jeu de paume

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real tennis


lawn tennis

François Rabelais (c. 1494—1553) French satirist


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A ball game in which the ball was propelled by the palm (‘paume’) of the hand against a wall, the predecessor of a racket-based variant in France; its English counterpart was real tennis, and what was developed as lawn tennis; its Spanish equivalent is pelota. Historical legend attributes the death of France's Louis X to exertions at paume; playing ‘with his last ounce of strength’ in the woods at Vincennes in 1316, he rested in a cave where he drank so much water that he ‘took a chill’, and died of a consequent fever. The sport remained popular among the clergy and the nobility despite royal proclamations blaming it, among other games, for contributing to the neglect of cultivation of ‘manly arms’. Paume was included in the catalogue of sports compiled by Rabelais, and his hero Pantagruel included ‘a ball in one's breeches’ and ‘a racket in one's hand’ as one of the sought-after skills—along with dancing and a law degree—that was looked for in the professional (‘doctor’) of the day. At the time (the early 16th century), Orléans, where Pantagruel was making such a hit, had forty paume courts; Paris had well over a thousand; and by the mid 16th century, the game was increasingly often played with the racket rather than the palm of the hand.

Imported to Scotland and England, jeu de paume became not just adopted but renamed, as ‘tennis’. In the 17th and 18th centuries in France, paume often shared the same premises and programme as theatrical comedy. The sport never revived to its mid-16th-century level of popularity, and in 1789 the covered courts at Versailles were transformed into the headquarters of the Revolution's National Assembly. French paume masters crossed La Manche to find work in teaching the sport among the English leisured classes, and laid the basis for the boosting of the profile of real tennis, and the late-19th-century development of lawn tennis. A lavishly illustrated account of jeu de paume is provided in chapters 3–6 of Gianni Clerici's Tennis (1976).

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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