Tuesday, September 27, 2011

La Soule: Medieval Ancestor to Rugby or l’exception française?

As I was boning-up on my rugby vocab in English (as I normally only follow the French Top-14 in the francophone daily L’équipe) in preparation for the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup, I came across a very interesting discovery. I’ve found that a useful way to learn the French terms for specialized English words that wouldn’t normally be found in a dictionary (i.e. mythology, baseball terminology, architectural features, etc.) is to go to the English Wikipedia page and then click on “Français” on the sidebar. Doing the inverse for “Rugby à XV” on Wikipédia to “Rugby Union” on Wikipedia, I couldn’t help but notice that between England and France – the two nations that compete for European, even Northern Hemisphere dominance in international rugby – have competing narratives as to the origins of the sport.

Under “History,” the English-language article begins definitively with the date of 1823: “The origin of rugby football is reputed to be an incident during a game of English school football at Rugby School in 1823 when William Webb-Ellis is said to have picked up the ball and run with it.” (See rest of article here). The French history does mention the infamous 1823 event (which is strikingly similar to the legend of the invention of the forward pass in American football); however, there is a significant discrepancy between the two accounts. The French trace the origins of rugby to a game played in the hexagon, La soule, before arriving at last to Webb-Ellis’ famed pick-up:

“Certaines études affirment que l'ancêtre du rugby est la soule ou sioule, sport très pratiqué en France dès le Moyen Âge. La soule a en effet des caractéristiques communes avec le rugby, comme le knappan au pays de Galles, le hurling en Cornouailles et en Irlande, le calcio en Italie, qui sont issues à la même époque. Mais ces jeux se sont vite éteints à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, au contraire du folk football qui a trouvé refuge dans les collèges anglais. La variante originale a été inventée sur le terrain du principal collège de la ville de Rugby (Angleterre). La légende veut qu'au cours d'une partie de football à la mi-1823, William Webb Ellis […].” (Read the rest here).

[Translation: Some studies affirm that the ancestor to rugby is Soule, a commonly-played sport in France from the Middle Ages forward. Soule does indeed share many common traits with rugby (as with other European sports of the same period). However, these games quickly disappear at the end of the 18th century, unlike folk football, which found refuge in English boarding schools. The original version was invented on the soccer pitch of the school grounds of Rugby town (England). The legend holds that during a soccer match in mid 1823, William Webb-Ellis (…).]

What is this Soule that claims ancestry to rugby? Wikipedia has an article (whose English and French version largely agree) on the subject: La Soule. Basically, Soule epitomizes full-contact, as a no-holds-barred contest that pits entire villages or parishes against the next where competitors attempt to transport a rag-ball across the opponent's terrain and touch it to the base of an object representing its goal. Specific rules were often agreed upon sur-le-champ right before kick-off. The match would conclude when a team reaches a predetermined goal count or when no viable participants are available on one side or the other. Indeed, I think we can certainly see an ancestor to mucks, mauls and scrums in this game! However, the question remains: Is Soule, a game they supposedly trace to William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings(!), really an ancestor to rugby or is the French claim but another instance of l’exception française?