Report ASECS panel

Report on the panel “The paths of pleasure” at ASECS 2012

This panel was born of conversation at ASECS 2011, when Sharon Harrow, Daniel O’Quinn and Alexis Tadie agreed to pursue a very profitable first exchange with a panel devoted to games and sports. Sophie Vasset, who has worked on the history of medicine, joined them for this session.


In the first paper, Sharon Harrow offered a reading of sports mock-heroics in the eighteenth century. She selected two in particular, “The Gymnasiad” by Whitehead and “Cricket” by James Love. “The Gymnasiad” is a poem, inscribed to Pope, that commemorates a boxing match. It was underwritten by the duke of Cumberland and the first official rules of boxing were appended to it. Published in 1741, it predates Pope’s Dunciad by two years, the first rules of cricket by three, and Love’s poem on cricket by four years. Both “Cricket” and “The Gymnasiad” mock the heroic in ways that are clearly reminiscent of Pope. Another poem, “Golf”, published in 1743 does not use the mock heroic, therefore is not included in the presentation, but testifies to the importance of verse for reports on, and the celebration of, sports. Whitehead’s poem is about a character, Broughton, who was both a genuine warrior and a great sportsman. In some ways, he mocks the mock-heroic, and this suggests debates about low art/high art, about theatricality and about legitimacy/illegitimacy. Where the Dunciad is indignant, “The Gymnasiad” is celebratory: there is no satirical edge to it. It is rather in Whitehead’s own notes that the satire can be found.

The beginning of the 18th century saw the opening of venues dedicated to boxing. In the 1740s fights started to be advertised. Broughton, who is the hero of “The Gymnasiad”, but also appears in other treatises such as The Useful Science of Defence, fought at the battle of Dettingen and was a genuine warrior as well as possibly the first British national sports hero. “The Gymnasiad” proceeds to celebrate Broughton, being more in the spirit of Virgil than of Pope, creating the genre of the “mock mock-heroic”.

With “Cricket”, we witness a degree of playfulness articulated in the number of voices that intervene in the text: the author, the anonymous note-writer, Scriblerus Maximus, Britannicus Severus. Conventions that are observed by the author may be destroyed by the commentators. What “Cricket” does, is to adopt the poetic format in order to praise heroes, but also presents itself as a spoof of the mock-heroic.

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The second paper in the panel dealt with medicine and exercise, and more particularly with Fuller’s treatise of 1705 (Medicina Gymnastica) which had many editions in the 18th century and which describes the curative powers of exercise. In particular, Fuller advocates horse-riding as a means to cure diseases and pain (both active and passive). He believes in a quasi miraculous aspect of exercise, celebrating such practices as if they were universal remedies. Playing on the notion of pharmakôn, he insists on the fact that treatment is potentially dangerous and therefore must be taken in right doses. One of the main effects of treatments in the 18th century, and one that Fuller hopes to achieve, is of course evacuation. Quoting Pliny, he also finds that sea-carriage, because on a rough voyage it can provoke such evacuations, can be considered as “exercise”.

Fuller was also a great admirer of Thomas Sydenham’s classic medical text on gout and dropsy. He proceeds, in the same vein, to write an autopathography as he uses his own body as an example: his ideas, in this sense, grow from observation and from experience. The main point of exercise being the alleviation of pain, he describes his own pain and recommends motion as a cure.

And the paper reminds us, in fine, of similar uses of horse-riding in fiction, quoting Tristam Shandy to that effect.

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The third paper dealt with the famous encounters between Cribb and the African-American Molineaux of 1810-11. But first, as a way of generating a context, D. O’Quinn concentrated on the famous Zoffany painting about the cock-fight in Lucknow, which, to an extent, is a depiction of  a scene of imperial debauchery (in particular, the empty seat on the right is Hastings’s, who was having some trouble at the time). In the juxtaposition between cock-fighting and boxing, one may sense the desire to counterbalance the end of one empire and the desire to preserve another.

Although prize-fighting was illegal in the early nineteenth century, it was heavily reported in the news, and circulated in prints and figurines that often represented both fighters and audience. The fight between Cribb and Molineaux is of particular interest because it addresses the anxiety generated by Molineaux (an American, but racialized). The reports identify the humanity of Molineaux through fight and sport.

The first fight was marred by the excesses of the fancy, which was seen to be responsible for defeat. After the first fight, Cribb was nicknamed the “professor of terror”, and there were in the reports distinct links with the war with France, with liberty, with the differentiation of race, etc. So that in the realm of entertainments, political events can be reactivated.

The second fight was concerned both with the internal fight and with external danger. In Cruikshank’s engraving for Egan’s Boxiana, we see how both men are differentiated from the audience so that they retain their dignity. But in the reports we find Molineaux linked to desire, money, and American pride, whereas Cribb is linked to dignity and homosociality. And it is the crowd that appears as corrupt.

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