Sport; something that unbends the mind by turning it off from care.
On 21 January 2014, the head of the largest golf equipment company in the world told a conference of American industry professionals that their sport was dying. Addressing the recent dramatic fall in player numbers, Mark E. King, CEO of TaylorMade, convened the meeting at Florida’s Rosen Centre to appeal for suggestions as to how to rescue their game from mortal peril.
‘We’ve lost five million over the last ten years!’ cried one speaker, Joe Beditz, CEO of the National Golf Foundation, as he stood backed by a giant projection that screamed ‘5,000,000 LOST’. ‘Five million! And that’s out of thirty million!’ Figures showed that – in the United States at least – the core group of golfers, defined as those who play at least eight rounds a year, had decreased in number by about 25 per cent.
‘One out of four!’ said Beditz. ‘And those core golfers are responsible for ninety per cent of spending and rounds played in golf…’
Whether golf is destined to go the way of the dodo is yet to be seen, but the salient point suggested by the TaylorMade panic is this: a sport’s immortality is not guaranteed. And if it can die, it can be forgotten.
The idea for this book was inspired by Hans Friedrich von Flemming’s Der vollkommene teutsche Jäger, or The Perfect German Hunt, published in 1719. My eye was caught by a particularly puzzling image, depicting an entertainment called Fuchsprellen. Although my 18th-century German is frankly a little rostig, the unusual combination of the words for ‘fox’ and ‘bouncing’ was unmistakable. This conclusion was helped by the artwork itself, which shows well-dressed nobles casually slinging the splay-legged creatures heavenward. I sent my notes to an antiquarian book dealer, asking if he had ever come across the sport before. His response was that if I wished to hoax him successfully, I had better come up with something more plausible.
Here is a sport that seems to have slipped through the net of mainstream historical record, and yet is one of the most fascinatingly eccentric aspects of Teutonic hunting history (which, let me tell you, is really saying something). The fact that Fuchsprellen has maintained such a low profile over the years begged the question: how many other sports like this have been forgotten? Fox-tossing… and Other Forgotten Sports examines hidden pockets of history to find the answers.
The word ‘sport’ comes from the Old French word ‘desporter’, meaning ‘to divert, amuse, take pleasure’. Before the relatively recent concept of establishing a rulebook, this idea of a sport being any particular active pastime indulged in for pleasure (especially hunting) is how it was thought of for centuries. For example, Samuel Johnson’s principal definition of the word in his dictionary of 1755 is: ‘Play; diversion; game; frolick and tumultuous merriment’, with an alternative entry declaring it ‘Diversion of the field, as of fowling, hunting, fishing’. This book draws on both old and modern criteria to welcome the peripheral and ephemeral alongside the traditional, in an effort to comprehensively chart the various forgotten forms that sport has taken throughout history.
For, until recently, writers and historians haven’t considered sport to be particularly worthy of record, and we are left with fewer details than of other aspects of period life. Yet from learning about how our ancestors entertained themselves we gain a unique insight into broader contemporary attitudes to morality, humour and the trials of daily existence. In fact, sport has frequently played a significant role in the development of civilisation. For the Romans, the games in the Coliseum and other giant arenas were often as much political demonstrations of superior might as they were entertainment for the rabble; in England efforts were frequently made by authorities to ban early forms of sports such as football, for fear they were distracting people from the practice of those activities with martial application, such as archery and swordplay. Edward III was a particular opponent. His reign had seen the devastation of the Black Death, and as a result his army was in desperate need of well-trained recruits to recharge the depleted ranks. A decree issued in 1363 commanded the English citizenry to abandon frivolous pursuits:
We ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all and sundry from such stone, wood and iron throwing; handball, football, or hockey; coursing and cockfighting, or other such idle games.
Sport also has a long history of causing clashes with the Church, and laws intended to preserve the Sabbath were often flouted in favour of kicking an inflated pig’s bladder around, as well as games such as quoits and just about anything that could be gambled on. The situation was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that in the early form of football, which consisted of teams of entire villages playing against each other, in order to score a goal one was required to kick the ball into the opposing village’s churchyard. It was also an incredibly violent activity in which damage to property, injuries and even deaths were commonplace. The Puritan writer Philip Stubbes railed against the violence of ball games in his The Anatomie of Abuses (1583):
Sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs, sometimes their arms, sometimes one part is thrust out of joint, sometimes the noses gush out with blood… Football encourages envy and hatred… sometimes fighting, murder and a great loss of blood.
Despite the fact that the more peripheral sports were often overlooked by those documenting contemporary affairs, the information is available to those willing to dig. The entries presented here are drawn from wildly varying sources: from Suetonius to Shakespeare; from the Icelandic sagas to 14th-century Florentine manuscripts; from the Kentish Gazette of 1794 to Lord Baden-Powell’s seminal 1889 encomium Pigsticking or Hoghunting. In studying these forgotten games many unexpected and fascinating discoveries are made, such as the extent to which London theatre owes its origins to the vicious animal-baiting pits; the bloody coining of the phrase ‘to beat around the bush’; and even the ancient history of the spiked dog collar (as it turns out it has a practical application aside from causing your parents to worry over your lifestyle choices).
The reasons why these forgotten sports fell out of favour are, of course, many and varied, but broadly speaking can be divided into three categories: cruelty, danger and ridiculousness. ‘Cruelty’ covers the widest area here. As a species we are aware of our (continuing) terrible track record in our treatment of animals, but it isn’t until one delves into the history of animal-baiting that the true extent is realised, in all its bizarre forms. Sports such as eel-pulling, pig-sticking, the whimsical Italian cat-headbutting and, of course, fox-tossing all fall under this purview: these ‘games’ are senselessly brutal but to players of the era they were merely light pre-supper entertainment. As society developed, and it began to be frowned upon to treat animals as projectiles, these entertainments were outlawed and left to rot in history’s undercroft.
Under ‘danger’ one can gather the group of sports that dwindled, or only briefly existed, thanks to the enormous amount of personal risk involved. Worthy of mention here are sports such as balloon jumping, waterfall-riding and firework boxing, all representing different eras and yet all requiring of their participants that common characteristic of total insanity. Initially, of course, the element of danger formed the basis of their daredevil appeal, but whenever something carries with it a high ‘frequent death’ quotient it usually becomes old news fast. Such was the case here, either through legislation or a rediscovered desire to live.
Finally, ‘ridiculousness’ is best exemplified by the sport of ski ballet, in which a lycra-clad Frankenstein’s monster was created by stitching together stunt skiing, ice dancing and terrible fashion sense. Inevitably when researching a book such as this, one develops favourites and I must confess that, out of all the sports deserving of resurrection, I live in hope that someday it will again be possible to witness a Ski Ballet Championship.
Every sport needs its personalities, champions and pioneers: for balloon jumping this was Aircraftman ‘Brainy’ Dobbs; for fox-tossing it was Emperor Augustus the Strong; for ski ballet it was Suzy ‘Chapstick’ Chaffee. A personal hero, though, is John Joseph Merlin, the inventor of the roller skate. The eccentric Belgian engineer was responsible for a variety of intricate inventions, musical instruments and automata (including the stunning Silver Swan currently housed in the Bowes Museum), but it was the disastrous debut of his wheeled shoe in 1760 that made his name. The writer Joseph Strutt recounts the events of the grand unveiling (Sports and Pastimes, 1801). Bear in mind as you read the following that, according to other sources, Monsieur Merlin was simultaneously playing the violin at the time:
Joseph Merlin of Liege, who came to England with the Spanish ambassador in 1760, invented a pair of skates that ran on wheels. But his exhibition of them was not a success. Gliding about in them at a masquerade at Carlisle House, Soho Square, he ran into a valuable mirror worth £500, which he completely shattered in addition to wounding himself severely.
The idea for this book started with an image of 18th-century Germans catapulting foxes into the air for fun, and the strangeness developed from there; eccentricity is not just included but celebrated. Provided here is a collection of windows into periods of history so startling that they push the limits of credibility, and invoke a new level of appreciation for the humour, the ingenuity, and at times the sheer madness of our ancestors.