1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gymnastics and Gymnasium

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GYMNASTICS AND GYMNASIUM, terms signifying respectively a system of physical exercises practised either for recreation or for the purpose of promoting the health and development of the body, and the building where such exercises are carried on. The gymnasium of the Greeks was originally the school where competitors in the public games received their training, and was so named from the circumstance that these competitors exercised naked (γυμνός). The gymnasium was a public institution as distinguished from the palaestra, which was a private school where boys were trained in physical exercises, though the term palaestra is also often used for the part of a gymnasium specially devoted to wrestling and boxing. The athletic contests for which the gymnasium supplied the means of training and practice formed part of the social life of the Greeks from the earliest times. They were held in honour of heroes and gods; sometimes forming part of a periodic festival, sometimes of the funeral rites of a deceased chief. In course of time the Greeks grew more attached to such sports; their free active life, spent to a great extent in the open air, fostered the liking almost into a passion. The victor in any athletic contest, though he gained no money prize, was rewarded with the honour and respect of his fellow citizens; and a victory in the great religious festivals was counted an honour for the whole state. In these circumstances the training of competitors for the greater contests became a matter of public concern; and accordingly special buildings were provided by the state, and their management entrusted to public officials. The regulation of the gymnasium at Athens is attributed by Pausanias (i. 39. 3) to Theseus. Solon made several laws on the subject; but according to Galen it was reduced to a system in the time of Cleisthenes. Ten gymnasiarchs, one from each tribe, were appointed annually. These performed in rotation the duties of their office, which were to maintain and pay the persons who were training for public contests, to conduct the games at the great Athenian festivals, to exercise general supervision over the morals of the youths, and to adorn and keep up the gymnasium. This office was one of the ordinary λειτουργίαι (public services), and great expense was entailed on the holders. Under them were ten sophronistae, whose duty was to watch the conduct of the youths at all times, and especially to be present at all their games. The practical teaching and selecting of the suitable exercises for each youth were in the hands of the paedotribae and gymnastae, the latter of whom also superintended the effect on the constitution of the pupils, and prescribed for them when they were unwell. The aleiptae oiled and rubbed dust on the bodies of the youths, acted as surgeons, and administered the drugs prescribed. According to Galen there was also a teacher of the various games of ball. The gymnasia built to suit these various purposes were large buildings, which contained not merely places for each kind of exercise, but also a stadium, baths, covered porticos for practice in bad weather, and outer porticos where the philosophers and men of letters read public lectures and held disputations.

The gymnasium of the Greeks did not long remain an institution exclusively devoted to athletic exercises. It soon began to be applied to other uses even more important. The development arose naturally through the recognition by the Greeks of the important place in education occupied by physical culture, and of the relation between exercise and health. The gymnasium accordingly became connected with education on the one hand and with medicine on the other. Due training of the body and maintenance of the health and strength of children were the chief part of earlier Greek education. Except the time devoted to letters and music, the education of boys was conducted in the gymnasia, where provision was made, as already mentioned, for their moral as well as their physical training. As they grew older, conversation and social intercourse took the place of the more systematic discipline. Philosophers and sophists assembled to talk and to lecture in the gymnasia, which thus became places of general resort for the purpose of all less systematic intellectual pursuits, as well as for physical exercises. In Athens there were three great public gymnasia—Academy, Lyceum and Cynosarges—each of which was consecrated to a special deity with whose statue it was adorned; and each was rendered famous by association with a celebrated school of philosophy. Plato’s teaching in the Academy has given immortality to that gymnasium; Aristotle conferred lustre on the Lyceum; and the Cynosarges was the resort of the Cynics. Plato when treating of education devotes much consideration to gymnastics (see especially Rep. iii. and various parts of Laws); and according to Plato it was the sophist Prodicus who first pointed out the connexion between gymnastics and health. Having found such exercises beneficial to his own weak health, he formulated a method which was adopted generally, and which was improved by Hippocrates. Galen lays the greatest stress on the proper use of gymnastics, and throughout ancient medical writers we find that special exercises are prescribed as the cure for special diseases.

The Greek institution of the gymnasium never became popular with the Romans, who regarded the training of boys in gymnastics with contempt as conducive to idleness and immorality, and of little use from a military point of view; though at Sparta gymnastic training had been chiefly valued as encouraging warlike tastes and promoting the bodily strength needed for the use of weapons and the endurance of hardship. Among the Romans of the republic, the games in the Campus Martius, the duties of camp life, and the enforced marches and other hardships of actual warfare, served to take the place of the gymnastic exercises required by the Greeks. The first public gymnasium at Rome was built by Nero and another by Commodus. In the middle ages, though jousts and feats of horsemanship and field sports of various kinds were popular, the more systematic training of the body which the Greeks had associated with the gymnasium fell into neglect; while the therapeutic value of special exercises as understood by Hippocrates and Galen appears to have been lost sight of. Rousseau, in his Émile, was the first in modern times to call attention to the injurious consequences of such indifference, and he insisted on the importance of physical culture as an essential part of education. It was probably due in some measure to his influence that F. L. Jahn and his followers in Germany, encouraged by the Prussian minister Stein, established the Turnplätze, or gymnastic schools, which played an important part during the War of Liberation, and in the political agitations which followed the establishment of the German confederation by the Congress of Vienna. The educational reformers Pestalozzi and Froebel emphasized the need for systematic physical training in any complete scheme of education.

The later development of the classical gymnasium (when it had become the school of intellectual culture rather than of exclusively physical exercise), and not the original idea, has been perpetuated in the modern use of the word in Germany, where the name “gymnasium” is given to the highest grade of secondary school, and the association of the word with athleticism has been entirely abandoned. On the other hand, in England, France and elsewhere in Europe, as well as in America, the history of the word has been precisely the reverse; the connexion of the gymnasium with philosophy and mental culture has been dropped, and it indicates a building exclusively intended for the practice of physical exercises. But whereas the Greeks received training in the gymnasium for contests which are now designated as athletic sports (q.v.), gymnastics in the modern sense is a term restricted to such exercises as are usually practised indoors, with or without the aid of mechanical appliances, as distinguished from sports or games practised in the open air.

It was not until near the end of the 19th century that gymnastics were recognized in England as anything more than a recreation; their value as a specifically therapeutic agent, or as an article in the curriculum of elementary schools, was not realized. More recently, however, educationists have urged with increasing insistence the need for systematic physical training, and their views received greater attention when evidence of deterioration in the physique of the people began to accumulate. During the first decade of the 20th century more than one commission reported to parliament in England in favour of more systematic and general physical training being encouraged or even made compulsory by public authority. Voluntary associations were formed for encouraging such training and providing facilities for it. Gymnastics had already for several years been an essential part of the training of army recruits with exceedingly beneficial results, and gymnasia had been established at Aldershot and other military centres. Physical exercises, although not compulsory, obtained a permanent place in the code for elementary schools in Great Britain; and much care has been taken to provide a syllabus of exercises adapted for the improvement of the physique of the children. These exercises are partly gymnastic and partly of the nature of drill; they do not in most cases require the use of appliances, and are on that account known as “free movements,” which numbers of children go through together, accompanied whenever possible by music. On the other hand at the larger public schools and universities there are elaborate gymnasia equipped with a great variety of apparatus, the skilful use of which demands assiduous practice; and this is encouraged by annual contests between teams of gymnasts representing rival institutions.

The appliances vary to some extent in different gymnasia, some of the more complicated requiring a greater amount of space and involving a larger cost than is often practicable. But where these considerations are negligible, substantial uniformity is to be found in the equipment Gymnastic apparatus. of gymnasia not designed for specifically medical purposes. The simplest, and in many respects the most generally useful, of all gymnastic apparatus is the dumb-bell. It was in use in England as early as the time of Elizabeth, and it has the advantage that it admits of being exactly proportioned to the individual strength of each learner, and can be adjusted in weight as his strength increases. The exercises that may be performed with the dumb-bell, combined with a few simple drill-like movements, give employment to all parts of the body and to both sides equally. Dumb-bell exercises, therefore, when arranged judiciously and with knowledge, are admirably suited for developing the physique, and are extensively employed in schools both for boys and girls. The bar-bell is merely a two-handed dumb-bell, and its use is similar in principle. The Indian club is also in use in most gymnasia; but the risk of overstraining the body by its unskilful handling makes it less generally popular than the dumb-bell. All these appliances may be, and often are, used either in ordinary schoolrooms or elsewhere outside the gymnasium. The usual fixed sorts of apparatus, the presence of which (or of some of them) in a building may be said to constitute it a gymnasium, are the following: a leaping-rope; a leaping-pole; a vaulting-horse; a horizontal bar, so mounted between two upright posts that its height from the ground may be adjusted as desired; parallel bars, used for exercises to develop the muscles of the trunk and arms; the trapeze consisting of a horizontal bar suspended by ropes at a height of 4 to 5 ft. from the ground; the bridge ladder; the plank; the inclined plane; the mast; swinging rings; the prepared wall; the horizontal beam.

Before the end of the 19th century the therapeutic value of gymnastics was fully realized by the medical profession; and a number of medical or surgical gymnasia came into existence, provided with specially devised apparatus for the treatment of different physical defects or weaknesses. The exercises practised in them are arranged upon scientific principles based on anatomical and physiological knowledge; and these principles have spread thence to influence largely the practice of gymnastics in schools and in the army. A French medical writer enumerates seven distinct groups of maladies, each including a number of different complaints, for which gymnastic exercises are a recognized form of treatment; and there are many malformations of the human body, formerly believed to be incurable, which are capable of being greatly remedied if not entirely corrected by regular gymnastic exercises practised under medical direction.

The value of gymnastics both for curing defects, and still more for promoting health and the development of normal physique, is recognized even more clearly on the continent of Europe than in Great Britain. In Germany the government not only controls the practice of gymnastics but makes it compulsory for every child and adult to undergo a prescribed amount of such physical training. In France also, physical training by gymnastics is under state control; in Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, systems more or less distinct enjoy a wide popularity; and in Finland gymnastics are practised on lines that exhibit national peculiarities. The Finns introduce an exceptional degree of variety into their exercises as well as into the appliances devised to assist them; women are scarcely less expert than men in the performance of them; and the enthusiasm with which the system is supported produces the most beneficial results in the physique of the people. International gymnastic contests have become a feature of the revived Olympic Games (see Athletic Sports), and in those held at Athens in 1906 a team of Danish ladies took part in the competition and proved by their skilful performance that gymnastics may be practised with as much success by women as by men.

The chief work on the ancient gymnastics is Krause, Gymnastik und Agonistik der Hellenen (1841); of more recent works mention may be made of Jäger, Gymnastik der Hellenen (1881); L. Grasberger, Erziehung und Unterricht im klassischen Altertum (1881); J. P. Mahaffy, Old Greek Education (1883); A. S. Wilkins, National Education in Greece (1873); E. Paz, Histoire de la gymnastique (1886); Wickenhagen, Antike und moderne Gymnastik (1891); Becker-Göll, Charicles ii.; Brugsma, Gymnasiorum apud Graecos descriptio (1855); Petersen, Das Gymnasium der Griechen (1858). See also N. Laisné, Gymnastique pratique (Paris, 1879); Collineau, La Gymnastique (Paris, 1884); L’Hygiène à l’école (Paris, 1889); P. de Coubertin, La Gymnastique utilitaire (Paris, 1905); H. Nissen, Rational Home Gymnastics (Boston, 1903).  (R. J. M.)