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Sport in History : 2. Pre-Modern: Medieval to Renaissance

Updated on December 30, 2017

2. Pre-Modern: Medieval to Renaissance


The Middle Ages heralds a change in the use of landscape from the ancient, and a change therefore in the physical culture relationships that are apparent between pre-modern and modern times. In pre-modern times (pre-Renaissance) there was very little difference between what a modern would term sport, pastime, and recreation. Carter quotes Harris as stating that, “ in medieval times the word ‘sport’ covers every diversion by which a man disports or amuses himself in his leisure time, it is essentially the antithesis of work.”(p.18)

Bale terms the modern characteristics of sport as being ‘sportised’(p.16), and I shall use this term. This indicates the transformation of sport in modern times into a sportscape as opposed to a landscape, viewed as a result of the segmentation of space and mono functionalism of the modern sports environment. Previous to this, in pre modern times, the segmentation of time and space did not exist and sport or folk games were conducted throughout the streets and fields of the urban or rural setting. As a result of modernization and the emergence of measure, record and time, folk games and play became sportised, which led to divisions between sport and non-sport, and demarcation between sports. Subsequently, an increase in the homogenization and mono-functional ‘containers’ developed, moving indoors under controlled conditions to ‘equalise’ competition(Eichberg p.62) These changes occur within changing social, economic and political contexts in history and will be expanded upon further along in the modernisation period. As previously mentioned, sport cannot be considered outside its social context, but instead of a clear dualistic change from the premodern ‘immersion’ in games to the modern separation to a sportscape, Bale suggests an interpretation that views movement culture or body culture into a trialectic of play, physical education and sport(Bale.5)(figure). The point to this analysis is to prevent a dualistic reading between sport and nonsport, and to recognise the different crossover points between each section.

The pre-modern period, where rough and tumble games were played throughout the towns, represents the a-productive approach in Eichberg's trialectic( refer diagram 2a); games played for identity, often between different villages and invariably violent. Surfaces of the buildings were used, utilizing the existing surrounding landscape. Such games were essentially local and benefited the ‘team’ who had local knowledge, requiring an explanation of the ‘rules’. Social division was not as pronounced at this time as it would become in modernity. The blood sports in England for example, such as cockfighting or bull baiting occurred in taverns or backstreet halls attended by peasants and kings alike.

The Renaissance era equally enjoyed such folk games. A football game known as calcio for instance was played in the squares and streets.(FN) However, the advent of humanism and scientific enquiry influenced the ‘perfection’ of games and with the emergence in theories of ideal, planned cities came a re-evaluation of the location for games. Increasingly the city streets became a representation of the ideal city instead of the place of activity.(fn) Increasingly also, the activities of ball games were enclosed into indoor spaces, designed not only to separate classes but often, as in the case of royal tennis, the building itself served as the playing surface(Bale.26).

Already here, the degree of enclosure was related to the social class, with the upper classes housed in closed, covered spaces while the lower classes watched athletics and animal sports in open arenas. Other upper class activities such as fencing, gymnastics and equestrian took place in country mansions. Although enclosed these spaces were not yet standardized or specialized. The health of both mind and body remained an important feature in the Renaissance period and the use of noble sporting activities such as the joust or fencing continued to have a militaristic benefit, as well as providing opportunities for displays of power.

Folk games continued to be played to some extent through the streets and fields of entire towns right up until the nineteenth century. Earlier attempts by Puritans to restrict these often unruly games had met with limited success. The church first supported the folk games, allowing the venting and play to occur within the church grounds as part of various festivals. However, the violence and drunkenness that often followed such occasions led to protests of the appropriateness of these games toward God.

Economic imperatives were the main catalyst toward rationalizing the spatial requirements of sports. Commercial imperatives of the growing middle class in the early nineteenth century led to restrictions due to the need for efficiency and profitability in the growing city markets and streets.


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