A game of fives in 1463

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This article by Charles Stevens was first published in the 1977 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Fives and drinks

One summer evening in 1463, after dining with the Seigneur of Rosel and his wife at the manor, a man known as Jouen Hareford went out to play fives in the fives court at the manor barn. He had two partners, Jehan Germain and Jean Crapedot, and they played against three opponents, who lost three games, one gallon of beer to each game - a century or so later the stake might well have been cider - and they went forthwith to drink it in the tavern of Colin Marguet near St Martin's Church.

Thus refreshed, these six young men played a return match at the tavern. This time Hareford and his partners lost, and the stake of two further gallons of beer was enjoyed in the tavern. A final match was then proposed, but Marguet would not hear of it, because it was well after sunset, and he and his wife had arranged to have supper in St Helier. No doubt he also felt that the players had had quite enough refreshment already.

This is not a fairy-story, but the burden of sworn statements made by two witnesses in the trial of Regnault Lempriere, Seigneur of Rosel, for alleged treason against the occupying regime of the invader Maulevrier. You may read it in all its absorbing detail in the Annual Bulletin for 1924.

It was no laughing matter. Lempriere was on trial for his life. All the 16 witnesses who testified in the proceedings, which were held in Gorey Castle from 10 to 19 December 1463, were aware of the gravity of the occasion, and told as much of the truth as they dared. As they spoke, their words were meticulously written down in medieval French by a man who obviously knew how to compile a case record.

Of its kind, it is faultless. But unfortunately the document is incomplete; some of the opening evidence is missing, and the judgement and sentence are not included. It is more than likely that Lempriere was found guilty, and executed soon after Christmas. He had been in gaol in the castle since August.

It is not, however, with the politics of those cruel, vindictive and merciless days that this brief note is concerned, but solely with the delightful game of fives, which flashes across this grim narrative as a reminder of the camaraderie and happiness which young men of western Europe have had from this game since the early middle ages.

Paulme

The word used for it in the Lempriere case is paulme, which is the Old English and Old French form of the Latin palma, meaning the palm of the hand. Paulme meant palm-play, hand tennis, or play with the flat of the hand, which is exactly what fives is.

To strike a hard ball with the bare palm can be painful, especially in cold weather, and as time went on gloves were used; strings were then stretched over the glove, to impart greater momentum, and a short handle was introduced, to relieve the hand of all discomfort. This stringed glove on a handle was the ancestor of the racquet, and what began as palm-play became tennis.

The French language uses jeu de paume for both, and for this reason the game played by the lads of St Martin in 1463 is sometimes referred to as tennis. But was it?

The earliest form of tennis, known as real tennis, was and still is played in a specially constructed building, 96 by 32 feet, with walls, roof, pent-house, openings, galleries, netting and other elaborations, and rules of much complexity.

Those who could not afford these luxuries took the game out of doors, and played it, mutatis mutandis, on any grass plot they had, with rules to suit local conditions. But it was not until 1877 that lawn-tennis was standardised on a court measuring 78 by 36 feet, with the same scoring (15, 30, 40, game) as in real tennis.

Long before that, tennis was being played in one form or another, indoors and out. In 1599 Shakespeare mentions tennis balls, and in 1608 a tennis court. In 1617-19 there was a tennis court inside Gorey Castle, mention being made of ‘the Chapple and other houses in the tennis Courte’, and ‘the Stoare howse in the Tennis Courte’, which read as if it was either an outdoor court surrounded by sundry buildings, or a real tennis court, disused and built over.

Courts

I doubt if any purpose-built courts of this kind existed in St Martin in 1463. The players would have been content with something far simpler. At Rosel play was "en la court sur la granche de l'hostel"; at St Martin it was "sur l'ostel dudit Marguet". 'Sur' normally means above or on; but first-floor rooms in 15th century barns or taverns are unlikely to have had sufficient height, area or light for a game of this kind.

Elsewhere in the case a man is described as "apuye sur ung dresseur en la salle", or leaning against a dresser in the hall; and 'against' may be the right translation for 'sur' in the descriptions of fives; in which case, the front wall of the court was the back wall of the barn or tavern, and the side walls, if any, were those of adjacent buildings.

The game played was no doubt, in essence, the hitting of a ball with the hand against a wall, possibly above some bar or line. It has been played ever since man invented a resilient ball, and the "age-old pleasure" derived from it has been eloquently described in Country Life.

Though seldom in the news, it has become increasingly popular with the players. As long ago as 1365, under the name pila manualis, its lure was such as to cause a deterioration in archery.

In 16th century France it was not unusual for enthusiasts, after attending mass in the village church or manor chapel, to play fives against the church wall or in the manor courtyard. The game was also played at the market, or at any other place which offered a smooth blank wall. At Eton College, founded in 1440, there was a fives-court for the asking between two buttresses of the chapel, and its contours have been copied, with variations, in fives-courts up and down England.

A plain court with a front wall and two side walls was developed at Rugby, and many of these are still in use, some having a tambour or chamfer in the left-hand wall to add incident to the game.

On Victoria College Field you will see three plain fives-courts with tapering side walls. A roof was often added, to enable play in wet weather; and the addition of a back wall can greatly enhance the scope and excitement of the game.

Play can be singles or doubles. The modern fives-ball has a hard rubber core bound with twine and encased in white kid. I have no idea what kind of ball Hareford and his friends used. It might have been of wood. Nor can I suggest how they scored. But score they did. Gallons depended upon it.

Etymology

Fives and tennis have an amusing feature in common, that the words have baffled etymologists. Tennis, written tennes or tenys in Old English, and tenisia or teniludium in mediaeval Latin, has been derived rather half-heartedly from the French 'tenez', meaning 'take my serve', which the server was supposed to cry; but I find no evidence that he did, nor that this was his only or most important observation during the game.

I suspect that tennis or tennes means just what it says, a game of tens, and that scoring went in tens instead of units, as to some extent it still does. Fives has been said to mean five aside, but the fives-court is not large, and ten men milling about in it would make for chaos.

Another suggestion is that fives means that all five fingers are at work, which in fact they are not, though fives has been used in sporting slang for the fists. Alternatively the name may refer to the scoring, which runs in units from 1 to 15. If 14-all is reached, the best of five points is then played for and these points, being decisive, may have given their name to the game.

I wonder if fives is still played by young men on an evening out. I hope so, for there is no more healthful or companionable way of spending one's leisure. My only comment on the description of how it was played 500 years ago is that one plays much better if refreshments are withheld until the match is over. My friend and fellow-member, H R S Pocock, who played fives for Oxford University in 1926, agrees with me. So, I am sure, would Colin Marguet have done, if I had had the pleasure of making his acquaintance and playing on his court.

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