Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Early modern bloodsports - sorry, ball games

A post from Cronaca that I simply couldn't resist (and gives me an excuse to quote more obscure legal documents...). It reports on documents bringing into question the legend of the invention of baseball in 1839, including a 1791 prohibition on games including 'baseball' at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, within 80 yards of the town meeting house, in order to protect its glass windows. Now, in my first ever foray into the Welsh eighteenth-century court archives several years ago, I came across something rather similar from Pembroke, south-west Wales, in 1789. The governors of the town had enacted an order

putting a stop to a riotous assembly and meeting and to a nuisance... practiced on every Shrove Tuesday within the town and streets of the said borough of Pembroke in playing of football up and down and across the streets of the said town and borough in the pursuit and kicking of which the windows of the houses within the said town and borough were frequently broken and the inhabitants thereof greatly incommoded disturbed and annoyed by the said riotous and unlawful assembly...

The town crier was sent out to proclaim the new prohibition. However, some 'tumultuous and disorderly' inhabitants of the town were disinclined to leave off their game and went ahead anyway. (I wonder what happened in Pittsfield?)

If only windows were being broken, the Pembroke Shrove Tuesday football might in fact have been a relatively civilised affair compared to the violent and bloody ball games played in various parts of Europe during the early modern period (and earlier). These were frequently played between neighbouring parishes, involving all the local able-bodied men: a form, in fact, of minor warfare. There were few restrictions on kicking and throwing the ball, and cudgelling the opponent in possession until he dropped it was permitted in the best-known version played in south-west Wales, knappan or cnapan (possibly of Viking origin). There were other types of game; in Glamorgan, they played bando (or bandy), with long curved bats (akin to modern hockey sticks). Nor were these games only for the plebs; an eighteenth-century Anglesey gentleman, William Bulkeley, often recorded his prowess at football in his diary, and the blood, broken bones and bruises it produced.

What happened in the nineteenth century - and I strongly suspect that baseball is another example of this - was not so much the invention of games like soccer and rugby (with its own founding myth) as their re-invention: new rules, new discipline, for the new industrial age. Not least in the increasingly crowded streets of towns and cities with their vulnerable windows and polite middle class residents; a trawl through urban archives of the late eighteenth century would very likely reveal many more cases like those of Pittsfield and Pembroke. The new codes and institutions of the nineteenth century were, in one sense, a long-term solution to the problem encountered at Pembroke: it was just not so easy to make people give up their favourite games. And it's still not that easy to take violence out of the equation, on or off the pitch.

Update: I wanted to add some links for you (but I did have to go to work this morning, you know).

The radical history of football
Cnapan and Bandy
Cornish Hurling
Entertainments in early modern Dartford
Florentine football

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.