Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The origins of tennis

References to games of the jeu de paume family (often collectively called "tennis" in English) are abundant, and it appears to have originated not later than the twelfth century in France. (Wikipedia's page on the history of tennis contains an uncited assertion that this in turn derives from a beginning in 6th-century Portugal; while entirely possible, I haven't seen any references that put it anywhere near that early. Then again, rules of games are often passed on orally and could well originate way before the references start being quite so frequent.)

From France, the game naturally spread to the British Isles; English-language references first become especially frequent during the Hundred Years' War. (While Shakespeare's Henry V took some liberties with the details, the real Henry V is believed to have been an avid player.) For example, in 1437, James I of Scotland ordered a sewer stopped up because he kept losing his tennis balls down it. (Source.) Henry VIII of England was an especially devoted tennis player, and commissioned a tennis court to be built at Hampton Court. (This court still stands, albeit in a renovated form dating from the late 17th century, and is still in use to this day.) Court tennis today bills itself as the "sport of kings," and it is clear that historically it and its relatives were primarily recreational activities of the upper classes; while poorer people did play at least on occasion, they seem to have favored football and (at least in England) cricket.

But how was the game played? Rackets seem to have been a late 15th-century innovation; prior to their introduction, the ball would have been hit with the players' hands. Indeed, one early 15th-century English source still refers to the game as "tennesyng handball," implying that it is played with the hands. (The French name, jeu de paume, testifies to this origin also.) Many modern sports survive which are part of this family, and many of them have not embraced the use of rackets; American handball, Italian palla, Valencian pilota, and English fives, and even volleyball are all descended from the medieval jeu de paume as surely as court and lawn tennis, squash, and racketball.

Most modern sports in the jeu de paume family, with the prominent exception of lawn tennis, involve one or more walls which the ball might bounce off of. In the various forms of Valencian pilota, for instance, there is either a wall the players are alongside of, an alley they play in, or even a flight of stairs the ball can ricochet off. Court tennis, played on courts similar to those from the 16th and 17th centuries (and sometimes even on courts of that vintage!), uses a specially-built room for the game to take place in, with many architectural features that interact with gameplay. American handball is most often played next to a single wall (as is its kissing cousin "wall-ball," which was part of the folk culture of the middle school I attended). It is likely that early tennis was most commonly played beside a wall or in an alley.

Early jeu de paume very probably did use a rope or net as in modern tennis or volleyball; this is attested explicitly in a few sources (more on that in a later post) and in the fact that the Italian form was apparently known as pallacorda or "rope-ball" (indeed, several Italian cities have a narrow street somewhere named Via della Pallacorda or Via della Corda, implying they used to be popular places to play games) until sometime more recently. (Modern Italian palla doesn't use a rope.)

Some jeu de paume relatives use a system much like the laying of chases in court tennis, where one player sends the ball a particular distance and marks the floor accordingly and the other player is striving to match this distance to score. Others don't, with scoring much more along the lines of lawn tennis. I suspect (but cannot prove; the references just aren't there) that the simpler version is the original, but it's clear that by the middle of the 16th century the chase system had been invented and was in use in at least some variants of the game. The presence of marks on the floor of a court tennis court allows these to be judged and employed without constantly switching sides of the playing area; for outdoor games, this becomes a hassle. (As we'll see in a later post, I suspect it was done a fair amount anyhow in at least some variants.)

In a coming post, we'll look at a particular early modern game from the jeu de paume family, how I reconstruct it, and why I believe it was played that way in particular.

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