Scholars tell us that hand-ball (jeu de paume in French) was played by the Greeks and the Romans, and by even earlier civilisations. There are references in the classics to a game that was played in a stone court, as is fives in our country today. Pilare, in Latin, was to play ball and pila was the word for a ball. Hence, palla in Latin and pelote in French.
The Roman legionaries, moving into Gaul, perhaps brought the custom of hand-ball with them. What is certain is that the game came to be played against the walls of town buildings and keeps of castles, and in and outside monasteries and ecclesiastical buildings. At a time when England held vast territories in France, the game was not slow to spread to our island. Indeed, the origin of the word tennis is thought to stem from the Anglo-Norman imperative tenetz! The cry of warning given by the server, “Take this! Play!”
Though tennis is traditionally styled the Game of Kings early records show that it was the ecclesiastical high-ups who first put their stamp of approval on the game. Prelates, Abbots and minor clergy played it with almost religious fervour. In certain provincial towns in France, the bishop of the diocese received a tithe of tennis balls on Easter Day. With choristers and schoolboys, the sport became a veritable craze and was frequently cited as a cause of truancy. The monastic type of building clearly lent itself to wall games, and it is thought that the eteufs or tennis balls were made from the discarded robes of monks.
During the Middle Ages, players began to protect their hands with a leather glove. Later this glove was to acquire gut strings in the style of a guitar. As this somewhat imperfect instrument evolved, a short six-inch handle came to be added to it. Early drawings depict this battoir and indicate that it was covered with vellum, a practice which led to the stealing of manuscripts by unscrupulous persons. A scholarly performer was once aghast to observe that his hired battoir was covered with still faintly decipherable fragments of a lost decade of Livy.
Throughout the history of the game great stress is laid on its therapeutic value. The Greek doctor Galen recommended it as the most salutary of all exercise. The first rules of tennis ever published- Hulpeau’s Ordonnance du Royal et honourable Jeu de la Paulme, Paris, 1592, began ”You gentlemen who desire to strive with another at tennis must play for the recreation of the body and the delectation of the mind, and must not indulge in swearing or in blasphemy against the name of God”. Pepys, in a diary entry of April 4th, 1668, writes, “…how my Lord of Pembroke says he hath heard the Quaker at the tennis-court swear to himself when he loses”.