Miscellany — Summer 2010 (July/August)

Sports in the summer of 2010 . . .

This summer Miscellany appears amidst pervasive reminders of the extraordinary social, cultural and economic scale and significance of sports in the modern world. I thought it would be interesting to look at sport in Electronic Enlightenment and get a comparative sense of sport then and sport now. June and July alone have seen well represented a series of sports with 18th-century precedents, including:

Tennis in Paris

Tennis, Paris, 1632.

One of the remarkable changes in sport over the last 250 years is its globalization, in terms of international, professional competitions, and in the participation in sports by non-professionals.

One striking comparison is to consider the value of the UK economy at the end of the 18th century against simply the prize money awarded by the events listed above — a total in excess of £360 million (roughly US$540 million).

To generate some numbers for the comparison, I've made use of the calculators available at MeasuringWorth, an academic, economic history site referenced by the Economic History Association among others, though this is not an official economic analysis. Additionally, each of the MW's calculators has a terminus ad quem of 2003 or 2008 depending on the data-set available for the calculation type. However, the available information is informative:

To get a sense of what £0 12s 8d might have meant in late-18th-century London, we can compare Liza Picard's work on 18th-century prices in London (Liza Picard. Dr Johnson's London: life in London 1740–1770. London: Orion Books, 2000):

Sports in the 18th century . . .

What would our EE authors have made of this? Could they have imagined the social and commercial significance, let alone the scale and international reach of sport? It seems unlikely. In truth, sport is not one of common topics in the correspondences, and then it is most often associated with children and childhood. But the references there are provide an entertaining and revealing glimpse into the personal lives of our correspondents.

Battledore and shuttlecock

Battledore and shuttlecock

Once we were young and dirty lads . . . 

On the 7 June 1742, Thomas Gray writes to his friend Richard West. Gray is on the verge of "going into the country for a few weeks" to enjoy the Spring weather, and he recounts some of what he will do and who he will see. A reminder of schoolmates playing cricket helps mark the contrast between the things of childhood and those of maturity:

 . . . I shall see Mr. ** and his Wife, nay, and his Child too, for he has got a Boy. Is it not odd to consider one's Cotemporaries in the grave light of Husband and Father? There is my Lords ** and **, they are Statesmen: Do not you remember them dirty boys playing at cricket? As for me, I am never a bit the older, nor the bigger, nor the wiser than I was then: No, not for having been beyond sea. Pray how are you?

— Thomas Gray to Richard West, 7 June 1742; EE letter ID: graythOU0010209a1c

Stoke Poges church

The elegiac churchyard of Stoke Poges

Gray was in fact travelling to visit relatives in Stoke Poges, the site of his famous "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (composed sometime between 1745 and 1750). The lords in question, and one time "dirty boys", are John Montagu (1718–1792), fourth Earl of Sandwich; and George Montagu Dunk (1716–1771), second Earl of Halifax — both of whom were at Eton in Gray's time.

A cricketeer ther was, and that a worthy man . . . 

In a kind of reverse journey of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrimage, Jeremy Bentham records the travels of himself and a companion, G. Wilson, from Maresfield to London in December of 1777:

 . . . At East Grindstead we took in a Welch Drover: three or four myrmidons of his mounted aloft: his partner (in trade I mean not in bed) escorted us on horseback. At Godstone where we dined (Godstone is 21 miles from Maresfield and 20 from London we received a further reinforcement of a Town-Macaroni, a Country Justice, a Play-house Critic, a Cricketeer, and a Captain in the Blues. The Captain was according to his own account the tallest Man in the tallest Regiment in England, being, as he told us 6 foot 4 inches high. He could not sit upright in the Coach: Wilson was a shrimp to him. The Macaroni display'd a blue and gold enamelled Geneva watch with the picture of a lady on the outside of the case. The Justice smelt a little strongish of Tobacco. This pretious weed we had in all shapes: his Worship smoking (that is to say having smoked) it, the Macaroni snuffing it, and the Welch Drover chewing it. ... The Cricketeer had play'd his own two parishes against all Surry for 100 Guineas, and beat all Surry hollow: that same Surry that before now has beat all England. He is preparing with great alacrity to reap another such victory over the same antagonist; and if fortune should second his ambition may come one day to pull Lord Tankerville or even the Duke of Dorset from his throne. . . . 

— Jeremy Bentham to Sarah Wise, 12–13 December 1777; EE letter ID: bentjeOU0020075a1c

The route of Bentham and Wilson journey follows the route of the present-day A22 from Eastbourne to London. Pursuing this route with little effort or deviation (from Maresfield, East Sussex to East Grinstead, West Sussex, then on into London via Croydon, Brixton and Lambeth) would bring you to Southwark Cathedral, from whence Chaucer's own assorted band set off. The lords in mentioned in this letter were Charles Bennet, 4th Earl of Tankerville (1716–1791), a member of the committee which revised the laws of cricket in 1774; and John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset (1745–1825), member of the Hambledon Club and of the committee which drew up the original laws of the M.C.C.

Glory days . . . 

Another Spring letter and the rising sap brings thoughts of exercise, (though not too strenuous) and memories of the sporting triumphs of youth:

Boys games, Johann Amos Comenius, 1658

Boys games, Johann Amos Comenius, 1658

 . . . This fine weather I suppose sets you on horseback, and allures the Ladies into the Garden. . . .  When I was a Boy, I excell'd at cricket and Football, but the fame I acquir'd by Atchievements in that way, is long since forgotten, and I do not know that I have made a figure in any thing since. I am sure however that she did not design me for a Horseman, and that if all men were of my Kind, there would be an end of all Jockeyship for ever.

— William Cowper to Rev. William Unwin, 28 May 1781; EE letter ID: cowpwiOU0010487a1c

A Jabulani ball it wasn't!

A much earlier spring letter this time, by a perhaps slightly less sporty poet, still brings to mind a sporting story . . . of sorts:

. . . I must tell you a Story of Molineux. The other day at the Princes Levee, he took Mr Edgecomb aside, and askd with an Air of Seriousness, What did the Czar of Muscovy, when he disinherited his Son, do with his Secretary? To which Edgecomb answerd, He was sow'd up in a Football, and tost over the water. . . .

— Alexander Pope to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, April 1718; EE letter ID: popealOU0010469b1c

And so, why does the ball bounce?

The science of sport, or sport in science, seems to have started earlier than most would suspect. Here Descartes explains the bounce in a tennis ball to his longstanding correspondent Marin Mersenne (French physicist & theologian, 1588–1648):

. . . As for your question concerning the rebounding of a ball, I did not say that the cause of this must be ascribed entirely to the air inside the ball, but mainly to the continuation of the motion which is present in all rebounding bodies, that is to say, from the fact that a thing has begun to move it follows that it continues to move for as long as it can; and if it cannot continue to move in a straight line, rather than coming to rest, it rebounds in the opposite direction. One must also observe that the air inside a ball acts as a spring which helps it to rebound; the same is true of the matter of all other bodies, both those which rebound and those against which other bodies rebound, such as the strings of a tennis racket, the wall of a tennis court, the hardness of the ball, etc. As for the air which follows it or goes before it, that is an imaginary idea of the scholastics, which in my view is quite pointless. . . .

— René Descartes to Marin Mersenne, Monday, 25 February 1630; EE letter ID: descreCU0030018a1c

Tennis, Johann Amos Comenius, 1658

Tennis, Johann Amos Comenius, 1658

This letter is not only remarkable for Descartes' references to the elements of tennis — real tennis that is, jeu de paume, not lawn tennis. It is interesting to note too his assertion, as if an established law, "the fact that [once] a thing has begun to move it follows that it continues to move for as long as it can; and if it cannot continue to move in a straight line, rather than coming to rest, it rebounds in the opposite direction." Why is this remarkable? If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of the complex density and fluidity of historical fact — something well demonstrated by a project like Electronic Enlightenment. When Descartes wrote this letter to Mersenne, the future Sir Isaac Newton was just 12 years old. It's generally assumed that the laws of motion were first outlined in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published 57 years after this letter, on 5 July 1687.

Be active & be healthy . . .

Tennis is not only an arena for the demonstration of science, as Descartes also shows, it can serve as a model for the physical health that is equally important to our spiritual well-being. In a letter to the princess of Bohemia, Descartes sounds a bit like a 17th-century version of the "good-health advisor" at my local gym:

. . . It is easy to show that the pleasure of the soul which constitutes happiness is not inseparable from cheerfulness and bodily comfort. This is proved by tragedies, which please us more the sadder they make us, and by bodily exercises like hunting and tennis which are pleasant in spite of being arduous — indeed we see that often the fatigue and exertion involved increase the pleasure. The soul derives contentment from such exercise because in the process it is made aware of the strength, or skill, or some other perfection of the body to which it is joined . . . .

— René Descartes to Elizabeth Stuart, princess of Bohemia, Friday, 6 October 1645; EE letter ID: descreCU0030268a1c

Ladies & gentlemen, in the red corner, David "the hammer" Hume . . .

In a Pythonesque moment, we have the philosopher and historian David Hume in a metaphorical boxing ring with fellow Scot and historian William Robertson (Scottish historian, principal of Edinburgh University, 1721–1793):

Jack Broughton

Jack Broughton

. . . I forgot to tell you, that two days ago I was in the House of Commons, where an English gentleman came to me, and told me, that he had lately sent to a grocer's shop for a pound of raisins, which he received wrapped up in a paper that he shewed me. How would you have turned pale at the sight! It was a leaf of your History, and the very character of Queen Elizabeth, which you had laboured so finely, little thinking it would so soon come to so disgraceful an end. I happened a little after to see Millar, and told him the story; consulting him, to be sure, on the fate of his new boasted historian, of whom he was so fond. . . . In vain did I remonstrate that this was sooner or later the fate of all authors, serius, ocyus, sors exitura. . . .*

Next week, I am published; and then, I expect a constant comparison will be made between Dr Robertson and Mr Hume. I shall tell you in a few weeks which of these heroes is likely to prevail. Meanwhile, I can inform both of them for their comforts, that their combat is not likely to make half so much noise as that between Broughton and the one-eyed coachman. . . .

— David Hume to William Robertson, March 1759; EE letter ID: humedaOU0010300a1c

* Hume quotes Horace, Odes, Book II, poem 3:

omnes eodem cogimur, omnium
versatur urna serius ocius
sors exitura et nos in aeternum
exilium inpositura cumbae.

One way all travel; the dark urn
Shakes each man's lot, that soon or late
Will force him, hopeless of return,
On board the exile-ship of Fate.

Translation taken from The odes and carmen sæculare of Horace: translated into English verse. John Conington. London: Bell & Daldy, 1865.

The reference is to Jack Broughton (c. 1703/1704–8 January 1789), English bare-knuckle fighter and first person to establish a set of rules for the ring, apparently following on the death of George Stevenson, "the Coachman", who succumbed after a match between the two in 1741.

Finally Bentham, paddling in seas & legal associations . . .

For his summer "hols", Bentham and company were spending late August in Battle, Sussex — which Google Maps agrees is 6 miles from the sea.

Writing to his father, who we must understand from the letter was rather good in the water, the 29 year old Jeremy cannot help but create legal metaphors even when recounting an English summer holiday near the seaside:

Mermaids at Brighton

Mermaids at Brighton

. . . The Sea is within 6 miles of us: thither we often take an afternoon's ride and bathe. Mr. Wilson swims like a fish; as for my part I am sorry to say I find but little benefit from the skill of my immediate ancestor: that accomplishment is likely to be lost altogether, unless it descends in Borough English* to the younger branch of your family. However swimming or rather the attempt to swim answers to me very well in point of health and exercise. . . .

— Jeremy Bentham to Jeremiah Bentham, Monday, 25 August 1777; EE letter ID: bentjeOU0020063a1c

* The legal reference is to a curious version of inheritance law found only in Sussex — where Bentham was visiting — Kent, Surrey, neighbouring London and Somerset. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Borough-English is a "custom or tenure in some parts of England, by which the youngest son inherits all the lands and tenements." Interestingly, the term derives from the Anglo-French tenure en Burgh Engloys, "tenure in an English borough", a reminder that language, like history, can take extraordinarily complicated twists and turns on its way to the sea. Here an English phrase for an Anglo-French phrase for an English custom!


— Robert V. McNamee
Director, Electronic Enlightenment Project
© 2010 University of Oxford

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