The other day I read a academic paper in a mainstream history journal by David Armitage and Jo Guldi called ‘The Return of the Longue Durée: An Anglo-American Perspective’
It was a harsh reminder that thinking across longer time scales has largely disappeared from the radar of most British sports historians just as it is starting to return to mainstream history. There have been few ambitious surveys of British sport over several centuries for some time. Richard Holt’s Sport and the British (1989) managed to cover over two centuries, and some histories of particular sports like rugby or football have managed much the same. Tony Collins Sport in Capitalist Society (2013) managed to get beyond Britain over 200 years.
I guess that such a task is now harder. There is less freedom of research choice in universities, Metrics, funding and structural rationalizing are all against it. A work of synthesis is now less highly rated in university assessment than a high status article, or a research monograph. And you would need to know one hell of a lot to even attempt it. So it would be hugely difficult, not least since sporting knowledge is expanding at such a rapid rate.
Yet back in the 1950s and1960s there were famous mainstream historians like Fernand Braudel offering insightful and sustained theoretical reflections about historical continuity and change across the longue durée.
It would be really interesting to see some modern attempts at synthesis, some attempt to tackle Britain’s sporting continuities and changes over a longer time, pick out some key organising concepts and so provide a richer contextual background against which archival information, events, and sources can be interpreted.
It is a massive challenge of course. Sorting out a possible chronological structure would be hard enough. Where would one start? The Reformation perhaps? Then a proto-modern period from the 1660s to when? When did the Industrial Revolution begin to really bite? Did a sporting ‘revolution’ first take off in the 1860s or later? Was there actually any great divide at all? And what about the twentieth century? I’ve recently been writing chapters for Bloomsbury’s Cultural History of Sport. Its final book of six starts at about 1920, but is that any more than administrative convenience? Maybe every historian tackles sport’s chronology from individual perspectives, depending on the aspect being covered.
And how easy is it anyway to summarize change? Over the past four centuries British sport has consistently experienced change. Each sport has had its own change trajectories. There are a whole host of sporting temporalities. Some are certainly influenced by broader social, cultural, political and economic factors. But maybe we do not sufficiently recognise the way sport has also been influenced by fashion, and the resultant peaks and troughs of popularity.
And what key concepts would we focus on? I spent half an hour yesterday trying to think of a key organising concept for each potential period. For example I chose ‘gambling’ as a key factor in the growth of sport in the proto-modern period. For early modernity I chose ‘associativity’, and in later modernity notions of ‘identity’. I was quite happy for all of a minute, until I realized that all three concepts could be found in all three periods, and that every other historian might have different ideas. Damn!!!!