Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Gymnastic Exercises, or "Work Wrapped in the Gown of Youthful Joy": Masculinities and the Civilizing Process in 19th Century Hungary

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Gymnastic Exercises, or "Work Wrapped in the Gown of Youthful Joy": Masculinities and the Civilizing Process in 19th Century Hungary

Article excerpt

The Subject and its Context

The aim of this article is to highlight how masculine dispositions have changed in the course of the civilizing process, and how a major drive for change--modern man--was born in the 18-19th centuries. On the basis of Hungarian data it is intended to point to some universal traits of this process. The overriding thesis is that masculine behavioural patterns were channelled into new directions: the drive to fight, to kill the enemy was gradually built upon by competitive and, later, by co-operative dispositions. It is argued that various existential conditions produce different habituses, which can be transferred to diverse areas of practice. Consequently, sports--duelling, fencing, hunting, horse racing, rowing, gymnastics, athletics, cycling and football--might be regarded as indicators that show the changing behavioural patterns of different social groups.

My inquiries are based on two mutually adaptive "great narratives": Norbert Elias' civilization theory and Pierre Bourdieu's sociology. What differentiates my position from that of these two giants is that I ascribe distinguished importance to specificities derived from the continuously changing patterns of masculinity. This is possible on the basis of adopting the main canon of men's studies--according to which masculinity is a culturally and historically conditioned changing social phenomenon. (1) In other words, the article belongs to the area of relational disposition sociology investigating the long-term transformation of the "structured structures" of lasting non-conscious behavioural patterns manifest in continuous improvisations during the everyday practice and perceivable in bodily traits.

Elias drew a parallel between the "parliamentarization" of the squire and the "sportization" of leisure-time, saying that the people who sent the deputies to the parliament pursued sports in one another's company, motivated by similar habitus components irrespective of their political orientation. (2) His argument also warns that it would be ill advised to take parliamentarianism as the cause and sporting customs as the effect, as both phenomena are conditioned by the same structural specificities of 18th century English society. Bourdieu expresses essentially the same relation in the following way: "various existential conditions produce different habituses, which can be simply transferred to diverse areas of practice." (3)

In the following, by comparing gymnastic exercises with rowing and fencing, I do not intend to suggest that one stemmed from the other, or that there is some causal relation between them. In other words my work remains at the level of sociological ideal-types. At the same time, historical events, facts and relations are indispensable sources of the discussion. The statements are based on empirical historical-sociological research carried out using an inductive logic: in the course of the research, I analyzed as many of the available sources and data as possible in order to find which leisure-time activities were the most typical and frequently pursued in various periods in the upper strata of 19th century Hungarian society. My data and sources were primarily qualitative: memoirs, diaries, correspondence, publications and press coverage of important people of the times.

In my book I ascribed great significance to the emergence and changes of organizational frames. When, for example, a source indicated that a group of aristocrats established a share-holding company with the intent of introducing horse racing, and, related to that, I found many entries in the diary of one of the leading Hungarian aristocrats about horse racing, let alone a whole book about horses which was later responded to by another aristocrat, I deemed this amount of information sufficient to interpret horse racing as a salient activity, even though in the 1830's there were fewer than ten races each year. Or, when based on a monographic elaboration of the press of a period I found that rowing clubs mushroomed to such an extent that the largest number of sports unions at a given time in Hungary were rowing clubs, then the question appeared self-evident: what lay behind this institutionalization? …

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