Medieval Tennis: A Short History and Demonstration

British You Tuber Niko­las “Lindy­biege” Lloyd is a man of many, many inter­ests.

Wing Chun style kung fu…

Children’s tele­vi­sion pro­duced in the UK between 1965 and 1975…

Ancient weapon­rychain­mail, and his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate WWII mod­el minia­tures

Actress Celia John­son, star of the 1945 roman­tic dra­ma Brief Encounter

Evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gy

…and it would appear, ten­nis.

But not the sort you’ll find played on the grass courts of Wim­ble­don, or for that mat­ter, the hard courts of the US Open.

Lloyd is one of a select few who grav­i­tate toward the ver­sion of the game that was known as the sport of kings.

It was, accord­ing to a 1553 guide, cre­at­ed, “to keep our bod­ies healthy, to make our young men stronger and more robust, chas­ing idle­ness, virtue’s mor­tal ene­my, far from them and thus mak­ing them of a stronger and more excel­lent nature.”

Hen­ry VIII was a tal­ent­ed and enthu­si­as­tic play­er in his youth, caus­ing the Venet­ian Ambas­sador to rhap­sodize, “it was the pret­ti­est thing in the world to see him play; his fair skin glow­ing through a shirt of the finest tex­ture.”

Henry’s sec­ond wife, the ill-fat­ed Anne Boleyn, was also a fan of the sport, with mon­ey rid­ing on the match she was watch­ing when she was sum­moned to the Privy Coun­cil “by order of the King,” the first stop on her very swift jour­ney to the Tow­er of Lon­don.

The sport’s roots reach all the way to the 11th and 12th cen­turies when monks and vil­lagers in south­ern France were mad for jeu de paume, a ten­nis-like game pre­dat­ing the use of rac­quets, whose pop­u­lar­i­ty even­tu­al­ly spread to the roy­als and aris­to­crats of Paris.

The game Lloyd tries his hand at above is now known as Real Ten­nis, a term invent­ed in the 19th-cen­tu­ry to dis­tin­guish it from the then-new craze for lawn ten­nis.

Men­tion “the sport of kings” these days and most folks will assume you’re refer­ring to fox hunt­ing or horse-rac­ing.

Mind you, real ten­nis is just as rar­i­fied. You won’t find it being played on any old (which is to say new) indoor court. It requires four irreg­u­lar­ly sized walls, an asym­met­ri­cal lay­out, and a slop­ing pent­house roof. Behold the lay­out of a Real Ten­nis court by Ateth­nekos, com­pli­ments of  Eng­lish Wikipedia:

Com­pared to that, the Ten­nis Depart­ment’s dia­gram of the famil­iar mod­ern set up seems like child’s play:

Oth­er cog­ni­tive chal­lenges for those whose ver­sion of ten­nis does­n’t extend back to medieval days:  a slack net; lop­sided, tight­ly strung, small raque­ts; and a gallery of waist-high screened “haz­ards,” that are spir­i­tu­al­ly akin to pin­ball tar­gets, espe­cial­ly the one with the bell.

The hand­made balls may look sim­i­lar to your aver­age mass-pro­duced Penn or Wil­son, but expect that each will be “unique in its par­tic­u­lar quirks”:

They are not per­fect­ly spher­i­cal and these seams stick out a lit­tle bit more here and there, which means that the bounce can be rather unpre­dictable. Because these are heav­ier and hard­er, they don’t swerve when you spin them in the air very much, but when they hit a wall and get a decent grip, the swerve can send them zing­ing off along the wall to great effect.

Once Lloyd has ori­ent­ed view­ers and him­self to the court and equip­ment, Real Ten­nis pro Zak Eadle walks him through serv­ing, scor­ing, and strat­e­gy in the form of chas­es.

Quoth Shake­speare’s Hen­ry V:

His present, and your pains, we thank you for:
When we have match’d our rack­ets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God’s grace play a set,
Shall strike his father’s crown into the Haz­ard:
Tell him, he made a match with such a wran­gler, 
That all the Courts of France will be disturb’d with chas­es.

Even non-ath­let­ic types could find them­selves fas­ci­nat­ed by the his­tor­i­cal con­text Lindy­beige pro­vides.

If you’re moved to take rac­quet in hand, there are a hand­ful of Real Ten­nis courts in the USA, UK, Aus­tralia, and France where you might be able to try your luck.

The sport could use you. Esti­mates indi­cate that the num­ber of play­ers has dwin­dled to a mere 10,000. Sure­ly some­one is des­per­ate for a part­ner.

Delve fur­ther into the world of Real Ten­nis on the Inter­na­tion­al Real Ten­nis Pro­fes­sion­als Association’s web­site.

Check out some of Lindybeige’s oth­er inter­ests on his YouTube chan­nel.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch Accu­rate Recre­ations of Medieval Ital­ian Longsword Fight­ing Tech­niques, All Based on a Man­u­script from 1404

What It’s Like to Actu­al­ly Fight in Medieval Armor

The Rules of 100 Sports Clear­ly Explained in Short Videos: Base­ball, Foot­ball, Jai Alai, Sumo Wrestling, Crick­et, Pétanque & Much More

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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