Football Through the Ages
Super Bowl 50 is fast approaching. Come February 7th, the Carolina Panthers will face the Denver Broncos to see who wins the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy. With all this fuss about football, you may wonder where the sport came from. Its history is surprisingly distant; the Greeks and Romans played ball games that would eventually influence the ball games of the medieval era. These, in turn, would become the game that we know and love today.
Playing Ball in the Ancient World
Greek and Roman ball games were a far cry from football as we know it today, though. The Greeks were avid competitors and played many different games; two stand out as being influential to football. Phaininda was about individuals tossing a ball back and forth, with players feinting and moving to make the game more difficult. Episkyros involved two teams and a ball; the team with the ball tried to force the other team past a certain point on the field. The Romans expanded upon these games with one of their own called harpastum, played with two teams, a ball, and a scrimmage. Men playing harpastum would run and grapple with each other while passing the ball, trying to keep it on their side of the field.
Like ancient ball games, medieval ball games have also had an influence on football. Ball games were a standard among the lower classes; they were easy and cheap to play, as well as an excellent source of stress relief. As such, ball games were an immensely popular pastime. Even a handful of nobles were known to participate in them. Beginning in the 9th century, these games would eventually be broadly classified as medieval football or mob football. At their most basic, medieval football games could be short, fun diversions among a few individuals. At their most hectic, they were games of few rules that could be played between dozens, if not hundreds of players.
The essentials of medieval football were straightforward enough: two teams would gather and agree to compete. There was no limit to the number of players, and teams could consist of dozens of players. Goal locations were identified, the most common being opposite ends of a field or a town. In most cases, the ball could be moved with hands and feet alike. Sometimes sticks were also used. Beyond these basics, the finer points of the game were specific to different regions. Villages would have different traditions regarding the ball, the players, and how the game was played, ensuring games of medieval football were rarely boring. Some traditions included boiling the ball in oil to make it harder to catch, or unique criteria for goals, like kicking or throwing the ball onto a church balcony.
La Soule, French Medieval Football
One such variant of medieval football was la soule, also known as choule. Originating in Normandy and Picardy, it was played as early as the 12th century. Like medieval football, the rules of la soule were simple: two teams would attempt to acquire the ball and score a goal. What separates la soule from other games of medieval football are the finer points of who played the game and how it was played.
La soule was frequently played between parishes and villages, just like medieval football sometimes was. Unlike medieval football, a match of la soule could span incredible distances. For example, to score a goal, a team may have to claim the ball and return it to their village’s church or town center, which may be a mile or more away! It wasn’t uncommon for obstacles in a game of la soule to include fences, fields, forests, and even rivers. Games of la soule could also last for days, continuing until all players were too exhausted to continue. Worst of all is that there were very few rules regulating what was and wasn’t legal in la soule, meaning that violence and injury were relatively commonplace, even among friendly neighbors and church members.
Calcio Fiorentino, Italian Medieval Football
Another variant of medieval football was calcio fiorentino. Called “calcio” for short, this Italian ball game is unique in that it was primarily played by rich aristocrats. Even a handful of popes were known to play, including Clement VII, Leo XI, and Urban VIII. Calcio is also noteworthy for how well preserved it is; it was played as early as before the 15th century, and interest in the game remained until the early 17th century. Official rules for calcio were even published in 1580!
Calcio was played on a field of sand twice as long as it was wide. The goals were found at the far ends of the field and were fitted with netting. Each team was made up of 27 players who were allowed to use both hands and feet to pass and control the ball. Points were scored by throwing the ball into the opposing goal. Each match lasted 50 minutes.
As a game, calcio was incredibly physical and combative. Players were allowed to punch, kick, and grapple with each other in order to gain an advantage or claim the ball. A game held in honor of King Henry III of France was so violent that the king himself described it as “Too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game.”
Football, and ball games in general, have come a long way since the medieval era. Rules and regulations have made the games safer for players while keeping the original intent of the games alive. Fun and entertaining, sports enthusiasts today have the passionate peasants of history to thank for giving us the basics of modern football. Indeed, even some of the historic variations of the game are still played today. English and Scottish cities still play variants of medieval football as tradition, and calcio fiorentino is played in Italy during the third week of June.
As you enjoy Super Bowl 50, we also want to help bring a bit of history to the event, not just with the origin of the game but also with a more modern tradition: snacks. We’ve assembled a collection of medieval and renaissance finger foods that are relatively easy to make. This way, you can infuse a bit of history into the upcoming Super Bowl in remembrance of the game’s origins.
Game Day Recipes
These are some tasty, golden chicken skewers to serve as pre- and mid-game snacks.
- 4 chicken breasts, skinless
- 6 egg yolks
- 2-3 tbsp. flour
- 1/2 tsp. pepper
- 1/2 tsp. ginger
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- pinch of saffron
Bake the chicken at 350°F for 25 minutes, then remove from the oven to cool. Mix the remaining ingredients to form a batter. Cut the chicken into large pieces and skewer. Coat the chicken with the batter and broil until coating is golden. Rotate chicken half-way through for even cook.
This medieval take on deviled eggs is a unique dish that is sure to please.
- 8 eggs, hard boiled
- 1 egg, uncooked
- 1/4 cup mozzarella cheese
- 1 tsp. marjoram
- 1/2 tsp. parsley
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- pinch of saffron
- pinch of sugar
Begin by peeling the hard boiled eggs. Cut the eggs in half and remove the yolk. Mix removed yolk with raw egg, cheese, marjoram, parsley, salt, and saffron. Spoon the mixture back into the egg. Pin the egg shut with a toothpick and bake in greased pan at 350°F until cooked through – around 20 minutes. Sprinkle the finished egg with sugar and serve.
This surprising dish is a unique and refreshing twist on the usually bold horseradish.
- fresh, whole horseradish root
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup water
Wash and scrape the horseradish until white then cut into 2-inch strips about half the thickness of a pencil. Cook in lightly salted boiling water until tender – around 15 minutes. Then, drain and set aside.
Mix sugar and water in a saucepan over medium heat. This makes enough simple syrup to candy about ¼ cup of horseradish root. Bring to a boil, then add horseradish and reduce heat to keep at a low simmer. Stir regularly and test; when it forms soft threads (or reaches 230 to 234 °F on a candy thermometer), remove from the heat. Remove horseradish from mixture and set briefly on a wire rack to dry. Then, coat each piece with sugar.
Don’t let the name fool you – these are basically cookies. And who doesn’t love cookies?
- 1 cup flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 4 tbsp. butter, softened
- pinch of cloves
- pinch of mace
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- pinch of saffron
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 tbsp. rosewater
- 1 tbsp. yeast
If you are using dry yeast, activate it by placing it into a small bowl with ½ tsp. sugar and 2 Tbsp. warm water.
Mix flour, sugar, and spices in a bowl, then cut in the butter until the mixture forms small crumbs. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks well with the rosewater and 1 Tbsp. of the foam that forms on top of the yeast. Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and mix until it forms a soft dough. If the mixture is too dry, add a little water. If too wet, knead in a little flour. Roll or press the dough on a floured surface into a ¼ inch thick sheet, then cut into rectangles. Transfer the dough rectangles onto a baking sheet and bake at 350°F for 15 minutes or until golden brown.