ASECS Panel on Sport

‘The paths of pleasure’: Games and Sports in the Eighteenth Century

The aim of this panel is to look at modes of entertainment in the eighteenth century, with specific reference to the emerging disciplines of sport. It wishes to address the shifting definitions and perceptions of sport. Most of the sports that were played until the eighteenth century have now disappeared, although certain names (tennis, billiard, bowls, fighting, etc.) are still familiar. What we now call sports often belonged to the culture of games. The frontier between sports and games was blurred; sports were indeed a component of local or regional celebrations, and were part of entertainment in a wider sense. The importance of gambling is also of importance in the development of certain sports. This panel invites proposals wishing to address these cultural shifts in the perceptions, uses and definitions of sports. Papers may also investigate the ways in which literary texts contribute to these changing perceptions.

Chair: Alexis Tadié (University of Paris-Sorbonne)

Sharon Harrow (Shippensburg University): “The Sports Mock Heroic”

Sophie Vasset (University of Paris Diderot): “Exercising for health: 18th century medical prescriptions for sports”

Daniel O’Quinn (University of Guelph): “In the Face of Difference: Molineaux, Cribb and the Violence of the Fancy”


Sharon Harrow: “The Sports Mock Heroic”

 In 1744, the year of Alexander Pope’s death, Paul Whitehead anonymously published “The Gymnasiad, or Boxing Match.  A Very Short but Very Curious Epic Poem with the Prolegomena of Scriblerus Tertius and Notes Variorum,” by Scriblerus Tertius.  The poem copies the structure of Pope’s “The Dunciad” in some ways and, in the Prolegomena, Whitehead laments Pope’s death.  But while Whitehead adopts some conventions of the mock heroic, he departs from the genre in a number of ways, to wit: the poem is laudatory, and the central character is figured as a true hero.  The poem celebrates the 1741 boxing match between Jack Broughton and George Stevenson, fighters whose patrons were the Duke of Cumberland and Frederick, Prince of Wales, respectively.  Jack Broughton was known as “the father of boxing” and, in 1743, he opened an amphitheatre dedicated to boxing matches.  It was underwritten by William, the Duke of Cumberland.  That same year, he published “Proposals for erecting an amphitheatre for the manly exercise of boxing,” a four-page treatise that opens with a quote by Virgil.  Whitehead wrote about a widely popular subject, and his poem is the first of a small number of poems whose writers adapt generic conventions of the mock heroic as they focus on sport.  This paper will discuss the sub-genre of the sports mock heroic.

Sophie Vasset: “Exercising for health: 18th century medical prescriptions”

Exercise is traditionally seen as one of the five pillars of preventative medicine, it is often prescribed as a treatment, especially for nervous conditions. For example, in his Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions (1711), Mandeville’s treatment of green sickness is very much based on exercise: “Every Morning, as soon as she rises, (which I would have her do before six) let her be swung for half an Hour, then eat her Breakfast.” He goes on to prescribe that a patient with green sickness should “get on Horseback for at least two Hours, either galloping or trotting as much as her Strength will permit her.” In my paper, I will look at how exercise was understood as an essential component of health in eighteenth-century England, what kind of exercise was prescribed by eighteenth-century medical doctors, and examine several applications of those prescriptions by patients of various social statuses.

Daniel O’Quinn : “In the Face of Difference: Molineaux, Cribb and the Violence of the Fancy”

Unlike many of its competitors, the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser saw the public enthusiasm for boxing–or the “Fancy”–and in particular the overwhelming interest in the fights between the coal merchant Thomas Cribb and the “Baltimore black” Thomas Molineaux in 1810 and 1811, as an alarming sign of the “frivolity” of the nation.  Complaining that Britons were more versed in the staged bouts between Cribb and Molineaux outside Stratham than in Wellington’s struggles against Marmont on the continent, the editors correctly identified a failure in the public’s comprehension of the scale of the respective conflicts, but themselves failed to understand that the “hammering” doled out in the ring was laden with historical significance beyond the conventional notions of geopolitics.  The vast majority of the press was cognizant that something crucial was going on and it is my contention that a thorough examination of the fights as moments of social and cultural performance throws up a number of important historical and methodological questions for the study of Romanticism, race and decolonization.  The most important of these concerns the differential relation between singular acts of performance and the nascent historicity of performativity itself.  What is so remarkable about this example is that the methodological import of the relationship between iteration and present performance is thoroughly entwined with a series of racial problematics which engage questions of “difference” that conventionally stabilize temporal disjunctions in their analysis of identity.  Thus two critical paradigms normally at odds with one another have the potential to fruitfully critique one another in this essay.  It is my hope that the exploration of how differential engagements with temporal issues in performance will open new ways for Romantic studies to address questions of social and racial distinction and vice versa.  

At one level, the events in question were politically overdetermined.  Cribb was widely lauded as not only the champion of Britain, but also as the very epitome of specifically English national character.  A large portion of the commentary on the fights turns on very subtle distinctions in ethnicity and there is throughout the papers a latent understanding that his performance reflects on many aspects of what it means to be a Briton in the midst of war with France.  This latent pressure put on Cribb’s performance are a direct result of the challenge posed by Thomas Molineaux.  Molineaux’s threat to Cribb’s supremacy was palpable: he was an extremely imposing figure and a highly skilled fighter considerably younger than the champion.  But the anxiety generated by Molineaux is doubly coded.  At some points, the distinction between the fighters is racialized in brutal ways; at others, the distinction is national because Molineaux is repeatedly identified as an American.  What is interesting is that these codes are often in direct conflict with each other and prone to internal incoherence.  For instance, much of the unresolved tension regarding the American war turned on the lack of distinction between Britons and Americans.  And there are moments in the first fight, and in the intervening fight with Rimmer, when the “English” fighters are figured as defective citizens and Molineaux accedes to qualities conventionally assigned to Britons.  The first section of the essay seeks to untangle these conflicting and conflicted codes in order to show what is at stake in the overall Cribb/Molineaux narrative.

The second section focuses on the repetitive structure of that narrative in order to demonstrate how repetition and performance come together in a particularly resonant fashion in this case study.  I use the word resonant advisedly because the narrative structure of the fights replicates a wide array of racialized narratives in the period in which initial reverses in British imperial policy or action are superceded by fantasies of triumphalism.  The structure of anxiety and overcompensation is I believe crucial to understanding the psychic drive behind not only the representation of these events, but also the durability of the racialized fantasies which are eventually sanctioned by biological state racism. 

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