Sport, Politics, and Literature in the English Renaissance

By Gregory M. Colón Semenza | Go to book overview

1

The Legacy of the Anti-Sport Polemic

WILLIAM J. BOUWSMA'S AMBITIOUS AND INFLUENTIAL CALL NEARLY twenty years ago for an expanded cultural analysis of "the meanings expressed by every kind of human activity in the past” has hardly curbed the critical tendency to dismiss lawful sport as a serious object of study. 1 In the introduction we considered how Lawrence Humphrey's differentiation in 1563 of "two sortes of sport” reveals that sport was not always perceived as disorderly or carnivalesque in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 2 In fact, sport figured as vital to the health of the body and the body politic in the Renaissance period. In what follows, I analyze Renaissance theories of sport as a functional phenomenon and consider more thoroughly some of the reasons they have been overlooked or ignored. While the increasing virulence of the Sabbatarian arguments against all sports—as well as the various sociological factors that made them so persuasive— threatened to efface the traditional distinctions between lawful and unlawful sports, both sorts flourished, though transformed, well into the seventeenth century.


I

In what was to become one of the most popular books of its era, a work that editor Henry H. S. Croft regards as the most influential educational tract ever written in English, 3 Sir Thomas Elyot dedicated seven chapters to sports and exercises. He was the first Englishman to endorse sport in a systematic and detailed fashion, modeling his theories on classical and Italian-humanist arguments for the physiological and social benefits of athletics and exercise. Elyot wrote The Boke Named the Governour (1531) less than five years after the publication of Castiglione's The Courtier (1528) and only a decade after the

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