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Recreation in the Renaissance: Attitudes towards Leisure and Pastimes in European Culture, 1425-1675

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"During the European Renaissance, the idea that human beings need periodical rest from their ordinary occupations became commonplace. Medical writing justified a variety of physical activities as beneficial to the preservation of health. Under
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  7 Conclusion 116 Frain du Tremblay’s Conversations morales sur les jeux et les divertissemens (see above, Chapters 2 and 6) were printed in December 1684. By thetime they circulated, at the beginning of the next year, Pierre Bayle(1647–1706), a Huguenot émigré in Rotterdam, where he was teachingphilosophy and history, had been publishing for ten month his highlyinfluential literary and philosophical review, the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres , printed anonymously in Amsterdam. As stated inthe first issue, the purpose of the periodical was to widen the public forand the range of books covered by the network of critical reviews alreadyin circulation; thus, it does not come as a surprise to find a notice onFrain du Tremblay’s volume in the Nouvelles for January 1685, in spiteof the limited srcinality or literary value of the work under review.From the beginning of his enterprise, Bayle had planned two principalmodels of entries: a brief notice, for the reader who has little time tospare and would simply like to be informed of the existence of a newbook; a fuller review, for those who are interested to know more. Thefirst mention of the Conversations morales falls in the former category,though the reviewer promised to return to the volume in future. Thesynthesis does not keep very far from pure caricature (‘La plus grandsource de la corruption, est que nous voulons trop nous divertir’). Baylepredicted that preaching on the subject would not have any effect onthe public and, punning on such lack of spiritual ‘profit’, wished book-sellers to have a more substantial commercial one by selling the book.Later during the same year, he kept his word and, within the Augustissue, after commenting on another piece of devotional literature (the best-selling literary genre, according to its sarcastic reviewer), heprovided a fuller description and made further points on Frain du Tremblay. A formal homage to the thoroughness of the author’s 0333_984536_08_cha07.qxd 9/26/2003 3:45 PM Page 116  argumentation is only an excuse to confirm that the disease he wouldlike to eradicate is too deeply rooted, and his efforts vain. The ‘corrup-tion’ from the earlier summary is recalled here to play an ironic role: if readers infected by it will not be able to improve, they will all the samefind reading the book très-agréable . 1 Two years later, the first 20 pages of the Nouvelles for January 1687were entirely occupied by a long review of Thiers’s Traité des jeux et diver-tissemens . The new book surpasses its predecessor, and Bayle exploits itas an interesting source of information and historical anecdotes. Thiscircumstance does not place the reviewer much closer to the spirit of the author. He points to the contradictions within the Catholic view,by wondering how Thiers managed to get published, considering thenumber of faults he recognizes within the clergy. The tale of the genesisof recreation out of sin (see above, Chapter 2) comes under especiallyfierce attack: in the reviewer’s opinion, if one wants to explain howhumans develop this need, one should rather recur to the mechanisticexplanation of nature that has become available after Robert Boyle’sfoundation of chemistry. 2 Though in his own way Bayle was showing some respect for his adver-saries by acknowledging their erudition, his mental distance from themcould hardly have been greater. They were not going to be the last old-fashioned moralists, nor was he their first sceptical critic. Nevertheless,these passing interventions on the subject by the porte-parole of the‘crisis of the European consciousness’ seem a meaningful point for usto stop, and register a change of predominant cultural attitudes of widermomentum. 3 Over the past few decades, social historians have dealt with the subjectof recreation from a variety of perspectives, a prominent role beingplayed by the reformation of manners and social discipline that couldbe seen as the effect of increased control exercised by both political andreligious institutions over the early modern European population. So farwork has been carried forward more frequently at local level (althoughfor significant communities, such as Calvinist Geneva or Amsterdam), 4 rather than for large geographic areas. Moreover, in a good number of researches a Freudo-Marxist historiographic category of repression haspredominated, 5 while a Foucauldian model of discipline, including theintrojection of norms and self-regulation, would probably allow adeeper understanding of the historical trend. Thus, for instance, histo- Conclusion 117 0333_984536_08_cha07.qxd 9/26/2003 3:45 PM Page 117  rians often use the language of ‘resistance’ (of popular culture, to itssuppression); but the model runs the risk of taking for granted an imageof the people which overestimates their degree of independence, unityand planning. Such conflicts as the English Sabbatarian campaign werenot simply opposing neat counterparts in the fields of government (thepeople versus the rulers, both at local and national level) or religion(Catholic or Arminian versus evangelical Protestant): the request for lawand order and the suppression of abuse has been shown to have comespecifically from the middling sort, who pressured magistrates to inter-vene. 6 Notwithstanding all these caveats, we cannot leave the subjectwithout an attempt to outline the scenery against which the action toldthus far took place; since the comparison underestimates the level of interaction that always exists between ideas and the social practice of recreation, the stage metaphor is not entirely adequate (unless onethinks of a kind of theatre that actively interacts with the audience). Itis precisely the relationship between ideas and practice that needs nowto be addressed. Without pretending to jump to social history in thefinal pages of a book which has explored the cultural side of the story,one cannot avoid asking whether perceptions of recreation reflectedtrends in social customs, or significantly influenced them, or in whatother way interacted with them.A general sketch of the social history of pastimes in RenaissanceEurope is far from both the expertise of the present writer and thecurrent state of historical knowledge; however, a glance at some recentresearch will offer a useful starting-point. The twenty-third internationalcolloquium of humanist studies, held in Tours in 1980, was devoted toan analysis of ‘Play and games in the Renaissance’ (  Les jeux à la Renais-sance ). In his conclusions to the rich two-week conference, its editor Jean-Claude Margolin outlined an evolution throughout the periodunder examination (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), which wit-nessed a movement from relative spontaneity towards codification,technical and social regulation, increasing professionalization and com-mercialization of a range of leisure activities – an evolution which hademerged from a variety of contributions, and more explicitly in PeterBurke’s paper on the Venetian Carnival. 7 Over the subsequent two decades the field of study made significantprogress, some valuable research being the output of further work fromthe contributors to the Tours conference. Michel Manson has recentlypublished a history of toys over the longue durée ; Jean-Pierre Étienvrehas developed a distinctive specialization in the field of  juego in theSpanish Golden Age, when cards and the world of players acquired a 118  Recreation in the Renaissance 0333_984536_08_cha07.qxd 9/26/2003 3:45 PM Page 118  specific jargon, a dedicated literature and a rich set of symbolic mean-ings. 8  Jean-Michel Mehl’s  Les jeux au royaume de France du  XIII  e au début du  XVI  e siècle (1990) has searched for play references through a varietyof sources, with particular attention for the lettres de rémission , the actsby which the kings of France (and hierarchically high feudal lords), atthe request of a condemned person or of his or her relatives, could grantthem pardon. The potentially interesting part of the documents is theirreference to the incident for which people were sentenced in the firstplace. 9 Across the Channel, another book has exploited consistent archivalsources of a different kind in an imaginative way, and thus provided uswith a wealth of information relevant to our topic. Ronald Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merry England  (1994) proposed, as stated in its subtitle,a study of ‘The Ritual Year, 1400–1700’, part of a multi-volume inquiryon related subjects undertaken by the author. 10 Although Hutton makesuse of a variety of sources, including some court cases, a good deal of his work is based on extensive analysis of churchwarden’s accounts. Aparticular merit of these sources is that they not only register prohibi-tions, but also allow us to census ceremonies that were actually per-formed. It should be clear that the overlapping between Hutton’s subjectmatter and mine (or that of Mehl’s book) is only partial. While we bothconsider festive recreations, he also includes in his survey forms of festive ritual that would not be accountable as recreation, while Iexamine recreations that do not take place on festive days. Neverthe-less, the common ground is highly significant, particularly since it wasthe field of important early modern developments. We have already dis-cussed the issues relating to the Stuart  Book of Sports in earlier chapters.The general trend Hutton derives from his detailed analysis is a set of historical variations in local and national ceremonial practices thatdepended more on religious and political developments than on socialand economic ones; the overall picture also shows a gradual eclipse of a number of popular entertainments (although sometimes their disap-pearance from the record may only mean that they were no longer usedfor parish fund-raising, rather than that they were no longer held).A further national scene, and once more a different genre of sourcematerial and subsequent perspective, is represented by the afore-mentioned tradition of statutes of Italian cities. As we commented above(Chapter 5), the particular attention paid by late medieval Italian localauthorities to regulating the world of play signals a shift in the pre-dominant attitudes towards gambling and some connected popular pas-times, with a wealth of local norms for which this corpus may represent Conclusion 119 0333_984536_08_cha07.qxd 9/26/2003 3:45 PM Page 119  a unique European case. A historiographical tradition condescendingtowards popular culture, human vices and their impermeability to anyattempt to govern them has repeatedly portrayed reforming projects asbound to fail. However, it has been suggested that the comparative tol-erance of play and gambling by local authorities that emerges in theItalian case is less the result of a failure to control popular pastimes, andmore an example of intelligent intervention, careful to distinguishbetween patterns of behaviour that are harmful to the coherence of society and others that are not, practices that can be realistically andhelpfully confined or abolished and others that it would be impossibleor useless to repress. 11 After Tours, subsequent relevant international conferences were held,among other venues, in Chambéry (‘Jeux, sports et divertissements auMoyen Age et à l’age classique’, 1991), Pienza (‘Passare il tempo’, 1991),Prato (‘Il tempo libero: economia e società, secc. XIII–XVIII’, 1994),Bonn (‘Play, Civilization, Social Transitions’, 1994) and Rotterdam(‘Games and Play in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’, 1998). 12 Part of the preparatory work that allowed such academic gatherings wasthe result of the efforts of specialized institutions, which started workon the topic and provided both stimuli and appropriate publishing facil-ities for research in the field. This was particularly the case for the Insti-tut für Spielforschung und Spielpädagogik established in 1991 at theMozarteum in Salzburg and for the Fondazione Benetton Studi Ricercheof Treviso, two institutions which also publish yearly periodicals entirelydedicated to the history and culture of play and games (  Homo Ludens and  Ludica , respectively).What can be said on a wider perspective? As we briefly mentioned(Introduction, above), a received opinion, partly based on the Victoriangenesis of modern sports, links the historical emergence of that whichtoday we regard as leisure to the fundamental economic changesbrought by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The grounds andimplications of this thesis are, on the one hand, that a neat distinctionbetween work and non-work is ultimately the outcome of the modernfactory system; on the other hand, that it is precisely within the socio-economic framework of the past 150 years that a modern model of vaca-tions, and a whole range of recreational activities intended to fill them,has properly developed. 13 The story of spectator sports, and its triumphin the neo-Olympic movement, fits the pattern particularly well, andfills most of the current literature on the subject.The thesis of a nineteenth-century birth of modern leisure was sup-ported in 1990 by Brian Vickers’s detailed essay on the Classical and 120  Recreation in the Renaissance 0333_984536_08_cha07.qxd 9/26/2003 3:45 PM Page 120
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