Sport and the French: An Erratic Trajectory from Du Guesclin to Coubertin


Pierre de Coubertin’s revival of the ancient Olympics was part of his larger program to reform the French educational system in imitation of the English model, i.e., to include physical education and sport as part of the curriculum. His initiative fell on deaf ears and for many decades thereafter French schools—and French people generally—continued to regard participation in sport as foreign to their mission and to their train de vie. This reluctance was, however, at odds with a tradition that had lasted for several centuries. In the Middle Ages and up to about 1650 the French both regarded themselves and were regarded by others as being among the best athletes in Europe. They were credited with having devised the knightly tournament; they were avid jousters; playing tennis was their obsession; they seem to have invented golf and perfected pall mall. The earliest biographies of the great French knights, from Guillaume le Maréchal to Bayard, all insert a section relating their subjects’ youthful sports achievements (Du Guesclin is taken here as emblematic of French feudal chivalry). From Charlemagne to Louis XIII most of the kings were keen athletes, but during the 16th and early 17th centuries sport on the personal level began to be removed from the French agenda.

The focus of this talk will be to elucidate and understand the manifestations, disappearance, and reappearance of sport in France, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, why it fell into disfavour in the 16th and 17th centuries, to be replaced by other forms, not simply of leisure activity but of purposeful pursuits. I will be drawing on a variety of sources: biographies, essays, rule books, polemical treatises, and purely “literary,” imaginative texts.

Prof. John McClelland

Professor Emeritus, Department of French, and Distinguished Senior Fellow, Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies

1993-2003, Associated Professor, Faculty of Physical Education and Health (now Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education)

Visiting Professor, Centre d’Études Supérieures de la Renaissance (Université de Tours, France; University of California at Santa Barbara; Université de Rennes II (France), chaire de littérature du XVIe siècle; Institut für Sportwissenschaften, Georg-August Universität, Göttingen (Germany).

Co-General Editor for the 6-volume Bloomsbury Cultural History of Sport (forthcoming 2016), with special responsibility for vols. 1, 2, and 3 (Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance).

Author/co-editor of four books on French literature and sport, including Body and Mind: Sport in Europe from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance (2007) and Sport and Culture in Early Modern Europe/Le sport dans la civilisation de l’Europe pré-moderne (2009).

Author of over 60 articles and book chapters on French literature, music, rhetoric, and sport, most recently (since 2014) ” Manuscrit et imprimé : survivances, interférences 1470-2007 : Les deux textes de Montaigne,” “Redefining the Limits: Sport in the Age of Galileo and the Scientific Revolution,” “Sport and Scientific Thinking in the Sixteenth Century: Ruling Out Playfulness,” “Early Modern Athletic Contests: Sport or not Sport,” and “Pantagruel et Gargantua, essais d’autofiction.”