During the Renaissance, people of all social classes engaged in sports, many of which had medieval* origins. Some of these sports, such as tournament jousting, are no longer common. However, Renaissance Europeans also played tennis and a variety of ball games that were much like modern football or soccer.
Jousting tournaments were mock battles in which mounted warriors tried to knock each other from their horses using long lances. Originally a pastime of medieval knights and lords, they remained popular among Renaissance nobles. Courtiers also practiced other military sports, including archery, swordplay, and horse racing.
One of the most popular sports among the upper classes of the Renaissance was tennis. This game originated in medieval France, and as it spread across Europe, regional variations developed. In 1555 a monk standardized the sport by setting forth rules and a scoring system. Another sport of the elite* was golf, an ancient Scottish game revived by James VI of Scotland. Although elite men sometimes competed against members of the lower classes, Baldassare Castiglione advised in The Book of the Courtier that they do so only when they were certain to win. He declared that "it is too sad and shocking, and quite undignified, when a gentleman is seen to be beaten by a peasant."
The sports played among the elite varied little throughout Europe. Monarchs set the tone for sport, and royalty from different countries sometimes met to compete. For example, in 1523 Henry VIII of England joined Holy Roman Emperor* Charles V in a doubles match of tennis against the princes of Orange and Brandenburg. Few noble women engaged in sports during the Renaissance. Though Mary Stuart, the mother of James VI, enjoyed golf, sports were generally seen as an activity for men. Castiglione wrote that a court lady's role in sports was to stand by and cheer for her man.
The sports of the lower classes varied by region. In France, men played games such as la soule, a ball game in which opposing teams tried to drive a ball forward and past a goalpost with the foot, the hand, or a stick. The English game of football, or soccer, may have been based on la soule—although a popular myth claimed that the game had originated in the 1000s when Englishmen kicked around the severed head of a Danish foe. Another English game, stool ball, is said to have begun among milkmaids who tried to knock over their milking stools by throwing balls at them. By the Renaissance, stool ball was associated with courtship and the Easter season. It later developed into the modern games of cricket and rounders. In Italy, the Easter season brought games to public squares throughout the country, where noblemen kicked and hurled a leather ball filled with animal hair while spectators cheered.
Many humanists* of the early Renaissance regarded athletic ability as a necessary skill for an educated man to have. They approved of any sport that had been practiced in ancient Greece, such as swimming, running, or wrestling. However, athletic events also had their critics. Authorities worried about the problems that accompanied sports, such as violence, gambling, and dice games. Some people considered sports "devilish pastimes," especially when people played them on Sunday. Various Protestant states or communities banned or strictly limited sporting activities, considering them signs of the sin of idleness.
(See alsoTournaments. )
- * medieval
referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe
- * elite
privileged group; upper class
- * Holy Roman Emperor
ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806
- * humanist
Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)