Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Balls


Who would have thought the French invented rugby? Well, the French for one…they claim that a game called la soule was brought to Britain by William the Conqueror but in fact la soule was just one of many rugby or football-like games played all over Europe in the Middle Ages. The game usually involved two rival villages. The villagers stood on neutral ground and the soule – often an inflated pig’s bladder or a piece of stitched leather filled with sawdust, bran or even dried dung – was thrown into the air. The aim was to get the soule to one’s own village by running or kicking it across country while fighting off the burly opponents. There were few rules and a soule match was a dangerous, violent and rowdy affair. No change there, then…

The French did invent tennis, though, that’s for sure. Real tennis – from royal tennis-began as the jeu de paume (palm game). It truly was ‘the game of kings and the king of games’ – Louis X died after a game (he drank water that was too cold) and Henri II was a champion among monarchs. King Charles V built the first known indoor court at the Louvre in 1368 and the French Revolution was hatched in the tennis court at Versailles, although this was because the would-be revolutionaries had been locked out of the assembly rooms.




It was invented by bored monks who started throw a ball made from a piece of cloth around the cloisters, hitting it with the palm of the hand when it fell back. Well, it beat Gregorian chants, I suppose. They began using harder balls which meant the players had to wear a glove to avoid injury (as in cricket and basketball today). Then a wooden bat was used and eventually a racquet, which had the form of a forearm and a palm. The racquet with strings of sheep gut, laced across the frame, was developed in the sixteenth century.

A rope was introduced and the ball had to be hit over this (later, of course, it became a net). Special bouncier balls were made by paumiers and when rubber was discovered, Parisian balls became a coveted booty for pirates. Please note that I have not made a single, unsavoury joke so far…



The word ‘tennis’ is a deformation of the phrase 'Tenez Messires’…roughly translated as ‘Take that, sirs’ which was uttered at the moment of service. One of the explanations for the strange scoring system of 15, 30, 40 is that it was based on the presence of a clock face at the end of the tennis court; another that in medieval French numerology, 60 was the equivalent of our 100. Doesn’t explain the 40, but still. The term 'deuce' is derived from the French deux meaning two and ‘love’ is possibly derived from the French l’oeuf meaning egg and symbolizing zero although there are more likely explanations.

When the finer days arrive, in dusty village squares all over France, in the shade of plane trees, elderly men in string vests and berets drink pastis and play boules. In Provence, the game is known as pétanque, a word derived from the provençal ped tanca or ‘feet together’. In 1910, a player called Ernest Pitiot suffering from rheumatism, was unable to do the little run before throwing his boule so he was allowed to throw it standing with his feet together. The tradition stuck – as did poor Ernest, no doubt. The image is very vivid…





In the game of boules Lyonnaises, the metal balls weigh nearly a kilo, bigger than those used in pétanque, and the player must run before ‘shooting’. In both games, the object is to throw one’s boule so that it lands as close as possible to the small wooden jack, called a cochonnet.

Billiards, it seems, is another French invention. Some say it originated as an indoor version of croquet – itself derived from a French game called la crosse. Some say it was the other way round. At least we know that the name comes from the French billart, the stick that was used, and this probably comes from the word bille, meaning ‘ball’. The game was played on a table covered with a green cloth and the object was to push a ball through a wicket to hit a peg. The narrow end of the stick came into play when using the club end would have made a shot difficult to control. This was called the queue from which we get ‘cue’. For a long time, women weren’t allowed to use this end of the biliart as it was feared they would rip the cloth…that was the official reason, at any rate. I bet the real reason was that the men were simply terrified of losing to the ‘weaker sex’…

I have never learnt to play tennis and I’m no great fan of football but I did play pétanque once. It is a more skilful game than it looks and gets even more difficult after a few glasses of pastis…still, at least I didn’t have to wear a string vest. That would have put everybody off their shot…

10 comments:

mlle smith said...

OMG, I miss reading your blog! So funny, my guyfriend and I were debating "what France has actually invented" last night...I'm surprised that he didn't suggest football.


I love the entire New Zealand Rugby team and in my mind, I'm a polygamist married to all of them.

:ol

Rugby fever is all over the place out here and the French are all huffy about France's recent rugby loss...

*S*

sablonneuse said...

That was most interesting once again. It's good to see you back.

Roads said...

That's fascinating Gigi - I didn't realise there was so much to all these games.

Particularly intrigued by how tennis and petanque got their names. I can dine out on info like that for years to come - so many thanks !

Mousie said...

Thanks for such an enlightening piece - your blog is always good for a bit of culture.

But I cannot tell a lie... my eyes somehow kept returning to the pic at the top of the page!!

Jonas said...

A delightful read! Thanks.

bluevicar said...

Oh la la...who knew? So much history of so much fun!

Meilleurs voeux!!

Sarah said...

I didn't really get passed THE photo... OMG!

adam said...

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Gigi said...

Hmm - yes, well I know most of you couldn't get past the photo at the top...I only chose it because of its artistic merit, you know...

Minter said...

While there would be the temptation to talk about other inventions by the French in the realm of excues for losing, for example (my favourite: the snow was too cold at the Olympics), they have also invented the most complete ranking system for tennis... albeit perhaps a little too complicated (with 23 different levels as compared with 10 for the International Tennis Number system). Let's go England when it comes to Saturday night. And go les Bleus tonight (v Argentina).