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New Year, New You: Early Modern Style

New Year, New You: Early Modern Style

By Natalie Anderson

The new year is upon us, and, for many people, that means that it’s time for new year’s resolutions. By far the most common form of resolution often involves a determination to get fitter in some way. However, our obsession with physical fitness is far from a modern phenomenon. In looking back to the early modern period, we find that people were attempting to achieve physical perfection in 1518 just as they will be in 2018.

Scene from a fencing manual, 1459, Hans Talhoffer – Ms.Thott.290.2º

The early modern fad for physical training was born, in part, from the rise of Humanism. Humanism emphasised looking to the classical Greek and Roman models for higher learning, a new study and appreciation of history, and also elevated physical pursuits to stand alongside academic. This new form of study became known as the “liberal arts” and was defined by the Humanist educator and author Petrus Paulus Vergerius thusly: “We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man; […] that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts of body and of mind which ennoble men, and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only.”

According to Vergerius, in his De Ingenuis Moribus, “[W]here an active frame is conjoined to a vigorous intellect a true education will aim at the efficient training of both – the Reason, that it may wisely control, the Body, that it may promptly obey,” and also that “it will be of great benefit to a boy to alternate the study of letters with bodily exercises: and, indeed, at whatever age he may be, the same practice is to be commended.” In other words, by training the body, one would be better able to train the mind, and vice versa.

Vergerius further warned, “Idleness, of mind and body, is a common source of temptation to indulgence.” It was not wise to ignore the body, but to discipline it. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (who later turned from the physical to the spiritual and became Pope Pius II), in De Liberorum Educatione, called these pursuits “honourable accomplishments in everyone, and therefore not unworthy of the educator’s care.” After all, a teacher was protecting his pupil by allowing them to participate in sport and keeping the bodies healthfully occupied throughout adolescence.

As in all other aspects of the Humanist education, men looked to the ancient world to discover which sports they should pursue. Vergerius recommends following a Greek model: “We are told that the Greeks devised for their sons a course of training in four subjects: letters, gymnastic, music and drawing.” To fill the role of these “gymnastics,” upper class Italians were taught to ride, wield sword and lance, and joust. Horse racing also was popular, as well as hunting, falconry, foot and boat races, and boxing. This rather demanding workout regime may be found in the curriculum recommended by Vergerius, which includes “swimming, […] running, jumping, wrestling, boxing, javelin-throwing, archery, [and] thorough horsemanship.”

Tennis in Vostre’s Book of Hours ‘Hore beate marie virginis secundum Usum Romanum’ (c. 1510).

In his famous Book of the Courtier, Baldesar Castiglione also encouraged the pursuit of that interesting new sport, tennis, the latest trend for physical exercise in the 16th century. Castiglione pointed out that these exertions could help one become lighter and more graceful and would also have the added bonus of perfecting one’s posture and dancing skills.


All of these factors reveal the role of physical education in creating what has become commonly known as the ‘Renaissance man’. This new ideal was one built around dignity, bearing, and an all-around grace of manner. And physical training played a large part in achieving this ideal. Piccolomini declared, “As regards a boy’s physical training, we must bear in mind that we aim at implanting habits which will prove beneficial through life.” By learning these skills from childhood, such as when a boy was “taught to hold his head erect, to look straight and fearlessly before him and to bear himself with dignity whether walking, standing, or sitting,” in the words of Castiglione, he would cultivate a “grace of attitude” that would be beneficial to any true courtier.

When Castiglione described the perfect courtier, one of the first attributes he ascribes to him is that, “I would have him well built and shapely of limb, […] and know all bodily exercises that befit a man.” After all, trying to align ourselves the current ideal of physical beauty is not a recent phenomenon – and, as Castiglioni, Piccolomini, and Vergerius prove, neither are the demanding and often unachievable routines laid out in order to do so.

Click here for more from Natalie

Follow Natalie on Twitter: @DrMcAnderson

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