It is just moments away from the kick off in Brazil and the football frenzy is everywhere. Even the dusty corners of academia have caught the football fever. Well, almost every corner – the flag of football-free-zone is still flying high in my office. Yes, yes, I know, football is considered as an intellectual sport, often compared to chess, boasting about such intellectually esteemed players as the Brazilian midfielder Sócrates and what not making it socially acceptable even for the most ardent scholarly minds to cheer for their favorite team. Still, I remain more or less unmoved by the lure of the green grass and hence confirm the stereotype of a historian as an opposite to an athlete or a sports fan. But this is not quite the truth; there’s plenty of evidence that suggests that historians are not as anti-athletes as the myth claims. So, it is time to bust the myth of a sports fearing historian.
While the late Oxford Professor Charles Oman – like so many of his scholarly comrades – was no friend of field sports, he enjoyed long walks along the river Thames. Oman had learned to dislike sports already as a young schoolboy in Winchester. Because field sports had been an important training ground for the patriotic gentlemanly virtues of readiness and self-dependence since the days of Tom Brown they made part of the curricula in public schools. Historians, however, fostered a different set of virtues than those inspired by the Teutonic heroes, and thus relied on different forms of physical exercise to maintain their Englishness and professional virtues. Indeed, there are multiple footpaths proving that historians were not indifferent to the usefulness of healthy exercise and fresh air.
Historians’ peaceful strolls might not appear quite the same as running up and down a grass field to chase a small ball, but these two activities shared common purposes: maintain health and revitalize the mind and character. Victorian historians purified their minds and strengthened their patriotic sentiments while trotting through historically and aesthetically significant landscapes. Or, they allowed their minds to engage with deep thoughts during the solitary hikes amidst the wild nature. Oftentimes they also invited a fellow scholar to join in this work-out and to discuss tricky philological and historical questions. The dramatic vistas of lakes, mountains and stormy oceans formed a perfect aesthetic backdrop for historians’ romantic and patriotic sensibilities and a perfect setting for nurturing both mind and body.
Historians were certainly not unmoved by their physical condition, for their research activities demanded endurance. Visiting historical battlefields was a popular leisure activity for historians, who hoped to combine work and pleasure, but marching through former battlefields could be a tiring experience. Driven by their scholarly integrity they overcame such obstacles, because influenced by Romanticism, historians believed that by experiencing the actual locations of major historical events they could emotionally connect with their historical heroes. This could then aid them to convert their fervor into such a vivid and compelling narrative that readers could picture the drama of history unfolding in front of their eyes. Since historians were not able to paint authentic historical scenes without visiting the actual locations, at least an elementary level of fitness was necessary.
We tend to associate sports with setting measurable targets, breaking records and keeping track of the quantifiable results. This might sound incomparable with historians’ fascination for wandering in the wild nature, but quite the contrary. Let Thomas Babington Macaulay prove the point. Macaulay, in all his emotional complexities, was obsessed with his achievements in every walk of life. Meticulously he recorded in his journal each review and news which mentioned his History of England and just as painstakingly he wrote down how far he had walked during his holidays. Macaulay had a habit of renting a snug cottage for several summer-weeks in the English countryside and filling his days with long rambles out into the wild nature. From the Isle of Wight he wrote to his niece Margaret Trevelyan and bragged that he was now a prodigious walker: sixteen miles without stopping! A year later, in 1851, he was in Malvern where his herculean strength carried him eighteen to twenty miles every day. Though, he admitted that he rested every now and then on a crest of a hill. Amidst this sublime landscape of mountain ranges and distant villages with their picturesque church towers he rested his legs and refreshed his mind reading Ancient authors. He always carried along his rambles his favorite Classical texts and thus succeeded in combining a strenuous physical and mental exercise.
To conclude, historians might not be muscular athletes, but contrary to the popular image, they are not total strangers to sports and outdoor life – they just might exercise on their own terms. And when it comes to the ongoing world cup in Brazil, one thing is sure: Spain wins. This is a fact – the kind of fact that history is made of.