Friday, September 27, 2013

The Birth of Modern Sport - The Ideological Context

This is the third in a series of posts about sport. The first is "Towards a Marxist Definition of Play"; the second is "The Relationship Between Play and Sport". The birth of sport in eighteenth century Britain was, fundamentally, the result of the development of capitalism. This is the point I make in the book "Capitalism and Sport" (a link can be found on the right hand side of this page). It is also the argument advanced by Tony Collins in his book "Sport in Capitalist Society", although Tony is far more erudite and convincing in his claims than I could possibly hope to be! Very few people, however, have examined the ideological context in which the development of modern sport took place. Here I suggest that the codification of sport mirrored the development of the nation state.

           “The man that has no friend at court,/ Must make the laws confine his sport,/
            But he that has, by dint of flaws, / May make his sport confine the laws.”[1]
                                                                                       - Thomas Chatterton, poet
The seventeenth century saw enormous changes in England. Before 1640 the “structure of society was essentially feudal”[2] yet the “economic developments of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made the economic and social and political system hopelessly out of date.”[3] It would take the forces of Cromwell and the Parliamentarians in the English Revolution to push development forward. Economically the revolution had a huge impact. The Venetian ambassador in London, writing in 1651, concluded that trade in the country had:
“made great strides for some time past, and is now improved by the protection it receives from Parliament, the government of the commonwealth and of its trade being exercised by the same individuals”.[4]
The Restoration and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 point to the continued power struggles within English society, though the “defeats and compromises of the mid-17th century did not, however, destroy the trend towards capitalist development”.[5] Instead, with the political fetters weakened, growth could begin in earnest. Output in industry grew “by an estimated 0.7 percent a year from 1710 to 1760, 1.3 percent a year between 1760 and 1780, and 2 percent from 1780 to 1800”.[6] The application of capitalist methods to farming and the enclosure of common land led to an agricultural revolution. The century before the revolution had seen wages for workers in agriculture and industry fall by half; the century after saw them double.[7]
An explosion of innovation and invention mirrored, and was underpinned by, the thriving economy. The birth of the modern nation state and its accompanying democratic institutions, on the basis of “an extremely limited and anomalous franchise”[8], were theorised by Hobbes and Locke. Science also flourished. The Royal Society was founded in 1660 and Isaac Newton’s Principia was published in 1687. The improvements in spinning machinery would ensure that the names of Hargreaves, Arkwright and Compton entered the history books. Similarly the steam engines of Newcomen and Watt would prove important landmarks in the Industrial Revolution.
For more than a century England would legitimately consider itself the centre of scientific enquiry, intellectual progress and industrial advance. Amidst this blossoming of creativity another development was to take place. It was in the eighteenth century that “[m]odern sports were born in England,” before they “spread from their birthplace to the United States, to Western Europe, and to the world beyond.”[9] At this historical juncture sports such as boxing, horseracing and cricket become codified, sports clubs spring up in newly urbanized areas and the most high profile begin to evolve into administrative bodies.[10]
Prior to the development of cricket, stick and ball games proliferated across England. Stool-ball was popular in Gloucester and Wiltshire, and the Earl of Leicester recalls a “match at stoball” during the reign of Elizabeth I.[11] A similar game, bittle-battle, was played in Sussex.[12] Derek Birley suggests cricket’s “putative ancestor is pila baculorea (usually translated as ‘club-ball), which Edward III banned in 1369 as detrimental to his war effort”.[13] Each may claim with some justification to be the progenitor of the modern game, though it is equally possible that it emerged under influence from these and others besides.
By the 1640s cricket was conspicuous by its absence from those pastimes censured at the hands of the Puritans. Despite suggestions that this was a result of Cromwell’s affection for a game he played as a child,[14] it seems more likely that a game played only at inter-parish level escaped the glare of the authorities. What is certain is that by the start of the eighteenth century the game was held in such regard as to win royal approval, with Queen Anne commenting in 1710, “Cricket is not illegal, for it is a manly game”.[15]
Through the eighteenth century the popularity of the game increased dramatically, and “[b]y 1800, cricket had been transformed”.[16] The gentry, keen to pursue sporting interests, would patronise the pugilist and the jockey, but it was on the cricket pitch that they would participate alongside their ‘inferiors’, and it was “through the involvement of great aristocrats that the game was transformed from a peasant sport into an organised, professional one.”[17] The milieu of aristocrats, merchants and parliamentarians - those erstwhile ‘Noblemen and Gentlemen’ - first produced a code for cricket in 1744. The devotees of the game who frequented the Star and Garter public house subsequently revised this in 1774. In 1787 the Marylebone Cricket Club was formed and the following year they published the Laws of Cricket. From its humble beginnings the game had garnered a “small corps of paid professional players,” and also “attracted the interests of impresarios who had begun to exploit it commercially.”[18] Very quickly the separation that marks the modern sporting world came into being, with clearly demarcated roles for bureaucrat, businessman and spectator: “More and more, the booze-merchants and professional publicists assumed the role of cricket’s middle-men mediating between the aristocrats who controlled the game and the larger pubic now willing to pay to see it.”[19] What then lies behind the codification of cricket’s rules during this period?
In comparison to the strict edicts of the Puritans, the reign of Charles II following the Restoration seemed positively licentious, but the “corridors of Whitehall resounded to quarrels as well as mirth…The main cause of this grinding of teeth was gambling.”[20] It was a craze that was to sweep through the wealthy, where a “passion for gambling was an indication of certain characteristics of the English upper classes, particularly the new town-bred sort, that came to flower in Restoration times.”[21]

As early as 1664, in an attempt to curb the activities of gamblers, an act was passed “against ‘deceitful, disorderly and excessive’ gambling…It limited stakes to £100 ‘upon tick or credit or otherwise, a generous enough amount since it exceeded the annual income of over 99 per cent of the population”.[22] Legally, gambling became the preserve of the rich, although it undoubtedly continued throughout society and by the 1720s it was clear that “[g]ambling was, increasingly, a national addiction”.[23]
Cricket and gambling made for easy bedfellows. The Foreign Post reported in 1697 how a “great match at Cricket was played in Sussex, they were eleven a side, and they played for fifty guineas apiece”.[24] The course of the eighteenth century saw an explosion in the popularity of the game whereby between “1730 and 1740, some 150 cricket matches were recorded in the contemporary press; between 1750 and 1760, 230; between 1770 and 1790, over 500”.[25] Such an increase in the popularity and reportage of the game was inevitably accompanied by a concomitant increase in the frequency of gambling. And with gambling came disputes. A match played between Rochester and London at the White Conduit Field in 1718, ended in the law courts when, according to the Saturday Post, Rochester, “thought they should be worsted and therefore to the surprise of a numerous crowd of spectators, three of their men made an elopement and got off the ground without going in…hoping thereby to save their money”.[26]
Such evidence prompts Harvey to conclude, “written rules were produced by socially influential clubs, and were an inevitable corollary of gambling”.[27] Gambling could be regulated, and disputes minimised, if the rules of cricket were standardised. There is a great weight of evidence in favour of such a theory with stipulations to cover gambling in cricket’s early rules and articles of association.[28] Similarly in boxing, three of Broughton’s rules outline what constitutes victory and one dictates how prize money is to be distributed.
However, a focus on gambling alone does not explain why codification should take place at this particular time in history. Articles of association had been in place for over fifty years, with the earliest known example appearing in 1727. One can quite reasonably assume that the presence of such contracts had both facilitated betting and maintained some sense of order in that time. There were examples of disputes whose resolution came only with the intervention of the law courts, however articles did make provision for such eventualities, which were normally to be settled by gentlemanly agreement. In the 1727 articles of agreement we find:

“if any Doubt or Dispute arises on any of the afore-md. Articles, or whatever else is not settled therein, it shall be determined by the Duke of Richmond and Mr Brodrick on their honours; by whom the Umpires are likewise to be determined by any Difference between Them.”[29]
In the absence of the socially privileged and the noblesse oblige, more popular forms of decision making were evident: “Sometimes crowds were left to ensure fair play, which they did by beating up ‘cheats’. Decisions were also made by the competitors themselves, for example many pigeon-racing disputes were resolved by a show of hands.”[30] Furthermore the codification of sports did not eradicate disputes or attempts to circumvent the laws. The MCC and Jockey Club were consistently asked to adjudicate over challenges to the results of matches.[31] Finally, even if we accept betting as the proximate trigger for codification, it does not help us understand why the response took the form it did.
The relationship between the birth of modern sport and the emergence of capitalism is, according to Guttmann, common currency amongst Marxists. Summarising their position, he says, “It was inevitable, therefore, that England, the homeland of industrial capitalism, was also the birthplace of modern sports.”[32] Certainly capitalism had a profound effect on all aspects of society. Marx commented that, “Competition has penetrated all the relationships of our life and completed the reciprocal bondage in which men now hold themselves…Competition governs the numerical advance of mankind; it likewise governs its moral advance.”[33] Increasingly economics affected cultural pursuits. In 1751 Henry Fielding argued:
“But nothing has wrought such an alteration in this order of people as the introduction of trade. This hath indeed given a new face to the whole nation, hath in a great measure subverted the former state of affairs, and hath almost totally changed the manners, customs, and habits of the people, more especially of the lower sort.”[34]
We may say with some certainty that capitalism was responsible for the creation of the social conditions in which sport could flourish. The enclosure movement found its echo in the establishment of ‘grounds’ on which matches were played. It has been suggested, “the founding of Lord’s and the MCC had at its heart the capitalist drive for enclosure, the compulsion to transform common property into private property.”[35] Simultaneously people were excluded from the game and transformed into spectators. The popularity of the sport as a spectacle was clear as early as 1743 when 10,000 people witnessed a match at the Artillery Ground in Finsbury.[36]
Yet to acknowledge sport and society as structurally analogous, or recognise that economic forces shaped the development of sport, is not the same as to demonstrate an immediate causal relationship between the beginnings of capitalism and the codification of sports. Later, as sport became a commercial entity, it would seem likely that “economic factors have had more importance”.[37] But it seems unlikely that the economic impulses of the late eighteenth century were the primary consideration behind the initial actions of such groups as the MCC and the Jockey Club.
The eighteenth century saw London assume the role of “cultural innovator”.[38] Its population “increased 50 percent between 1650 and 1750, so that it was easily the biggest city in Europe”[39] and it is estimated that “fully one sixth of England’s population had spent at least some time in London by the end of the 17th century.”[40] It is likely that the game of cricket arrived as a result of this migration, feeding into a “cultural diet of sentimental ruralism”.[41] The city experienced an explosion in clubs and societies reflecting a multitude of interests.[42] For Szymanski these forms of associativity, with their formalities and regulations, would inevitably be the locus of codification as for “rules to be established, there needs to be a law-giver, and in the case of modern sports such as cricket this Solon was inevitably a club.”[43]
The notion of associativity, with its allusions to the work of the political theorist John Locke, are suggestive of a link between the codification of sports and the development of the modern nation state which “evolved during the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century”.[44] Surveying the form and function of the state, Stuart Hall has written:
“A ‘power’ is required which will keep the competition peaceful, within a defined system of ‘rules of the game’; but which will also pull some compromise solution together, which is likely to win the consensus of the largest number of people. The umpire is the state.”[45]
The analogy between government and governing body is profound. Locke surveyed the importance and functions of the state whilst it was still in its infancy. He compared its contemporary form with humanity’s ‘state of nature’, finding three crucial differences.[46] The first difference noted by Locke is ”an established, settled known Law, received and allowed by common consent to be the Standard of Right and Wrong, and the common measure to decide all Controversies between them”.[47] By the middle of the eighteenth century, the uneasy combination of statute law and common law was being criticised by jurists. In 1750 The Gentleman’s Magazine would claim that, “[the government] are so far from establishing a fixed and immutable rule, they oftentimes serve only to furish matters for suits, and even to perplex judges.”[48] Concerns over levels of gambling and the increased frequency of matches necessitated rules more permanent than articles of association. Codification, like the legislation passed by a parliament, facilitated participation, meaning that “[a]ll could play a single game under a single set of Laws.”[49] Interestingly, in both cricket and boxing “the general rules would be supplemented by specific contracts – Articles of Agreement – defining the terms of the individual match.”[50] In sport, as in the law courts, the tension between custom and law persisted throughout the century.
Having observed the necessity of law, Locke identifies a second difference between the state of nature and that of society under government, there being “a Known and indifferent Judge, with Authority to determine all differences according to the established law”[51] In cricket this manifested itself in two ways. On a national level this is represented by the development of a governing body: lawmakers characterised by their knowledge, standing and impartiality. Secondly it is the role of the umpire(s) to ensure the fair application of the Laws of the game. Provision for officials can be found in the laws laid down in 1744, where umpires were expected to adjudicate on “all outs and ins, of all fair and unfair play or frivolous delays, of all hurts real or pretended”.[52] In reality “appointing umpires seems to have boiled down to each team having their own, biased one.”[53] The role of the official is, like the state, that of the neutral arbiter, to whom one may appeal for adjudication. However, the umpire, akin to a laissez-faire government, will not intrude upon the action unless the laws are broken.[54]
Thirdly Locke argues that these neutral arbiters must have a “Power to back and support the Sentence when right, and to give it due Execution”.[55] Until the advent of television replays, umpires had exercised authority during the match itself, their judgement alone enforcing the laws.[56] The history of cricket’s governing body is, however, more complicated, as the MCC was decidedly reticent in accepting and exercising the power of a governing body. The men of the MCC did not codify in order to gain control of the sport. All the available evidence points to the idea that they drew up ‘Laws’ purely to formalise the game that they themselves were playing. As Birley argues:

“… the notion that MCC, at once, or even soon, became some kind of supreme governing body is quite wide of the mark. Neither they nor the other autonomous clubs would have recognised such a concept. True, they did put out a revised code, including a section on betting, but like the Jockey Club they made rules for their own matches; if other clubs wanted to use them, they could, but that was as far as it went.”[57]
In Locke’s theory “a ‘known, standing law’ has to be established which all who consent to be members of the new political society will recognise as authoritative.”[58] In the case of cricket, the lawmakers themselves were ill disposed to such recognition. As cricket develops from a parochial pastime, practiced in pockets of the country, towards a national sport, the opportunity presented itself for the MCC to constitute itself as an official national authority. By virtue of their status, they were constantly pushed into providing a sporting leadership irrespective of their wishes. Whether it was the question of Law X, or the continuing requests for the resolution of betting disputes, there existed a genuine pressure from below for the MCC to assume the role of neutral arbiter:
“The MCC ruled cricket, it seems, because cricket clubs followed the rules of the MCC No doubt this situation reflected perceptions of social class, patronage, as well as pure commercial logic (matches against MCC were extremely lucrative), but the development of the government of the game played by self governing clubs was a purely voluntary affair.”[59]
The Jockey Club too found itself prompted into the role of adjudicator. “In the desire to avoid disputes ending up in the law courts, many courses placed themselves under the club’s jurisdiction.”[60] Thus the embryonic governing bodies did not simply mimic the state but assumed responsibility for one of its functions. Gradually the “supervision of rules was fused with financial power, creating a national association.”[61] Even then the development of the laws of the game was slow and fraught with argument. Overarm bowling was finally permitted in 1864, whilst the number of players allowed on each team was not standardised until 1884.


For those responsible for the codification of cricket, the relationship between sports and state was much more than metaphorical. The men who frequented the Star and Garter tavern, the Committee of Noblemen and Gentlemen, the members of the MCC who originally drafted ‘the Laws of Cricket’, were men of Parliament, “among the leading political and social figures of their day.”[62] As Wiener has commented, what these men “admired most, the quality they sought most avidly in their own lives, was order, the establishment of control, the obliteration of chaos.”[63] It is not difficult to see members of Parliament viewing the folk football of the poor as an example of the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’. On the other hand cricket, codified and civilized, represented “the shift from anarchy to organisation, and at the same time the adoption of government.”[64]

Dunning has suggested that the “relationship was correlative not causal. Parliamentarization happened in the political lives of these aristocrats and gentlemen, sportization in their leisure lives.”[65] Such a view suggests, perhaps unintentionally, that Parliamentarization and sportization are of equal importance, or that one did not precede the other. Mike Marqusee, one of the few writers to imply a link between state formation and codification, suggests that prior to codification England had become a “country in which the rule of law, as opposed to the dictates of individuals, was most advanced…The same people who passed these laws in Parliament drew up the Laws of Cricket, and for much the same purpose”.[66] Is it any surprise that the ideas that were employed to organise their play were inspired by the same ones deployed in their organisation of society? As Sharpe notes, “[b]y the eighteenth century the law… had come to replace religion as the main ideological cement of society.”[67] Acknowledging the importance of the wider political philosophy of the time does not contradict Bourdieu’s assessment that “the history of sport is a relatively autonomous history”.[68] Gambling, sports clubs and economic factors all play a part, as do the developments in the press and the increased ease of travel (both of which take place in the context, or under the auspices of the state’s maturation). But it is the ideology of the nation state and the rule of law that forms the intellectual context from which codification develops.

By placing the birth of the nation state at the heart of the codification of modern sports, we find historical evidence in support of the theoretical position expounded in the previous posts. Colin Barker has argued that, “Law and state are forms of alienation, which consist not simply in the production of surplus value for our exploiters, but also and equally in our loss of control over society and its rules”[69] The sporting equivalents, codified rules overseen by governing bodies and officials, are, in effect, forms of alienation, separating play and players.
[1] Quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p305
[2] Hill, C., The English Revolution 1640 (London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 1940), p26
[3] Hill, The English Revolution 1640, p15
[4] Clarkson, L.A., The Pre-Industrial Economy in England: 1500-1750 (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1971), p36
[5] Harman, C., Marxism and History (London: Bookmarks, 1998), p108
[6] Harman, C., A People’s History of the World (London: Bookmarks, 1999), p234
[7] Hill, The English Revolution 1640, p14
[8] Rude, G., Revolutionary Europe: 1783-1815 (London: Collins, 1964), p33
[9] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p57
[10] Although this summary is generally accepted there are some problems. First of all there is evidence of sports clubs prior to the eighteenth century, for example a Southampton-based bowling society in the thirteenth century. Equally one may point to the fact that in 1743, some thirteen years after the first thoroughbred was introduced to the colony and eight years before the formation of the English equivalent, the Maryland Jockey Club was formed in the American city of Annapolis. Nor can England claim to be the sole originator of contemporary sports. Athletic contests appear throughout history most often as an adjunct to, and glorification of, warfare. Yet the importance of the British in this period systematically developing, codifying and regulating sports cannot be downplayed. For an overview of this argument see Hutchinson, R. Empire Games: The British Invention of Twentieth-Century Sport (London: Mainstream Publishing, 1996), pp
[11] Gomme, A.B., The Traditional Games of England Scotland & Ireland (London: Thames & Hudson, 1984), p217
[12] Gomme, The Traditional Games, p34
[13] Birley, D., A Social History of English Cricket (London: Aurum Press Ltd, 1999), p3
[14], accessed 5 August 2011
[15] Quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p336
[16] Marqusee, M., Anyone But England: Cricket and the National Malaise (London: Verso, 1994), p33
[17] Underdown, D., Start of Play (London: Penguin, 2000), p9
[18] Marqusee, Anyone But England, p33
[19] Marqusee, Anyone But England, p37
[20] Uglow, J., A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration (London: Faber & Faber, 2009), p143
[21] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p12
[22] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, pp11-12
[23] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p16
[24] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p14
[25] Marqusee, Anyone But Engand, p45
[26] Quoted in Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p18
[27] Harvey, A. The Beginnings of a Commercial Sporting Culture in Britain, 1793-1850 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), p117
[28] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p19
[29] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p19
[30] Harvey, The Beginnings of a Commercial Sporting Culture, p131
[31] reference please! Harvey?
[32] Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p60
[33] Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, p178
[34] Rule, J. (1986) The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England: 1750-1850, Longman: London, p209
[35] Marqusee, Anyone But England, p42
[36] Holt, Sport and the British, p26
[37] Vamplew, W. “Playing with the Rules”, p3
[38] Sweet, R., The English Town, 1680-1840: Government, Society and Culture (London: Longman, 1999), p258
[39] Harman, Marxism and History, p108
[40] Harman, A People’s History, p235
[41] Marqusee, Anyone But England, p38
[42] Szymanski, S., “A Theory of the Evolution of Modern Sport”, Journal of Sport History, 35, 1 (2008), p8
[43] Szymanski, “A Theory of the Evolution of Modern Sport”, p11
[44] Hall, S., “The State in Question” in McLennan, G., Held, D., & Hall, S. (eds) The Idea of the Modern State (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1984), p10
[45] Hall, “The State in Question”, pp.26-27
[46] Parry, G., John Locke (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978), p112
[47] Parry, John Locke, p112
[48] The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1750, vol. 20, p217, quoted in Bushaway, B., By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England 1700-1880 (London: Breviary Stuff Publications, 1982), p7
[49] Marqusee, Anyone But England, p44
[50] Brailsford, D., A Taste for Diversions: Sport in Georgian England (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1999), p42
[51] Parry, John Locke, p112
[52] Cited in Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p27.
[53] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p27.
[54] This detachment of the umpire is, of course, still legislated for in the game today. Law 42.2 states, “the umpires shall not interfere with the progress of play, except as required to do so by the Laws.” Laws of Cricket available at, accessed 25/09/11
[55] Cited in Parry, John Locke, p112
[56] Notwithstanding WG Grace’s infamous replacement of the bails having been bowled first ball in an exhibition match. His indignant response is perhaps the exception to the rule of alienation in sport: “They have come to see me bat, not you umpire. Play on!”
[57] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p48
[58] Parry, John Locke, p113
[59] Szymanski, “A Theory of the Evolution of Modern Sport”, p11
[60] Harvey, A., The Beginnings of a Commercial Sporting Culture, p119
[61] Harvey, A., The Beginnings of a Commercial Sporting Culture, p118
[62] Szymanski, “A Theory of the Evolution of Modern Sport”, p10
[63] Carol Wiener quoted in Sharpe, J.A., Crime in Early Modern England: 1550-1750 (London: Longman, 1984), p214
[64] Szymanski, “A Theory of the Evolution of Modern Sport”, p11
[65] Dunning, E., Sport Matters: Sociological Studies of Sport, Violence and Civilization (London: Routledge, 1999), p74
[66] Marqusee, Anyone But England, pp35-36
[67] Sharpe, Crime in Early Modern England, p207
[68] Bourdieu, “Sport and Social Class”, p821
[69] Barker, C., “In Praise of Custom”, International Socialism Journal, 55 (1992), p137