Folk Football: Landscape, Space and Abstraction

During the 14th and 15th centuries, today would have been the day of the big match. Shrove Tuesday was the day that games of freeform Folk Football were played. They were tumultuous affairs in which village competed against village (or, it seems other arbitrarily oppositional groups such as married men against bachelors), in teams of unlimited number of players, kicking, throwing, and carrying a wooden or leather ball – an inflated animal bladder – across fields and over streams, through narrow lanes with a minimum of rules. The ‘goal’ was some kind of marker at each end of a town. Sometimes the goals would be the balcony of the opponents’ church.

The whole landscape became transformed into game-space. Houses, agriculture, sites of worship lost their everyday meaning and became an abstract terrain whose qualities impact the possibilities of game play.

As long time StrangeHarvest readers will know, I’m fascinated by the relationship of these early forms of football and the slick streamlined abstraction of modern soccer.

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The moment that landscape of folk football became abstract pitch – made up of lines painted onto flat fields of grass – is obscured, but we may glimpse part of this transformation in Francis Willughby’s Book of Sports, written in about 1660. It describes the games setting in a way that seems to be recognizable as modern goals and a pitch: “a close that has a gate at either end. The gates are called Goals”. His book includes the first (basic) diagram illustrating a football pitch. Sadly this seems to elude a Google image search.

What we can see are some early variations on the markings of a football pitch, courtesy of this history of football. Note the changes in penalty area markings. The only other change was made in 1937 with the addition of the penalty arc ‘D’.

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Pitches have an extraordinary beauty that has evolved from chaotic vernacular origins. Somewhere in that minimalist arrangement of rectangles circles and dots is a trace of the landscapes of folk football: centre circle as lake, penalty area as village gateway, and goal as church.

This makes football – perhaps more than any other sport – a kind of essentialised urbanism. A far more totalizing spatial game than say Rugby or Cricket. Indeed my old tutor Kevin Rowbotham once described my football based Bartlett diploma project as ‘a cri de coeur for low code space’ – meaning that it is a specific kind of space that exists during a football match, one with an explicit popular language and meaning (one that might contrast with the idea of space of high architecture). I guess that language is the residue of these Shrove Tuesday games that may have had their origins in pagan fertility rites celebrating the return of spring.

More on football and design here



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