Rugby : it all started with a French game

 
 
the "soule"

Before football and rugby, was the « soule », a French game from the middle ages, played everywhere in villages. A very violent one with a ball made of pig bladder, stuff or leather and filled with hay or wheat brand or sometime just air.

Two teams were in competition :  on one side, the married men getting freshair from their wives and on the other, the bachelor who could demonstrate their manliness in front of their potential bride. The rules were pretty simple : the competitors had to shoot in the ball with the foot or the hand- no holds barred –, all along the village. This was great fun but this collective stress release resulted in a lot of casualties and some deaths.

Because of its violence, the game, introduced by William the Conqueror and his fellow barbarians in 1066, was soon to be forbidden in England. In order to make it less disruptive for the life of the villages, the Britons restricted its area to a field and forbade kicking the competitors’ legs and touching the ball with the hand. It took a few centuries before the « Cambridge rules » were finally codified in 1863 giving birth to what was going to become officially football game.

Rugby and tarte Tatin

You certainly know the story of the famous French « tarte Tatin ». Instead of spreading the batter in the pan, the absent minded sisters Tatin put the the sugar and apple first. Their mistake resulted into one of the most delicious (and caloric) desert. It is also by accident that in 1823 William Webb Ellis caught the ball with his hands while playing football with his fellow students of the University of Rugby, a small village in Warwickshire.

At the time all universities had their football team and… their own rule. « Rugby football » was not a game in itself but just a variation of football. Thomas Arnold, sports instructor at Rugby University was the first to write down these rules.

The game became so popular that it led to a big schism between the football association in 1871 and the rugby association born in 1903.

Without being too chauvinist, one could say that rugby, with this new possibility to take the ball with the hand, is a just return of history, back to the French soule ?

Rugby and gentry : apple and pears

One doesnt’ mix apple and pears. Football which started in the street  and was from the very beggining a popular game, whereas Rugby which started at university was associated with education and aristocracy ;It is not by chance if in the middle of the XIXth century Queen Victoria, desperate with her lymphatic and lecherous son, Edward VII th to be, decided that rugby was to be taught at university against declining morals and muscle slackening.

La crème de la crème

Rugby players were to become « the physical elite among the moral elite » to rule the country and overseas, the Commonwealth.  According to Social scientist Joris  Vincent[1] , rugby was meant to « fortify the body to submit it to morals ». Rugby became popular among workers in the northern mines, with a twist. Only 13 players who took part in the matches instead of 15 and the working poor could tackle to the feet whereas the  crème de la crème only authorized tackle to the torso, keeping its elite game in a sanctuary.

Them and us

It is only with World War I, because of the Tranch warfare was slaughter, that the aristocracy decimated, decided to open its clubs’ doors to the working poor.

It seems the British always prefered to be in closed circles, and when the French decided to take part into the five nation tournament, they were not greeted. Their reputation of violence inherited by the « soule » was reactivated when one English player died after a severe tackle and when the French decided to bribe the referee. They were banned from the competition from 1931 till 1940 .

 Read more in the book I wrote with Hélène van Weel « Anglais nos ennemis de toujours. » Edition Larousse, Nov 2013

[1] Les règles du jeu, Rugby 1845-1871, Edition des quatre chemin, 2007

 

Leave Comment

Leave a Comment

Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.