Blood sports of Great Britain and its American colonies in the early modern era encouraged violent tendencies among men. These tendencies were necessary for use in contemporary warfare. Blood sports also helped to solidify class divisions by providing an avenue for the nobility and the rich to demonstrate their superiority over one another and the rest of society. In the modern world, however, violence that leads to bloodshed has no place in spectator sports. Violence in sports encourages aggression in, and violence among its spectators.
The popularity of blood sports in the early modern era reflects that men of the age were genuinely violent creatures who could derive a vicarious excitement through watching the subjects of blood sports fight. A contemporary study of violence and its role in sports found that: “Despite the fact that few males truly enjoy hitting and being hit, and that one has to be socialized into participating in much of the violence commonplace in sport, males often view aggression, within the rule-bound structure of sport, as legitimate and “natural” .
This finding sheds light on the reason that blood sports of the early modern era were mainly popular among men. Something in a man’s genetics gears him towards violent and aggressive tendencies. Research done on crowd violence as studied in the context of contemporary “soccer hooliganism” in Great Britain found also that: displays of intimidation and aggression at soccer matches involve ritual violence, consisting of fantasy-driven status posturing by young males who want to be defined as tough and manly” . This finding exemplifies how spectators who are just watching sports can be just as stimulated as the actual subjects of the sport.
For young men watching soccer, the game is the opposite of an outlet for their violent tendencies. In fact, if anything, watching the game incites masculine yearnings for violence and aggression. The study goes on to state that: “violence at soccer matches is an expression of alienation among disenfranchised working-class men” . This finding is relevant to the early modern viewers of blood sports because it shows that it is male human nature to deal with societal frustrations especially, ones regarding an individual’s class status, with anger and violent actions.
In fact, the study even found that “certain forms of violence” are triggered by “class conflict in society” . Lastly, the study found a positive correlation between the amount of violence in a given sporting event and the amount of violence it incites in its viewers: “If spectators perceive players’ actions on the field as violent, they are more likely to engage in violent acts during and after games” . The study also showed that certain conditions that are commonplace in a spectator sport setting also promote violence.
Larger crowd size, greater percentage of young males in the group, and stronger identification of fans with their teams, were all found to be factors that increased the likelihood and severity of violence. The locales in which blood sports could be viewed in the early modern era had all of these characteristics. The feeling of being in an arena filled with other men watching blood sports mimicked the medieval experience of going to war. Just as violence in sports does in modern times, violence in early modern blood sports worked to maintain the notion that women are not as capable as men because they are physically weaker.
Up until the advent of modern warfare, armies were constituted largely of young males crowded together tightly; all of whom felt a great identification with a sort of team, the army, whom they were fighting among for the common cause of protecting their families. Another topic discussed by the study was the idea of an infectious “emotional contagion”. The study found that one impact of violence in sports was that it “[reaffirms] a gender ideology that assumes the ‘natural superiority of men’ ” .
This is troubling because the relevance sports have in todays society are negligible compared to the importance of its medieval counterpart warfare. In the early modern era physical strength and adept fighting abilities were essential for the safety of a feudal state. Today, however, with modern technology advanced weaponry has taken the place of big muscles. If violence in sports of today still were to reaffirm the notion that masculine strength and aggression are valid reasons for men to be assigned a higher status in society than women, than that notion is clearly outdated.
Changes in British hunting rights during the early modern era suggest that many of the privileges enjoyed by British nobility in the medieval era, were only warranted because of their role as feudal lords, who were necessary to the maintenance of the peasantry’s safety. In a feudal system, a noble’s role was not only one of a ruler, but also a military commander of their peasant population that could easily double as a defensive army. However, as states formed from previously fragmented principalities, protection of the people was charged with the absolute monarch in England.
The privileges enjoyed by the nobility for playing their essential role lagged far behind their responsibilities. The nobility’s control of hunting grounds was derived from “seigniorial control over the forests in which hunting took place,” but long after the nobility’s role as seigneurs in England had become outdated they still held on to their monopoly over hunting grounds and the activity of hunting. The year of 1066, marked by the Norman conquest of England by Duke William II of Normandy, and signaled the beginning of a replacement of a feudal system in England with a monarchial one.
The conquest “set off battles between all sections of society over who owned what” . These battles continued into the early modern era and the conflict in England over who had the right to partake in the blood sport of hunting is one of them. The English tradition of fox hunting was the last right of the members of the gentry and nobility to be stripped as a result of England’s descent into its modern form of government. During the early modern era, however, the blood sport of hunting, especially fox hunting, worked to distinguish the nobility of England from the common people.
While the British nobility did not generally partake in the viewing of gory blood sports, the upper crust of non-noble society, the wealthy businessmen of England and the elite planters of the colonies, did. The wealthy and elite of British and colonial society wagered inordinate sums of money at blood sport events— conspicuous consumption exemplified by their outlandish bets and the sums spent on costly cock breeding provided them an avenue to assert their superiority over the masses.
It also gave them a method to establish a hierarchy amongst themselves. The wealthiest of the common elite still did not possess the resources of the aristocrats and nobles back in Britain. There, nobles “could bet ?15,000 without flinching” . Wealthy commoners did have large sums of money as well, but not to the same extent as the English nobility. Gambling was quite common in the Americas especially. There are many stories from the 1700’s of “lost fortunes, ruined reputations, and plantations and indentured servants lost” on account of gambling.
Cock fights were especially popular to gamble on during this time period both in England and in America. In Virginia, while the pastime originated among the regulars of society, “before many generations had passed, [cock fighting rings] came under the shaping guidance of Virginia’s well placed planters” . Planters would breed and fight cocks with a great sense of seriousness, and “Planters viewed their best cocks as extensions of their own manliness and competed against fellow gentlemen with an ungentlemanly ferocity”.
All types of people would crowd around cockpits, both in the Americas and back in England. The below painting titled “The Cockpit” was painted by Englishman, William Hogarth, in 1759. It represents both the variety of people that could be found at cockpits in England, and the attention and glory that was given to successful cock fighters. Pay close attention to the man in the middle of the picture, how he is dressed in the nicest garb of anyone and is receiving a great deal of attention from spectators. This man is an English cock owner.
Differences in gambling practices at sporting events among the nobility and the common people reflect their respective roles as participants on the pre-modern battlefield – the nobles commanding from far behind the front lines on horseback is mirrored in their spectatorship of horse races which are viewed from a distance, whereas the commoners viewing violent action-packed blood sports at close range is representative of a societal grooming of this class for adeptness and composure in bloody close range combat.
Gambling on blood sports like cockfighting and animal baiting was popular among “the peasantry and regular”, and also among rich planters in Britain’s American colonies. They were not, however, popular among the nobility. That’s not to say that the nobility did not gamble in the early modern era. Horse racing was a popular pastime of the upper class, and betting among the aristocracy of England on horse races was popular. Bets that were made by the English nobility in total secret stand in direct contrast to those made purposefully public by rich commoners in England and wealthy planters in the colonies on cockfights.
Charles II, who reigned over Britain from 1660-1685 endorsed gaming and established it as a “sign of good breeding” . Horse racing, fencing, and archery were all pseudo combative sports in which the aristocracy took part in. Commoners, rich or poor, however, were more privy to entertainment like animal fighting and bear and bull baiting. Shows of these types would often take place in large theatres like the Westminster Pit ( picture below) and the London Bear Garden. All types of commoners rich and poor, black and white, young and old would attend these types of shows; however the audience predominantly consisted of young men.
The below picture painted by Pierce Egan in 1828 in his Life in London series depicts a fight between two dogs that took place at the Westminster Pit. Notice how the richer men in top hats and brightly colored clothes have spots on the bottom floor whereas men who look poorer sit up a level. Also note that that there is a black viewer towards the bottom right. The breeding and fighting of cocks among wealthy Virginian planters is akin to the breeding of horses back in England, in that both signify members of an elite class and their competitiveness amongst one another.
However, the close range bloody nature of cockfighting and the open form betting in which Virginian planters partook, represent the planters’ difference from the aristocracy back in England. These men were rich and successful, but even a wealthy life in the colonies in the early modern era was a frontier life. These men basked in the feeling of masculinity they derived from watching this bloody sport, because they too could be called to battle again someday as it was entirely possible to slip back into the lower dredges of the social order they made an ill fated bet in the heat of the moment.
Furthermore, they had to announce their bets to the general public because no one would have known how socially superior they were if they did not flaunt their wealth. The differences between the spectating of sports between the English nobility and the Virginian planter elite is indicative of how the planters faced great social insecurity because they had to be self made, whereas members of the nobility never had to doubt their status because it was innate.
Blood Sports were an essential part of the early modern era because they maintained the genetic desirability of an aggressive side and a knack for violence in men – traits that were so important to a society in which bloody close range combat battles were the existing method of international warfare. Furthermore, the sports also helped to define social classes in an age whose legacy in history, film, and literature has been that of the royal kingdom — A kingdom in which there existed an enormous gap between the types of lives led by the nobly born; and those led by the common people.
In the modern era, the trend is one of growing democracy and equality. A person’s birthright matters less and less, and social mobility is becoming endless. During the early modern era battles began to rely increasingly on firepower rather than human power. This is evident in both the naval battles of the age of exploration and the land battles in the new world that relied so heavily on use of the cannon and musket. Nowadays, wars are fought with bombs and buttons rather than with swords and humans.
Because of this change in both the order of society and the way in which we conduct war, violence no longer needs to be fostered deep inside the majority of men. Maybe that’s why there has been such a strong trend of women becoming leaders in society recently – because they are less violent and aggressive than men, and I’d argue naturally better geared for diplomacy and focused scholarly pursuits (like essay writing). Just look at Taft kids these days; we are made up of members of both sexes.
For fun we don’t drink and get into fights; we smoke weed, talk, and then take ADHD medication to do our homework. We are competitive in sports, but even more so in academics. As my analysis of blood sports has shown the world is trending away from human combat, wide hegemony based upon birthright, and male superiority. Perhaps the makeup of Taft classes over more recent years sheds light on what kind of traits will be indicative of the top tier of society as we move further into the modern era. Thank you for all that you have taught me, and hopefully will continue to teach me over the next few weeks,