Friday, May 10, 2013

Playing handball

Given that the handball / jeu de paume family was a major sport for noblemen, how was it played?

Obviously, over the centuries the rules varied a fair amount. I think it reasonable to suspect, however, that the following points tended to be consistent:
 - In at least many of the early variants, only the side serving the ball is able to score. This may be enforced through a chase system as in court tennis (more on that below) or simply by having the receiving side play for the chance to serve. The first evidence for chases that I know of is the Vives dialogue, and he doesn't spell out exactly how they work.
 - A complex scoring system along the lines of the game/set/match concept in modern court and lawn tennis is almost certainly typical.
 - The game is played either against a wall or, likely far more ordinarily, in an alley between two walls with a rope demarcating the two sides or in an indoor room with four walls, again with a rope.
 - At least some variants probably do admit singles play, but team games were likely more common; note that Vives says a player might say "we have won the game" rather than "I have won," implying a default assumption of team play.

The chase system as it works in court tennis is an interesting variation in which the serving player "lays a chase" by winning a rally, marking the floor where the ball landed the second time; the other player must "play off" the chase by sending it at least as far to their opponent's side to win a rally (and gain the right to serve). This is facilitated by having lines along the floor at matching distances on both sides; otherwise, marks would have to be placed on the ground and then have the teams switch sides. Something similar is done in Valencian llargues and Italian palla today, and I don't know the specifics - if anybody's played either game, I'd love to hear more details.

What follows as the rest of the post is my reconstruction of Vives' Valencian game, as presented at Pennsic XLI in August of 2012. (This context is why it talks specifically of playing at historical recreation events in the Society for Creative Anachronism.) It assumes the best variant of court tennis chases that I could come up with for an outdoor game, and contains my best effort at presenting those first so as not to feel like an overwhelmingly confusing thing to add on top of the basic mechanics of tennis-like games. (They change the game at a rather fundamental level, in my opinion.) I don't consider this the last word on how historical jeu de paume games were played in general, or even on this game in specific, but it's my current best stab at what Vives was writing about, and it's certainly playable as described. The core assumption is that, modulo small differences in the scoring, the Parisian version in Dialogue XXII is court tennis almost exactly as it is played today. (Note that I refer to the game by a contemporary name from neighboring Italy, because following Vives in simply calling it "ball" creates some ambiguity. It is likely that the Italians played in a manner very nearly matching the Valencian version, or at least with enough similarity to satisfy Vives, who after all opines the French game is really the same thing except for the shoes and hats.)

Pallacorda is played in an outdoor court or alley consisting of a pair of roughly-parallel walls (a single wall will do when that is what is available, as at most SCA events) with a rope running between them (or to some anchor away from the wall) a little higher than the height of the players’ waists. The rope is not necessarily taut, and may be higher at the ends and drooping to an appropriate height depending what is convenient to anchor the ends to. The exact width of the court is not fixed, nor is there any guarantee that the walls will be straight or featureless; historically, this was a game played in city streets, which are rarely symmetric and are never identical to one another. All features of the court are “in play,” with the ball able to be rebounded off them according to the skill of the players.

The game is played in teams of two to five players. Generally the size of the two teams should be equal; if an odd number wish to play, keep the stronger players on the smaller team to try to balance the sides against one another. The game is to be played with a ball, spherical or nearly so, made of leather stuffed with other material to give it a bit of weight and a firm texture. The ball should bounce when thrown to the ground, but will not bounce nearly as much as those used in modern lawn tennis.

Much like the modern game of Horse, the object of pallacorda is to score fifteens (numeri “numbers” in Vives, usually called the equivalent of “fifteens” in modern Romance languages) by landing the ball somewhere the opposing players are unable to match.

Play begins with the two teams standing on opposite sides of the rope. One team serves the ball (for fairness’s sake, I suggest having the team that isn’t serving first choose which side to start on, since courts are almost never symmetric), and the other team returns it. This progresses much as in modern tennis or volleyball, with each team attempting to return the ball to the other. However, unlike modern tennis, there are no rackets; the ball is struck with bare hands.

When a team returns the ball, it must not bounce on their side of the court after they have touched it, and it must go over the rope rather than under. Failure to meet these requirements is considered a fault, and a fifteen is awarded to the other team. The ball is served again. It is also considered a fault to deliver the ball such that it gets stuck on a balcony, roof, or similarly inaccessible location, again awarding a fifteen to the opposing team.

If the ball bounces twice on the same side of the court before being touched by the team receiving it, the ball is dead and a mark is made on the ground where it landed the second time. The side of the court which the mark is on is now the “service side” (the other side is designated as the “hazard side”), and the teams switch places (so the team that delivered an unreturned ball is now on the service side). As long as there is a mark in play, the side it is on will continue to be the service side, from which every serve will be made.

The mark is removed from play if the team on the hazard side delivers the ball so that it lands on the service side further from the rope than the mark is. By surpassing the distance the other team landed the ball to place the mark, they have played it off successfully (much like matching an opponent’s shot in Horse). If the ball then immediately comes to rest without being returned, there is now no mark, and the team which played the mark off will serve next. If, however, the ball bounces once beyond the mark but is returned, the mark is ignored and play resumes as it would if the mark were absent (complete with the possibility of a new mark being made).

If, however, there is a mark in play and the team on the service side delivers the ball so that it cannot be returned, or the team on the hazard side delivers a ball which bounces twice but does not get past the mark, then the hazard side team has failed to play off the mark and the service side team scores a fifteen.

Pallacorda scoring is unusual, but resembles modern tennis scoring. When a team first scores, their score is fifteen, followed the next time by thirty, then by forty-five. (This is why the scores are called quinzes “fifteens” by players of modern Valencian pilota, and similar names in related sports.) When one team has forty-five and the other team does not, the higher-scoring team is said to have “advantage.” When the other team reaches forty-five, instead of advantage for one team, the score is given as “equal” (aequalitas) until one team scores, at which point they again have advantage. When a team which has advantage scores, they score “victory” (victoria), the score is reset, all marks currently in play are erased, and that team is awarded a sign (signum). The game (ludus) is won by the first team to win two signs. In other words, a team must win four fifteens to win a sign and two signs to win a game; the sign must be won by two fifteens, but there is no requirement that the game be won by two signs. (The number of signs needed to win a game may be changed by agreement of the players.)

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