God’s Justice (De)Served: Pre-Conquest Trial by Ordeal and the Twelve Yard Penalty Kick

August 23, 2012

by Thorlac St John Macclesfield, Syracuse University, NY

In the year of our Lord 923, the village of Wantage in Wessex witnessed a savage enactment of what most contemporaries would have held to be God’s justice. Wantage was the birthplace of the monarch of the day, Edward the Elder, and was particularly fervent in its adherence to the shire reeves (or ‘Sheriffs’) whom Edward had officially endorsed with a central diktat only three years earlier:

I will that each reeve have a gemot always once in four weeks, and so do that every man be worthy of folk-right; and that every suit have an end, and a term when it shall be brought forward. If that any one disregard, let him make bot as we before ordained.[1]

Sheriffs now had a backbone with which to structure their individual interpretations of justice according to England’s Roman Christian orthodoxy. Wantage was divided over the case of John Arn Rhys, a notorious, red-headed, Welsh thief who was accused of stealing baked goods from two separate families. The Sherriff in charge, Edmund St. Mark Clattenbook had a difficult task ahead in calming the incensed community, and, ‘thinking on his own two feet’, decided on an ordeal.

Ordeals are the theoretical obverse of modern retributive punishments. They were designed specifically to determine guilt or innocence. They deferred justice, in order to wait a divinely ordained sign. If, for instance, a man was ordered to carry hot coals, his innocence was not proved in his ability to stand their heat; of course, a righteous man would call upon God’s power and would overcome. However, the polymorphous momentum of the ordeal lasted for weeks after: if the man’s burns became infected and swollen at any stage, this was enough to prove his guilt. In Wantage, Clattenbook decided that Rhys was to be castrated. The deliberative process of this particular ordeal is obscure, as it is unclear what positive reaction was to be expected of Rhys if he was indeed righteous. Indeed, it was uncommon that the nuances of each ordeal were recorded in detail.

Very little has been published in soccerological research on the remarkable and suggestive historical analogy between the professionalization of the ‘English’ legal system before the Norman conquest and the trends visible since the dawn of professional football. The parallels to be drawn are numerous and the field from which may be drawn moral precepts for the benefit of the ‘modern game’ is fertile. Nothing shows the interface between the two more clearly than the case of John Arn Rhys. The second phase of Clattenbook’s ordeal was informal and coalescent: the witnesses to the ordeal seized upon Rhys’ detached testicles and began two parallel games of football. Without goals, the ‘strikers’ aimed instead to disgust the young females present, ‘whho schirken maedishely aforthh’.[2] Football and the ordeal ran smoothly and playfully into one. Rhys’ disassembled masculinity does disgust the maidens and their reactions provide rebounds to which the strikers respond with ever more daring attacks. In other words, Justice responds to a transgression by initializing a social competition, the logic of which proves or disproves guilt or innocence.

As the centuries progressed, disparate and loco-specific legal practices were soon reconciled not only by the formalization of legal practice in centralized and written (‘Common’) law, but were also formed obversely by the informalization of the law into an amorphous and ludic improvisation that arguably provides a social urtext for the game of modern football. Football, then, should not be theorized as a monolithic analogy of modern society, where crime and punishment are meted out according to a rigid, centralized legal text. The legal cruxes that are laid bare on the football pitch (a referee’s ‘howler’ or a player’s simulation of a foul) must simultaneously be considered according modern law’s primitive obverse: the Anglo-Saxon delimitation of justice through  ordeals.

This obverse in often implicit in commentary (it ‘naturally’ arises from Football’s basic reliance on Medieval justice systems) but is suppressed by the bourgeois institutionalization of ‘sportsmanship’ in public discourse on Football. A instance of this public neurotic suppression was brought to a head by the businessman and presenter of Channel 4’s Countdown¸ Nick Hewer when he appeared on Frank Skinner’s Room 101.[3] That the show was hosted by a noble socialist, justly venerated as a hero for his ‘Three Lions on the Shirt’, a highly Medieval gesture of support for English forces that recalled the Second Crusade, only made for a bitter clash. The bourgeois capitalist Hewer complained of commentators in their phraseological movement towards what he considers to be ‘bad’ sportsmanship, when they say that a player has ‘won’ a penalty. Hewer implied that a player should be given a penalty if he is victimized: in his world, being awarded a penalty is a recompense for an unjust defeat.

In this itchy middle-class footballing metalanguage that dominates public discourse, the Medieval logic of footballing justice is totally ignored. Commentators sense that a penalty has been ‘won’, because a twelve yard in itself operates exactly like an ordeal. God’s justice is seen to be (de)served by the infinite moments and divine signals in which the awarding of the penalty is only the first infinitesimal step. Like a sheriff, the referee has not determined the guilt or innocence of the alleged transgressor; he has simply opened up the texture of the contest to more readily demarcate a divine intimation that gradually directs the righteous away from the damned as the apocalyptic progression 90 minutes brings us quantifiably and incrementally closer to God’s final judgement.

This divine text is read by the guardians of the Word. Commentators, like priests, show their understanding of God’s esoteria, which is particularly legible in the building up to and aftermath of a twelve yard kick. If a player has won a penalty ‘unfairly’, and the kick misses or is blocked by the goalkeeper,  a commentator instinctively, in the manner of divine revelation,  utters the sacred words: ‘Well, that’s justice been served there, in a way’. In heathen Hewer’s bourgeois sensibility this Medieval sacrality would be entirely sacrilegious. The lack of ‘faith’ in modern  football is not, as many would hold,  a result of the decline in ‘sportsmanship’. Sportsmanship is a modern and irreligious suture to cover up a gaping spiritual wound. The oft-cited lack of ‘faith’ in modern football is a direct corollary of the endemic and general lack of ‘faith’ in God himself which has resulted in the cultural amnesia which refuses to recognise football as a Medieval instrument of God’s justice that has served English society for over a millennium.


[2] The Anglo Saxon Chronicle Manuscript D: Cotton Tiberius B.iv 923 (http://asc.jebbo.co.uk/d/d-L.html)

[3] Series 12 Episode 3

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