Riotous Violence: Early-Modern Football

And now for something completely different: football. Admittedly, I have but the most tenuous of excuses for this excursion, provided in a roundabout manner by the ‘Revisiting Early Modern Prophecies’ conference (26-28 June). It also feel like something of a coming-out, to be honest: until two years ago, I did not give an elitist fiddler’s fart about football.

Being Swiss, my national team didn’t usually provide too much cause for excitement and I did my best to ignore them for a long time. (They held out well against Argentina, though!) I vaguely pretended to be interested in the European Championship of 2008, only because my future wife seemed to be quite into it. Yet only with the prospect of moving to the Netherlands did I feel I fwould have a reason to support a decent team and started following the European Championship 2012. Mine as well as Oranje’s high expectations were, however, thwarted in the first phase of the tournament. Fast forward two years and the World Cup is effectively keeping me from devoting my full attention to this summer’s conference papers for London and Görlitz… The first one is now over, but I’m finishing up this post as I’m meant to be packing my needful things for a trip to Jacob Boehme’s erstwhile home.

Another academic whose attention has recently been diverted by football is Ariel Hessayon, co-convenor of the ‘Revisiting Early Modern Prophecies’ conference (there’s my tenuous link) together with Lionel Laborie. Ariel has recently published two short pieces on the history of football, both with a definite eye to the early-modern age and a tradition of violence that directly leads up to biting Luis Suárez. Particularly in the second piece, we learn that early-modern varieties of football did not only end in death but could actually be triggered by it: during the English Civil War an unfortunate Catholic priest quite lost his head, which was literally taken up in an extensive football session in Dorchester. A more common cause of death was running into sheathed blades carried by other players.

While these are fascinating tidbits of truth stranger than fiction, there is a deeper level at which early-modern footballers (violent or not) seem significant to me. They remind us that, in spite of living in the distant past and conceiving of their world in vastly different terms, our early-modern ancestors also engaged in mundane practices still with us today. For attentive historians, such practices can provide insights into social tensions and hierarchies. And as the many-headed monster continued to kick objects more or less suited to that purpose, the distinguished philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) still played tennis at the ripe age of 75. In my case, however, elitism was but a fig-leaf for lack of talent on the football field.

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