The cultural history of football: ‘No murder or manslaughter’ – How the beautiful game has changed over the ages

Anyone who thinks that things get pretty rough on today’s football pitches probably shouldn’t look too closely at how the game was played in the Middle Ages. In terms of physical brutality, the game was easily the equal of those other highly popular sports: stone throwing and fist fighting. There was no need for a pitch and the town gates acted as the goals.

Historical sources prove that football has in fact been played for hundreds of years. The sport was widespread in both England and Italy as early as the twelfth century. In the renaissance, the Medici grand dukes elevated the game to a national sport. Cultural historian Wolfgang Behringer from Saarland University has studied the history of football from the time it first appeared in the historical records right up to the present day.

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Why are there barred windows on the upper storeys of some of the old town walls of ancient English or Italian towns? Why would anyone take such expensive precautions at such vertiginous heights? The answer according to Wolfgang Behringer: ‘Football! People in the renaissance period were well aware of what a game of football could lead to and they wanted to protect their precious window glass from the hard balls.’ The game of football is much older than one would perhaps imagine. While it was never an ancient Olympic discipline, the historical sources studied by Professor Behringer – chronicles, written correspondence, diaries, memoirs, etc. – reveal that the game can be traced back to the Middle Ages.

So what is the oldest record of football that we have? ‘Medieval sources refer only to ball games and do not distinguish between them. Ball games were generally very popular in that period. Pallone, a game similar to volleyball, was the most popular sport in Germany and Italy. By the time football made its first appearance in the historical records, it was an established game, so one can only speculate as to its origins. Possibly the oldest written record is from the year 1137. It is a report on the death of a boy who died playing football in England,’ explains Behringer.

‘From the late medieval period onward, England, Italy and France were the footballing strongholds,’ Behringer says. A game lasted for as long as there was enough light to play by, from morning until dusk. The ‘pitch’, as such, could be several kilometres long. On certain days, the town gates served as the goals. Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday were particularly popular dates for football tournaments. There was no limit to the number of players on a team and the style of play could hardly be called refined. ‘Although manslaughter and murder were forbidden, almost any form of physical contact was allowed. Mass brawls, accidents, even deaths were not uncommon – and there are reports of vendettas being carried out after such incidents.’ Perhaps not surprisingly, the game of football was frequently banned. In England alone, it was banned a total of thirty times between 1314 and 1667. ‘In 1424, a fine was introduced in an effort to prevent people playing football,’ says Behringer.

In Italy, the game was known as calcio and entire villages and town districts would compete against each another. ‘Cosimo I di’ Medici was a keen sportsman and played the game as did many of the Medici Grand Dukes. During the renaissance period, the Medici made the game their own and elevated it to the status of a national sport in Florence,’ explains Behringer. The Medici promoted a more chivalrous approach to how the game was played, taming and civilizing it to some extent. While still a rough and rowdy event, the game was now governed by rules that required the 27 players on each team to get the ball through the opening of the opponent’s tent. According to one source from the year 1625, the ball was made from white leather and was filled with air. ‘Big games were often played on the Piazza di Santa Croce or in the square in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella and drew large numbers of spectators. A large calcio was organized whenever a suitable opportunity arose, state visits, weddings or holidays,’ says Behringer. In Winter, the game was sometimes played on ice, as happened in 1491 when the River Arno that flows through Florence froze over. ‘Flat spaces that hadn’t been built upon or that weren’t covered in forest were a rarity, so this wide expanse of ice was immediately declared a football pitch,’ explains Behringer further.

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And what of Germany? ‘Germany’s footballing history does not stretch back quite that far,’ says Behringer. Other ball games were initially more popular here, though these, too, sometimes involved bringing the foot into play, such as in pallone, a game in which the players must prevent the ball from touching the ground. Behringer’s examination of diary entries suggest that Wolfgang Wilhelm, Count Palatine of Neuburg, who grew up in the final decades of the 16th century, could be regarded as Germany’s first historically verified football player. The Count was a keen sportsman. ‘Almost every day, one finds a diary entry of the kind “Afternoon: pallone”,’ says Behringer.

Football in its modern form was established in 1863 in England. ‘That was the year that football became a sport with a codified set of rules, such as restricting the number of players on a team to eleven. And players were penalized if they committed a foul or used their hands. The traditional more aggressive form of football was renamed rugby. One sport had become two,’ explains Behringer. Most of the German football clubs were established from the 1890s onward.

Football was included as a discipline in the Modern Olympics. In the second Olympics of the modern era in Paris in 1900, Great Britain won the football competition, with France victorious in rugby. ‘London 1908 was the first time that a proper tournament was held between national teams. In the quarter finals, England beat Sweden 12-1 and did so without even having a coach. In the semi-finals, Denmark thrashed France 17-1 – top scorer Sopus Niesen made history that day by scoring a record ten goals. In the final, Great Britain triumphed over Denmark,’ reports Behringer.

University Saarland


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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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