La soule, later choule (French: chôle), is a traditional team sport that originated in Normandy and Picardy. The ball, called a soule, could be solid or hollow and made of either wood or leather. Leather balls would be filled with hay, bran, horse hair or moss. Sometimes the balls had woolen pompons.
It would appear that ball games such as la soule developed naturally as a pastime, if only tossing the ball around. Such a game would be played wherever crowds of people met, e.g., after church services on Sundays or on religious holidays. La soule was played chiefly on the Christian holidays of Easter, Christmas, or on occasion at weddings or the day of the patron saint of the parish. The play could be aggressive, sometimes violent. It involved getting a ball to the opponents’ goal, using hands, feet or sticks. It was not uncommon for participants to be injured, and broken limbs were often reported. The sport seems to have been a very important stress release for the common villagers.
The rules of la soule were relatively simple. Generally two teams competed, often two parishes. The aim of the game was either to bring the ball back to just in front of the team's parish church, with or without the use of sticks (the ball was usually made from a pig's bladder, covered with leather) or to deposit the ball in front of the opposing team's parish church, which was sometimes quite far and entailed going through fields, forests and over rivers and streams. Occasionally, but not always, there were posts. The game was started at the geographical border between the two parishes; it was also sometimes organised between teams of single versus married men. The size of the team could vary from 20 to 200 players. However, sometimes three parishes played in a single game. In Auray, a soule involved 16 parishes, possibly with more than 500 participants. Nothing was forbidden by the rules, and the game could last for several days, until the players were completely exhausted.
All the parishes' inhabitants came out to watch and encourage players. A large crowd surrounded the player that threw up the ball to begin the game.
Before its prohibition, the clergy and nobility also took part in the sport. Members of the clergy could take part or at least launch the ball once at the beginning. In Vieux-Viel, the soule was launched at the door of the castle, and was then taken to the cemetery by the priests and the officers of the parish. Finally, the soule could be placed with the presbytery or a vault. In Vitré, it was displayed in the church the day of Saint-Étienne. However, in spite of the importance of the play, nobles and members of the clergy gave up participation during the 18th century.
Traditional games seem not to have had any particular pitch or defined playing field. Soule was practised in meadows, woods, moors, and even ditches or ponds. The goal was to bring back the ball to a place indicated; the hearth of a house or any other place chosen by the players. In certain cases, it was even necessary to soak the soule in a spring or pool of water before placing it in ash. The play was thus only one immense scrimmage intersected with more or less keen frays. The ball could be made of leather, fabric, or wood, a pig bladder filled with hay, or even a wooden block.
Fixed playing grounds were not necessary because the game was played in a wide, variable area. However, the game's start was always in a fixed area; the town square, a cemetery, castle, or meadow. Rules were not always precise. The dates of play were set often early in the new year, before springtime. After this time many of the souleurs would be busy in the fields.
The last recorded games seem to date from between 1930 and 1945. One of the last recorded games was between the villages of Saint-Léger-aux-Bois and Tracy-le-Mont in the Oise department of Picardy which is situated 35 miles north of Paris.
There have been several attempts to revive the game in some form or other:
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