The Tennis Games of the Middle Ages
Heiner Gillmeister [+]
University of Bonn, retired
The tennis court of the aristocrats mirrored almost exactly the original venue in the cloisters where the openings of the roofed galleries had served as goals. A special feature of the game was the so-called chase rule which seems to go back to attack and counter attack in medieval tournaments. It was a rather complicated rule which has in modern times been likened to a game of chess in which players at the same time scrambled after a ball in order to hit it. Although in the beginning tennis balls could also been kicked as in football they were nevertheless mainly struck with the palm of the hand, hence one of the early names for the game, jeu de la paume. The racket and also the net, indispensible in modern tennis, were late in coming. Both made an appearance at the turn of the 16th century and only very recently has it been discovered that the net in the form of a line spanned across the court preceded the racket. At first, fringed tassels had to signal whether a ball had been struck over or under the line. The net seems to have been introduced as late as in the 17th century only. The progress from line to net is well documented by 16th and 17th century illustrations. The penthouse of the cloisters had been the inspiration to start a tennis rally by serving the first ball onto the slanting roof of the side gallery, a custom preserved in modern Real tennis. Its original purpose seems to have been to keep the opposing party at a distance. The roof as the target of the first ball was simply indispensible. As time went on, makeshift roofs where appended to the gables of houses facing a market square or even erected on the countryside for a match on mother earth. In popular varieties of the tennis family the roof eventually degenerated into a slanting corn sieve or a stone slab onto which the first ball had to be bounced. At an early stage in the evolution of the game the pain caused by the heavy blows dealt to the hard tennis balls had led to the use of gloves in order to soothe it. When in the 1940s an autopsy of the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier brought to light a deformation of his hand characteristic of pelota players it was decided to make him the patron saint of Basque pelota, a distant relative of tennis. Wood bats called palet then took over before around the turn of the 16th century the racket strung with sheep gut became the final solution to the problem. The hardness of the medieval tennis ball was due to its being stuffed with hair and its cover which consisted of leather. As a rule, medieval tennis was a team game with three players on either side. In popular varieties teams with five, seven or even more players were by no means unusual. In most of them specific challenge rites apparently inherited from the chivalric tournament had to be strictly observed.