HHH column: In touch with body and mind by Miente Pietersma

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contributionThis month, the floor is for Miente Pietersma, PhD candidate at the University of Groningen. Miente’s research project focuses on the historical usage of bodies’ ability to learn physical exercises for a variety of goals, including healthy living. In this column, he relates the advice of Pietro Monte, an early modern “fitness influencer”, and connects it to current Dutch policy on promoting an active lifestyle. In the present day, it is tempting to view exercise through metrics on time and performance, but Monte’s work reminds us that developing a mindful feel for one’s body may be the most important goal of exercise.

In touch with body and mind: A fitness influencer from the fifteenth century

Miente Pietersma

What happens when we train our bodies? The societal relevance of this question is neatly illustrated by a parliamentary memo written in March 2022 by the Dutch Secretary of Public Health, Welfare and Sport. This memo stresses the importance of promoting an active lifestyle, both for its health benefits and the joy it brings to practitioners.[1] As such, current policy strives to have 75% of the Dutch population exercising for at least 150 minutes a week by 2040.[2] Achieving this goal mainly rests on the ability of sports organizations to provide ‘low-threshold’ options for people to (re)start their exercise routines.[3] The term low-threshold is crucial here. While this naturally includes limiting financial thresholds, people must also be offered activities they are able to perform. Exercising is much more than just something you ‘set your mind to’.

Sports and exercise can of course be approached through metrics and science, and indeed they are, judging from the popularity of Fitbits and other exercise-tracking apps. For most of us, however, ‘getting moving’ requires insights that are more mundane. Before you can start to observe and optimize your performance, you need to develop a basic feel for whatever it is you are doing. Imagine someone unaccustomed to exercise starting a new sports routine, who immediately seeks to optimize their movement based on metrics alone. Now that would be not unlike starting to optimize the settings on a car, despite barely knowing how to drive.

The importance of developing a ‘feel’ for sports is already emphasised in one of the earliest printed manuals covering physical exercise. It was written by the Italian mercenary captain Pietro Monte (1454-1509), famous not just for his prowess on the battlefield but also for his skills as a personal trainer. Indeed, one of the period’s bestsellers, ‘The Book of the Courtier’ (Il Libro del Cortegiano) by Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529), called him “the only true master of artificial strength and lightness”. [4] Having served as instructor to the dukes of Milan, Monte produced several books in Latin in order to make the art of physical training more universally accessible. In his work, however, he is quick to point out that reading is a far cry from learning such arts, which range from running and long-jumping to javelin throwing and wrestling. The importance of mental theory is in fact downplayed as he stresses that “exercising the body pertains to the physical work of senses”.[5] As such, while Monte had every confidence that learned people “may easily understand the words [of his book], enacting what they mean is difficult, if one does not first experience those descriptions”.[6]

Exercises practised by the young, their heated passions associated with the Sun.
Cf. Cristoforo de Predis, De Sphaera d’Este (1450-1460), Modena, Biblioteca Estense lat209

It is then unsurprising to see how Monte’s advice is not framed as abstract logic, to be comprehended by the mind before being used to set the body in motion. Instead, the instructions mean to help the reader develop a mindful ‘feel’ for their body while it is in motion. For example, Monte preaches how it is essential to feel the flow of strength in the body, and to manage this flow effectively. Strength is in fact presented as leading a liminal ‘potential’ existence inside the various parts of the body.[7] Wrestlers are thus advised to unify this power in the chest, and then provide it to whichever limb is used for grappling.[8] Such a moderate and judicial use of strength is seen as crucial, as adding power would also add weight to the limbs, making them heavy and clumsy. In its own way this is sound advice, since keeping your body relaxed will indeed render your movements more fluid. Try moving your arms while consciously flexing all the muscles inside. This is almost guaranteed to feel rather awkward.

Some of the advice provided by Monte now seems dubious at best. Flowing from his reasoning that power equates to heaviness, runners are advised to store their strength in the chest in order to avoid impeding the legs. Monte consequently prescribes wearing a tight belt at the loins that would prevent the runner from breathing naturally, locking both his breath and strength high up in the chest.[9] By contrast, we would nowadays consider it advisable not to impede your breath while exercising. Learning to judiciously apply your strength is still a part of martial arts training today, however, as a body that is tensed up becomes rigid and loses its agility. To this end, even a fifteenth-century fitness influencer expresses a simple truth, crucial for anyone wishing to learn physical exercise. We can speak of exercising. We can reason about its benefits. If we want to get more of the Dutch population moving, however, we also need to recognize that exercise involves a kind of learning that is easier done than said. Merely telling people to go out for 150 minutes a week and ‘do exercise’ is bound to cause frustration. Bodies will not always be cooperative in meeting the target metric and, if that is the only measure of success, the learning curve towards it becomes a frustrating obstacle. Developing a new feel for your body moving in space can also become a goal in itself, however, transforming exercise into a growing sense of empowerment offering lasting joy.

[1] Maarten van Ooijen, Secretary of the Department of Public Health, Welfare and Sport. Preventiebrief t.b.v. Leefstijldebat 24 maart 2022. The Hague: Department of Public Health, Welfare and Sport, 24 March 2022, p. 3. (https://open.overheid.nl/repository/ronl-06fde1fcdc6ca2473d3598b90b04be53e83f6ac5/1/pdf/kamerbrief-over-preventiebrief-tbv-leefstijldebat-24-maart-2022.pdf)                                                   

[2] For reference, only 53% of the population managed to meet this requirement in 2020, ibidem.

[3] Anoukh van Giessen et al. Voortgangsrapportage Nationaal preventieakkoord 2020. Bilthoven: National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), 2021, pp. 43-44. (DOI 10.21945/RIVM-2021-0098)

[4] “nostro messer Pietro Monte, il qual, come sapete, è il vero e solo maestro d’ogni artificiosa forza e leggerezza, cosí del cavalcare, giostrare e qualsivoglia altra cosa.” Baldassare Castiglione, Il Libro del Cortegiano, ed. Giulio Preti (Turin: Einaudi, 1965), 42-43.

[5] Pietro Monte (1509), “Exercitiorum atque artis militaris collectanea in tres libros distincta,” trans. Jeffrey Forgeng, in Pietro Monte’s Collectanea, the arms, armour and fighting techniques of a fifteenth-century soldier, ed. Jeffrey L. Forgeng (Melton: Boydell & Brewer, 2018), 37.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Pietro Monte (1492), “De Dignoscendis Hominibus, Liber Quintus,” trans. Jeffrey Forgeng, in Pietro Monte’s Collectanea, the arms, armour and fighting techniques of a fifteenth-century soldier, ed. Jeffrey L. Forgeng (Melton: Boydell & Brewer, 2018), 275-276.

[8] Idem, 235.

[9] Idem, 254.

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