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The concept of entertainment has been evolving together with humanity for thousands of years; it has had different forms and shapes and dramatically changed throughout the history, as the humanity acquired new skills such as speaking, writing, drawing, singing, etc. In this paper, I aim to examine how the concept of entertainment and its types changed in the history of Western civilization, addressing particular timeframe, i.e. from the Neolithic Period to the Middle Ages.
One of the main forms of entertainment that is hard to trace is storytelling. Storytelling had appeared as soon as the humanity learned to talk. In the Neolithic Period, storytelling was not only a type of entertainment but also a tool that helped humans share information and experience. With the help of stories, humans provided each other with knowledge that could be useful to all of them. Nevertheless, not all stories were practical or reflected the experience of the tellers. Some stories that were told often covered such themes as heroism, myths, gods, and other supernatural phenomena and creations. Other forms of entertainment included games, pottery, and drawing.1
Storytelling allowed the tribes record their routine and mythology. If some activity was not useful anymore, it could become something that we would call a hobby or sport. This transformation happened to archery and hunting in the Neolithic Period. If these activities were practical at first, later they provided an opportunity to demonstrate skill and talent. Religious rituals were not entertainments but included elements of play and performance. The rituals depicted the struggle between good and evil: something that the humanity would often address later in the entertainment activities as well.2 As the societies had advanced, new classes appeared and new skills were acquired.
For example, humans did not have to rely on hunting and gathering because they learned to domesticate.3 As the classes in the society developed, creating soldiers, rulers, artisans, and workers, the upper classes also gained wealth and leisure.4 Thus, entertainment was something that upper classes could allow. However, it does not mean that workers and peasants did not know how to entertain themselves; their forms of entertainment differed from the upper classes’ leisure.
The empire existed from approximately 2900 B.C. until 330 B.C. Babylonians had different activities that can be regarded as entertainment: boxing, dancing, archery, and even board games. Although board games are also believed to be parts of certain rituals, they were also used for entertainment and pleasure.5 Their advantage was their weight and usability; they could be taken anywhere and were not too big or heavy to carry. These games existed before the invention of chess, and some of them were even played in the pre-Neolithic period. Although board games varied in their techniques and tools, their aim was usually alike: the winner needed to get the pieces off the table or the board.6
Music and dancing were popular in many cultures, and ancient Israelites practiced them as well. Initially, they were part of rituals but were also transformed into leisure activities. Dancing was also used to celebrate triumph7. The Old Testament includes various references to dancing; its purpose varies depending on the context. For example, it could be used to praise God: “Let them Praise His name in the dance”.8 Dancing was not encouraged, however, when it was praising an idol (e.g. the Golden Calf).9
Other activities that could also be regarded as sports include wrestling, hunting, and fishing. It seems that most nations had similar types of entertainment that were dictated by social, technological, cultural, and other developments.
Some scientists suggest that in the Late Iron Age the popular forms of entertainment in Scotland were feasts. These feastings took place after successfully finished house constructions: archeologists found pits filled with animal bones in a wheelhouse; these pits are supposed to be the evidence of such feasts.10 Births, marriages, deaths, and religious festivals were also celebrated in the form of feasts. This activity was widespread among the elite as well, where alcohol and food were consumed in huge amounts.11 Drunken fights eventually followed these feasts and were some entertainment as well. Although they were entertaining to watch and take part in, the participants could be severely injured or even killed during such fights.
Similar to Babylonians, Scotts also played board games that included a dice made of bone and small figures made of glass.12 However, unlike the games of “race”, here the entertainment was to gamble of the outcome of these games. The stakes could be quite high too.13 Other entertainment activities included physical contests between young men who wanted to demonstrate their strength and stamina.
From about 500 to 400 B.C., a new era of human development began that transformed entertainment as well. Poetry and music had existed long before this era, but in Ancient Greece, they acquired a new form that was linked to philosophy. Ancient Greeks appreciated strong and attractive body; that is why the sport was one of the main leisure activities in Ancient Greece. Wrestling, boxing, ball games, swimming, and even dancing were practiced as forms of sport. The cities included parks and squares where citizens could rest or talk.14 It is also known that Plato preferred teaching his students in parks and open spaces and did not encourage education in classrooms; thus, he combined education with what was considered as entertainment, allowing the students enjoy the process of learning.
Olympic Games are the best example of massive entertainment; however, it lost its original meaning due to corruption and commercialism.15
Entertainment in Ancient Rome was directly linked to beliefs and worships of Gods. Roman citizens also participated in various types of sports; the festivals were dedicated to Roman Gods and Goddesses and could include competitions. The towns of Romans also included amphitheaters and theaters, baths, and stadiums.16 As the Roman society grew, it divided into classes, where the lowest one was coloni, i.e. workers, and slaves. The plebs eventually demanded more entertainment and the Roman authorities provided it “with doles of grain and with public games – in other words, bread and circuses”.17
By A.D. 354, almost 200 public holidays were celebrated by the Romans each year. One hundred seventy-five of these days were games. The games were sport competitions at first but soon escalated to violent fights of gladiators with animals. Oftentimes, human and animal participants of the games died.18 Moreover, Christians were also slaughtered during those games, sometimes by dogs, other times by humans.19 The entertainment industry in Roman Empire was impaired by corruption and violence; the Empire itself soon fell under the attacks of the northern European tribes.
Middle Ages in Europe
As many Christians were tortured and killed by the Romans, everything that the Roman Empire found entertaining was prohibited: baths, theaters, and games were not encouraged. Christians put emphasis on work and asceticism, but there was entertainment during the Middle Ages. Although the previous, pagan beliefs were banned, new religious festivals and celebrations were set according to the dates that the Romans used for their festivals. Moreover, in their rituals early Christians also used bells, candles, and singing, although the form of these rituals was different from the Roman one.20 The society in Middle Ages was also divided into classes: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasants. The forms of entertainment popular among the knights were hunting and hawking.21
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Hunting was not only a sport that kept the knights from being idle but also it was a useful skill for war. George Turberville, an English poet that lived in the late Middle Ages, described the hunting “as an exercise that best becommes, their worthy noble name”.22 However, this form of entertainment was not available to everyone. Gambling, dancing, singing, and even jousting were also common forms of entertainment during the Middle Ages. As the Dark Ages had ended and the life in Europe became more or less stable, allowing individuals travel in safety, commerce began to spread.23 The jousting and tournaments also became popular among the nobility: while groups of knights took part in tournaments, jousting implied that two individuals fought each other while riding their horses.
Of course, the peasantry was not allowed to take part in such festivals and tournaments. However, village feasts and sports were common among them. Practical joking and cockfighting were popular as well. Some examples of practical jokes during feasts include empty pies that were filled with live birds or with mincemeat and worms made of marzipan.24 During the feasts, various entertainers could demonstrate their skills, e.g. singers, jugglers, acrobats, clowns, and others.25 Wrestling was also common, but it often led to serious fights and cruel slaughters. Tomfoolery was also entertainment, but while some people fooled others once or twice a year just to joke, professional fools provided quality services, often for the nobility. Among professional fools, one could find mentally disabled people that were given name, a home, and food. For this, they served as fools at courts. Fools usually were depicted with little to no clothes; they sometimes wore hats or shoes. The court fools were taken care of by patrons and were one of the standard forms of court entertainment in the Middle Ages.
Theater as a form of entertainment in the Middle Ages appeared much later, in the middle of 1550s. Little plays were staged before during the religious festivals or feasts, but dramatic entertainment began to develop in the 1550s. Permanent theaters were not yet established, and plays were performed in buildings or at sites.26 There were no professional dramatists; that is why the writing of plays and their performance was amateur in those years. The authors of the plays usually had a position (e.g. a teacher, an entertainer) that was their main source of income. However, in the latter years of Elizabeth, acting became more professional, and theater began to develop actively as well.
Bentley, Gerald Eades. Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590-1642. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
McIntosh, Jane. Handbook to Life in Prehistoric Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
McLean, Daniel. Kraus’ Recreation and Leisure in Modern Society. Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2014.
Polack, Gillian, and Katrin Kania. The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England 1050-1300. Stroud: Amberley Publishing Limited, 2015.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.
Turbervile, George. Turbervile’s Booke of Hunting 1576. Vancouver: Read Books, 2010.
- Daniel McLean, Kraus’ Recreation and Leisure in Modern Society (Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2014), 50.
- The Bible. Authorized King James Version. (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 568.
- Ibid., 644.
- Jane McIntosh, Handbook to Life in Prehistoric Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 337.
- McLean, Kraus’ Recreation and Leisure in Modern Society, 54.
- Ibid., 56.
- Ibid., 57.
- George Turbervile, Turbervile’s Booke of Hunting 1576 (Vancouver: Read Books, 2010), 112.
- McLean, Kraus’ Recreation and Leisure in Modern Society, 57.
- Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania, The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England 1050-1300 (Stroud: Amberley Publishing Limited, 2015), 113.
- Gerald Eades Bentley, Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590-1642 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 4.