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Amodern 3: Sport and Visual Culture
October 2014


The Making of Modern English Sport

Richard Gruneau

From the medieval period in European history through the Renaissance, words such as “games,” “pastimes” and “sport” referenced a broad range of local elite and folk practices, including field sports and contests in para-military arts; gymnastic exercises; team events or individuals kicking or hitting balls or other objects; as well as religious rituals and festival events involving demonstrations of various types of physical strength, speed or skill. These diverse practices were deeply integrated into the social orders of various European societies and were governed by the dominant social and cultural logics of their communities. Gaming and sporting practices in Europe lacked institutional autonomy and were more characterized by regional cultural differences than institutional or cultural coherence.

Typically, these activities were periodic and minimally organized and, in many instances, they were more socially oriented than competitive. However, in other instances, competition could be extremely intense, involving detailed training regimes and often the gambling of substantial sums of money. Competition in many sporting or gaming practices could also involve significant emotional energy as well as levels of violence that would be found abhorrent today. Activities such as dueling, bare-knuckle boxing, wrestling with the intention of maiming, ratting, bear and bull baiting, cock fighting, dog fighting, fox hunting and other blood sports were widely practiced across Europe and colonial North America. Even less overtly violent folk games involving teams of players kicking, handling, or using sticks to control balls of various types could degenerate into violent melees on occasion. Many of these activities were imbued with an aura of casual commercialism with little concern on the part of the players for their moral or educative aspects or for questions involving philosophical or aesthetic judgment.

The emergence of “modern” sport in the west has involved the remaking of this jumble of diverse gaming and sporting practices, with their accompanying array of traditional logics and meanings, into a more unified, regulated, and socially purposeful field of sporting practice. The process occurred unevenly and incompletely in different societies in Europe and North America and throughout European and North American colonies. It was also accompanied by wide-raging differences in regulation, cooperative association, repression and conflict. Nonetheless, by the beginning of the First World War one can discern the clear outlines of a distinctively modern field of sporting practice, dominated by Western nations.

Pierre Bourdieu has argued that this relatively unified and legitimated field of modern sporting practice in western societies was consolidated through three broad structuring processes: autonomization, rationalization, and philosophical/political/moral justification. Autonomization refers to the (relative) institutional separation and disembedding of sporting practices from other logics of practice in social life, such as local folk cultures, economics and politics. Rationalization refers to the increasing emphasis on predictability and calculation in the development of rules, and in the creation of self-administering governing organizations, as well as in the areas of training technique and tactics. Philosophical/political/moral justification refers to the structuring discourses that developed within sport in respect to such things as producing a “dominant social definition” of sport; establishing a set of universal meanings, purposes and ethical principles associated with sporting practice; and producing an accompanying set of “definitions of the legitimate body and the legitimate uses of the body.”1

Bourdieu never developed his analysis of these structuring processes in detail and as a result there is a great deal left out of his account. For example, while he makes suggestive observations about changes in bodily habitus and various forms of “capital” in sport, he has nothing to say about aesthetics or the politics of representation in the production of modern sport as a distinctive field of practice.2 My purpose in this essay is to show how the politics of representation are an important aspect of the emergence of modern sport “as its own object” and of the philosophical/political/moral discourses that linked this cultural object to a broader “project” of modernity. Given the constraints of a single essay, I limit my discussion to events in England, the country often referenced as the cradle of “modern” sport as we know it today. I also focus more on the changing social conditions affecting representations of sport, and their apparent effects, than on a hermeneutic reading of sporting texts and images or on the subjective interpretations given to these texts and images by individuals or groups at varying times in English history. Following Bourdieu, my goal is only to map a broad set of transitions and struggles associated with structuring the modern, western, field of sporting practice.

Aesthetics and the Politics of Representation in Early English Sporting Recreations

Folk games, martial activities, field sports and blood sports in England have roots that can be traced back well before the turn of the first millennium.3 These activities varied by region and were differentiated by class and gender, although it was not uncommon for popular English recreations to bring together lord and peasant, men and women, albeit mostly in ways deemed suitable to the participant’s rank and station. However, from very early on there were tensions between the needs, likes and dislikes of Kings, Queen’s and Lords and many of the activities popular among “the people.” For example, in the case of hunting, as far back as the 11th century, King Canute commissioned the Archbishop of York to write strict game laws and two centuries later the Normans imposed their own rigid set of forest laws and set up a network of forests with the right of chase (hunting) granted to certain lords and religious houses.4 This is just one example in a long history where sporting pastimes of some types were accessible to certain people while being restricted to others and where popular recreations of certain types were frequently banned or regulated in secular law or by the church. Yet, at the same time, there was also a strong tradition in the English countryside that embraced popular game and sport activities alongside the traditional aristocratic pastimes of riding, hunting and fishing. Moreover, the lines between work, leisure and popular recreations in pre-modern life in England were blurred, with sporting pastimes often incorporated into fairs and religious festivals and with practices, such as dice, word games, contests of strength, bowls or quoits, that were occasionally woven into the working day.5

In the dense oral culture of medieval England, accounts of courtly love, exploits in battles, and prowess in hunting or in physical contests, found popular expression in storytelling, songs, oral poems and various forms of street theatre.6 There appears to have been somewhat less mediation in fixed visual communicative forms until the late medieval period of English history. Still, there are notable examples of freehand sketches and woodblock prints outlining the technical aspects of martial activities in mediaeval England and there are more than occasional artistic representations in tapestries and religious manuscripts of people hunting, fishing, engaging in blood sports, or playing ball games.7 For example, the image below, from the famous Luttrell Psalter, combines religious ritual themes with an illustration of medieval bear baiting.8

LPsalter image 1

Medieval Bair Baiting (circa 1325), Geoffrey Luttrell Psalter.9

In a few instances, painted images or wood cuts of sports and games were on display in public spaces such as churches and churchyards. There were also occasional written descriptions of sporting pastimes in early medieval histories and descriptions of everyday life, as well as in the early development of English literature from the late 1300s through the fifteenth century; for example, Chaucer makes reference to fox hunting in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.10

The spread of metal type printing into England in the late 15th century created new opportunities for more widespread written and visual representations of sporting pastimes. However, literacy rates in 16th century England were low and printing images was complicated and expensive. Only 20% of adult males and 5% of females were able to sign their own names as late as the middle decades of the 1500s, although there were significant class variations within these percentages, with most aristocrats, gentry and rich merchants fully literate by 1600 and most farmers and labourers in the countryside unable to read at all.11 In conjunction with low literacy rates and widespread poverty, tight controls on publishing by both Church and State ensured that there was a limited commodity market for popular visual art, news periodicals, books and pamphlets through most of the 16th and early 17th centuries

Nonetheless, a market for printed works directed to the largely male and comparatively affluent reading public grew steadily through the 1500s, building on the popularity of writers such as Edmund Spenser, John Donne, and Shakespeare, as well as increasing interest in continental Renaissance writing on religion and philosophy. There was also growth in the production and sale of illustrated calendars and handbooks of various types. During the Tudor era, English monarchs expanded the use of royal letters, to promote writing, performing and publishing. The Tudor court also promoted visual art by encouraging residencies from well-known Dutch and Italian painters, prompting an upsurge in public interest in imported European works and new techniques of portraiture and landscape painting.12

Kevin Sharp has argued that a growing enthusiasm for public representational practices during the Tudor era opened a door to new forms of dialogue between rulers and subjects. On the one hand, such practices typically offered powerful dramatizations of class power and royal authority. But, on the other hand, they also unintentionally promoted the view that power was perfomative and dialogical, something to be consumed, appraised and discussed in an emerging public culture of consumption.13 By the late 1500s, painting and engraving, in particular, were joining the growing book trade as publicly consumable art forms with small, exclusive, markets for portraits, landscapes, village and city scenes. In this context, it shouldn’t be surprising to find increased interest in sporting pastimes as subjects for artistic and literary representation. An early example is George Tuberville’s The Booke of Hunting, published in 1576, the first known manual published in English of hunting techniques, including an account of a hunt by the Royal Court.14 Tuberville’s book is filled with images of hunting dogs, stags and depictions of hunting, similar to the image below:

Tuberville Image 2

How a Man Should Enter his Yong Houndes to Hunt the Harte (1575), George Tuberville, in The Booke of Hunting.15

The Booke of Hunting is indicative of a growing recognition of sporting pastimes as practices to be singled out and objectified for discussion and analysis. Still, I think it is typical of the era to represent sporting pastimes as deeply rooted, and often undifferentiated, elements in the traditional social logic that surrounds them. Tuberville dispenses technical advice about topics such as hunting strategies and the care and training of hunting dogs but the book is heavily layered with references to behvioours appropriate to courtly life and to the medieval structure of class and gender relations. Sporting pastimes were emerging as notable objects of representation in English art and literature during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries but they were not yet widely depicted or assessed as autonomous or independent objects.

English sporting pastimes were not aestheticized on their own terms through art, literature or philosophy until a unique conjuncture of conditions made this possible. Several developments are particularly notable. First, through the late 1500s, and increasing in political importance by the early years of the 17th century, Protestant reformers in England were outspoken in their criticism of violations of the Sabbath and of activities they deemed promoted idleness, diversion from “conscientious labour,” or a lack of emotional discipline.16 Inflaming the situation, King James I published a Declaration of Sports in 1618 (also known as the Book of Sports), which listed sports and recreations that would be permitted on Sundays, and other holy or festival days, and Charles the 1st reissued this list in an expanded form in 1633. These royal declarations outraged Puritans and the effect was to bring the struggle over the regulation of popular sporting recreations into the center of the broader struggles developing in England between Puritan reformers, and their bourgeois allies, against the court, the established Church hierarchy, aristocratic culture and, arguably, many of the rural poor who felt threatened by the Puritan attack on established ways of living.17

Mikhail Bakhtin has argued that the carnival spirit in pre-capitalist Europe had an earthy, coarse quality that provided an imaginative repertoire for the collective rehearsal of the grotesque and profane aspects of pre-modern folk cultures in Europe.18 This allowed for ritualized dramatizations of the idea that “established authority and truth are relative,” thereby providing a basis for imagined alternatives to existing hierarchies and dominant cultures.19 In Bahktin’s view, medieval carnival cultures were both aesthetically and politically transgressive by representing the human body “as multiple, bulging, over or under-sized, protuberant and incomplete. The openings and orifices of this carnival body are emphasized…(mouth, flared nostrils, anus) yawning wide and its lower regions (belly, feet, buttocks and genitals) given priority over its upper regions (head, ‘spirit,’ reason).”20

Bakhtin reads the profane, grotesque and often violent traditions of medieval and Renaissance folk cultures as the manifestation of an age-old collective tradition that has always provided a potential source of social opposition to official cultures. More recent commentators have challenged this transhistorical populism by suggesting that the meanings associated with carnival traditions in mediaeval and Renaissance folk cultures were always more ambivalent.21 They celebrated a transgressive hedonism focused on the heterogeneity of human bodies, bodily over mental pleasures, and ritualized inversions of power. However, the carnival traditions associated with medieval fairs and religious festivals were events that the powerful allowed to occur and were therefore tightly framed by the broader social logic of domination. Still, carnival traditions among the games and sports of “the people’ were always potentially oppositional, especially when threatened with regulation from “above.”

This qualification helps to explain how and why sporting pastimes became highly politicized in England through the 1600s. The Puritan attack on the age-old pastimes of “the people,” prompted a heightened level of political awareness by those whose practices were threatened by repression and regulation. In the Cromwell era, community feasting, drinking, and participation in traditional sporting pastimes, such as bull baiting or mob football, could easily be viewed both literally and metaphorically as a rejection of the values of the Protectorate. At the same time, this uniquely English politicization of “the popular” during the mid seventeenth century was also subtly influenced by the changing dynamics of English political economy. Notably, as England’s economic and political interests abroad grew stronger, local popular cultures became less culturally isolated and developed greater potential to become politicized along partisan, even utopian, lines.22

On this point, Linebaugh and Rediker have noted how new triangular connections were established through colonization and the slave trade with Africa, America and Europe and how such connections built fortunes for merchants and investors in cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and London. These fortunes in turn were built on the intense subjugation of English workers and the maintenance of strict discipline among sailors on merchant ships and the Royal Navy. In the context of such intense labour discipline the pursuit of free activity and pleasure through gaming practices of any type could have a vaguely subversive character. Even more notably, the strengthening of arbitrary power and discipline promoted the emergence of radical egalitarian and utopian political movements. English ships not only carried sailors, slaves, sugar and tobacco, they were also a conduit for stories of events and conditions in far off places– slave revolts, mutinies, revolutions, and the romantic vision of aboriginal groups seemingly living in a state of nature. The Atlantic world opened by colonialism and slavery sent slaves, prisoners and exiled radicals to the new world, but also re-circulated radical and cosmopolitan ideas back into English plebian culture, along with egalitarian dreams and new revolutionary ideas.23

At the other end of the social spectrum, one of the most significant effects of new colonial wealth in English society during the seventeenth century was the strengthening of a bourgeois mercantile class in English cities, some of whom integrated with the English aristocracy after the Restoration in 1660 to create a powerful gentry whose influences extended from the countryside to the city. Many of the moneyed entrants to the gentry joined with the older aristocracy in longing for a return to an older time, including what Emma Griffin calls “the idealized rehabilitation of popular amusements.”24 An important part of this idealization involved the celebration of nature, leading to greater interest in continental paintings of landscapes that might be customized to the leisured lifestyles of the gentry. The prospect of lucrative commissions for such work brought several influential continental sport and landscape painters to England during the late 1600s.

Yet, at the same time, the economic, political and cultural changes transforming English society in the late 1600s were also working against the rehabilitation of popular amusements. For example, bull and bear baiting by dogs had long been favorite activities for Royalty and peasantry alike and fixed venues for such events were well established in English cities by the 1600s. However, in many of the pits and “bear gardens” in English cities formerly ritualized occasions for blood sport were evolving into commercial spectacles. Blood sports were becoming disembedded, albeit unevenly, from the traditional social logics that had long determined their meanings in community life and were re-embedded through the strengthening logic of markets. Whereas the spilling of blood often had deeply religious connotations in medieval England, the new combinations of blood and money, with increased opportunities for drinking, gambling and the assembly of “unruly” crowds, renewed the criticism of popular sporting recreations, only now with greater reference to the importance of rationality, discipline and obedience in social life. As English sporting recreations grew in popularity through the eighteenth century, bourgeois moralists tended to view them as more irrational, unproductive and dangerous then ever. Set against the background of the eighteenth century revolutions that occurred in North America and France, “irrational” popular customs and pastimes could be viewed as having a potentially dangerous political character. The issue, as William Pitt’s moral lieutenant, Wilberforce, argued at the turn of the nineteenth century, was the recognition that the “moral levity” associated with such customs and pastimes potentially carried the threat of “political sedition.”25

Representation, Objectification and Contested Boundaries in the Emerging Field of English Sporting Practice

The tension between the idea of sporting pastimes as an organic aspect of rural, and, indeed, of English life, and the suggestion that many popular pastimes were irrational, unproductive and potentially dangerous, was played out dramatically in visual and textual representations throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The often-contradictory nature of these representations was influenced by the expansion of two distinct but interrelated markets, one in the countryside and the other in towns and cities. The rural market was stimulated by the reestablishment of a culture of upper class conservatism, including implementation of new Game Laws in 1671 that restricted access to weaponry and reinstated property qualifications to hunt in rural areas.26 While their numbers were small, some radical groups during the revolutionary period had argued that the land belonged to all the people as a right, because God created all men as equals. New late seventeenth century game laws reaffirmed the principle that “the people” had no such rights, although the qualification imposed on the right to hunt was expanded, with a nod to the growing significance of capital in English life, to include anyone below the rank of Esquire who owned freehold property valued at more than 100 pounds or who held long term leaseholds in excess of 150 pounds.

By the early years of the 18th century there was more demand than ever in the countryside for visual works that dramatized the lives of squires, including a fashionable interest in country-houses, and other signifiers of rank and privilege. According to Henriette Gram Heiny, England’s relative prosperity and political stability in the early 1700s allowed the landed gentry to develop a regular routine of country sports which became an important part of their lives: “Proud of their possessions and sporting accomplishments, they prompted the creation of a new genre in art which, by the nature of its imagery, became closely allied to landscape painting.”27 Depictions of country gentlemen in the company of well-bred horses and hunting dogs, along with stand-alone portraits of dogs and horses, were especially popular. By the late 1700s it was not uncommon to find country houses with whole rooms dedicated to commissioned works and engravings in this emergent artistic genre.28 The preference for paintings and engravings of dogs and horses, as opposed to farm animals, such as pigs or chickens, lay in the self-referential tastes of wealthy consumers and in a vision of the countryside, as E.P. Thompson states, where “labourers have been subtracted.”29 Work was not the domain of country gentlemen and images of pigs, for example, did not connote the imagined nobility of horses and dogs working in the service of their masters.30

In a discussion of this new genre of English art, Stephen Deuchar notes how paintings and engravings of rural sporting pastimes in the early 1700s were viewed as capturing the “soul of country life.” Deuchar argues that sporting art became part of a class-based “rural ideology” reinforced by a parallel growth of pastoral works of poetry, prose and other branches of landscape painting.31 An emphasis on landscapes and animals was already well established in the works of seventeenth century artists who addressed sporting subjects but, in the eighteenth century, a new generation of painters, such as John Wootton, Peter Tillemans and James Seymour, began to reconstitute continental artistic traditions to pay greater attention to the everyday lives and recreations of the English gentry. In this emerging genre of painting the rural sports of the gentry were idealized as healthy and natural activities, tacitly juxtaposed to the apparent “evils” of town and country life. As self-referential objects of decoration the paintings were meant testify to the wealth, knowledge and tastes of commissioning patrons or purchasers.

One issue of importance in Deuchar’s analysis is the tension in 18th century works between a focus on gentlemanly participants and their animals in contrast to works where the practice of sport itself became the focus. According to Deuchar, early representations of people hunting, or of hunting dogs, and horses in rural landscapes, centered on the gentry by highlighting their social standing, property, wealth and taste. An example is John Wootton’s painting, circa 1733, of Viscount Weymouth and his hunting party.

Viscount Weymouth's Hunt: Mr Jackson, the Hon. Henry Villiers and the Hon. Thomas Villiers, with Hunters and Hounds 1733-6 by John Wootton ?1682-1764

Viscount Weymouth’s Hunt: Mr. Jackson, the Hon. Henry Villiers and the Hon. Thomas Villiers, with Hunters and Hounds (circa 1733), John Wootton. ©Tate, London 2014.

Demand for such images continued through the eighteenth century, but Deuchar argues that subtle changes in the accessibility of hunting, shooting and racing led to a shifting artistic focus away from overt displays of class status and property ownership to a greater focus on representing sport stylistically “for its own sake.” Here, the image was meant to capture the drama of the event, signifying the image owner’s knowledge and appreciation of the sport. The trend toward this representation of sport as a distinctive visual object solidified after mid century and became a staple feature many late century collections of English sporting art. Deuchar points to James Seymour’s oil painting, “A Kill at Ashdown Park” to illustrate the new focus on hunting itself as the primary object of representation, instead of the status of the participants.

Seymour Image 4

A Kill at Ashdown Park (1733), James Seymour. ©Tate, London 2014.

The development of a more specific focus on sport as the primary object of representation broadened the audience for sporting art to include communities of enthusiasts outside the gentry. At the same time, refinements in printing and engraving technologies through the 18th century were enabling people of comparatively modest means to purchase inexpensive reproductions of well known painted works as well as new series of prints in the “English country style.” In this way, the country market for sporting art developed tighter connections to a burgeoning urban marketplace for other cultural goods, such as books, newssheets, newspapers, pamphlets, caricatures and commercial entertainments.

In my view, the style of sporting art favoured by the English gentry, and by those who used the gentry as a reference group, had an ideological character beyond that which Deuchar ascribes to it. This is not simply because typical images in the tradition “subtracted” workers from popular representations of the countryside, but also because the images reinforced a view of gentry-led country life in a fetishistic way, as an almost magical world with its own inherent logic. Early English sporting art played to the representation of gentry rule as a kind of theatre, dramatizing the visibility of certain elements and functions of gentry life while rendering less savory aspects of class power invisible.32 Yet, country and city were closely linked through institutions of law, finance and trade, as well by as the drive for efficiencies in agriculture, enclosures of property and the commodification of common property, all of which had been reorganizing both the English countryside and English city life from as far back as the 15th century. This process accelerated during the 18th century, during which there were more than 1,000 acts of enclosure, prompting widespread social unrest and a steady flow of migrants to the cities.33 According to E.P. Thompson, the new mobility of former rural workers, suddenly made ”free” to sell their labour power for a wage, created a complex and chaotic environment in eighteenth century English cities. In London alone, driven largely by in-migration from the countryside, the population grew from approximately 80,000 people in 1550 to more than 700,000 in 1750.34

The result was an environment filled for some with new cosmopolitan attitudes and freedoms in a social world brimming with vibrant markets, entertainments and possibilities. This was a world of an expanding and comparatively affluent bourgeois culture, matched with a situation where many labourers had yet to experience the severe work and leisure discipline that would later be imposed on them by the time clock and the factory whistle.35 But, at the same time, for a majority of its inhabitants, the city was crowded, dirty, and filled with the uncertainties of poverty, disease, and desperation, a place where people often struggled in vain to make a hopeful life for themselves. Gangs, theft and prostitution were widespread with substantial numbers of the city’s citizens involved in an underground economy that continually pushed the limits of the law and where imprisonment, floggings and hanging were frequent public spectacles.36 It was in this complex, unequal and uncertain environment that many popular sport and gaming pastimes of the countryside were becoming reconstituted both as new forms of social association and as popular commercial urban entertainments.

Even in the countryside, one can readily overlook the sometimes chaotic and rapidly changing aspects of the social life of sporting pastimes. For example, game restrictions had always been difficult to enforce and hunting and poaching for food was a common feature of local folk cultures throughout the late seventeenth and 18th centuries. Moreover, the longstanding command that the Church once had over the leisure of the poor, including their fairs and festivals, was breaking down, severing these activities from their anchorage in religious ritual and opening them up to new meanings and to new modes of regulation.37 It doesn’t strike me as an historical accident that a growing emphasis on sport as an object of representation in eighteenth century England corresponds to early attempts by communities of enthusiasts to formalize and codify rules in sports such as cricket, golf, horseracing and boxing, often through the formation of clubs and associations. The push and pull identified by Deuchar in artistic representations of country sport parallels the push and pull in the rationale and focus of early sporting clubs and associations; that is, between the desire to use a sporting pastime primarily as a social meeting ground for individuals of similar social rank, as opposed to the growing desire to provide opportunities for association between people who shared knowledge and passion for a particular type of sporting practice. We can identify this tension without assuming that the line between these rationales was ever clear-cut. However, the focus on sport as a distinct object, which defines its own community of enthusiasts, grew far more obvious as formal associations developed around distinctive sporting pastimes and attempted to codify and to popularize formal rules. The objectification of sport was made even more concrete as sport increasingly took on a commodity form as promoters pursued audiences for the sale of sport as a form of commercial public spectacle

One often noted index of the growth in cultural production in England from the mid 17th through the 18th centuries is the rapid expansion of the trade in news. There were 14 newspapers in London by 1645 and, while censorship tightened during the restoration period, the trade in news literally exploded after the turn of the century.38 By 1750 London had “5 well-established daily newspapers, six thrice-weeklies, and several other cut-price periodicals, with a total circulation between them of around 100,000 copies per week.”39 Benedict Anderson has argued that new modes of representation in Western life created experiences of “simultaneity” through which people who lived in geographically and socially dispersed spaces were able to feel interconnected. According to Anderson, the newspaper, along with the modern novel, created a sense of homogeneous time allowing readers the possibility of imagining a modern national community.40 We can surely expand this idea to include the new forms of visual representation that developed in close conjunction with the expansion of the popular press, such as caricatures, cartoons and political prints, as well as other forms of art. In my view, this necessarily includes consideration of the growing numbers of paintings, engravings and prints that featured sporting subjects.

Indeed, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, sporting pastimes became especially important as fields for articulating competing understandings of the kinds of people, the kinds of bodies, and the kinds of practices, that ought to best define England as an imagined community. I am persuaded by Peter Burke to view this as part of an emerging modern project pursued by English elites from the 16th through the nineteenth centuries to differentiate an idealized English national culture from the allegedly “common” and “immoral” customs of the people.41 The project is graphically evident in the in textual and visual representations of popular sports during the eighteenth century that demonize the “barbaric” and “irrational” aspects of sporting practice, challenging any claim that these are “natural” or desirable features of English culture. The prominent trader, novelist and journalist, Daniel Defoe, expressed this sentiment as early as the turn of the eighteenth century when he castigated the behaviour of the “collected rabble of the people” who frequented the October Fair at Charlton. The “mad people,” the “mob” he claimed were given to “all sorts of liberties.” Even the women, Defoe continued, “are especially impudent that day, as if it were a day that justify’d the giving themselves a loos to all manner of indecency and immodesty.”42

The problem was that the expansion of a bourgeois cosmopolitan urban culture during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England was never fully at odds with more traditional expressions of class and gender in the countryside. Middle class opposition to many urban sporting recreations was by no means new and neither was a concern for female “immodesty” nor a view of participants in blood sports as “the lowest and most despicable part of the people.”43 Still, the cultural lines between the rough and the respectable in English popular cultures had yet to harden. Robert Malcolmson argues that “during the eighteenth century in particular, many gentlemen were not entirely disengaged from the culture of the common people” and continued to occupy “a ‘half way house’ between the robust unpolished culture of provincial England and the cosmopolitan sophisticated culture that was based in London.”44 The longstanding country tradition that was open to the libidinal aspects of popular rural sports and pastimes was far from fully extinguished and there were numerous points during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries where “genteel and plebian experiences” for both men and women continued to mix. At the same time, by the middle stages of the eighteenth century there was a significantly divided view of the gentry among urban cosmopolitans. On the one hand, critics were growing skeptical of the gentry, seeing them as well meaning and patriotic, perhaps, but also antiquated, foppish, irrelevant and, at their worst, as debauched and parasitic.45 On the other hand, the gentry maintained a high degree of credibility throughout the century, prompting considerable emulation by those who had far less wealth and property.46 In that sense, it was not only the gentry who occupied a “halfway house” in respect to their attitudes to the culture of “the people.” There were also substantial numbers of the people who were attracted to the theatre of rural ideology and the romance of class privilege.

This lent itself to a number of complicated political positions, where critics argued about what aspects of upper class culture, morality and rural ideology were valuable and worth retaining in a modernizing society and which should be rejected. The issues were debated extensively in new reformist journals such as the Tattler and Spectator, with particular provocation introduced through the caricatures created by artists such as William Hogarth and, somewhat later, Thomas Rowlandson. For example, Hogarth had sympathy for what he saw as the traditional values of masculinity, honour, and courage in gentry culture; but he loathed the hypocrisy of the upper classes and their tendency to engage in activities that he viewed as irrational and filled with excess. He was particularly scornful of alcoholism, gambling and cruelty to animals and his series of paintings, The Rake’s Progress” became a popular moral fable of the perils of gambling and the sporting life. A similar theme is evident in his well-known engraving of “The Cock Pit” which parodies DaVinci’s famous painting, “The Last Supper.” But, in Hogarth’s rendering, a blind Lord gambles on a cock fight, unaware that his friend, Judas-like, is stealing his money. The crowd around the Lord is far from healthy or noble and is represented as uncontrolled, violent and dissolute.


The Cock Pit (1759), William Hogarth.47

Hogarth’s ruminations on the modern English moral subject were on the forward edge of a veritable explosion in the eighteenth century of political caricatures, engravings, and commentaries critical of established class and power relations.. The expansion of a wage labour economy in the cities, along with increases in mercantile, clerical and professional occupations, created larger markets for these representations and commentaries. In turn, these markets supported, and were supported by, a thickening web of new sites for social interaction, including salons, clubs and coffee houses in which “private individuals could assemble for the free equal exchange of reasonable discourse, thus welding themselves into a relatively cohesive body whose deliberations may assume the form of a powerful political force.”48 The coffee house emerged as an important site for the development of what Habermas has called a bourgeois “public sphere,” wedged between state and civil society.49 The popularity of coffee houses was based in part on the alternative they provided to traditional alehouses, which, as one commentator of the era noted, were known for “vile obscene talk, nonsense and ribaldry” often combined with “the fumes of tobacco, belchings and other foul breakings of wind.”50

Coffee houses were hardly without loud discussion, but they tended to have clear rules of conduct that referenced the emergence of what Stallybrass and White have called the bourgeois “will to refinement.” Every coffee house had a list of rules usually reflecting a Protestant sensibility, including prohibitions on such things as swearing, cards, dice or gaming, drinking of spirits, or wagers over 5 shillings.51 According to Stallybrass and White, by limiting opportunities for “intoxication, rhythmic and unpredictable movements, sexual reference and symbolism, singing and chanting, bodily pleasures and ‘fooling around,’” the English coffee house emerged as a “de-libidinized” space for men interested in “serious rational discussion.”52 Women were typically marginalized in this masculine rational culture, although as Deborah Heller suggests, “blue stocking salons” provided similarly sanitized sites for political discussion among educated eighteenth century bourgeois women.53

If the English coffee house in the eighteenth century was a prime urban site for the “bourgeois will to refinement,” the culture of sporting venues appears to have been more varied, providing spaces for gentility and social exclusion in some instances and a mixing of more diverse publics, with varying levels of commitment to bourgeois morality, in others. Research on the seamier side of 18th century London has demonstrated that the cock pit, dog pit, bear garden and the prize ring were often closer to the libidinal culture of the alehouse than to the more refined culture of the coffee house.54 As such, they kept alive some of the deeply rooted popular traditions of the English countryside, albeit increasingly repackaged in the form of urban commercial entertainment.

New networks of promoters, club and event organizers, property owners and sporting enthusiasts took the lead in this process of repackaging, sometimes with aristocratic patronage. Through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this involved a wide range of strategies, including standardizing rules to allow sportsmen and, sometimes, sportswomen, from different regions to compete against each other; organizing gambling, building fixed venues for events, and scheduling regular competitions; sometimes moving activities to prevent closure by the police; and making a public case in the media for sporting recreations as viable and necessary aspects of English national culture. There is even evidence in the early eighteenth century of the advent of pictorial advertising for commercial sporting recreations. For example, in an effort to popularize his pugilistic exploits and promote his London-based “school” for the instruction of various martial arts, the famous fighter, James Figg, promoted himself shamelessly, with titles such as the “Oxonian Professor” and “Master” of “the Noble Science of Defense.” Figg also commissioned posters, and developed a “trade” card containing an image attributed to the young William Hogarth, known to be one of Figg’s friends. Figg’s school attracted a range of aristocratic and early nineteenth century celebrity students, including Jonathan Swift and Robert Walpole.55

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James Figg, Trade Card (circa, 1725), Willliam Hogarth. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS.

Notwithstanding Figg’s connections to London society, fighting and dueling were illegal in early eighteenth century England and often developed close connections to other illegal activities. On this point, Rictor Norton argues that the ambience surrounding many of the prizefights held in London throughout much of the eighteenth century was typically more rough than respectable, with audiences composed mostly of lower middle class and lower class individuals rather than the wealthy.56 This was especially true in the early 18th century when pugilism appears to have had a strongly plebian character. Yet, pugilism became increasingly fashionable through the century, partly by marketing itself as the ultimate form of masculine self-improvement and partly by introducing new regulatory practices and equipment to control “excessive” brutality.

The changing, but always contested, status of fighting with fists provided ample fodder for eighteenth century caricaturists. There were numerous prints that attacked the “barbaric” and “low” world of fist fighting in different ways and this theme continued well into the nineteenth century. Caricaturists also ridiculed the increasing fashionability of boxing among the wealthy and, by late century, many were using boxing motifs to criticize the gentry as “soft” in comparison to more heroic representations of the “common” Englishman. At the same time, there was a growing use of printed images ostensibly meant to record sporting contests themselves, as part of the continued growth of the popular press in the late eighteenth century including the emergence of specialist sporting publications, the first of which was The Sporting Magazine, in 1792. Of course, there were inevitable tensions within such images between their functions as promotional vehicles, as alleged depictions of “real” events, and as vehicles for articulating partisan or moral judgment about them. Such tensions are played out in the print below from 1791, which juxtaposes a dramatic and arguably judgmental image with a claim to offer a “particular and scientific account” of the “most tremendous battle that ever occurred” between representatives of two prominent “schools” of pugilism of the era.

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“Big Ben” Brian versus Thomas Johnson (1791), Unknown.57

The Emergence of English Sport as its Own Object and its Connection to the Project of Modernity

After the sixteenth century, Europe was plunged into intense discussion and debate about theologies, philosophies and sciences devoted to specifically abstracted objects of study—for example, god, human nature, justice, ethics and mathematics. Renaissance scholars catalyzed an emergent modern debate about such things by popularizing, revisiting and reworking philosophical and scientific debates from Greek and Roman antiquity, drawing out implications for evaluating their own era. Through the 1600s many of the key ideas initiated in earlier theological and philosophical debates became focused on questions about the nature and sources of human reason and the comparative importance of the senses in the apprehension and explanation of the natural world. Through debates initiated by writers as varied as Descartes, Kant, Hobbes, Bacon and Locke, theological and philosophical discussion grew to include a variety of new abstracted objects for contemplation and study that would preoccupy European intellectual life during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries— Human Nature, The State, The People, Wealth, Language, Society, and even History itself.

The philosophical and political debates associated with the European Enlightenments of the late 17th and 18th centuries contributed to the economic, social and political struggles of the time. In this way they set the stage for the production of discourses and images in England where representations of sporting pastimes would become something more than comparatively minor features of locally ritualized communication or simple objects of decorative pleasure. The most important transition in this regard occurred through two related processes of objectification: first the trend toward sport becoming an object of representation on its own terms; and secondly, the trend to make sporting pastimes into self-conscious objects of contemplation and critical analysis. Neither process was politically innocent. As Timothy Mitchel has suggested more broadly, the very act of representation in the emerging “colonial-modern” era “involved creating an effect” that people recognized “as reality by organizing the world endlessly to represent it.” In this sense, representation “does not refer simply to the making of images or meanings. It refers to forms of social practice that set up in the social architecture and lived experience of the world what seems an absolute distinction between image (or meaning, or structure) and reality, and thus a distinctive imagination of the real.”58 Through its representations in English society sport became intimately associated with the development of new conceptions of the self and a struggle to articulate new collective imaginings of reality and community.

In constructing these representations one of the most powerful mechanisms of legitimation was the claim to offer a transparent representation of the real. Popular images by artists such as Hogarth were only able to parody “real life” by making a self-conscious reference to it. Representations of rural sport by people such as Wootton or Seymour connoted similar references to social reality. In the case of print, there were sporadic attempts to describe and to classify different types of games in various parts of Europe as early as the 16th century, with similar initiatives evident in England by the mid 1600s,59 However, such initiatives did not gain much momentum in English culture until the early years of the nineteenth century. Arguably, the best example is Joseph Strutt’s book in 1801 on the Sports and Pastimes of the People of England.60 In his introduction, Strutt claimed:

In order to form a just estimation of the character of any particular people, it is absolutely necessary to investigate the Sports and Pastimes most generally prevalent among them. War, policy, and other contingent circumstances, may effectually place men, at different times, in different points of view but, when we follow them into their retirements, where no disguise is necessary, we are most likely to see them in their true state, and may best judge of their natural dispositions.

Strutt’s key assumption here is the empiricist idea that it is possible to “see” sports and pastimes “in their true state” and, indeed, to discover the true state of men’s dispositions. Yet, he continually offers moral judgments as statements of fact in his own attempt to reveal the “true” and undisguised state of “men’s dispositions” in sports, games and other pastime. In this sense, his analysis is illustrative of a modern enlightenment sensibility. If a nation is known or judged through its pastimes, as he suggests, then it behooves the modern scholar or artist to identify what pastimes and behaviours best fit a society’s preferred future. Strutt saw himself as an antiquarian scholar but, more broadly, I see his book as an example of the developing tendency in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the bourgeois intellectual elite to rediscover and analyze elements in the popular culture of the nation as part of a widespread attempt to determine what should be retained from pre modern social life and what should be left behind.

As the nineteenth century progressed, this process seemed to require a second level of abstraction wherein sport was represented not so much as an indicator of the “true state” of men, but with a view to identifying and discussing its own true state—its apparent inner logic as a cultural form. It took the influence of the European enlightenments to create conditions where the representation of sport was able to move to a point where it could be understood fully as its own object. In this way, the European enlightenments of the eighteenth century created the philosophical opportunity to position sport as part of an emerging “project” of modernity. According to Jurgen Habermas, that project involved the use of human reason to develop “objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art according to their inner logic.” Enlightenment philosophers, and the scholars, educators, jurists, and new middle class moral reformers who drew inspiration from their ideas, wanted “to use this accumulation of specialized culture for the enrichment of everyday life—that is to say, for the rational organization of everyday life.”61 Through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the belief that a form of socially improving sport could, and, indeed, should be understood as having an “autonomous” cultural character emerged as a unique feature of the making of modern sport as a distinctive field of social practice.

To a great extent a very invested and partisan form of representativeness that was spreading through English sport challenged this idea. The cultural terrain of English sport was reshaped by the formation of clubs and organizations in an increasing number of sports; the development of standardized rules and fixed venues, along with improvements in transportation; the strengthening of English nationalism; the continued popularization of commercial recreations; anxieties about class, racial, ethnic and gender differences and a growing sense of economic and political competition between communities. The idea that an athlete or team might represent local communities, ethnic groups and races, and more importantly, the nation, meant that the results of competitions were coming to matter more than ever. Newspapers, magazines and sports promoters sought to cash in on the passions that became increasingly associated with representative sport and, not surprisingly, visual representations of sport often reflected the deeply felt ideas and prejudices of the era.

Two famous prizefights in the early nineteenth century, between English “Champion” Tom Cribb and a visiting American fighter, Tom Molineaux, provide a fascinating example. The Cribb – Molineaux fights were widely covered in English media, prompting editorialists to worry that the English nation had “lapsed into frivolity” instead of addressing itself to more pressing concerns. However, the fights were compelling for their dramatization of several complex and powerful tensions. As Daniel O’Quinn notes, Molineaux was a freed slave who had become a successful prizefighter in the Unites States, whereas Cribb was celebrated not only as a champion pugilist, but also as the epitome of English national character. Textual and artistic representations of the fight were varied, complex and coded in multiple ways.62 These included overt racial prejudice, evident in racist language and public hostility to Molineaux, to a point where the crowd forcibly intervened in the first fight when Molineaux had Cribb on the ropes. At the same time, O’ Quinn argues, racial representations of the two fights also referenced liberal views associated with an abolitionist political stance. Racial representations were also strongly mediated by nationalist identification, with Molineaux widely referenced as “American.” At a time when England was at war with France, Molineaux’s threat to Cribb’s supremacy was both palpable and generalizable. The “Black,” the “Moor,” the “American,” was not only physically imposing, he was younger than Cribb, a skilled fighter and trained by another ex-slave, Bill Richmond, who had been one of Cribb’s toughest opponents. In this context Cribb’s eventual victories in both fights mattered to a great many people. The print below, by George Cruickshank, ominously suggests the threat posed by the imposing Molineaux. The next print, by Thomas Rowlandson, dramatizes “the action” of the second fight as Cribb knocks Molineaux to the ground in front of a cheering crowd.

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The Battle Between Cribb and Molineaux (1811), George Cruickshank.63

Cribb Milineux 2 Image 9

Rural Sports: A Milling Match (1811), Thomas Rowlandson.64

By making the results of sporting competitions important to whole communities, the growth of “representativeness” in English sport through the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries added to earlier concerns about the lowbrow character of many traditional sporting recreations. It was seen to provide new sources and levels of passion to sporting spectacle, presumably leading to increased violence, gambling and cheating.   In one sense, concerns about such things readily drew on very old criticisms of the folk culture of popular recreations in English society. But, I think there was something new in these concerns. At the very moment that sport was increasingly acting to represent the imagined interests of differing communities, it was filled with contradictions, loathed for its capacity to inflame passion and to inspire cheating and violence but also celebrated as a force for social integration, especially in its capacity to extend the realm of representativeness to the nation. By the late nineteenth century, when Social Darwinian attitudes were strongly felt, sporting prowess had developed a new currency as a basis for national comparison. Yet, at the same time, sport was also beginning to reference an imagined community all its own, with its own sense of homogeneous time and membership in a geographically, socioeconomically and demographically diffuse community of enthusiasts. By the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century the English sporting “world” had developed its own specialized chroniclers—well known writers such as Pierce Egan who had a large following of readers. Over the next several decades, the proliferation of sporting magazines continued to subtly reinforce the idea of sport as world of practice defined through temporal and spatial separation from the rest of society.

At first, this dawning recognition of temporal and spatial separation was not directly connected either to an implicit moral framework or to an implicit theory of society. For most of the medieval period through to the eighteenth century the union of the Christian idea of an organic society was melded in most of Europe with a view of the naturalness of social hierarchy—like bee hives or ant hills, a natural pyramid with the deserving few at the top and the many at the bottom. Debates about the health of the social body, and about the rights of the few, versus the obligations of the many, were framed by these assumptions. However, during the eighteenth century, these debates were influenced by an emerging idea of progress based on the human capacity to understand and to control nature. A newly imagined rational public interest lay in defending and advancing the health of the social body through the creation of rational institutions –institutions primarily associated with markets and governance, such as mercantile organizations, accounting and banking organizations, insurance companies, parliaments and the judiciary.

These institutions also included hospitals, schools, barracks, and prisons, which required intimate knowledge of the populations they served and promoted the individual’s internalization of the discipline required to make these institutions work. All of these institutions became elements of an emerging project of modernity because they sought to extend the regime of reason in the pursuit of progress.65 Habermas has little to say about the actual operation of such institutions. Here, one looks to Michel Foucault, who emphasizes how the imagined need to protect and to advance the social body operated through a combination of segregation and integration and the deployment of new techniques of administrative power. Contagions were increasingly monitored, the sick segregated and treated, criminals and delinquents isolated and disciplined, students educated both technically and morally.”66

Foucault pays scant attention to sporting pastimes in his writing, although he does make several observations about bodily practices and physical exercise in Christian monasticism and extends them to a consideration of gymnasia as disciplinary sites and spaces similar to those associated with schools, barracks, hospitals, poor houses, factories and asylums. In the creation of modern sites and spaces for exercise, the deployment of categories, classifications, regulations, instruction and surveillance is geared toward making potentially unruly bodies disciplined and more docile. Like all emerging institutions of modernity, the ultimate aim of the process is for individuals to become responsible for their own normalization and to develop new understandings of their identities that enhance the “health” of the social body.67

This movement towards control of the self and the normalization of bodies was closely intertwined with the bourgeois will to refinement and it required a wide-ranging campaign of repression, regulation and reform of seemingly irrational and rough popular leisure activities. In a very obvious sense, this campaign also emerged as a matter of economic and political necessity. From the late eighteenth through the nineteenth century the hardening of capitalist market principles in England meant that the drinking, merrymaking, and sometimes disorderly recreations popular among the new working classes not only carried the whiff of potential political sedition, they were said to disrupt the daily routines of business by encouraging absenteeism, debt, and insubordination. In early nineteenth century England Jeremy Bentham expressed the utilitarian concern that even normally rational individuals effectively lost all reason in “deep play” and could not help themselves from financially beggaring their families or from engaging in other disruptive behaviours.68

The repression and regulation of such activities was therefore viewed as the imposition of rational order for the greater good—the strategic deployment of reason in the pursuit of modern progress. Throughout the nineteenth century, and in the spirit of both economic pragmatism and bourgeois moral reform, play in English streets was declared illegal, tavern locations and hours became heavily regulated, alcohol consumption was controlled at public events, and there were campaigns against sports where maiming an opponent was the primary goal. Set against the background of a broader movement against animal cruelty—the Royal Humane Society was founded in 1774– there was also a systematic attempt on the part of middle class reformers to ban sports that encouraged the suffering of animals.

But, enthusiasts continued to reference sport’s capacity to build physical strength and other ostensibly masculine virtues, a claim that struck a chord in the context of growing English nationalism and the perceived demands of an expanding British Empire. In addition, sporting pastimes maintained strongly residual connections to health and to rural ideology. The major question for sports enthusiasts, especially among the late nineteenth century middle class, was how could English sporting pastimes be defended against widespread criticism, remade and given moral utility as orderly, healthy and socially improving practices? In other words how could sport be organized to make a claim to “culture” versus “barbarism?” The pursuit of answers to these questions never developed as a coherent master cultural strategy; rather it unfolded in a an uneven and fragmented way, mediated and complicated by subtle shifts in class and gender based cultural preferences as well as by the fact that games and sports themselves were finding greater purchase in the marketplace as economically productive enterprises.

One of these fragments was the development of a new culture of “gentlemanly” athleticism in British public schools that drew on older notions of aristocratic pedigree, privilege and duty, but mixed them with newer bourgeois ideas about the importance of self-help and self-improvement.69 On the playing field young men were taught that sporting contests, in order to proceed fairly, had to be momentarily set apart –given a degree of autonomy–from the broader rules of social privilege. The goal was to create a community of peers who recognized and agreed to be bound by higher rules of regulative authority. It was obvious in football, for example, that there could be no “fair” demonstration of prowess—no fair result to the game– if the son of a bottle merchant was prevented by his lower rank in social life from tackling the son of a Lord.70 At the same time, the idea that sporting contests were valuable training grounds for virility and courage became subtly integrated with new ideas about self-development and the educative and moral value of games.

Still, while many proponents of English public school athleticism were evangelistic in their promotion of the social usefulness of sport, there were serious questions about the appropriate limits of that evangelism. Almost from the outset, there was a significant split in the vision of moral entrepreneurship associated with nineteenth century English sport.     On the one had, controlled, rational, achievement-oriented sport was beginning to be viewed evangelistically, as something that promoted distinctively English and, largely, masculine virtues: self-reliance, modesty, an appreciation of the importance of fairness, control of one’s emotions, politeness and respect for one’s adversary. During the nineteenth century this manifested itself in a globalizing moral entrepreneurship preaching the virtues of an ostensibly rational modern British culture throughout the Empire. The most committed moral entrepreneurs believed that no one should be formally excluded from participation in the community of sporting enthusiasts on the basis of their social origins, as long as they demonstrated complete devotion to sport as a fair and morally grounded area of cultural life. Simply stated the idea was that sport might teach anyone to act like a gentleman.

But, on the other hand, schoolboy athleticism reinforced the view that only existing gentlemen were capable of grasping and developing a vision of sport as a civilizing and character building enterprise. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this idea found expression in the restrictive concept of amateurism.71 Amateurs, by definition were gentlemen. Ladies might play sport if it was undertaken with appropriate decorum but there was a strong sentiment that the “object” of sport was properly masculine. There was also a strong view among members of prominent amateur sports clubs and associations that amateurs would be contaminated if they played or competed against non-gentlemen, a category that initially included artisans and labourers, “coloured” colonials, and “Indians.” While the philosophy of amateurism expanded to become less overtly restrictive by the early years of the twentieth century it nonetheless specified a rigid behavioral code associated with the idea that sport could and should server a higher purpose beyond mere amusement or crass commerce. Games should be fun, but they were also a serious matter to be undertaken in the spirit of self-improvement and sobriety.

The advent of photography in the nineteenth century spoke more than ever to the notion that representation allowed the viewer to glimpse reality as news magazines and periodicals rushed to get dramatic photographs of athletic triumphs and failures. Photography also created a seemingly endless rehearsal of sober solemnity in sport, through the emergence of the “team photograph” as a distinctive cultural genre. The late nineteenth century witnessed the production of thousands of staged team photos, usually involving a group of young men, serious and confident, often with arms crossed, and looking somehow improved by their having participated on the sports team. The image below of the English national cricket team in 1888 is virtually interchangeable with innumerable similar photographs in this iconic style taken around the Empire between the late 1800s and the first World War, not only in cricket, but also in English football, basketball and in many other sports.

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The English National Cricket Team, 1888.72

Any sport that made a claim to culture more than barbarism during the Victorian era was tied to a very narrow understanding of the legitimate definition of sport as an object of practice as well of legitimate sporting behaviours and preferred forms and uses of the body. By the end of the nineteenth century a clear distinction between sports as forms of rational recreation, versus seemingly irrational amusement, had become fully institutionalized in England and across England’s colonies. Rational recreation and “civilizing” sport were promoted in amateur sports organizations, schools and municipal parks, libraries and even in many trade unions. Irrational leisure — typically associated with drinking, gambling, low levels of self control and “rough” sport, was patrolled by the police. Professional sports still carried the stigma of an earlier attachment to rough leisure. However, through the early twentieth century they began to occupy a cultural position that sometimes moved fluidly between the two poles of rational and allegedly irrational recreation. Despite their exclusion from amateur organizations, promoters of professional sport in the early twentieth century didn’t hesitate to adopt some of the moral entrepreneurs’ rhetoric about sport as a socially valuable builder of masculine and national character and as a timeless feature of western culture.

I think this latter conception of sport as a timeless cultural form is an underappreciated aspect of the process of winning consent in English society for a view of sport as a socially improving cultural activity. The development of a social/philosophical basis for sport as a distinctive field of practice was built on a self conscious reference to the past; but, not so much on the past history of English sporting pastimes than on the Renaissance “rediscovery” of sport in antiquity. One important reference point was Aristotle’s acknowledgement, despite the priority that he gave to contemplation, of the need to educate the body in addition to the mind. The modern benchmark for this view became John Locke’s widely-cited reference to “a sound body and a sound mind” in his essay on “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” This dictum became a mantra in the “muscular Christian” movement that grew in England throughout the nineteenth century, preaching the combined virtues of Christianity and rational sporting competition.73

In keeping with this backward glance towards classicism, one of the most important aspects of visual representations of sport during the nineteenth century was the increasing use of images from classical antiquity. The trend had begun in the context of a booming interest across Europe in Renaissance histories of Greece and Rome and in the artifacts being uncovered by eighteenth and nineteenth century explorers and archeologists. By the late nineteenth century the effect was dramatic and strengthened the claim that sport could be understood as part of an imagined lineage of western culture that stretched from ancient Greece and Rome to modern Europe. There were numerous attempted revivals of Greek “Olympic Games” in England during the nineteenth century, well before the French Baron, Pierre de Coubertin, sought to “revive” the Olympics in a modern form in 1896. One of the most notable of these was implemented by the physician, magistrate, amateur botanist and moral entrepreneur, William Penny Brooks in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, in 1859, followed by a much larger event organized in London, at Crystal Palace, in 1866.

Brooks was fascinated by ancient Greece and was also an early champion of muscular Christianity, arguing that “as Christians…we should, on moral grounds, endeavor to direct the amusement of the working class.”74 DeCoubertin shared Brooks’ fascination with antiquity and was influenced by Brooks’ moral entrepreneurial vision. His own proposal for a modern Olympic Games was never simply an attempt to recover the past. Rather he intended to advance an emerging modernist vision of sport and the healthy body as means to solve the problems of “social and psychological equilibrium” that he felt plagued modern Europe.

I believe that the project taken up by the new proponents of socially improving sport in the late nineteenth century was as an aesthetic project in addition to an educative and organizational project. The fusion of imagery from Greek antiquity, with ideas taken from English movements for rational recreation and the tradition of English public school athletics, lent a transhistorical aura to set of historically and culturally specific practices. It also lent itself to the promotion of Greek and Roman traditions of “heroic nudity” and harmonious bodily proportions as key elements in an idealized bodily aesthetic. In English visual culture this bodily aesthetic stood in implicit contrast to frequent representations of the bodies of the English gentry by caricaturists such as Rowlandson, as bulbous and gout-ridden. A classical bodily aesthetic also provided a basis for criticizing the plebian, carnival body, as profane, undisciplined and undesirable. One of the most famous images of this classical athletic body is the “Discobolus” by the Greek sculptor Myron in the 5th century BC. An excellent copy of the sculpture, taken from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy, was auctioned to an English art dealer in 1790 before it was acquired by the British Museum in 1805. While the Discobolus was only one of many images of idealized athletic bodies circulation in English literary and artistic cultures in the early nineteenth century, it became an extremely influential reference for the production of other representations of idealized male bodies nineteenth century England. John Charles Felix Rossi’s marble sculpture of “The British Pugilist,” produced in 1828, is a good example:


The Discobolos (After Myron). © Trustees of the British Museum.


The English Pugilist (1828), Charles Felix Rossi.75

The growing reference in English sport during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to images of idealized bodies taken from Greek classicism was an important further dimension of the incorporation of sporting practice into an imagined project of modernity. As Stallybrass and White argue: “the classical body was far more than an aesthetic standard or model. It structured, from the inside as it were the characteristically “high” discourses of philosophy, statecraft, theology and law, as well as the literature, as they emerged from the Renaissance. In the classical discursive body were enclosed those regulative systems which were closed, homogeneous, monumental, centered and symmetrical.”76 The project referenced classicism as a way of differentiating an imagined trans historical sporting ideal from ongoing corruption of that idea evident in the growth of popular sporting entertainments, undertaken for commercial, rather than educative purposes.

It is important to understand that the modern project of integrating diverse sporting practices, and of particular images of sporting bodies, into an allegedly civilizing western cultural tradition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was never something that won universal approval. It has never been possible to have consensus over what practices count as “sport” and which do not. Similarly, many sporting enthusiasts were far more interested in match results, and in the drama of sporting spectacles, than in philosophy. There was also continued resistance among elites to the idea of any type of sport as a form of socially improving culture, based on sport’s apparent elevation of the body over the mind and on a belief that the growing thirst for sporting spectacle shown by the modern industrial masses exemplified the spread of frivolous and even dangerously irrational tendencies in western cultural life. Like the Roman Circus in antiquity, the argument ran, the widespread popularity of modern sport should be understood as an indicator of a growing malaise of modernity, a symptom of civilizational decay, even of barbarism.

In this sense, the appeal of classicism as a legitimating discourse in sport was complicated by the powerful negative image of the Roman Coliseum, home to bloody gladiatorial contests and the tradition of “bread and circuses” associated with aristocratic domination of the plebian classes. With that in mind, I believe the aim of early twentieth century moral entrepreneurs in sport, and in the Olympic movement in particular, was to consciously work to aestheticize sport in the traditions of positive rather than negative classicism. To this end the most important signifiers of civilizing sport in late nineteenth and early twentieth century sport tended to be Greek rather than Roman. In its imagined “true state” early twentieth century “amateur” sport, in particular, was tacitly promoted as the legacy of Pericles rather than Nero, of Olympia rather than the Roman Coliseum.77 Early Olympic proponents insisted that the modern Olympics would stage sporting competitions side by side with artistic demonstrations. At the same time, Hellenic signifiers and classical representations of sporting bodies became omnipresent in the promotion of sport as trans historical, and thereby autonomous, form of culture, as evident in the poster image for the 1896 Olympics in Athens.

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Athens Olympic Poster (1896).78


In this essay I’ve argued that the social production of modern English sport as a distinctive field of practice by the early twentieth century involved complex processes of representation, objectification and abstraction. In my view, the changing features and significance of visual and written representations of sport were important constitutive elements in the processes whereby sport became disembedded from traditional social and cultural logics to become viewed as “its own object.” In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in particular, representations of sport became sites for articulating competing discourses about English national character, appropriate moral behavior and legitimate uses of time, space and the human body. With this, there was also growing recognition of sporting pastimes as independent empirical objects whose contemplation and scientific study might be pressed into the advancement of a broader project of modernity. That recognition developed in parallel with the desire of sporting enthusiasts to rationalize and to standardize their enthusiasms, either in the pursuit of commercial interests, class or gender based exclusivity, or more broad-ranging programs of educational or moral reform. Simultaneously, there was a subtle, but increasingly significant, movement towards recognition of the “separateness” and, indeed, the imagined “autonomy” of sport. In order for competitions to be truly meaningful and fair, they needed to be insulated momentarily from obvious constraints of external privilege. There was also growing specialization in the uses of time and space to set sporting activities apart from everyday life and communities of enthusiasts developed a strongly subcultural sense of sport as a distinctive “world” with its own important events and issues.

Additionally, based on a fusion of enlightenment thinking with the increasing availability of information about sporting pastimes in Greece and Rome, there was an emerging belief that sport could be thought of as a trans historical, indeed, a universal form of culture. I have argued that this idea became intertwined ideologically with the broader “civilizing” impulses of an English imperial social order. Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, representational practices in various forms of literature, philosophy, and visual art began to articulate a set of distinctively masculine, class based, modern and western perceptions that were then imagined as universal meanings, purposes and ethical principles in sport. By promoting and representing sport as an imagined form of civilizing culture, with roots in western antiquity, sporting enthusiasts in England, and increasingly, across Europe and the English colonies, were able to strengthen their case for sport as a modern cultural practice with the potential to reconcile robust ‘manly’ physicality with respectability and restraint; passion with controlled discipline and order; individualism with social solidarity. The effect was not only to reinforce the idea of modern sport as its own object, but also to connect the very idea of sport closely to a project of Western modernity with very distinctive understandings of idealized body imagery, “civilized” corporeal dispositions, and delimitation of culture into high and low, rough and respectable.

In mapping the evolution of these processes in England, it is important not to isolate representations of sport from the material conditions that produced them. Yet, it is also important not to see these representations and their ranges of cultural and ideological meanings as a kind of superstructural icing on a separately existing material foundation. Representations of sporting practices and of sporting bodies in English history are better understood as constitutive features of the production of the modern sports field and, in this way, as elements in the social production of English capitalist modernity from the seventeenth through the early twentieth centuries. I recognize that by focusing on the English case I have risked distorting an understanding of events in other geographical places where there have been alternative modernities and quite different understandings of the changing social and cultural roles of sport. Still, if the goal is to understand and to analyze the historical formation of globally dominant elements in the field of contemporary sporting practice, there is much to be learned by studying the history of representation in English sport.

  1. Pierre Bourdieu, “Sport and Social Class,” Social Science Information 17, no. 6 (1978): 826. 

  2. Bourdieu’s former student, Jacques Defrance, offers the most significant application of Bourdieu’s ideas about the social development of modern sport. See Jacques Defrance, «L’Excellence Corporelle: La Formation des Activités physique et sportives moderne, 1770-1914 » (Rennes : Presses Universitaire de Rennes, 1987) and Defrance’s chapter, “The Making of a Field with Weak Autonomy: The Case of the Sports Field in France, 1895-1955,” in Bourdieu and Historical Analysis, ed. Philip S. Gorski (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013). 

  3. For example the 8th century monk Nennius makes passing reference to ancient ball games in his Historia Brittonum, Joseph Strutt also makes reference to the ancient roots of English games in his nineteenth century antiquarian work, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England: Including the Rural Domestic Recreations, May Games, Mummeries, Shows, Processions, Pageants & Pompous Spectacles From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, orig. pub., 1801 (London: Thomas Teg, 1845). 

  4. For a social history of hunting in England see Emma Griffin, Blood Sport: Hunting in Britain Since 1066 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). 

  5. My discussion here draws largely on Robert W. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society, 1700-1850 (Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1973). 

  6. On oral tradition in late medieval and early modern England see D.R. Woolf, “The Common Voice: History, Folklore and Tradition in Early Modern England,” Past and Present 120, no. 1 (1988): 26-52. Songs sung by minstrels and troubadours were an especially important aspect of this oral tradition. For a compendium of themes in these songs see The British Minstrel and Musical and Literary Miscellany. Vols. 1-3 (Glasgow: William Hamilton, 1843). 

  7. On the inclusion of images of popular recreations in medieval Books of Hours, see David Diringer, The Illuminated Book, its History and Production (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1967). 

  8. For detailed discussion and analysis of the Lutrell Psalter see Michelle P. Brown, The World of the Lutrell Psalter (London: the British Library, 2007). 

  9. CCPD, from 

  10. Roger Longrigg, The English Squire and His Sport (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1977): 28. 

  11. David Cresey, “Literacy in Context: Meaning and Measurement in Early Modern England,” in Consumption and the World of Goods, ed., John Brewer and Roy Porter (London: Routledge, 1993): 305-307. 

  12. Karen Hearn, ed., Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England, 1530-1630  (London: Tate Publishing, 1995). 

  13. Kevin Sharpe, Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth Century England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). 

  14. George Tuberville The Booke of Hunting, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908), orig. published in 1576. Online at

  15. CCPD and PD US, 

  16. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society, 5-14. 

  17. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society, 11. 

  18. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. H. Iswolsky (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968). 

  19. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 10. 

  20. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Poetics and Politics of Transgression (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1986): 9. 

  21. Stallybrass and White, The Poetics and Politics of Transgression, 9-20. 

  22. A similar argument is developed in greater detail in Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, 3rd edition (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2009). 

  23. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000). 

  24. Emma Griffin, “Wholesome recreations and cheering influences,” in British Sporting Culture: The Literature and Culture of Sport in the Long Eighteenth Century (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, in press). 

  25. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Harmonndsworth: Pelican books, 1968): 442. 

  26. P.B. Munsche, Gentlemen and Poachers: The English Game Laws. 1671-1831. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). 

  27. Henriette Gram Heiny, Boxing in British Sporting Art: 1730-1824, (doctoral dissertation, University of Oregon, Department of Art History,1987): 5. 

  28. More detailed discussion and examples of this tradition can be found in Ralph Nevill, Old English Sporting Prints and Their History (London: the Studio Limited, 1923);  F.L. Wilder, English Sporting Prints (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974); and James Laver, English Sporting Prints (London: Ward Lock, 1970). 

  29. E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common (London: Penguin Books, 1993): 17. 

  30. On the status and symbolic nature of pigs in medieval and renaissance life in Europe, and their association with fairs, festivals and the European underclasses, see Stallybrass and White, The Poetics and Politics of Transgression, 27-79. 

  31. Stephen Deuchar, Sporting Art in Eighteenth Century England: A Social & Political History (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1988). 

  32. My discussion here adapts ideas from Thompson, Customs in Common: 44-45. 

  33. Roger J.P. Cain, John Chapman and Richard R. Oliver, The Enclosure Maps of  England and Wales, 1595-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 

  34. Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure,

  35. Thompson, Customs in Common: 36. 

  36. See Rictor Norton, The Georgian Underworld: A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth Century England, online at ; and Dan Cruickshank, London’s Sinful Secret: The Bawdy History and  Very Public Passions of London’s Georgian Age. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010). 

  37. Thompson, Customs in Common: 50. 

  38. John B. Thompson, The Media and Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995): 67. 

  39. John B. Thompson, The Media and Modernity, 67-68. 

  40. Benedict Anderson,  Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983). Anderson later developed his ideas about simultaneity and nationalism in his essay on  “Nationalism, Identity and the World in Motion,” in Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation” ed., Peng Cheah and Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998). 

  41. Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, 3rd edition (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2009). 

  42. Cited in Stallybrass and White, The Poetics and Politics of Transgression, 32. 

  43. Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987): 152. 

  44. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society, 68. 

  45. Deuchar, Sporting Art in Eighteenth Century England, 63-65. 

  46. Thompson, Customs in Common, 44-45. 

  47. CCPD and PD U.S., John Trusler, William Hogarth, in a Series of Engravings with Descriptions and a Comment on Their Moral Tendency (London: Jones and Co., 1833), 

  48. Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism (London: Verso, 1989): 9. Cited in Stallybrass and White, The Poetics and Politics of Transgression, 82. 

  49. Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category in Bourgeois Society, orig. pub. 1962 (Boston: MIT Press, 1991). A detailed social history of the English Coffee house can be found in Brian William Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). 

  50. Stallybrass and White, The Poetics and Politics of Transgression, 96. 

  51. Stallybrass and White, The Poetics and Politics of Transgression, 96. 

  52. Stallybrass and White, The Poetics and Politics of Transgression, 97. 

  53. Deborah Heller, “Bluestocking Salons and the Public Sphere.” Eighteenth Century Life, Vol. 22(2), 1998, pp. 59-92. 

  54. Rictor Norton, The Georgian Underground

  55. Stephen Hardy. Brian Norman and Sara Sceery, “Toward a History of Sport Branding,” Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Vol. 4, no. 4 (2012): 486-487. Hardy et al. note that the British Museum claim the image reprinted here was actually created by another printmaker and engraver, Anna Maria Ireland. 

  56. Norton, The Georgian Underworld, ch. 14. 

  57. From Norton, The Georgian Underground 

  58. Timothy Mitchell, ed., Questions of Modernity (Contradictions of Modernity) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000): 17. 

  59. For example, Francis Willughby, (Willoughby) a seventeenth century English naturalist prepared a book length manuscript analyzing English sporting and gaming pastimes that was not published in his lifetime.  In the early parts of the manuscript he discusses the growing “scientific” literature on game and sporting pastimes in Europe. See Francis Willughby’s Book of Games: A Seventeenth Century Treatise on Sports, Games and Pastimes, David Cram Jeffrey Forgeng and Dorothy Johnston, eds., (Surreyt: Ashgate Publishing, 2003). 

  60. Joseph Strutt, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. Including the Rural and Domestic Recreations, May Games, Mummeries, Shows, Processions, Pageants and Pompous Spectacles From the Earliest Period to the Present Time

  61. Jurgen Habermas, “Modernity: An Incomplete Project.” In Hal Foster (ed.) The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle, Bay Press, 1983):  9. 

  62. Daniel O’Quinn, “In the Face of Difference: Molinaeux, Cribb and the Violence of the Fancy. In Race, Romanticism and the Atlantic,  Paul Younquist (ed.) (Surrey: Ashgage Publishing, 2013. 

  63. PD US, 

  64. CCSA, Rowlandson from Pierce Egan, Boxiana (London: Folio Society, 1976), via 

  65. For example, see Armand Mattelart’s discussion of changing conceptions of reason and time in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, The Invention of Communication, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996):3-53. 

  66. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews, 1972-1977 (New York, NY: Random House, 1981): 55. 

  67. A more developed discussion of this point can be found in Richard Gruneau, “The Somatic Linguistic Turn and Histories of Exercise and Sport,” in The Oxford Handbook in Sport History, Robert Edelman and Wayne Wilson, eds. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015). 

  68. Cited in Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Daedalus, 134, no. 4, (2005). 

  69. A more detailed discussion can be found in J.A. Mangan, Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School (London: Frank Cass, 2000). 

  70. Walter Arnstein, “The Survival of the Victorian Aristocracy, in The Rich, The Well Born and the Powerful, Fredieric Cople Jaher, ed. (London: Lyle Stuart, 1975. 

  71. On amateurism see Richard Gruneau, “Amateurism as a Sociological Problem: Some Reflections Inspired by Eric Dunning,” Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics, 9, no. 4 (2006): 559-582. 

  72. CPD and PD US, 

  73. “My discussion here is influenced by Peter Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830-1885 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978). 

  74. David Young, The Modern Olympics: A Struggle For Revival (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966): 31. 

  75. From Henriette Gram Heiny, Boxing in British Sporting Art: 1730-1824: 379. 

  76. Stallybrass and White, The Poetics and Politics of Transgression, 22. 

  77. My discussion here draws on the contrast between positive and negative classicism developed by Patrick Brantlinger in Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985). 

  78. CC PD and PD U.S. from 

Dedicated with respect and great affection to the memory of Alan G. Ingham. I also want to thank Douglas Booth, Stephen Hardy, John Horne, and Alan Tomlinson, who generously commented on an early draft of this essay.

Article: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Image: from Animal Locomotion
Eadweard Muybridge