On the Urge to Hurl

» November 4th, 2017

 

In the fourth volume of Brett’s Miscellany, published in Dublin in 1757, readers could find an entry on a custom called “throwing at cocks.” This was an activity where a rooster was tied to a post while the participants, as if playing darts, threw small weighted and sharpened sticks (called coksteles) at the poor bird until it expired. The article explored the sport’s origin: “When the Danes were masters of England, and used the inhabitants very cruelly,” it began, “the people of a certain great city formed a conspiracy to murder their masters in one night.” The English artfully devised “a stratagem,” but “when they were putting it in execution, the unusual crowing and fluttering of the cocks about the place discovered their design.” The Danes, tipped off by the commotion, “doubled their cruelty” and made the Englishmen suffer as never before. “Upon this,” the entry concluded, “the English made custom of knocking the cocks on the head, on Shrove-Tuesday, the day on which it happened.” Very soon “this barbarous act became at last a natural and common diversion, and has continued every since.” Thus the innate human urge to throw things at things entered the early modern era.

WILLIAM HOGARTH DEPICTED COCK THROWING IN THE FOUR STAGES OF CRUELTY, CHILDREN TORTURING ANIMALS (1751).

Throwing at cocks continued well into the late eighteenth century. Although the custom, according to Remarks on the character and customs of the English and French (1726), exemplified a “diversion of the meanest of the populace,” throwing at cocks was soon normalized. It ranked up there with “playing at foot ball,” “bowls,” and “prize fighting.” A Complete History of the English Stage (1800) referred to it as an “annual sport.” In 1747, a volume called The History and Present State of the British Isles lumped throwing at cocks with “wrestling,” “footraces,” and “nine pins” as “the sports of the common people.” A regular activity, in other words.

In time, the moralists cracked down on such hoi-polloi barbarity. Anyone who knows anything about throwing at cocks probably does because of Hogarth’s etching, First Stage of Cruelty, which demonstrates—while censuring—the incivility of this particular blood sport. John Brand, in his 1777 Observations on Popular Antiquities, notes that, “to the credit of our northern manners, the barbarous sport of throwing at cocks on Shrove Tuesdays is worn out in this country.” A London minister who published a lengthy sermon on the topic urged “the suppression of the throwing at cocks in the town or city” because it was an activity that all too easily exemplified how “the lower orders of people among us are eminently reproachable.” By 1793, the Country Spectator advised that throwing at cocks should be met with the “pain of your heavy displeasure.”

 

AN ENGRAVING OF GERMAN ARISTOCRATS ENGAGED IN THE SPORT OF FOX TOSSING (1895).

The concern here was more with the “common people” than the animals they abused. The rabble, according to elite assumptions, shouldn’t get too rambunctious. But among the aristocracy, blood sport persisted uninterrupted. Starting in the seventeenth century, leisure-minded nobility would often gather in expansive courtyards, drink enough alcohol to sedate an elephant, and catapult foxes (or other animals) skyward. Fox tossing—or, as it was known in Germany, where it originated, Fuchsprellen—was a two-person team sport. In preparation, each member of a team would stand about twenty feet apart, grab the narrow ends of a large rectangular sling, and lay it flat on the ground. A fox would then be released from a cage and driven over to the awaiting tossers. As the panicked fox scurried over the slings, participants tried to catch the animal with their taught fabric and jerk it skyward. Experts might send the animal hurling as high as twenty feet, and victory was given to the highest fox toss. When many teams were playing at once—which was not unusual—multiple foxes would be released and, when all was going well, tossed foxes would fill the sky.

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