- Sport, Politics, and Literature in the English Renaissance
If sports today are overvalued by some and scorned by others as antithetical to culture, such conflicting views may derive from our early modern forbears, [End Page 727] according to Gregory Colón-Semenza's new study of the intersections between sports, politics, and literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Too often, Colón-Semenza objects, sport has been conflated with festival in the early modern period, precluding an appreciation for its multilayered and complex status. Colón-Semenza's principle goal in this lively book is to "recover the subtle ways that contemporaries distinguished certain sports from others" (15), exploring the extent to which lawful sports were valued while unlawful sports were prohibited or curtailed. Colón-Semenza notes that the tendency to collate a wide range of activities has prevented critics from recognizing the extent to which sport proved a regulatory and orderly practice, rather than merely the debauched riot so dreaded by antisport rhetoricians. Colón-Semenza is especially interested in the ways in which sport operated as "a controversial form of English nationhood" (13), arguing that overemphasizing its disorderly or carnivalesque features has kept this aspect of early modern sport hidden from our view.
Colón-Semenza's study works largely to amplify and to correct prevailing studies of sport in the early modern period. He suspects that recent studies have overemphasized the festal nature of sport and hopes to move the criticism "beyond Bakhtin — to a new definition of sport as a phenomenon as central to Renaissance conceptions of order and control as it was to fears of disorder and excess" (23). This requires recouping what Colón-Semenza considers to have been a conception of "functional sport" in early modern culture — the exercise and discipline of the social as well as the individual body. His thesis also requires careful attention both to the range of texts advocating and opposing athletics, and to a nuanced readings of literary texts that draw from such polemics. Colón-Semenza is largely successful in both.
In order to shed light on contradictory responses to early modern sport, Colón-Semenza begins by tracing the debates that sport prompted in the sixteenth century. While many objected to the idleness or raucousness of sport, Colón-Semenza points out that important and popular writers celebrated its social virtues, including Thomas Elyot, whose sixteenth chapter of The Boke Named theGovernour (1531) details the importance of exercise — "that 'vehement motion' that preserves the health of man and increases his strength" (31) and Martin Luther, who admired the sport of wrestling ("It is the part of a Christian to take care of his own body," 39). As long as exercise and athletics were seen as intrinsically involved with military training, they enjoyed a certain high regard, but Colón-Semenza argues that over the course of the sixteenth century, new weapons and military technology worked to alter this relationship, lifting exercise out of the sphere of the martial and into the social. Once sport was seen as merely play rather than a serious component of military training, its status was necessarily altered. Colón-Semenza traces the importance of this change in his second chapter, where he suggests that in Henry VI Shakespeare indicts the noble conception of warfare as sport.
Subsequent chapters move chronologically from the court of James — whose reissued Book of Sports Colón-Semenza sees as far from innovative in its attempts [End Page 728] to separate "lawful" sports from slothful or undecorous activities — to the court of Charles in the 1630s, where Colón-Semenza sees defenses of sport working in ways allied with defenses of poetry. Chapter 5 offers an interesting reading of Walton's Compleat Angler as it engages with "official Interregnum policies regarding sports and pastimes" (139). Colón-Semenza's aim is revisionist, an extension to work by critics such as John R. Cooper and Steven...