The Origins of Tennis: The Monks' Racket
Heiner Gillmeister [+]
University of Bonn, retired
According to Caesarius of Heisterbach of the Order of Cîteaux tennis was known in Paris around the middle of the twelfth century. At the same time, the testimony of John Beleth suggests that at the beginning the game was played by monks in the cloisters of their monasteries. These early sources at least cast doubt on rather speculative theories of the origins of the game. Tennis is neither a continuation of ball games played by the Romans nor has it its roots in a fertility rite of ancient Egypt. That it goes back to a rural game which eventually found its way into the towns can also been ruled out. The uniformity of its rules and the almost exclusively French vocabulary in a real host of varieties the world over demonstrates that, to borrow a term from ‘sociology, the cultural surplus value of a majority, the clerical intellectuals of the Middle Ages, was imposed on a minority. By linguistic analysis it can be shown that the vocabulary of tennis was an adaptation from that of sports preceding it, medieval football and, ultimately, the chivalric tournament. Early tennis, therefore, can be conceived of as the more peaceful variety of football played in the cloisters. Tennis is first illustrated in the genre of the medieval book of hours and as early as ca 1300 instanced in a book from the workshops of Cambrai in the north of France. The miniature suggests that in the beginning tennis was a team game with several players on either side. In due course, the game of the cloistered clergy was encroached upon by young aristocrats who had received their education in the monastery and later established it in their castles and manors. It thus also became part of the education of princes and had even kings among its addicts. Unfortunately, we only learn about their passion from accounts of the fatal consequences it had for them. Notable examples of royal tennis tragedies were Louis X and Charles VIII of France and James I of Scotland. We are also informed about tennis playing kings in account books where their pecuniary losses at the game were documented. That tennis had kings among its practitioners has led to the erroneous belief that the name for the modern version of the old game, Real tennis, originally meant Royal tennis and that tennis, therefore, was the ‘Game of Kings’. However, the term Real tennis was coined in the late 19th century when its followers claimed that there were still playing the ‘real’ game and not lawn tennis, of late its immensely successful rival. Although there are throughout the Middle Ages many references to tennis playing monks we are mostly left in the dark as far as the nature of their game is concerned. The reason is that this kind of information comes from bans of the pastime from the monks’ superiors, sources from which a description of the demonized game could hardly be expected.