Carnival Countdown: Shrove Tuesday Sports in 12th Century London

Annually on the day which is called Shrove Tuesday [Carnivora]…after dinner, all the young men of the city [London] go out into the fields to play at the famous game of ball. The scholars belonging to the several schools have each their ball; and the city tradesmen, according to their respective crafts; have theirs. The more aged men, the fathers of the players, and the wealthy citizens, come on horseback to see the contests of the young men, with whom, after their manner, they participate, their natural heat seeming to be aroused by the sight of so much agility, and by their participation in the amusements of unrestrained youth…

William Fitzstephen, Descriptio Nobilissimi Civitatis Londoniae (circa 1170-1182 AD). Tr. John Stow, The Survey of London ed. H. B. Wheatley (London, 1987), p. 507.

The above account, written by a twelfth-century London cleric and biographer of Thomas Becket, provides one of the earliest descriptions of Carnival celebration in Europe. Although the word football (in Latin pila pedali) is never used, scholars have long considered Fitzstephen’s ball game to be one of the first references to football in England. Perhaps the best evidence for this is that Shrovetide/Carnival was the primary festive season for football matches from the medieval period through the nineteenth century in communities of Britain, France and Italy.

Read more on Shrovetide sports and football here, and stay tuned for more anecdotes of Mardi Gras history.

Carnival Countdown is a series of brief blog posts sharing anecdotes from the medieval and early history of Carnival, as we count down the final days of the season.

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