Real Tennis and the Civilising Process
By Rob Lake
Sport in History, Vol.29:4 (2009)
Abstract: This article examines the social significance of Real Tennis among the Western European nobility during its heyday of the sixteenth century. Underpinned theoretically by Norbert Elias’s seminal empirical work The Civilising Process, this article seeks to identify the societal preconditions for the emergence of Real Tennis,and provide explanations for its diffusion across Western Europe and subsequent boom in popularity among the nobility. A critique is offered of the current body of literature written on Real Tennis, with an aim to address a general lack of focus on the game’s ‘social’ elements and how their development is linked with structural changes to the game over the centuries.
The article then goes on to examine the ways in which Real Tennis became a symbol of prestige and a tool for social mobility among the increasingly status-competitive royal-court nobility. Played during royal festivals, the game provided opportunities for nobles to engage in conspicuous consumption through architectural, clothing and gambling displays; having an entourage in accompaniment to the noble players; and, through the style of play and behavioural control, exhibiting self-restraint and foresight. Overall, an attempt is made to apply Elias’s theoretical framework to aid our understanding of the development of Real Tennis, a game that has never been characterised by overt ‘violence’ of the kind examined previously by other sociologists employing an Eliasian framework.
Introduction: The game of Real Tennis dates back to the twelfth century in France, when it began as a very simple ball game played with the hands. By the sixteenth century, it had reached its heyday and become a rule-governed and highly sophisticated sport. In the course of its development, Real Tennis had been transformed into one of the most popular and socially significant games played among the aristocracy across Western Europe. In the royal courts of this time, noble rank was determined subtly, less through violent means but increasingly by means of conspicuous consumption.
Widely played during royal festivals in the sixteenth century, Real Tennis offered players, spectators and others involved in the game with opportunities to enhance their status and convey their social rank. To date, very little has been written to explain adequately its ostensible social significance among the aristocracy of this period. This paper is divided into three main sections in line with three broad aims. Section one attempts to place this analysis in the context of existing historical research in Real Tennis, with the aim of setting out the need for a more critical analysis of the game’s developing ‘social character’. Section two offers explanations for why Real Tennis became socially significant for the aristocracy of the sixteenth-century period. Section three considers the role of Real Tennis more generally in the context of the long-term Western-European civilising process.