Jeu de Paume traces its history as a sport back to the 11th century, when French monks played an early form of it, using the palms of their bare hands to volley cloth bags of hair and cork back and forth. Jeu de Paume means literally "game of palm." Over time the cloth bags gave way to balls, and wooden racquets were used for batting them.
Young nobles educated in monasteries brought the game home to their palaces and estates, and the sport caught on. Universities and entrepreneurs built courts, and by 1292 at least 13 Jeu de Paume ball manufacturers had set up shop in Paris.
The sport became a full-fledged craze, and Jeu de Paume mania conquered Paris. As the madness grew, attempts at containing it were common. In 1397 the chief magistrate of Paris forbade playing Jeu de Paume on any day but Sunday, because “tradesmen and common folk are quitting their jobs and their families in order to play Jeu de Paume during working hours.”
Though similar in ways to modern tennis, which derived from it, Jeu de Paume is a more complex and technical sport. Played on an indoor court featuring angled walls and netted windows, the game favors precision ball placement and mental strategies akin to chess. The game, then as now, features a sagging fringed rope "net."
When lawn tennis was simplified into its popular form in 1874, it appropriated the scoring system of Jeu de Paume, as well as some terminology. The word “tennis,” for example, derives from the old word “tenez” (in this usage meaning “here it comes!” or “let's play!”), which Jeu de Paume players shouted before each serve; the term “love” comes from “l'oeuf,” the French word for egg, as its oval shape represented zero.
Nearly all French royalty were familiar with the sport from the 13th century on, though no regent matched the enthusiasm of Henry II, who played daily at his palace court during his reign in the mid-16th century. Henry refused to allow deference for his royal status on the court, playing his games “clad in white, with white shoes also, and with a fine straw hat upon his head; when one sees him thus at his game one would scarcely realize that it is the king who is playing, for even his errors are openly discussed, and more than once he was taken to task.”
During this era, the French populace matched the royal obsession for Jeu de Paume: In 1600, a Venetian ambassador to Paris wrote that the city was home to more than 250 Jeu de Paume courts. An English visitor from that time noted that there were far more Jeu de Paume courts than churches in France.
Jeu de Paume even figured in Shakespeare's Henry V, first performed in 1599. Early in the play, the French Dauphin mockingly responds to Henry's claim on France by sending him a basket of Jeu de Paume playing balls.
Practicing one's back-hand (at right)
Jeu de Paume's gradual slide into obscurity began when fixed games and gambling scandals sullied its reputation in the late 17th century; it became marginalized into a purely aristocratic hobby. Disused courts around Paris were converted into synagogues, storerooms, gymnasiums, garages, sheep pens – and most notably theaters.
Old playing courts were particularly popular with performance troupes, and the origins of French public theater in Paume courts determined the elongated rectangular shape of theater designs well into the 18th century.
Molière's first plays were performed in converted Jeu de Paume facilities, causing Voltaire to shudder a century later at the notion “that for the first performances of Tartuffe there was no worthier accommodation than a Paume court, with the audience standing in the pit, and the dandies sitting amongst the actors on stage.”
During the French Revolution of 1789, the sport of Jeu de Paume almost vanished, since anything associated with the King was abolished. The very proclamation of the French Revolution became known as the "Oath of the Jeu de Paume Court" (Le Serment du Jeu de Paume), because the venue chosen for this announcement was the Royal Jeu de Paume Court at Versailles.
However, the game has managed to retain a small number of ardent followers and is especially popular in England. World titles in the sport were first competed in 1740 and continue to the present day, making Jeu de Paume men’s singles the oldest continuous championship event in sports.
Today the indoor game is referred to by English speakers as "court tennis," and there are fewer than 50 venues available for playing it worldwide. There are but ten court tennis facilities in the U.S. The newest, constructed in 1997, is located in McLean, VA (a suburb of Washington, DC).
Since the game favors strategy over brawn, a particularly agile and cunning player can dominate the game for years. Perhaps the most storied player of the game was Frenchman Edmond Barre, who retained the world championship a record 33 years, from 1829 to 1862. A flamboyant character, Barre would walk as many as 20 miles to play an exhibition match; he ALWAYS won. When invited to play in England, his terms were “fees and expenses, plus two wenches a day.” Indeed. Sometimes, when bored with the abilities of his opponent, Barre would handicap himself by playing an entire match with the umpire perched atop his shoulders. I kid you not.
Hôtel du Jeu de Paume
There is a tourist hotel on the Île St-Louis that is partly housed in an old Jeu de Paume court. A glass elevator that ascends to the bedrooms affords guests a stunning view of the full height of the playing court, the floor of which serves as the breakfast room. Note that the painting above the sideboard illustrates a 17th century Jeu de Paume match.