I've been asked recently about good historical outdoor games for reenactors and I realized I hadn't put together a single, consolidated set of instructions for early modern handball as I currently teach it. So that's what this is.
This doesn't have any rules whose invention depends on the existence of purpose-built tennis courts, but it otherwise conforms to the rules given by Juan Luis Vives in 1540. The result is, I believe, a decent conjecture at how the game would have been played in southern Europe ca. 1500.
If you've ever played tennis, volleyball, or ping-pong, you're familiar with the basic idea of early modern handball: there's a rope across the playing area, with each team on one side of it. They hit a ball back and forth, trying to send it where it can't be returned easily. There are a few key differences, however: first, any walls around the playing area are in play and rebounding the ball off them is good tactics; second, there are no paddles or rackets, so the ball is instead struck with the bare hands; finally, the scoring rules are a bit more complex than in ping-pong.
Equipment and Field.
Handball is played wherever is convenient, usually alongside at least one wall, by teams ideally composed of 2 or 3 people each. The playing area has no firm boundaries, and if the ball ricochets off the wall(s), that's entirely legitimate (and it's often good tactical play). Players should be aware of any nearby low roofs, drains, or other places where a ball can be easily lost; if there are any, I recommend having more than one ball, just in case.
The playing area is divided in half by a rope. This should run roughly perpendicular to the wall (if there is one in play), and should not be taut. At its lowest point, it should be approximately the height of the players' waists; at its ends, whatever is convenient for finding a place to anchor it to will do, but I usually aim for a little under shoulder height if that's convenient.
The only other necessary piece of equipment is a ball. This should be a bit smaller than a modern tennis ball, not terribly bouncy, and not hard enough to hurt when it strikes your open hand at speed. Historically this should be a soft leather exterior (probably dark in color) stuffed as tightly as possible with scraps of fabric, which are easy enough to make (I describe mine here); in the absence of a proper historical ball, a hackey sack or koosh ball are probably the best widely-available commercial substitutes.
Playing the game.
To begin, one team should choose which side of the playing area to start on, while the other team serves first. A serve is made by tossing the ball gently into the air, shouting, and then striking the ball with the open hand to deliver it to the other side of the rope. After this, the ball is struck back and forth between the two teams until it hits the ground. The ball may not be caught.
If the ball hits the ground and bounces, it may still be returned after a single bounce. If it hits the ground a second time, or hits the ground once and stops or rolls, this is considered a fault by the team whose side of the rope it is on. If the ball is returned under the rope instead of over, this is also a fault by the team doing so.
When the team that is serving commits a fault, the ball is given to the other team to serve. When the team that is not scoring commits a fault, the other team keeps serving and scores a fifteen (see below). Finally, when the ball is lost, the team that didn't touch it last scores. (Note that, except in the event of a lost ball, only the serving team can score; the other team can only win the chance to serve.)
Scoring is in "fifteens", meaning a team's score is reported as fifteen when they have scored once, thirty when they have scored twice, and so forth. When a team has scored forty-five, however, they are also said to have "advantage." If the other team then gets up to forty-five, the score is given as "equal." At this point, no further numbers are added. If the score is equal and one team scores, they now have advantage; if a team without advantage scores on one with it, it returns to equal. If a team with advantage scores, they have "victory" and win the "limit" (also called the "sign"). This is equivalent to saying that the team that wins the limit is the first team to a) score four fifteens and b) score at least two more fifteens than their opponents.
After a limit is won, the teams change sides of the playing area and the team which lost the limit is given the first serve. A game is won by the first team to win a predetermined number of limits, usually two.
I find that two questions come up regularly that aren't addressed at all in any primary source: first, whether the ball can be passed from one teammate to another (rather than being returned directly), and second, whether it may be kicked or otherwise struck with parts of the body that aren't the hands. My own preferred house-rule answers are no to both, but choosing otherwise is no less consistent with our sources.
Spirit of the game.
According to Juan Luis Vives (1540), a major historical source, handball is a game played "to refresh the spirit tired by serious matters." To that end, we are instructed to play all games, including this one, as follows:
"While the game is going on, show yourself to be completely affable, glad, delicate, good humored without falling into gracelessness or disrespect; give no sign of deception, dishonorable play, or avarice; do not be stubborn in disputes, and above all make no oaths; remember that the entire activity (even if you're in the right) is not so important as to invoke the name of the Lord in testimony. Remember that the spectators are like the judges of the game; if they offer a judgement, accept it without giving any sign of disapproval."