From hammer-hurling to monster truck rallies

Could the monster-truck races and tractor pulls of today owe their existence to Scottish games with other centuries-old tests of speed and strength?

Quite possibly, according to Gary Cross, who teaches history at Penn State University and is the author of "A Social History of Leisure Since 1600."

In the past millennium, work and recreation were interrelated, Professor Cross says. One place this relationship echoes in modern culture is the county fair, where tractor racing and other agrarian-based competitions are popular. Whereas the Scots matched bodily feats, farmers now match machinery.

Before the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, people led rural lives, governed by seasonal and religious observances, says historian Roy Rosenzweig of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"There was a rhythm to rural life in which people had time off for seasonal or religious festivals," he says. "Now our play tends to be much more regular. Play and recreation are concentrated on weekends and on vacations. Those didn't exist for medieval people."

So what did people living centuries ago do for their own amusement? Storytelling was a much more widely practiced art than today. Oral traditions prevailed, as books were scarce until the 1800s.

Board and card games were among the more available leisure options. The modern game of checkers originated in Europe around the 12th century, and although chess probably dates to 7th-century India, it really caught on in the Middle Ages, partly because rule changes greatly quickened the pace of play.

Backgammon, known as "tables" in medieval Europe, enjoyed similar popularity as a game of mental dexterity. Perhaps because dice are used, church officials in England waged a losing battle against it. According to "Games of the World," backgammon prevailed by the 18th century, when it was even a favorite of country vicars.

Dominoes, with roots in China, entered Europe in the mid-1700s.

One board game that is little known today but is among the oldest in the world is Nine Men's Morris, or its 12-man version, which is a strategy game in which one player tries to capture the other's pieces. It was especially popular in the 14th-century courts of Europe.

Playing cards are thought to have come from China, where paper was invented, but their entry into Europe occurred in the late 1300s, possibly via Egypt. Suit symbols were adapted, with kings, knights, and foot servants replacing previous depictions of coins, cups, and swords. Early face cards were based on a ruler's court and rank - king, knight, and servant.

Throughout most of the past millennium, play was often rougher than today, among both children and adults. "Sports games were far more like war than they are today," Cross says, "The level of violence was higher and what went by the name of football [soccer] was little more than a brawl between two villages."

Tamer pursuits were taking root as well. Early forms of bowling were catching on at late-medieval rural folk festivals.

Not long after the Dutch began building canals in the 12th century, they strapped blades to their shoes, enabling them to skate along the frozen waterways. The sport eventually spread, with figure skating invented in Victorian times to deal with the challenge of skating in confined spaces.

The Scots laid the groundwork for golf (Mary, queen of Scots, in fact, was reportedly seen playing days after her husband's murder).

And the popularity of tennis wasn't hurt by its 16th-century image as the sport of French royalty. According to the "Oxford Companion to World Sports & Games," a number of kings were tennis enthusiasts and "every chateau had a court and every town, courts by the dozens."

In Norway, meanwhile, skiing was evolving from transportation to a recreational pursuit.

Swimming faced challenges on its way to becoming a widespread leisure sport. Its evolutionary progress, which already included the use of alternating overarm motions, was halted during the Middle Ages because of fears about contracting diseases from shared bath and swimming waters. Those who did swim, reports Cecil Colwin, a leading historian of the sport, often preferred a form of the breaststroke that kept their faces out of the water.

Ironically, seawater therapy became popular toward the end of the 18th century, but the desire to learn to swim and be good at it emerged in the past two centuries.

Interest in scaling tall peaks surfaced at roughly the same time. Before that, Cross says, "people looked upon mountains as dangerous places, full of demons."

Mystique began to replace superstition, though, as modern communication shrank the world and made reporting and comparing sporting achievements possible.

"The great age of formalized sport really begins after the Civil War or thereabouts," says Cross. Rules were codified and distributed so people could play by the same rules, and before long, baseball and other team sports began to capture the American imagination. The modern Olympics were introduced and set a standardized, universal playing field.

Eventually, of course, television made watching, not playing, a top leisure pursuit in itself, a trend with no end in sight.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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