Sport and Social Hierarchy in Medieval England
By Thomas S. Henrick
Journal of Sport History, Vol. 9:2 (1982)
Synopsis: This paper will analyze military sports, hunting sports, and ball play within one society, England, from 1100-1500. After viewing the different histories of sports within these categories, the author will offer some generalizations about sport, both in its medieval setting and more broadly.
Introduction: One of the better-known indictments of industrial society is Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. In that work, Veblen turned his ironic wit upon the mercantile magnates of late nineteenth-century America whom he assailed for a number of vices, including their devotion to sport., Sporting activity, in Veblen’s view, has a dual function for the industrial elite: Not only is it the means by which the “predatory temperament” of this group is cultivated but also it provides an occasion for the invidious display of leisure status. As Veblen informs his readers at the outset, the model for this critique is the behavior of the elite of feudal Europe, a group who raised the conspicuous display of leisure into an art form.
Like many so-called ‘‘classics,’’ Veblen’s work is more often an object of distant admiration than of careful scrutiny. Clearly, his attempt to portray industrial life in terms of a pre-industrial model is a dangerous enterprise. Not only does the simple division between “leisure” and “industrious” classes disregard the complexity of the American class system; it also over-simplifies the motives of groups within that structure. Furthermore, there is a question as to whether Veblen’s model even does justice to the motives and divisions of the medieval settin