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Michael Flannery

Part II: France, the Birthplace of Noble Ball Games


Background: In Part I - Was Scotland the Birthplace of Golf? - we saw that the famous 1457 edict by King James II, had nothing to do with golf but was, instead, directed at the violent hockey and football-like games that had raged on the continent since the thirteenth century, and become a threat to order and archery in Scotland. Peaceful club and ball target games had, however, long been documented in France. In this chapter, we'll draw upon unknown documentation and beautiful images to tell the story of the emergence of early golf-like and other important ball games in the Kingdom of the Franks.

Two barefoot boys, one with his crosse inverted, contest a large ball
Two barefoot boys, one with his crosse inverted, contest a large ball. Silver gilt enamelled ewer (burette), Paris ca. 1330, attributed to Jean Pucelle. (Courtesy Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, and Golf Through The Ages)

Our story begins in Paris, which derives its name from a Celtic tribe called the Parisii, who pitched camp on the banks of the Seine about 250 BC. The Romans, who conquered the city in 52 BC, called it Lutetia Parisiorum, Lutetia of the Parisii. Around 360 during the brief reign of Julian Apostate, the name Paris was adopted. Until well into the early Middle Ages, Paris was little more than a simple provincial centre, but that was to change radically when it became the capital city of the Capets.

Hugues Capet, first king of modern France (987-996), was founder of the Capetian dynasty in which the crown of France passed directly from father to son for eight centuries. Unparalleled in Western history, the reign ensured enormous wealth, influence and stability, while giving birth to the noble lines of Spain, Portugal and Brazil. When the Capets hit town, Paris was kick started on its way to becoming the greatest city in Christendom – the centre of art, architecture, culture, scholarship and, of course, the recreations and ball games that made life worth while. But, ambitious projects, a handsome life style and the odd war, required big budgets and the Capets, like many other parsimonious monarchs, were often obliged to dip deeply into their citizens' pockets to pay the tabs.

In 1292, scraping the bottom of his royal coffers, the spendthrift King Philip IV of France (1268–1314) launched the most comprehensive taxation ever imposed on the Parisians, who, as le Bon Dieu would bear witness, had suffered many. La Taille de Paris (The Tax of Paris) came as no surprise to his cynical subjects, who knew it was only a question of time before the perennially broke king put the squeeze on. One fierce opponent put it, 'He is neither man nor beast. He is a statue.' Unmoved, Philip imposed similar taxations starting in 1296 – painful for his citizens, but together with La Taille of 1292, a sport-historical bonanza. The detailed documentation that resulted offers extraordinary insight into the popularity and sophistication of early French ball games.

Philippe IV, King of France, depicted a year before his death.
Philippe IV, King of France, depicted a year before his death. To his right is his daughter Isabelle, Queen of England (wife of Edward II, whom, with her lover Roger Mortimer, she had murdered); to his left, his heir apparent Louis X, who, in 1316, would die after a match of paume. Manuscript folio from Liber de Kalila et Dimna, illuminated by Raymond de Béziers, Paris, 1313.
(Courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and Golf Through The Ages)

To give the king his due, running the biggest metropolis in the Western World, with a population of 200,000 to 300, 000 – compared to thirteenth century London with around 70,000 residents – was a complex and expensive job. Paris not only had a new city wall, but paved streets, ports and Les Halles, a covered market that would remain in the same location until 1969. The infrastructure was bejeweled with the most beautiful architecture in Christendom, including Sainte-Chapelle on the Ile de la Cité, the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, and the Saint Denis Basilica.


On the academic front, the dynamic medical faculty at the University of Paris (incorporating La Sorbonne) attracted students from throughout the Western World with a range of disciplines including surgical studies. Graduates were enfranchised to vie for the profitable market controlled by Paris' 151 barbers, who offered not only a shave and a haircut for two deniers, but pulled teeth, gave enemas, performed blood letting and wound surgery. The University's curriculum was appealingly packaged in the holistic Hippocratic-Galenic view of medicine – academic glitz, which long-term left the beard-trimmers trailing in the dust.

Two teams of four players putt out in a 1450 match of Pallemail in the Loire region of France
Two teams of four players putt out in a 1450 match of Pallemail in the Loire region of France. Note the closed stance, right foot drawn back at nearly a right angle to left foot. The practised technique and custom-made equipment indicate a long familiarity with the game. Heures de la Duchesse de Bourgogne, ca. 1460.
(Courtesy of Musée Condé, Chantilly, and Golf Through The Ages)

The prolific letter writer, Petrarch (Francesco Petrarcha 1307–1374), father of lyrical poetry and Italy's earliest Renaissance Humanist, put pen to parchment to record his initial reactions to Paris: I spent no little time there, in open-mouthed wonder; and I was so full of interest and eagerness to know the truth about what I had heard of the place that when daylight failed me I even prolonged my investigations into the night. In another letter, he observed: At the same time, (Paris) contains the most learned men, and is like a great basket in which are collected the rarest fruits of every country.

King John of Bohemia (1296–1346) called Paris 'the most chivalrous residence in the world', vowing he could not bear to live outside it – nor, as it turned out, would he. At the Battle of Crécy, August 26, 1346, fifty-year old John led his knights in a valiant but vain attack on the English line. As Froissart related, the king (who had lost his eyesight to opthamalia) burned to strike a blow against the English knights. 'The king … was so far forward that he strake a stroke with his sword, yea and more than four, and fought valiantly and so did his company; and they adventured themselves so forward, that they were there all slain, and the next day they were found in the place about the king, and all their horses tied each to other.'

Matches of the Long Variant of Pallemail in the Loire Valley
Matches of the Long Variant of Pallemail in the Loire Valley. Note the similarity to the equipment as depicted in the prvioius image. February calendar page froma Book of Hours illuminated in the Touraine. (Courtesy Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, and Golf Through The Ages)

What was it about Paris that made it so special in the medieval world? Thanks to Hercule Pierre Joseph François Géraud, who in 1837 edited a copy of the original manuscript containing Le Rôle de la Taille, we have a clear picture of a highly advanced culture – a vital basis for sophisticated ball games. The Taille, which includes a detailed listing of addresses, trades and professions, is a godsend as a historical starting point in tracking down the origins of early ball games, including tennis, billiards and, of course, golf.

The statistics, anything but dry, reveal a great deal about the lifestyle of medieval Parisians, its quality, and the importance of sophisticated recreation, evidenced by the number and variety of artisan club and ball makers. This booming mini-industry employed 17 full-time masters and assistants to provide adequate supplies of tennis balls (éteufs), for jeu de paume (the game played with the palm), and specialist clubs for ground billiards, the hockey-like game of crosse and its target variants. Thanks to precise 700 year-old documentation, we have our first concrete proof of the existence of professional equipment makers for precursors of noble games which would be played throughout Western Europe for centuries.

An analysis of the sporting trades reveals thirteen male paumiers or ballmakers, and one woman paumière, possibly the keeper of a court. In one instance, members of a large family all made balls in a single atelier. Jehan, Thomas, Guiart, Jehan le veil (the elder) and Thomas la Fillatre (son of Thomas), all registered outside the city walls at La Queste du Temple, were taxed individually as paumiers. The existence of two generations of paumiers is particularly interesting, since it indicates that the tradition of ball making dated back at least one generation before 1292.

Ladies Playing Cricket, as depicted in an illuminated manuscript page from Chansonniers de Montpellier, 1280-90 A Game of Paume played in front of a stylised private chapel or 'Penteis'
Left: Ladies Playing Cricket, as depicted in an illuminated manuscript page from Chansonniers de Montpellier, 1280-90. The target 'guichet', became 'wicket' in English. This makes a strong case for re-baptising the famous cricket ground in St John'sWood, as 'Ladies' rather than 'Lords'. (Courtesy Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire deMontpellier, and Golf Through The Ages)
Right: A Game of Paume played in front of a stylised private chapel or 'Penteis'. Chalons sur Marne, probably from the atelier of Jean Pucell, ca. 1320-1325. (Winterteil eines Brevarium Romanum, courtesy the Schnütgen Museum, Cologne)

The first evidence of early golf is in the form of a single billardier (named Nicolas) who made long-shafted clubs for billiards which, until about 1480, was played on the ground, the ball propelled through arches with a push shot. Confusingly, this trade also made another type club known as the billart, which was used in golf-like target games. The presence of two crosetiers (Thomas and Pierre), makers of the hockey stick-like club, the crosse, takes us another big step towards establishing the existence and popularity of multiple early golf variants.


According to the French historian, Jusserand, the crosetier's task was to meet the needs of the game as played on streets, lawns and fields. Depending on the size and nature of the ball and the type of the game – i.e. hockey-like or target – different forms of playing instruments were required. 'The crosse was the principal instrument used in the menu of games in the Middle Ages. The playing club with a curved head preceded the racket and the mallet; its transformations and varieties were infinite'. Illustrations from the twelfth through the nineteenth century show a vast diversity of crosses, confirming Jusserand's thesis.

Being French, not only ball games but food and drink, were well-represented trades in the great city. Paris, in 1292, was home to 21 caterers/restaurateurs, 35 brewers, 3 wine brokers, 2 sellers and 4 vintners; 41 fishermen/fishmongers, 36 butchers, 49 poultry sellers, 43 vendors of cooking oil, 94 public bakeries, 23 fruit and 18 cheese sellers, 68 pastry makers, 7 prepared sauce sellers, 10 mustards makers, and 7 each, sellers of cooking herbs and salt & pepper. There were also vendors of garlic (9), onions, tripe, eels, peafowl and baked pies.

A Game of Earth Billiards
A Game of Earth Billiards (detail) from the life cycle, Les Amours de Gombault et Macée, depicted in a series of superb tapestries. Unlike Pallemail (and golf), the ball was not struck, but propelled by a push shot, to pass through an arch and arrive at the target goal, known as 'Tiquet'. The clubheads, like the mails in the two images above, are near parallelepipeds, possibly with lead-tin sheaths similar to those we will encounter in a later chapter on Dutch kolf.
(Courtesy Musée des Beaux Arts, St Lô, France)

The hardware and trappings of war and chivalry were supplied by 8 bow makers, 5 makers of crossbows, 41 diverse armour and helmet makers; 15 squires and their wives, 1 decorated shield maker, 4 pike makers, 35 sword re-furbishers, and 24 knife or blade makers, complimented by 52 sheath and scabbard makers. Trumpeters three, a batallier and 10 champions – professional seconds for duels – rounded out the offer.

Unlike their unwashed brethren across the Channel, at the end of the thirteenth century Paris had 7 soap makers, 22 registered bath proprietors, 151 barbers, 199 chambermaids, 43 laundry workers and a token dishwasher. Literacy and art were served by 13 manuscript/picture illuminators, 24 painters and sculptors, 8 book sellers, 17 bookbinders, 19 parchment makers, one female ink seller and 24 scriveners. Clothing and fashion were catered to by 47 tailors and 46 dressmakers, 214 leather and fur sellers, 81 makers of leather, silk and silver belts; artisans for buttons, lace, gloves, mittens and buckles; felt makers and silk spinners. There were a staggering 226 Cordovan-leather shoe makers. Jewellery and accessories to set off la mode were crafted by 116 goldsmiths and 6 gold beaters; 4 gilders and 5 enamellers. To round off Géraud's list were 49 Lombarts, as bankers, lenders, and money changers were known; 2 fouchières or priest's concubines, 26 coffin makers (22 of them, curiously, women), and a single, doubtlessly overworked, hangman.


Instruments for making balls and rackets for jeu de paume
Instruments for making balls and rackets for jeu de paume. From the Middle Ages on, the contents and construction of French 'tennis' balls was regulated by royal edict. Players considered balls from Paris as la crème de la crème. Encyclopédie de Diderot et d'Alembert, 18th century
By now, the reader could be forgiven for saying – 'Get on with it!', but there are good reasons for emphasising the relatively advanced economic and cultural climate of Paris, compared to the rest of medieval Europe – fundamental reasons why France emerged as the cradle of sophisticated ball games. These included not only tennis and billiards, which we have mentioned, but cricket, bowls, pall-mall, and other early club and ball target games that led to golf.

The tantalising similarity between playing clubs illustrated in medieval texts and the crook has always encouraged supposition about the role of the shepherd as the 'inventor' of hockey and golf-like games – usually met with knee-jerk dismissal by academics. The authors of 100 Jahre Golf in Deutschland, the official German golf history, for example, wrote: 'Let's take leave from a further universally beloved legend: It wasn't the shepherds in their natural environment who in their free time experimented with club and ball, and in an idyllic early phase of golf had the idea to drive their ball to a pre-determined goal, and in no case, (did they) steer it into a hole. Golf, in its first centuries was an aristocratic game since it was expensive.'

Academic omniscience in full flower! In one brief paragraph the authors demonstrate unique insider knowledge of how shepherds did or didn't while away their hours; establish that a hole was the target goal in early golf (it wasn't); and, with no supportive documentation, conclude that the early game was both aristocratic and expensive. A little knowledge…

It was only when games of the people were adopted by their vastly better-off social superiors, to be played with custom-made equipment on purpose-built playing courts, that they became expensive. Golf, in its early days, like other games played by the common people, made do with whatever was at hand for its equipment and playing areas. 'Courses' could be a road or path, clearing, grazed field, park, dry moat, town square or building or some sort. Cathedrals, with seemingly endless smooth vertical and horizontal surfaces (and dry inside), proved irresistible to medieval ball players. In 1385, confronted with the increasing popularity of St Pauls Cathedral for ball games, Robert de Braybrooke, the Bishop of London, saw red: 'There are also others – insolent, idle persons answering to no-one, troublemakers by nature, who would rather cause mischief than make themselves useful – who throw or shoot stones, arrows, and various other missiles at the crows, pigeons and other birds that nest or perch in the walls and recesses of the church. Not only that, but they play ball-games inside and outside the church, and engage in other destructive games, breaking or seriously damaging the glass windows and the stone carvings in the church …and also expose their souls to grave danger.'

Since the simple, intuitive games played by commoners, were of no interest to the aristocracy they are un-documented. Therefore, to answer the question about the role of peasants generally, and shepherds specifically, in developing golf-like games, we must use our imagination and extrapolate from what we know. Fit, lonely and bored, any boy anywhere, over long months of herding his sheep or goats, would have established the playing properties of his crook. With a certain swing he could roll a stone or nut in a given direction; with another, strike it in the air to a target; and with a third – letting out the shaft – drive it long distances. Competing against other shepherds would have been an inevitable extension of man's compulsion to measure skills against his peer group.


A Match of Soule à la Crosse, showing the sturdy one piece crosse required to drive the large soule and withstand the shock of violent attacks
A Match of Soule à la Crosse, showing the sturdy one piece crosse required to drive the large soule and withstand the shock of violent attacks. Note the careful finish of the clubs and the stitched ball, indications of professional craftsmanship.
Although there are manuscript illustrations of peasants and shepherds with crooks playing the hockey-like variant of crosse – basically finger wagging to remind the viewer that this violent sport was forbidden by both temporal and ecclesiastical authorities – there is no picture of a golf-like game until 1400. Early golf, like food, drink, music, clothing, transportation and most other things in life, took its own sweet time to evolve, become standardised and codified.

Had it been possible to fly in an observer from the 21st century, there would have been no medieval 'Eureka' moment when he could have said: 'That's golf!' But, over centuries, a golfer would have noted a constant stream of details and practices that he would have been able to associate with the game that eventually emerged from Scotland. Nonetheless, it's safe to assume that prior to the late 1300's, the violent hockey-like variant of crosse (forbidden in 1457, under the name 'golf', in Scotland) held sway in France, as it would continue to do in Britain and the Low Countries.

Evidence for the 'Shepherd Theory' comes from numerous medieval documents and illustrations. In 1277, an English manuscript refers to a tragic end of a game between two boys playing hockey (ad pilem ludendo altercantes). One, Geoffrey, a shepherd and son of le Pasteur (in English, 'the Shepherd'), accidentally killed his friend Robert with a blow behind the ear. In another fatal ball game accident, a fourteenth century French Letter of Remission relates: 'Nothing more than bad luck was behind the blow with a crook (in French: crosse or masselote) which the cowherd, Pierre Columbard delivered to Jehanin Ravinal, who died eleven days later.'

The earliest comprehensive records of ball games are found in French medieval Lettres de Remission (legal documents drawn up to plead for clemency in royal courts). Jean-Michel Mehl, who analysed tens of thousands of these letters, concluded that in 6-7% of all cases the deaths and injuries which had resulted in sentencing were caused by ball games. These documents offer an invaluable source of insight into the status of the players, manner of play, terminology and equipment.

Detail of Putting to a Piquet using a Mail
Detail of Putting to a Piquet using a Mail

While most of the earliest records refer to brutal hockey-like games, the DNA of golf was well established. The skill needed to strike a stationary object accurately to a target was part of the shepherd's job description. Violett le Duc, the architectural historian who rescued Carcassonne from ruin, then supervised its restoration, wrote: 'Until the XIVth century, shepherds carried a club terminating in a large end, or crook, in order to strike clods of earth to drive breakaway lambs back to the flock'. In 1933, the brilliant young German sport historian Albrecht Wettwer, concluded that the genetic material for both hockey and golf was present in fourteenth century games played with a crosse and a relatively small, solid ball.

By the turn of the fifteeenth century, we read of the first flowerings of golf in judicial documents that reveal a fledgling game that was both experimental and evolutionary. In 1426, a letter of remission records that the purpose of a game of Grande or Longue Boule (the long ball game) was to reach a neighbouring village 'with the fewest strokes of the wooden ball' (avec le moins de cops de la boule de bois). A 1449 document reveals a more flexible variant: the winner could be either the first player to reach a distant goal, or the one who took the fewest strokes to get there. In other forms of competition, matches were decided by the longest drive – a practise that we will see continued in pall-mall. Both singles matches and teams of as many as 6-8 players were popular.

Mehl notes that players were obliged to play around obstacles or turn them to their advantage, which as we know, is easier said than done. This is possibly the reason why, in 1398, a match begun at midday ended at sunset. The hallowed rule of golf – playing the ball where it lies – found favour with early French golfeurs. In 1384, in the bailiwick of Melun, a player whose drive had strayed into a pile of stones, brazenly attempted to replay the shot. The ensuing dust-up confirmed that this was a breach of playing etiquette. Before the emergence of man-made goals, first illustrated in 1450, the ultimate scoring stroke was often played to a boundary stone or a convenient landmark. Early golfers, in some instances, insisted on playing to an elevated target – sometimes a mark on a tree trunk or a church or graveyard door.

Earliest-known depiction of an un-opposed golf swing, in the target variant of crosse
Earliest-known depiction of an un-opposed golf swing, in the target variant of crosse. Paris, 1400-1410. Anonymous French Master.
( Courtesy Bodleian Library, Oxford and Golf Through The Ages)

In a prayer book illustrated in Paris about 1400, for the first time we see a game in which each player has his own club and ball, playing a match without physical opposition. The two players, a young man (left) and an older, white-haired man, are dressed in simple tunics indicating their peasant status. Their ball and clubs (the crosse) are crude, lacking the finesse of artisan-made products, but the young man's swing is practiced, hands together on the shaft, wrists cocked. The older man has his right hand raised, signalling caution – a silent Fore. There are too few clues to enable us to decipher the message and its symbolism.

Sixty years later, ca. 1460, we hit pay dirt – the first unequivocal depiction of early golf being played in both a short putting variant and a multi-club long game. For the next 20 years several more images surface, all from La Touraine, best known for its paradisiacal Loire Valley. There is a satisfying symmetry to finding the earliest evidence of golf-like games in the Loire region, for while the Capets governed from Paris, La Touraine was the traditional residence of the Capetiennes lords and their allies, home to France's most beautiful and famous châteaux.

The Putting Variant of Pallemail
The Putting Variant of Pallemail. The Nativity, Heures de la Duchesse de Bourgogne, ca. 1460. (Courtesy of Musée Condé, Chantilly, and Golf Through The Ages)

These decorate an exquisite prayer book known as La Duchesse de Bourgogne (The Duchesse of Burgundy), a former owner, and are attributed to Jean Fouquet and an anonymous Master of the School of Tours, the cultural centre of the Loire, and capital of the Touraine. The first early golf game illustrated is a putting variant of Pallemail, shown in the context of a Nativity. Two shepherds holding clubs stare upward in wonder at the Herald Angels announcing the Virgin Birth, while three others, each with his round wooden ball and putter – a mail or billart, compete in a peaceful contest on a smooth path, putting to an elevated 'green' cropped close by grazing sheep.

The pin – known as a 'piquet' – has been fiendishly placed just off the path on a point of the green where, with the difference in height, the ball is bound to spring off course. The purpose of the game (like boules, which probably had a formative influence) is to leave the putt as near as possible to the pin. (It's not until 1500 that we see, for the first time, a hole being used as the target goal on a green in Flanders.)

The mail, the first known two-piece golf club, has an exotic shape and an equally exotic description. It is a socket-joint parallelepiped, the wooden head composed of three sets of nearly parallel planes. A similar club appears as a putter in the second seminal image of early golf, the February calendar page of the same prayer book, dedicated to celebrating Candelmas and the arrival of Spring (in the Middle Ages, 2 February). But here, it is only one of two variants being used in a multi-club game, together with our old friend, the crosse. The club with the curved head is used to play the initial drive (volée) and elevated approach shots, while the mail is reserved for putting. Two teams of four men, each with its own ball, are shown putting to piquets. Another team of four plays up to the green from the distant background.


Captured in time, five and half centuries ago, we have our first clear picture of an early form of golf, a multi-club game, each team with its own clubs and ball, playing a stationary ball without physical opposition over long distances, to terminate in a putting stroke to a pre-agreed target. Mysteriously, despite the apparent appeal of the game, by the mid-1470's depictions of Pallemail ceased. Perhaps the end of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) that had raged over La Patrie, devastated the countryside, led to occupation and terror at the hands of mercenaries and outlaws, had encouraged new forms of harmonious and refined sports. Perhaps the benevolent effects of the Renaissance accelerated evolution of club and ball target games, through new concepts and improved equipment that extended their parameters.

Flemish Colf, a single-club, cross-country game in which the ultimate scoring shot was played to a hole in the ground
Flemish Colf, a single-club, cross-country game in which the ultimate scoring shot was played to a hole in the ground. Anonymous Flemish Master, ca. 1505.
(Courtesy of Real Colegio de Corpus Christi, Valencia, and Golf Through The Ages)

Whatever the reasons, the next stage of evolution, from about 1480–1700, was arguably the richest and most diversified in golf's history, manifested in two very different forms of early golf. One was Flemish Colf, a single-club game played only with a crosse; the other, Jeu de Mail/Pall-Mall, was played with a wooden ball and mallet. Known as 'The Game of the Upper 10,000', Mail/Pall-Mall would captivate European society and produce the grandest and most beautiful courts and alleys ever built – their name lingering today in the word 'mall'.

These two games would bequeath golf a number of its priceless characteristics including the concept of harmonious cross-country play, refined equipment, a diversity of shots, putting to a hole, and rules and etiquette – an enduring blueprint for popularity and pleasure.

In Part III, 'Jeu de Mail - The Genesis of Golf', Michael Flannery examines in detail the trailblazing jeu de mail, the royal and ancient French game.


Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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