Galloping down the beach, you see your target: a half-naked man holding his slippery wooden ball. But it’s not his ball, it’s your ball, and you need to get it back to church before sundown. He’s sprinting as fast as he can, but the beach was a foolish passage for him to take, with nothing to dodge your horse catches up easily. As you approach him you stand in your saddle, then jump on him from above. The ball goes flying. The rest of the mob catches up and try to take hold of the ball. One burly bloke grabs it and starts running, but it’s no use, he’s dragging along two other guys, one of them around his leg, the other grabbing onto his beard with one hand, and his chest hair with the other, tearing the hair of the follicles. Is that blood coming from his face?
Originating in the dark ages (5th to 10th centuries), Cnapan is a violent mob-based football sport played in western Wales. Games were played between neighbouring towns where athletes had to compete for a slippery wooden ball and return that ball to their home church by any means possible. Some would say it was an early predecessor to modern rugby, albeit with much less rules and much more injuries.
History and Culture
Although the exact origin cannot be pinpointed on a timeline, ball sports such as Cnapan were documented in the 9th century text Historia Brittonum, which suggests the sport had been played for several hundred years prior. The game was likely invented to train people combat and warfare in ancient times.
Cnapan was played on Sundays and at festivals, and because the home base of each team was their church, the sport had a strong cultural significance with religious practice. During gameplay, competitors would wrestle, fight, throw things at each other, hit each other with sticks and even use knives (several people have died from stabbing while playing Cnapan). Those who could afford them could use their horses. Play was open to all people of all backgrounds and participants could sometimes in be excess of two thousand athletes, making the sport a massive, community based, all-in brawl.
There were several attempts to ban the sport, and other forms of football. One such attempt was in 1314, shortly after English annexation of Wales. However, the reason wasn’t so much for public safety, the English elite believed football to be a useless skill and would rather their subjects learn archery, or other skills they could use in battle.
The sport remained popular right through the middle ages until the introduction of rugby in the 19th century when the sport finally fell out of favour.
Cnapan uses a wooden ball, similar in size to a baseball. The ball would then be boiled in animal fat to make it extremely slippery and unsuitable for vegans. The game would always start in neutral territory between the two team’s villages. The sporting arena was pretty much everything in between the two churches, whether it be fields, beaches, swampland or towns.
Typically, men would strip down to their trousers. This was usually in fear of their clothes being ripped to shreds, but it would also make them harder to tackle. Horsemen were armed with batons and footmen could throw stones at the horsemen.
The aim of the game was to get the ball in your home church by sundown by any means possible. This means the ball could be carried, kicked, passed, thrown or even taken on horseback. Contrary to the violent nature of the game, stealth strategies could also be used to smuggle the ball unseen.
Games started at about 1 or 2pm and finished at sundown. If no team had one by then, it was called a draw.
How to Experience Cnapan
The game is no longer practised and it ceased to exist before it could be recorded on video. Sadly (or thankfully), it cannot be seen be seen it it’s authentic form. Much of the spirit of the game has continued on in Welsh rugby, but alas, this is not Cnapan.
If you would like to try a ‘Cnapan-esque’ style of football, you will need a ball, an arena and two home bases. It is recommended to stick to rugby style tackles as well as passing and kicking. Any use of knives or other weapons is just stupid.
If you can get hold of a wooden ball, try soaking in a lubricant such as petroleum jelly. If you can’t get hold of a wooden ball, try using a baseball. It should be practically impossible to run holding the lubricated ball in one hand. For the arena, the bigger the better. Maybe play over a farm, or a section of beach. For the home bases, use tents to give the sense of a building that needs to be guarded.
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Encyclopedia of traditional British rural sports by Tony Collins, John Martin & Wray Vamplew