Various ball games emerged in Britain between the 7th and 9th century. These are commonly referred to as mob football. The rules of mob football were not clearly defined. The games were often violent and played between villages at the time of celebration and festivity. Two teams of peasants tried to force a ball in the village square of their opponents. Matches may have also been played across different parts of town.
There are many theories as to how exactly mob football came about. The game may have been a pagan ritual in which the ball, representing the sun, had to be driven around the field ensuring good harvest.
There are written records of unfortunate and even fatal incidents that occurred during mob football matches. Two instances dating from 1280 and 1312 describe accidents caused by players wearing a sheathed knife on their belt. On April 13, 1314 King Edward II issued one of the first recorded prohibitions. “This hustling over large balls” allegedly had a bad impact on merchant life. Edward III also tried to ban mob football in 1349, followed by Richard II, Henry IV, Henry VI and James III. The game was frowned upon by the bourgeoisie due to its unchristian nature and its lack of regulation. By the 17th century, Carew of Cornwall tried to introduce some sense in his Survey of Cornwall by prohibiting the charging of players below the girdle and disallowing the forward pass. These rules however, were not widely used and violence continued to relish.
Mob football was so popular in England that even Shakespeare mentions it in his 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 seruice, you must case me in leather”
By the late Middle Ages, mob football was played in many European countries. This picture shows Russian townsfolk playing a form of mob football.