Sport and Virtue in the Renaissance
by E. L. Risden, St. Norbert College
In December the New York Times ran an essay series on the violent career and early death of professional hockey player Derek Boogaard. Two weeks before that the Times had published an essay by former NFL lineman Kris Jenkins about the dangers players willingly face—and that their teams’ management and coaches practically encouraged them to ignore—from repeated concussions. The week before that two NFL coaches nearly got into a fight over a poorly managed postgame handshake, and several commentators called for the end of that ritual as silly and inappropriate to competitive sports. Plastered across news media at the same time we saw endlessly repeated stories of the sexual abuse of children by coaches. Seldom do we see in print or hear in public discourse considerations of the moral and ethical value of the practice of sport, for many of us a staple of our youth and the most important argument, along with its contribution to health and longevity, for engaging in athletic competitions at all.
On the other hand, the sports literature of the Renaissance—we haven’t a great deal of it, but what we do have deals with the issue directly, repeatedly, and with a nearly unified voice—extols the capability of sporting contest and even simple engagement in athletic activities to improve the virtue of participants. While athletic contests of the past didn’t always hinge on proper behavior, sports literature focuses on it intensely. In this twenty-minute paper I will examine three notable texts of the English Renaissance that elaborate on the specific and positive effects on character of sporting activity that they assert: Roger Ascham’s Toxophilus (1545, an extended essay on the value of the practice of archery), Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653, a guide to the catching and preparation of fish), James I of England’s Declaration of Sport (1617, a brief essay on the value to the physical and moral constitution of practicing certain sports and physical activities even on Sundays).
In Sports: The First Five Millennia (U of Massachusetts P, 2004) Allen Gutmann notes that “John I of Portugal thought bear hunting ‘comparable to experiencing the glory of God,’ and Francesco Sforza of Milan—surely no softy—wept at the death of his favorite falcon” (57-58): commentators of times past often associated sport with extreme and serious emotional states. Guttmann doesn’t romanticize sports of the past—he adds that the poor and even rather wealthier citizens of medieval towns engaged in “folk-football” matches during which nearly everyone, regardless of age or gender, participated and which more than occasionally resulted in injuries or even deaths (Sir Thomas Elyot in The Boke of the Governour, 1537, condemned the sport as “beastly fury”—see Guttmann, pages 64-65). But a number of writers addressed their attention to the specifically ennobling elements of sport: Ascham described archery as beneficial to mind and body, as enhancement to health and also national defense, and as productive of maturity and “manliness”—and he aimed to write in such a way that the style of the composition itself would help improve his readers; Walton taught that fishing leads to gentle contemplation, to a quiet mind that teaches natural grace and eases the practitioner toward spiritual understanding; King James permitted archery, dancing, leaping, vaulting, May-games, Morris dancing, and Whitsun-ales (lawful activities to accompany ale-drinking) on Sundays, while prohibiting bear- and bull-baiting, interludes (simple raucous and often bawdy plays) and bowling, based on his notions of which activities encouraged and which discouraged virtuous thought and action. Even in our time we might gain from considering such texts not from any sense of obligation to follow them, but as alternative ways to think about sports and their practice as human, community, and economic phenomena.