Picturing early modern women athletes

Peter Radford’s previous blog post explored the incredible athletic exploits of 18th-century English women in horseback-riding, foot-racing, fighting, and cricket. In this blog post he writes more broadly about the history of picturing women athletes from ancient Greece to early modern Europe, how these images can be hard to find and interpret, but also why they’re so valuable and compelling.

women running
Museum of the Vatican

Images of women athletes are rare, but they have a long history. Two-and-a-half thousand years ago unmarried girls ran at Olympia in honor of Hera, and as the temple of Hera pre-dates that of Zeus it is likely that the young women raced at Olympia before the young men did in their Olympic Games. Women continued to run for centuries and at many Greek venues, and continued to race throughout the western world under various Roman emperors, in stadia in Rome, Naples, and elsewhere. If they disappear from view after the fall of Rome we should not believe that they stopped competing; absence of evidence is not evidence of their absence.

Images of them are hard to find, easy to miss, and sometimes difficult to interpret. For example, in Ferrara, in north-west Italy, a woman runner in a race is tucked away in the bottom left-hand corner of a large 15th-century fresco.

Ferrara fresco
Francesco del Cossa, April, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, c1470.
woman running
(detail) Francesco del Cossa, April, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, c1470.

On Greek bowls and vases, and in Italian frescoes, and elsewhere, there are images of women participating in a variety of athletic events. The Folger Shakespeare Library contains a wonderful image of women racing gondolas in Venice in 1610, with their hair streaming behind them because of the speed at which they are traveling.

Women racing gondolas
(detail) Giacomo Franco, Habitid’huomeni et donnevenetiane: 1610. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Some images can be missed even when they are in full view. The woodcut (also to be found in the Folger) at the front of a very rare collection (1632) of poems about Robert Dover’s Olympic Games in the Cotswolds (Annalia Dubrensia), shows men with dogs hunting, as well as men leaping, tumbling, and throwing things.

Cotswold Games
Frontispiece to Robert Dover’s Annalia Dubrensia, 1632. Folger Shakespeare Library.

But it is only by placing the image alongside the text that we can interpret the women dancing in the top-left corner. In his poem to Robert Dover, Shackerley Marmyon tells us that they, too, are competing, and so are not merely a decorous part of the background there to support the men. The women are probably dancing jigs, and we know that women at that time danced long and hard in competitions alongside the men.

One song (also to be found in the Folger collection) tells us of one occasion when they danced hornpipes all night, and “daunced till thire bones did ake . . . and did swett themselves into a Jelly.” They only stopped when Susan heard the cock-crow and knew that she and the other “maydes” had to go and get the fires lit for their bosses, or get told off. Happy with their efforts though, they looked forward to the next “holy day” when, once again, they would “dance their fill.” (Nicholas Blundell, 1669-1737, The Great Diurnal of Nicholas Blundell).

After years pursuing the eyewitness accounts of early modern women athletes, I turned to the possibility of images supporting or reinforcing what I had read, and a Folger fellowship helped me scour the world’s collections and prepare an overall story of these athletic pioneers for a forthcoming monograph. I focused on Britain because sport was such a large part of their culture. Close “reading” of images, alongside the many more eyewitness accounts, produced some surprises. Many artists were clearly not at the events they illustrated and so created what they thought the event would have looked like, sometimes by plagiarizing the work of earlier artists and incorporating important details of earlier work into their own, and so have deceived art historians for years. One artist, who had probably never in his life seen a cricket match of any description, even “illustrated” a women’s cricket match, an illustration which has been widely used by historians!

My forthcoming monograph, They Run With Surprising Swiftness (University of Virginia Press, 2022), examines these topics (and others) and tells the story of early modern women athletes, generation by generation, through the 17th and 18th centuries. By comparing the many eyewitness written accounts with the corresponding images, it can be seen that many artists were more interested in injecting drama into their images than reporting the objective facts. For example, artists could seldom resist the idea of a woman falling down, or being tripped up during a foot-race, an incident very seldom described by an eyewitness, but artists used it frequently and then dramatized it.

When Fusca, the gypsy, slipped in a puddle in Somerville’s Hobbinol, was her fall quite this dramatic?

woman falling
Engraving by Charlton Nesbitt and John Thurston, in William Somerville, Hobbinol, or Rural Games, 1813

Whatever the exaggerations, uncertainties, and ambiguities of artists recording athletic women in the early modern world, they do often capture the excitement of it.

women athletes running in a race
Francis Stephanoff, colored engraving. From Popular Pastimes, Being a Selection of Picturesque Representations of the Customs & Amusements of Great Britain, in Ancient and Modern Times, by Edward Wedlake Brayley and Francis Philip Stephanoff, 1816.

But perhaps the greatest gift that the artists have given us is that they have occasionally produced a likeness so that we can see the faces of some of the great women athletes of the past. We are lucky to have portraits of Maria Boscolo holding the five flags that she won as regatta prizes in Venice. Behind the flags is a list of her victories: first place in 1740, 1764, and 1784 (twice with her sister Checa), and second place in 1767.

woman holding flags
Maria Boscola, in the Museo Correr, 1784

Wheble has given us a portrait of Alicia Thornton, who defeated the best (male) jockey in Britain, and one of the greatest jockeys in history, in front of a crowd of tens of thousands in 1805.

Portrait of Alicia Thornton
Alicia Thornton. J. Wheble, stipple engraving, 1805

And perhaps William Hogarth gave us a portrait of Elizabeth Wilkinson/Stokes who in the early 18th century was a celebrated prize fighter, and styled the Championess of Europe.

An advertising card showing a fighter
(detail) James Figg’s advertising card, engraved by William Hogarth, author’s collection

All of these early modern athletic women, their faces, and their exploits, have been largely forgotten, and my forthcoming monograph aims to shine the spotlight on them so that they can take their rightful place in sport and social history, and re-tell an important part of women’s stories that has been lost for too long.