Tennis in the Renaissance Literature
Heiner Gillmeister [+]
University of Bonn, retired
Increasing popularity of tennis in the 16th and 17th centuries manifested itself in the literature of the time, and especially in two literary genres, lyrical poetry and drama. The predominant method applied in the first was one inherited from the Middle Ages, the allegorical. Since God had created a world in which even the most mundane and trivial thing was fraught with spiritual meaning poets strove to discover it in the game of tennis, its rules, equipment and all its paraphernalia. Perhaps the most skilful poem from this category is that by the last of medieval courtly poets, Charles d’Orléans, written during his captivity. On the day of his forty-fifth birthday the poet realized that the game of his life had now, on the allegorical plane, reached a very critical point as at the score of 45 in a tennis game. His poem therefore is, perhaps, the first in literature dealing with what is now commonly referred to as midlife crisis. Most examples belonging to the genre and notably those poems gleaned from emblem books are of a moral or religious nature. They are meant to improve the morals of their readers. Occasionally however, and very unlike the example of Charles d’Orléans, the scoring method in tennis was given a rather frivolous allegorical explanation and a poem incorporated into his Parnasse satyrique by scallywag Théophile de Viau can serve as a case in point. On the stage the subject of tennis serves a different purpose. Because the game was characteristically the favourite pastime of the upper classes, the foibles of their representatives were here exposed by sly allusions to tennis, much to the delight of the groundling gloating over the misfortunes of his betters. Of course, as in the genre of the lyrical poetry the dialogue on the stage was never devoid of ribald allusions to the game of tennis.