In one form or another, hand-ball has been played since Pre-classic Mesoamerican times – as early as 2000 BC. Certainly, the Mayan Civilization played – and celebrated – hand-ball on a grand scale.
In the Classics, Herodotus (484 – 425 BC) attributes the invention of the ball to the Lydians: Anagalla, a distinguished woman of Corcyra (Corfu), presents a ball to Princess Nausikaa of Phœacia. In Book Six of Homer’s Odyssey, a shipwrecked Odysseus emerges from the sea as Nausikaa and her handmaidens play by the shoreline:
bq. O’er the green mead the sporting virgins play,
Their shining veils unbound, along the skies,
Tost and retost, the ball incessant flies. – Homer’s Odyssey, Book Six (Tr. Alexander Pope, 1726)
Elsewhere in the Classics, one finds references to a ball game played inside a stone court. It’s been suggested that Roman legionaries may have introduced hand-ball to ancient Gaul: in Latin Pila was the word for a ball; Pilare was to play ball – hence, palla in Italian and pelote in French
Jeu de Paume came to be played against building walls, castle keeps and in – and outside – monasteries and churches. Although styled ‘The Game of Kings’, it was firmly established among ecclesiastical orders long before Royal patronage. Monastic buildings clearly lend themselves to wall games and it’s believed that the esteufs, or tennis balls, were made using old, discarded religious robes. In some French provincial towns, the Bishop of the diocese received a tithe of tennis balls on Easter Day – and tennis was sometimes cited as a cause of truancy among choristers and schoolboys.
With the English Crown possessing vast swathes of what we now know as France, Jeu de Paume soon made its way across the channel. Jeu de Paume caught on: Universities and private entrepreneurs built courts, and by 1292 there were at least 13 tennis ball makers in Paris. While the common man played in streets and courtyards, the nobility built private courts. As Jeu de Paume’s popularity grew, so too did attempts to control and restrict. In 1397, the Chief Magistrate of Paris forbade play on any day but Sunday, commenting
‘Tradesmen and common folk are quitting their tasks and their families during working hours, a state of affairs highly injurious to the good order of the public.’
Across The Channel, the English Crown was becoming anxious at falling standards of bowmanship. In 1365 it was decreed that commoners should spend Sundays and holidays practicing archery instead of playing tennis and gambling. This edict was renewed in 1388, when it took the form of ‘sumptuary’ or ‘class’ legislation: servants and labourers were to find their pastime in bows and arrows only: tennis, football, etc were prohibited. In 1410 this latter statute was re-enacted and confirmed: those convicted were liable to 6 day’s imprisonment.
Although Galen – arguably the most famous Physician, Surgeon and Philosopher of antiquity – recommended handball as a fine form of exercise, exercise in itself was considered appropriate only as a preparation for battle. The sixteenth century, though, saw a growth of interest in physical fitness. In Il Cortegiano (‘Book of the Courtier,’ 1527) Baldassare Castiglione describes tennis thus:
‘A noble sport, highly suitable for the courtier…for this shows how physically well-built he is; how quick and agile’
In The Scholemaster (1570) Roger Ascham asserts that tennis is ‘not only comely and decent, but also very necessary, for a courtly gentleman to use’. In 1581, Richard Mulcaster, the head of two London schools writes.
The racketers in tennis play… must show themselves nimble without straining’. Tennis, he writes ‘is very good for the arms…is a great furtherer to strength; it quickeneth the eyes… it helpeth the ridgebone [spine] by stooping, bending and coursing about.
In 1598, King James I (and VI of Scotland) prepared a book outlining the correct education of a Renaissance Prince. “…the caitch or tennise”, says the King, is among the
“exercises of the bodie most commendable…such honest games and pastimes, as may further abilitie and maintaine health”
Jeu de Paume burgeoned during the seventeenth century. There were active courts in France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and the Habsburg Empire. In 1600, a Venetian ambassador to Paris wrote that the city was home to 1800 courts! Although surely an exaggeration, there’s no doubt of the game’s popularity. On a visit from England in 1604, Sir Robert Dallington noted
‘I know not how many hundred there be in Paris; but of this I am sure: that if there were in other places the like proportion, there must be two tennis courts for every one church throughout France.’
Before the close of the eighteenth century though, game fixing and gambling scandals had tarnished Jeu de Paume’s reputation. The French Revolution too, would have a profoundly deleterious effect on the game’s popularity: commoners were reluctant to play a sport so clearly aligned with both The Church and Aristocracy. The Noble families of Europe, meanwhile, were more concerned with keeping their lands, their status – indeed, their heads – than playing ball games. In and around Paris, disused courts were converted into synagogues, storerooms, gymnasia, workshops – even sheep pens; most notably though, they were used as theatres. Today, you can count the number of active French courts on the fingers of one hand.
In Victorian England, tennis enjoyed a revival: there was a flurry of new court construction – primarily as additions to private estates. Most courts in use today are from this period.
Elsewhere during this period, courts were built in Hobart, Australia (1875), Boston USA (1876), and New York (1890), and later, at athletic clubs in several other US cities. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, broad public interest had shifted to the newly-conceived game of lawn tennis.