One of my favourite accounts of skill comes from Roger Ascham’s Toxophilus: or the Art of Shooting. Writing in 1545 to promote the ancient English art of shooting with the longbow, Ascham describes the tight connection between expert performance and the pleasures associated with watching skilled action.
For this I am sure, in learning all other matters, nothing is brought to the most profitable use, which is not handled after the most comely fashion. As masters of fence have no stroke fit either to hit another, or else to defend himself, which is not joined with a wonderful comeliness. A cook cannot chop his herbs neither quickly nor handsomely, except he keep such a measure with his chopping-knives as would delight a man both to see him and hear him. Every handcraftman that works best for his own profit, works most seemly to other men’s sight. Again, in building a house, in making a ship, every part, the more handsomely they be joined for profit and last, the more comely they be fashioned to every man’s sight and eye.
The key word for Ascham here is ‘comeliness,’ a word which conveys the union of beauty, grace, and utility. He seems to be reaching for the same concepts that Olympic commentators invoke when they say of a pole vaulter, a diver, or a weightlifter that ‘she makes it look easy.’ Fluid rhythms, economy of movement, efficiency of technique –the actions that are the most pleasing to the eye are also those that produce the greatest utility. In archery, Ascham admires the almost seamless integration of the instrument with the skilled body of the archer (one wonders what he would have made of technology of modern bows).
Our colloquium next week on Practical Knowledge and Skill in Early Modern England will look at skill and practical knowledge in domains as diverse as science, natural philosophy, religion, and theatre. Will we find a common vocabulary for discussing skill across these fields?