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Tennis: The Game of Kings
Many of the stories of the 1632 Universe relate to the flow of ideas—technological and social—from the up-timers to the down-timers. But the flow can be in the other direction, too. My story "The Chase" (Ring of Fire 2) relates how the up-timers learn about the ancient form of tennis—Royal Tennis—from Thomas Hobbes and William Cavendish.
In the Renaissance, tennis was truly the Game of Kings. Its royal proponents included Henry IV and Louis XIII of France, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and Henry VIII, Charles I and Charles II of England. Charles I (reigned 1625-49) was willing to rise at five or six in the morning in order to get in a set of tennis.
But the royals weren't the only fans. There were tennis courts associated with several universities and academies. English yeomen were rebuked for swinging rackets instead of practicing their archery. In 1451, the Bishop of Exeter threatened to excommunicate the canons and their secular confederates who played tennis in the churchyard of Saint Mary's. In 1558, British hatters and joiners were observed playing tennis for a stake of one crown.
In 1590, King Henry IV played tennis against the bakers of Nantes. They won, and refused his request for a rematch. The next day, the king announced that the price of bread in Nantes would be one and half pennies to the loaf. The bakers promptly apologized. (Aberdare, 37)
The game the up-timers call tennis was known, until recently, as lawn tennis. While the Wimbledon tournament is still played on a grass court, most modern outdoor tennis courts now use other surfaces: red clay, green clay, or cement. Moreover, the modern game can be played indoors. Given that the old name is now a misnomer, and the original form of tennis is now somewhat obscure, it is not surprising that "lawn tennis" is now known simply as "tennis."
This forced the remaining proponents of the older game to come up with a distinctive name for it. It is called "real tennis" (U.K.), "court tennis" (America), "royal tennis" (Australia) and jeu de paume (France). I will follow William's example and use the term "royal tennis" here.
Since lawn tennis was invented in 1873, any reference to "tennis" before that year is actually to the older game.
France was the heartland of seventeenth-century royal tennis. Even small towns could have a court. In Orleans, there were sixty. The estimates of the number of tennis courts in Paris, circa 1600, range from 250 to 1,800; Sir Robert Dallington was sure that there were two tennis courts for every church. (Aberdare, 38; Squires, 12). Some form of tennis was also played in Italy, England, Scotland, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the Holy Roman Empire.
As of 1632, there were tennis courts in several towns of the Holy Roman Empire, including Vienna (two-1526, 1552), Salzburg (1620s?), Augsburg (1548), Frankfurt, Nurnberg, Halle, Heidelberg (two-built 1548, 1618), Munich, Kassel, Tubingen (1592?), Ingoldstadt (1593/4), Strasbourg (two-first in 1603), Ziegenhain, Basle, Marburg, Darmstadt, Butzbach, Giessen, Lubeck, Jever, Cologne (1595), Oldenburg, Buckeburg and Prague (1568). The last court was used by Wallenstein in 1604.
The first Swedish court was built at the behest of Eric XIV (1560-8). I don't know its fate, but another royal court was built in 1627, for Gustavus Adolphus.
Hobbes and Tennis
Thomas Hobbes played tennis even when he was in his seventies. John Aubrey said that this occurred "twice or thrice a year," while Samuel de Sorbiere has the elderly Hobbes on the court "once a week." Both men knew him personally.
Presumably, Hobbes learned the game when he was at Oxford (Magdalen Hall). There were at least four courts on the university grounds.
The poet George Wither was a fellow Magdalen student, and in 1604, "he found more delight in 'practice at the tennis-ball' than in practice at 'old Scotus, Seton, and new Keckerman.'" (Littell's The Living Age, 174, July-Sept. 1890). In 1628, a Fellow of Merton wrote that the marks of the seniority of a university man were "the bare velvet of his gown and his proficiency in tennis, where when he can once play a set, he is a freshman no more." (17C tennis, 46)
After receiving his B.A. in 1608, Hobbes "associated" at Cambridge — possibly because his first pupil and companion, William's father, was attending that university. At Cambridge, he would have had ample opportunity to feed a tennis addiction; there were at least eleven courts at that school. (Aberdare, 46).
I have not found any indication of whether the historical William Cavendish played the game. However, in the story, he attends a French academy, and would certainly have had tennis lessons there.
Tennis was first played outdoors. In France, once indoor courts were built, the game played outside was called longue paume (the long game), and the indoor version courte paume (the short game)(Squires 10).
The outdoor game was initially associated with monasteries, and most (but by no means all) authorities believe that the game was invented by monks.
A standard feature of monastery architecture is the cloister, a square or rectangular courtyard flanked on each side by a "penthouse," a gallery with a sloped roof. In the monastery, the galleries were animal stalls, or colonnaded walks, but in the dedicated tennis court, they provided space for spectators. Some openings became winning openings, while others, if targeted, led to a special proceeding (the "chase").
When the game was played in the cloisters, you needed either lots of players on each side, or an out-of-bounds line. Even with the line, you had to run after the ball a lot.
This ad hoc court posed other problems. Antonio Scaino (1555) soberly considers what to do if one of the shots touches a passing cart, and is then returned. His judgment is that if the ball bounced up, or was still rolling, as a result of the original impetus, then it remained in play. However, if the ball had come to a stop, and was then "scooped up," then the ball was dead at wherever the cart had been when the ball came to rest (61). I wonder what John McEnroe would have made of that call.
Noblemen sent their children to study in the monastery, and the kids took the game home with them and, as adults, built courts designed for tennis. Initially, these looked like half-built cloisters, with penthouses on three sides.
The customized courts replaced the out-of-bound line with a wall (now called the "main wall"), reducing the time wasted hunting for errant balls. But it was still possible to hit the ball so it sailed right over the penthouse, and that was inconvenient. The solution was to surround the penthouses with high walls.
From there, it was just a small step to making the players free of concerns over the weather by placing a roof overhead. In order to provide light, the upper story of the building was a clerestory.
While lawn tennis can be played indoors, the only purpose of the walls is to hold up the roof that keeps the rain out; in royal tennis, the walls are playing surfaces, as in the later game of squash.
By Scaino's time, the gallery behind the receiver was walled up so as to leave only a single opening called the grille. Its wall was therefore called the grille wall, and the penthouse above it, the grille penthouse. A cloister, technically, is a space closed to outsiders, and the grille was the opening where the monks communicated with visitors. This historical tidbit was no doubt of less interest to the players of Hobbes' day than the fact that it counted as a winning opening for the server.
There was less consistency in how the opposing penthouse, behind the server, was structured. The court at Halle, and the one simulated at the Higgins Hotel, are of the kind known as jeu a dedans, because they kept the large goal-gallery (dedans) at the server's rear. This also acted as a spectator area.
In contrast, some courts (jeu carre) replaced the dedans with one or more of three different types of smaller winning openings. The ais was a tall narrow recess, with a wood plank six feet high and one foot wide suspended in front of it. The trou was a square hole at ground level, while the lune was round and high up (like a full moon). At some courts, at least, getting a ball through a lune didn't just win a point, it won the entire game.
The Tubingen court was a jeu carre, and so, too is the surviving court at Falkland Castle. All other modern courts are of the jeu a dedans type.
We still need to describe the galleries (openings) under the side penthouse, facing the main wall. There are four on each side of the net, and only the one on the receiver's side, furthest from the server is a winning opening (it is called the "winning gallery"). These side galleries, and the dedans if any, are best thought of as being window-like, since the openings don't reach all the way to the floor.
Both sides can be divided into a forecourt nearer the net, and a backcourt nearer the end wall. The side penthouse galleries flank the forecourt.
The three winning openings—the dedans on the server's side, and the winning gallery and the grille on the receiver's side—are each covered by a net, so the ball doesn't escape, and the net is fitted with bells, which are rung by the hit, so there is no doubt that a point has been scored.
Some courts put a kink into the main wall, called the tambour ("drum"). Many scholars believe that the tambour was derived from, or imitative of, the buttress of church architecture. Whatever its origin, the tambour is shown on Scaino's 1555 plan of the tennis court at the Louvre. In general, the jeu a dedans courts had the tambour, while the jeu carre didn't, but there were exceptions.
The practical significance of the tambour is that if you hit a shot off the sloped section (the "face"), it changes direction ninety degrees. If the face is hit properly, the rebound is straight toward the "winning gallery," one of the winning openings on the receiver's side.
The "Tennis Court Oath" was one of the signature events of the French Revolution (1789). The delegates of the Third Estate (peasants and bourgeoisie), locked out of their normal meeting room, gathered instead in the royal tennis court, and swore not to disband until they received a written constitution. There is a famous painting of this scene by Jacques-Louis David; look closely, and you should be able to see two penthouses and the tambour.
The seventeenth century court probably had a flagstone floor. Dimensions varied. Henry VIII had four courts at Whitehall: the giant "Brake" (130 X 40 feet), and three smaller ones (78 X 22, 72 X 18, 60 X 18)(Abeldare, 41). The Louvre court was 114 X 38 feet, and the royal court in Stockholm, 104 X 44.
The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article on "Tennis" (EB11) suggests that the floor, not counting the penthouses, be about ninety-six feet long and thirty-two feet wide. The dimensions recommended by De Garsault's 1767 treatise are almost identical; ninety by thirty.
In contrast, a lawn tennis court has an in-bound area which is just seventy-eight feet long and twenty-seven feet wide (thirty-six for doubles).
In royal tennis as played today, a ball is out of bounds if it hits the ceiling, or strikes a wall above a line marked for that purpose. The concept of a height limit is expressed, somewhat obliquely, by Scaino; it appears to have been the maximum height reachable with a racket by one of the players (the tallest?) (62).
According to EB11, the vertical fault line should be eighteen feet high at the sides and twenty-three feet high at the ends. In contrast, the vertical distance from the floor to the tie-beam is thirty feet.
For the cost of building a seventeenth century tennis court, there is data from Cambridge University. The one at Trinity College was pulled down, then rebuilt in 1611 for 120 pounds (Willis). That is equivalent to about $50,000 (in year 2000). Of course, the size of the court, and its design (wood or stone, roofed or roofless) will affect the price.
The court is divided by a net. Its original purpose was to keep the two sides separated, so they didn't fight. One side of the court is the serving side, the other side is the receiving, or "hazard," side.
The first illustration showing a net—more accurately, a simple rope dividing the court—was painted in 1540. However, thirty years later you could still find depictions of tennis in which the line was missing.
While the rope discouraged players from crossing into "enemy territory," and then brawling with their opponents, it didn't quell dispute. Instead, the players argued as to whether the ball had gone above or below the line. There is a case from Antwerp in 1567 in which this led to one player murdering the other.
The solution was to hang fringes down from the line, so that the under-passage of the ball would make an obvious disturbance. A fringed net can be seen in the frontispiece of Charles Hulpeau's Le Jeu Royal de la Paulme (1632).
Racquets and Balls
Tennis evolved from a game in which the ball was hit with the hand—that is why the French still call it jeu de paume. This limited the power with which the ball could be struck. In the twelfth century, the players wore gloves; in the thirteenth, they added a thong binding (whose elasticity help propel the ball), and ...