Sunday, 16 February 2014

“Exercise is a Mighty Great Mistresse” (1581)



My brain is being inundated with images of men and women so physically fit that they seem to be capable of defying physics.  A 15 year old girl who can wrap her leg around her neck and spin like a top on a sheet of ice.  A 41 year old man who chooses to hurtle down an icy, winding path at breakneck speeds.  Ski jumpers who fly.  Hockey players playing through pain.  I can’t even imagine the mental and physical discipline necessary to ski for almost 50 kilometres then somehow muster up the energy to sprint the last 100 metres

The link between physical fitness and health is an obvious one to make – interspersed with images of these supermen and women there are a number of advertisements supporting a “healthy active lifestyle” that involves 60 minutes of physical activity per day.

In my last blog entry, I noted that some early modern medical writers thought that walking too much could cause gout, while too much horse riding could cause an unhealthy extreme fatigue.  Aside from those negative associations, the early moderns had much that was positive to say about exercise that strikes a rather modern note. 

What is exercise and why do it?

Not “every softe mouynge is...an exercise, as Gallen sayeth, by yt that is something vehement,” wrote Christopher Langton in his 1547 treatise.  A leisurely stroll, then, would not make the cut.  The word “vehement” was used by several authors to describe the intensity to which one should aspire.  Moderation seemed to be the key – both too little exercise and too much exercise was deemed dangerous or unhealthy.

Exercise was linked inextricably to health.  Langton argued that “exercise, yf it be discretely mynistred, preuayleth much to the defence of health.”  A few years later, John Caius wrote that exercise was necessary to create “lustye” and “helthful” bodies.  Stephen Hobbes’s Enchiridion Medicum quoted Hippocrates, Ovid, and other ancient authorities, stating that a “great part of the preseruation of the health of mans body doth consist in due exercise and rest; for both these are necessary both to the body and the minde.”[1]

For Langton, exercise would strengthen the body, allowing one to “endure to labor the bettar, and also perfourme theyre action more easely.”  It would increase one’s natural heat, thus aiding in digestion, and even help purge the body of harmful humours or “excrementes.”  The Enchiridion, too, makes these arguments, and suggested that, like water, a body that did not move (or, in this case, exercise) would inevitably putrefy. 

Histoires Prodigieuses, by Pierre Boaistuau.  The early moderns saw obesity as a problem.  Pictured, the story of an obese king who tried to extract his fat using leeches.  Via @wellcomeimages
A lack of exercise would lead to an unhealthy body and a predilection to disease.  Caius wrote that “sitter artificers” could not get exercise by their occupation.  A more pointed comment by Gideon Harvey 150ish years later stated that those “educated to professions” were likely to have sedentary – and thus unhealthy – lifestyles.  As an anonymous mid-seventeenth century author wrote, “in any stirring industrious course of life, for the most part they live longer and healthier then those who use a sitting restful life.” 

When should one exercise?

No swimming after dinner!

Turns out kids have been told this for millennia.  Author after author appealed to ancient authority.  In 1588, a physician named Thomas Cogan, wrote that “Hippocrates teacheth vs playnely, saying.  Let labour goe before meate. Whose authoritie Galen following, sayth, We must  begin the preseruation of health with labour, after that take meate, drincke, and so foorth.” 

It was best to exercise, Cogan continued, when “the time approcheth to eate againe.”  The key, as most authors attested, was to exercise on an empty stomach.  Exercise after a meal was thought to increase the body’s natural heat too much, thereby decreasing the body’s ability to digest and gain proper nourishment from the meal. 

Langton argued that exercise post meal would spread “euyll humors” throughout the body while a Dr. Baily suggested in 1616 that “vapours” would be stirred and ascend to the head. 

How could you know for sure that your food was digested enough for exercise?  You’d know, Langton wrote, when “the vryne waxeth yelowe” or, according to Cogan, it was of “temperate colour.”  

Incidentally, one was to “disburden” themselves of both urine and feces before exercise to avoid the excrement spreading to the rest of the body.  The same anonymous text noted that while exercise post-meal was to be avoided, it was good to simply stand or walk slowly.[2]

Not following this advice, Cogan wrote, would lead to corrupt humours and boils breaking forth from the skin.

Everard Maynwaringe suggested in 1683 that the morning would be the best time of day to exercise.  The rising sun would also raise “the spirits of Men” and encourage them most to action.  Clearly Maynwaringe was one of those morning people.

Certain times of year were also deemed especially good for exercise.  A 1692 almanac, for example, suggested that the summer was an excellent time to “exercise the body with moderate walking.”  Makes sense.  Wouldn’t want to walk around in the dead of winter or the rains of spring! 

What kinds of exercise are best?

John Caius (1552) believed that the English could exercise heartily and should “ runne after houndes and haukes, to shote, wrestle, play at Tenes and weapons, tosse the winde balle, skirmishe at base…and vaughting upon an horse.”  For women, he suggested specifically bowling.

Richard Mulcaster, in 1581, suggested that a variety of activities was beneficial – running for the whole body, dancing for the stomach and legs, riding for the stomach, and even loud reading, for the arteries, blood, and spirit.

A number of these exercise  "how to" books were published in the 17th century.
Thomas Brugis suggested especially tennis as an exercise for the whole body.  While horse riding was good to strengthen the stomach, and walking and running to strengthen the thighs.

Cogan, too, praised tennis as an exercise that was inexpensive to play and would exercise “all partes of the body alike, as the legges, armes, niche, head, eies, back and loynes, and delighteth greatly the minde, making it lusty and cheereful.”  No other form of exercise, he claimed, would provide the same benefit.

Not everyone was a huge fan of tennis.  William Gratarolus, while acknowledging its health benefits, believed that tennis was “not conuenient for such as be graue personages and men muche busied with waightie affaires” because “it is hurtefull to the head by reason of often stowpinge.”  Likewise, wrestling and dancing were thought to be best for those who were not “sage Magistrate[s]…or serious Student[s].”  Riding, he believed, was a much more stately exercise.

Caius warned that some exercises such as “castinge of the barre and camping” were apt to cause leg injuries and should be avoided.

How much exercise is enough?

Alright, so you’ve decided to go for a run or a brisk walk about 4 hours after your last meal.  When is enough?!  After all, you want the exercise to be worthwhile and, you know, not lead to gout.  Langton suggested that you continue exercise only until “the bodye swellethe, and waxinge read, beginne to swete all ouer.”

Thomas Brugis, likewise, wrote  that one should “exercise till the body be florid, sweat begin to flow, and motion nimbler.”

The anonymous mid-seventeenth century text was much more specific about the matter.  Those who were overweight with phlegmatic bodies should exercise much whereas those with “dry slender bodies” needed only “easie exercise.”  These should stop once flushed and sweaty on pain of consumption.

Alright, I did it. Now what?

Gentler exercises.  That’s right, Mulcaster suggested a cool down “reduce the body by gentle degrees, to the same quietnesse in constitution, wherein it was, before it was so moved.”

Then, rest.  Langton believed that one must rest after exercise because “yf it be not taken in his tyme, filleth ye body full of sicknes.”   

And on that note, it’s time for some gentle yoga well suited to my already sore muscles and constitution as a “sitter artificer.”

Let me know what you think here and on Twitter – I’m @medhistorian.

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Works Cited:

Anon. The Skilful Physician, London: printed by Thomas Maxey for Nath. Ekins, 1656.

Dr. Baily, Treatises Concerning the Preservation of Eie-Sight, Oxford: printed by Joseph Barnes, 1616.

Thomas Brugis & Ellis Pratt, Vade Mecum, London: printed for B.T and T.S., 1689.

John Caius, A Boke, or Counseill Against the Disease, London, 1552.

Thomas Cogan, The Haven of Health, London: printed by Thomas Orwin for William Norton, 1588.

Guilielmus Gratarolus, A Direction for the Health of Magistrates, London: printed by William How for Abraham Weale, 1574.

Gideon Harvey, The Vanities of Philosophy and Physick, London: printed for W. Turner, 1700.

Stephen Hobbes, Enchiridion Medicum, London: printed by Henry Ballard for George Potter, 1609.

Christopher Langton, A Very Brefe Treatise, London, 1547.

Edward Maynwaringe, The Method and Means of Enjoying Health, London: printed by J.M. for Dorman Newman, 1683.

Richard Mulcaster, Positions Wherein Those Primitive Circumstances Be Examined, Which are Necessarie for the Training, London: printed by Thomas Vautrollier for Thomas Chare, 1581.


[1] I found the mention of exercise’s mental benefits to be most exciting!
[2] This latter advice seems to be from Avicenna.

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