The art of writing about sport is ancient: it goes back at least 2,500 years. This may surprise some readers of the sports pages, and even some of the writers and editors thereof. But more surprising still is the fact that the tradition of sports literature—the tradition that still dominates writing about sport today—was established and defined by four highly unlikely men. The ability to name any of them will win bets at a gathering of experts.
One was a Greek soldier-historian who lived around the 4th century B.C., one a ruler of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, one a tempestuous French count who lived a century or so later and one a man variously described as a black-hearted villain and a hero: a Duke of York of 15th century England.
Yet these men, so dissimilar and separated in time and place, were sportswriters; and anyone who doubts this statement has only to study The Origins of Angling by John McDonald, published this week by Doubleday & Company ($10). The author, who some six years ago wrote in the pages of this magazine the story of Dame Juliana Berners, the 15th century nun supposed to have written The Treatise of Fishing with an Angle (SI, May 13, 1957 et seq.), now traces the lineage of sport still further. And although his preoccupation—he has been a dedicated angler since the age of 12—is primarily with fishing and its literature, he clearly shows the line that leads back over 25 centuries through Edward Plantagenet, Gaston de Foix and Frederick II, of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, to Xenophon.
All of these men wrote on hunting, probably the oldest of all sports practiced by man. All of them wrote of it as sport, separate and distinct from hunting for food. They cared enough to set down the elements of these pursuits as they had learned them, through long and often violent experience, so that they might be well and truly understood and so that others who followed them might practice them in the proper and prescribed way.
This was no happenstance: it was the outgrowth of a basic attitude that saw sport as a transcendence of life itself, as a physical exercise to which deep meaning had been added. To them it was noble—both in the social and the moral sense of the word—and heroic, too, for they were heroic men who led heroic lives. And though sport, as McDonald shows, did not in its further development single-mindedly follow this heroic concept—fishing, for example, introduced a more contemplative ideal—it did follow the moral line, which is still the essence of our writing and thinking about it.
Inevitably, in reading about the literary tradition established by these pioneers, one is led to wonder what sort of men they were, what manner of lives they led. They wrote, each of them, with passionate devotion to the art of sport, which was of such importance to them and which, in its basic definition, has remained unaltered through the ages.
All of them were noblemen and soldiers with a literary bent. Xenophon was an active campaigner from about his 20th year; his military writings—he has been called the world's first war correspondent, so lively and contemporary-sounding are the accounts he left behind—are as well known as his philosophical works. Less well known is his work on horsemanship, in which he gives detailed instructions on choosing, grooming, riding and maintaining a horse. The same attention to detail is evident in Cynegeticus, his essay on hunting, the first known study of its kind.
Xenophon hunted with hounds, and his book deals chiefly with the hare, his favorite prey, though he describes boar hunting, too. He was a vigorous man, an adventurer and a first-class leader, and he indulged his taste for sport all his life. But he was a meticulous man, too. His care for detail was intense—he even suggests suitable names for hunting hounds, as well as giving careful instructions for their breeding and training. From a practical point of view, he considered hunting excellent training for the body and the mind; those who pursue it, he said, "will secure health for their bodies, greater keenness of sight and hearing, and a later old age."
Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Sicily, King of Jerusalem, last great ruler of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, finished his book De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Falconry) shortly before his death in the year 1250. This extraordinary volume presented, in 589 pages of closely reasoned Latin, the theory and practice of hunting with birds of prey—including observations on their care, feeding, training, breeding and individual characteristics so astute that it is still considered a remarkable ornithological work. Frederick himself characterized his book as the labor of 30 years.
Frederick II was in all respects an exceptional man. His biographers are invariably staggered by his performance, calling him the "scholar emperor," the "sporting emperor," the "infidel emperor" and using all kinds of vivid descriptions in an effort to summarize his talents. He was a German king with a Sicilian kingdom in which he chiefly made his home. His court at Palermo was the center of a cosmopolitan Mediterranean culture where many writers found support. Having grown up in Sicily, he was friendly with Jews and Mohammedans, as well as being the Christian ruler of the Holy Roman Empire—a position which brought him into frequent and far-reaching conflict with his ecclesiastical counterpart, the Pope in Rome. This familiarity with Jewish, Moslem and Byzantine cultures gave him an unusually broad and liberal outlook for his day, and as a scholar and patron he played an important role in the revival of ancient learning.