Friday, January 12, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #129: The History of Working Out on Purpose, Part 2

Last week, we looked at the importance of physical fitness in the ancient world, namely in the ancient Persian Empire, ancient Athens, and ancient Sparta. I could continue talking about fitness in the ancient world – the Romans, for example, encouraged a high level among the general populace, or at least that part of the populace that was eligible for the military draft, i.e. citizens aged 17 to 60, but instead, I wanted to skip ahead in time to the Middle Ages. We’re still in Europe, because as everyone knows, that’s the whole world.

In the Middle Ages, as during Neolithic times, many people didn’t need to work out on purpose. In the chaos that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, the average person spent his or her time tending to livestock, farming, and fearing God, all of which activities are great for the physique. They also walked a lot more than we do today, and had to engage in strenuous physical activity to do almost anything – cooking, shopping, repairing their hovels, you name it.

As we can see in this Pieter Bruegel painting.

While the peasantry didn’t need to work out, that doesn’t mean that other members of society didn’t understand the importance of a physical fitness regimen. Aristocrats, knights, and those training to be knights undertook physical fitness regimens such as those outlined in contemporary fencing manuals,  like Hans Talhoffer’s

A page on grappling from one of Talhoffer's manuals.

In the earlier middle ages, the warrior class relied on strength training by lifting large stones, wrestling, jousting, and riding to get in shape. A popular exercise was voltige, which helped knights develop control over their horses by practicing jumping in and out of the saddle, or onto and off of a table. By the 1200s, wooden horses replaced real ones in this exercise, and as time went by, the practice of voltige became more and more of an art form in and of itself, until, over the centuries, it evolved into what you might now recognize as the gymnastics pommel horse.

Here, gymnast Alberto Baglia demonstrates more physical prowess than I will ever possess.

Jean Le Meingre, (aka Boucicaut), who was the marshal of France during the reign of Charles VI (aka Charles the Mad), formed a martial society for the defense of the wives and daughters of absent knights, called L’Emprise de l’Escu vert a la Dame Blanche, the Order of the Green Shield of the White Lady. Members of this order followed a fitness regimen that included walking and running long distances to build endurance, “leaping onto the back of a horse,” jumping over horses from the side, “striking numerous and forcible blows with a battle-axe or mallet,” and, while dressed in a full suit of armor, “turn somersaults” or “dance vigorously.” Boucicaut also asked his soldiers to “climb up between two perpendicular walls that stood four or five feet asunder by the mere pressure of his arms and legs, and…reach the top…without resting either in the ascent or the descent.” That was probably harder than jumping over a horse while wearing a full suit of armor, although I think I can see why they switched to using wooden horses. Would you stand still while a fully-armored knight jumped over you? What if he landed on you? How many horses did they go through, do you think?

Knights and warriors weren’t the only ones who valued fitness in the middle ages. A fifteenth-century letter from a physician to his sons, university students in Toulouse, gave the men instructions for daily exercise. On rainy or otherwise inclement days, the doctor advised his sons to exercise indoors by climbing “the stairs rapidly three or four times,” practicing swordplay with a heavy stick until winded, and jumping. On nice days, the doctor advised walking each morning and evening; in cold weather, they should “run on [an] empty stomach, or at least walk rapidly.” This activity would balance the humors; running in the winter would restore the body’s “natural heat,” while exercising until winded served to expel noxious fumes from the lungs.