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Recreation During the Renaissance Era


Recreation has always played a large role in any culture. Leisurely pursuits find their basis beginning all the way back at creation. God set a pattern for rest after he created the earth and all that was contained in it. Genesis 2:2 says that, “… On the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.” God commanded his chosen people Israel to rest throughout the Old Testament with the institution of the Sabbath. He has built the human body in such a way that rest is needed. As good and as necessary as work is, all people need some type of recreation.

Recreational pursuits of a culture often can define what that society is like. Some games are unique to a particular culture or country. Baseball, for instance, is distinctly American. Cricket is British. Throughout the centuries, games have been identified with different eras and societies. As good as relaxing recreation can be, it can also hinder a society. This occurs when a wrong focus is placed on recreation. In modern America, culture is driven by recreational pursuits. During the Renaissance time period, attention given to recreation varied based largely on one’s social status. This article will examine the level of involvement of Renaissance people with recreational activities, as well as certain types of recreation in which they participated.

Recreation: Then and Now

One’s view of recreation is often based on the role it plays in his society. A person living in the fifteenth century viewed any sort of entertainment as extremely exciting. It was a rare occasion that the common person got to do anything special. He was consumed with a working and survival mentality. Sports, entertainment, and recreational activity in the United States are commonplace. Life revolves around these activities. Even though the attitude peasants had living during the Renaissance towards recreation did not match today’s individual, the reasons for being involved in leisurely pursuits were probably similar. A newspaper article from several years ago disclosed reasons that youth enjoy playing sports. Top reasons varied slightly from boys to girls, but at the top of their list was having fun.

A Perspective of Recreation from the Renaissance

There were two completely different perspectives of recreation that existed during this time period. One’s perspective came largely as a result of what social class he belonged to. The first social status to observe is the peasants. Peasants did not have much of an opportunity for personal entertainment. Their days were filled with long hours in the field or at home working. They did not have the time to spend on frivolous activities. They were to consumed with having enough to eat and with providing basics for their families. Survival was always the issue for the poverty stricken culture. This life of hardship may be characterized best by the normal diet of a peasant. It consisted of mainly coarse bread and water. Only if they were fortunate were they allowed the luxury of a little bit of meat. Even children were expected to do their share of work around the farm as soon as they were able. Women arguably had the toughest role, as they were responsible for the household chores as well as helping out in the fields or with the animals. As one could see, with this life of drudgery, entertainment got pushed to the backseat. This, of course, did not mean that the peasants did not enjoy fun activities. Just the opposite is true. The few times that peasants were able to enjoy recreational activities were look ahead to with anticipation. The most popular forms of entertainment for peasants were church holidays, weddings, visits to the markets, fairs, and occasional games of all sorts. These will be discussed in more detail later.

Those fortunate enough to belong to the nobility had a completely different perspective on entertainment. In comparison, they lived lives of relative ease. By today’s standards, they may only be classified as middle class, but during the Renaissance, they were definitely wealthy. Because of their wealth, they had much more time to devote to fun and games. Noblemen were always striving to become the storied “Renaissance man”. In fact, the Renaissance man was one who was “socially adept, sensitive to aesthetic values, skilled in weaponry, strong of body, and learned in letters.” In 1527, Baldassare Castiglione wrote Book of the Courtier. In this is found a description of what a nobleman should be. He should be able to play games, dance, ride, recite and understand poetry, speak clearly, and give good advice. A brief glance at this list will show the importance that was placed upon the ability to function in the recreational arena.

Nobility filled their days with games such as tennis, lawn bowling, archery, billiards, wrestling, cards, and other games to be discussed later. They also found time to take lessons in a variety of things, attend theaters, and listen to music. The one word that best describes the recreation of the nobility is “spectacle”. Everything was a big event to them. This would explain the love they had for fireworks. Lavishness abounded in other forms of entertainment. For example at dinner parties, as each new course was brought into the room, trumpets would sound. During some plays, just for special effect, sometimes the scenery would be set on fire after the performance. Many of the recreational activities of the Renaissance period began to be defined by what these noblemen participated in.

Differences of then and now

What is done with one’s free time shows much of what that person is like. So, with a culture, what that society does for recreation says much about the people of that particular country or time period. Just because recreation is thought of a certain way in America does not meant that it has always been that way. Our contemporary culture has elevated leisure to an unrealistic high. Life revolves around recreational pursuits. Professional sports is a multi-billion dollar business. Up to ¼ of typical newspapers are devoted entirely to sports. In many cases, up to another ¼ reports news of entertainment, music, movies, and food. This alone is a clear indication of how Americans think. Hollywood plays a huge role in shaping and influencing youth and adults. People in today’s society generally work so that they can enjoy the finer things of life. The less work the better—they live for the weekends. Clearly, recreational activities have come a long ways since the time of the Renaissance.

The biggest difference between recreation then and now is the role of it in a person’s life. Today, a person works to live. Working is a means of getting more things. In the Renaissance, people lived to work. Working consumed their days. They too, worked to live, but they were working just to survive, not for pleasure. Where has this work ethic gone? It is unheard of that anyone today would work long hours, just to survive. There is one main reason for this change in attitude. “If only 1 to 2 percent of a modern, industrialized country’s workforce is necessary to feed the rest, nearly the opposite was true during the Renaissance.”

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Because of the nature of the work, the Renaissance peasant did not have time or energy for other diversions. In fact, after some time, they began to resent the fact that their lives revolved around work. History has recorded many peasant revolts as a result. This resentment began to build until the beginning of the Reformation. After Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, their view began to change. The Reformation did not have strictly theological results. It changed the perspective of life for the common man as well. A teaching of Luther and others was that all people in their work were serving God. Now this may seem like an elementary truth, but before this time, it was commonly thought that only clergy served God. So, all of this has been said to show that a peasant’s life revolved around work. This was a drastically life than that of a Renaissance noble. A modern person would be much more comfortable with the lifestyle of a nobleman, as their lives were fashioned more around play than work. As difficult as the life of a peasant was, the goal of any peasant was to live like a noble. This goal included their accommodations, their meals, and their activities.

Today’s entertainment owes much to the time period of the Renaissance. Many of the modern games enjoyed today were played and developed during those years. Included in this list are boxing, tennis, card games, and bowling. A game much like the modern day game of football was played, called palla al calico. This developed especially in Florence. The rules were a little similar to football, but there were 27 players on each team. Cities sometimes developed forms of entertainment that were unique to their area. In Pisa, for example, the most popular sporting event was a mock fight. Men would gather on a bridge in town and would act out a battle. This was a commemoration of a historic battle their in which the Saracens were defeated. The city of Venice was known for their regattas. Some places were famous for their bullfights, jousts, or even donkey races. Although many different activities were enjoyed during the Renaissance, a few notable ones are worth looking at in depth.

Continue reading Part Two here:


jake on March 22, 2020:


me on April 02, 2017:


J. Valentine on October 16, 2013:

Read 10/16/13.

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