be fined. Those who had come over from England probably shrugged their shoulders because that was the attitude across the Atlantic too. In churchyards across Somerset, Devon, Dorset, and Wiltshire, handball and fives was played in much the same way. There it was the churchwardens, those in charge of the fabric of the church and its accounts, who took steps to move the games away from the church grounds. Broken windows, gouges and scratches in the church walls, and the manipulation of the space to make it better suited to fives playing all clashed with the idea of the church as a sacred rather than public space. If you look hard enough, the sources reveal the game to have been played in that part of England for nearly four hundred years before the frustrations of the authorities at home and in the colonies spilled over into bans.

What I’m getting at here is that by following the path less travelled by historians, that of sports and games as part of everyday life for our medieval and early modern ancestors, we must look anew at the development of sport in capitalist society. This is something that I have taken away from Tony Collins’s recent book (and his articles on the ‘origins’ of football debate). What we know as soccer today is not the natural result of Whiggish progress but an outcome of intensive struggle, economic change, and the emergence of an industrial proletariat.  In recognising that there is an entire backstory that we are much less familiar with, I think the field of sports history can be lit up and given a new purpose. Just as there is considerable scope to analyse sport and post-modern society as they relate to the rules and constraints governing the precariat, a theme I drew attention to in my review of Lucia Trimbur’s Coming Out Swinging; by turning our attention to the early modern and medieval dimensions of our field we can understand the role of sport in shaping public behaviour, in constraining social control, and revealing the everyday lives of the great mass of people.

Because if the sporting history of the medieval and early modern periods is left to scholars of literature or those who use sport as a curio it is not the poor stockinger’s amusements and sporting habits that will be rescued from the condescension of posterity but those of the kings and nobles and burgesses who made the law in the first place. We owe it to our ancestors to throw away outdated concepts like ‘diffusion’ and ‘British invention’ and ‘the origins of x sport’, and look at the history of sport from the middle ages up. There are many questions to be answered. For instance how readily were ordinances banning games imposed and obeyed or ignored; were there some parts of the world that were more tolerant of games than others (my current research, and here I’ve only looked at England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Flanders, France, Germany, and Italy, so this isn’t an exhaustive impression, suggests that there was indeed a spectrum of tolerance to proscription); and why were legal frameworks imposed. Why, for instance, does it appear that the fourteenth century, the century of the Black Death, of rebellion and unrest, of the Hundred Years War, was the turning point for the active intervention of civil authorities in governing the behaviour of people at play?

This may all seem like a curio all of its own. Why does sport matter rather than myriad other aspects of popular culture that could be analysed to understand efforts to constrain and determine behaviour? The point is that humans have always played games and they do tell us an awful lot about society and culture. They hint – as David Underdown recognised many years ago – at regional distinctions which may (or may not) override national identities; they show the extent to which a common culture was developing both in Europe and across the wider North Atlantic World from around 1000 CE (a theme apparent in Robert Bartlett’s work); and they show the way in which the state can have a distinct impact on the way people live their lives. Any such project that tackles these themes, I think, ought to be transnational, comparative, and probably also collaborative. It takes time to hunt for the snippets of sport hidden in older records in Britain and Ireland, let alone in Scandinavian, Flemish, or French material. But the evidence is fascinating. As are the gaps. For instance: did the sixth century Abbess of Poitiers, told off for playing her games, really stop? I’m curious to find out.