“Did clocks even have minute hands in 12th C France?”

As you may remember from my original post on the oddities of tennis scoring, Billie Jean King believes that the reason tennis is scored Love-15-30-40 may have been because the clock hanging over the indoor tennis court was the handiest tool available for keeping score.

When I shared this theory with Daddyo, he immediately shot it to bits.

“Did medieval clocks even have minute hands?”

There you go again, Daddyo, shattering my favorite theories with your pesky insistence on having the actual facts.

I had no option but to do a little digging to see what I could find out.

Right away, I could tell I was going to have a problem.

According to medieval fiction writer and history blogger Andrea Cefalo, Jost Burgieven didn’t invent the minute hand until 1577. Worse, minute hands weren’t a regular feature on clocks until the 1680s. There’s no way our hypothetical clock hanging over our 12th C French tennis court would have had one.

Score one for Daddyo.

In fact, given that the time pieces in 12th C France tended to be sundials, candle clocks, and water clocks, there’s a very good chance that even if there had been a clock on the tennis court, the score-keeper wouldn’t have been using it.

Sundials would have been a terrible way to keep score

Medieval sundial etched into the side of St. Mary's Church in Bilbury, Gloucestershire. This dial is missing its gnomon, the bit that creates the shadow based on the position of the sun. Even with it, though, it wouldn't have been a ton of help. (Photo: Alan Longbottom)

Medieval sundial etched into the side of St. Mary’s Church in Bilbury, Gloucestershire. This dial is missing its gnomon, the bit that creates the shadow based on the position of the sun. Even with it, though, it wouldn’t have been much help. (Photo: Alan Longbottom)

Let’s count the reasons, shall we?

  1. Sundials are not much use on an indoor court. They tend to require sunlight.
  2. Most sundials were located in or on church buildings in medieval times. It was unlikely that our 12th C jeu de paume court would have had one.
  3. Even if there had been a sundial on the court wall, it’s not like the players could have forced the sun to move to (or hold still in) the correct position so that the shadow on the dial accurately reflected the current score.
  4. To make matters worse, sundials were not designed to tell time in precise 15-minute increments. Those scratchings on our model sundial above were designed to let parishioners know when the next Mass would be. At best sundials might have roughly told you the hour, depending on the time of year and where you lived.

Ok, sundials wouldn’t have worked. What about candle clocks? 

Candle clocks are basically what they sound like. Take a candle, figure out how quickly it will burn based on its thickness, mark the candle (or place it next to a plate with the time increments marked on it), and light the candle. As the candle burns down, it lets you track the passage of time.

Candle clock. (Photo via the Real Happenings & Facts blog.)

Candle clock. (Photo via the Real Happenings & Facts blog.)

Candle clocks were a great way to tell time indoors.

But would they have been a great way to keep score in tennis?

I suppose if you had one candle clock for each player and a set of candles chopped to appropriate lengths to reflect the various possible scores and you never lit any of the candles on fire, it might have worked.

But there would have been no particular reason to set the scores in 15-point increments just because you were using a candle clock. Candles used in candle clocks could have been marked in 15-minute increments, but people generally didn’t bother. Most candle clocks were marked by the hour.

Is anyone else feeling a bit of nostalgia for a world in which knowing the hour more or less was good enough?

So what about water clocks?  

As you might guess from their name, water clocks tell time based on the flow of water between two containers. According to the National Watch & Clock Museum, there were two types of water clocks — outflow and inflow water clocks. The difference between them is simply which container was marked. If the container the water flows out of is the one with the time increments marked on it, it’s an outflow water clock. If the container that collects the water is marked, it’s an inflow water clock.

As far as I can tell, this outflow water clock is from Ancient Egypt, but it gives you the basic idea.

Water clock (Image via Before It's News)

Water clock (Image via Before It’s News)

According to Andrea Cefalo, the very best water clocks could tell time in 15-minute increments. So they might have worked — if water clocks could be manipulated at will to keep score.

I suppose you could do that by temporarily plugging the downspout on a water clock and adding (or releasing) water as needed to reflect the score.

Still, that seems like a pretty silly way to keep score.

I’m sorry to say it, but I don’t think Billie Jean King’s theory that tennis scores advanced in 15 point increments because the first tennis players used clocks to keep score holds any water at all.

So how did they keep score back then anyway? 

Did they keep running totals in their head? Use quill and parchment? Have the players move up and down on the court?

Maybe they used a couple stacks of denier coins (the medieval equivalent of a penny). They certainly would have had plenty of denier handy. According to the Smart Set, folks have been betting on tennis games for nearly as long as any form of the sport existed. Henry VIII lost 50 pounds on a tennis game back in October 1532.

The Smart Set claims that the gros denier would have been worth 15 deniers in jeu de paume days and speculates that the coin may have been the real basis for the weird scoring in tennis.

I have to say, I love the idea of rampant gambling in medieval times being the reason modern tennis scoring is so bizarre. Unfortunately, everything else I’ve read pegs the value of a gros denier at something between 4 and 12 deniers, making that theory look just as unlikely as all the rest. Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that the gambling would have started after the rules of the game (including the way it’s scored) had already been set.

Maybe the bizarre nature of tennis scoring really was a numerology thing.

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What’s The Nine-Year-Old reading this week?

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Our mostly-weekly survey of the tidbits that cross The Nine-Year-Old’s desk. This week, The Nine-Year-Old brings homes more gems from deep into the shelves of her school library, including a book by one of the most notorious authors of my childhood.

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Wordless Wednesday: Huzzah!

Every summer we trek up to the Bristol Renaissance Fair for a day. This summer, The Nine-Year-Old won a feather at the darts game. All that practicing sure paid off. 

(Photo: Shala Howell)


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“What was the significance of the number 4 in medieval France?”

The Real Tennis Court building at Falkland Palace in Fife, Scotland. This building is believed to be the world's oldest tennis court. (Photo: Kim Traynor)

The Real Tennis Court building at Falkland Palace in Fife, Scotland. This building is believed to be the world’s oldest tennis court. (Photo: Kim Traynor)

That tennis post I did last week keeps generating questions for those of us here at Caterpickles Central.  Chasing down potential answers to them has proved surprisingly entertaining, so I thought I’d do a quick follow-up post this morning to share what we’ve learned so far.

After reading my post last week and gently reminding me about the other 300 degrees that make up both medieval and modern circles, my brother Paul noted that it seemed a little weird that the six sets in medieval tennis contained only four 60-degree games each. Mathematically speaking, if the goal was to represent the 360 degrees in a circle, it would have made more sense to have each set contain 6 games.

I had glossed over the 4 games-per set bit in my original explanation because it didn’t make sense to me either at the time. Even I know that 4 x 60 is only 240.

But glossing over medieval scoring tidbits is how I got into this mess in the first place, so I did a little digging about the meaning of the number 4 in medieval times.

What was so important about the number 4 anyway? 

Turns out back then the number 4 represented the four corners of the Earth (among other things). Assuming that our astronomical explanation for the origin of tennis’ bizarre scoring pattern is correct, the 6 sets of 4 games each may have been designed to represent the orbits of the heavenly bodies around the four corners of the Earth. (Remember, back then they accepted Aristotle’s theory that the heavens rotated around the Earth, which remained fixed in the sky.)

Winning 6 four-game sets might have meant that your heavenly body had successfully completed its 360 orbit around the the Earth. Or maybe the simplest explanation really was the correct one — on average, medieval tennis players required 6 sets of 4 games each in order to collect enough degrees to complete their circle.

Alert readers will also note that this isn’t the only time the number 4 pops up in tennis scoring. Assuming all went well for the winner and he or she was able to avoid getting trapped in a deuce situation, tennis players earned their 60 degrees per game in 4 steps. Were those four steps meant to represent the four corners of the Earth as well? Or maybe just the four winds, as in this explanation is starting to sound like just so much wind.

Whatever the real reasons behind tennis’ bizarre scoring scheme may have been, this astronomical/numerological hypothesis sure is fun to think about.

Next week: “Did clocks even have minute hands in 12th C France?”

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What’s The Nine-Year-Old reading this week?

september16

Our mostly-weekly survey of the tidbits that cross The Nine-Year-Old’s desk. This week, The Nine-Year-Old adds some non-fiction to her reading diet and discovers the joy of fan fiction done well.

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Wordless Wednesday: “What happened to my door?”

(Photo: Shala Howell)


When our condo was originally built, it featured a Jack and Jill bathroom connecting two bedrooms. The previous owners converted one of those bedrooms into an office, but kept the door connecting it to the bathroom in place. 

Michael always thought that was a little odd, so when we redid that bathroom over the summer, we took the space where the door was and installed a linen cupboard on the bathroom side and some built-in filing cabinets (and more bookshelves!) on the office side. 

Looking at it from the office side, you’d think those bookshelves had always been there — if it weren’t for the cat mourning the loss of his favorite pass through. 

One day, he’ll forget. Right? 

“Would it have killed you to put a cat door in the back of this thing?” (Photo: Shala Howell)


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“Why is tennis scoring so weird?”

The other day while driving past a neighborhood tennis court, the subject of scoring naturally came up.

Everyone in the car agreed that the standard Love-15-30-40 scoring system used in tennis was pretty bizarre. Oddly specific, too, in that way that hints at an interesting story.

So I looked it up.

According to Straight Sets, the New York Times tennis blog, the Love-15-30-40 scoring pattern most likely dates back to 12th century France. Back then, tennis was called jeu de paume (the palm game) instead of tennis because players used their hands instead of racquets. But the scoring was more or less the same.

Medieval game of jeu du palme. (Illustration via W.U Hstry)

Illustration of a medieval game of jeu de paume, the original version of tennis. First played in 12th C France, jeu de paume players used their hands to send the ball across the court, not rackets. (Image via W.U Hstry)

Why is a tennis game won with 60 points? Why not 100, like in a game of Hearts? 

Back in the 12th century, the number 60 was considered a nice round number — literally.

Circles, which contained 360 degrees, and sextants, which encompass 60 of the degrees within a circle, were pretty important in medieval Europe, in large part because astronomy was pretty important in medieval Europe. Back then, the prevailing opinion was that Aristotle was right — the sun, moon, and stars in the known universe all orbited around the Earth, which was fixed in its position in the sky.

Medieval Europeans believed that these heavenly bodies were linked to the organs of the human body, making astrological predictions a critical component of medieval medical practice.

If your health depended upon the planets and other fixed stars successfully progressing through the 360 degrees of their orbit around the Earth, you might find 60 to be an important marker of progress too.

According to the United States Tennis Association Official Encyclopedia of Tennis, each point within a 12th C tennis game was worth fifteen degrees. The first player to win 60 degrees won that game. The match continued until one player had won enough games to complete a full circle of 360 degrees. A typical match consisted of six sets of four games each.

By Henry VIII's day, tennis players had discovered the merits of playing with racquets. This 16th C illustration by Johann Christoph Neyffer shows a game of what was by then called "real tennis" being played at Tübingen University in Germany. (Source: BibliOdyssey)

By Henry VIII’s day, tennis players had discovered the merits of playing with racquets. This 16th C illustration by Johann Christoph Neyffer and Ludwig Ditzinger shows a game of what was by then called “real tennis” being played at Tübingen University in Germany. (Source: BibliOdyssey)

But if getting to 60 is the goal, and you achieve that goal in four steps, why not score tennis in four equal increments of 15?  

Again, this gets back to how the game was played in 12th Century France. Naturally, there is some uncertainty about how medieval tennis players actually kept score in those long-ago tennis bouts.  Some think that tennis courts were relatively huge — 90 feet long, with 45 feet on each side. Players literally advanced in the game each time they scored, moving 15 feet closer to the net. This gave them a huge advantage as the game went on. But it also meant that on the final score, the winning player would be standing on top of the net. Which is why some people think the final score before winning was shifted to 40, instead of 45. Setting the final step at 40 kept the players five feet back from the net.

Billie Jean King, who has undoubtedly spent much more time thinking about this than I ever will, doesn’t subscribe to this theory. Since most tennis games in 12th C France were played indoors, she believes that players may have used a clock hanging over the tennis courts to keep score, and that the shift to 40 happened to allow scorekeepers to account for deuce situations.

Deuce is called when both players are tied at 40. To win tennis, players have to be two steps ahead of their opponent in scoring. Today, when deuce is called, the player who wins the next point is said to have an advantage.  To win the game, the player must win the next volley as well. If the player with the advantage doesn’t win the volley, the score returns to deuce and the game continues until one player wins two volleys in a row.

To fit those extra steps after deuce on our hypothetical medieval clock face the simplest thing to do would have been to start counting by 10s. Going from 30 to 40 instead of 45 creates the potential for creating an interim score of 50 to track the progress in deuce situations.

Major Walter Clopton Wingfield was one of at least three different sets of people to design an outdoor version of tennis in the 1870s. This 1874 drawing shows Wingfield's design for a Sphairistikè or lawn tennis court. Wingfield borrowed many terms for his lawn tennis game from the original French game, which by then was widely called real tennis. (Illustration: Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, 1874.)

Major Walter Clopton Wingfield was one of at least three different sets of people to design an outdoor version of tennis in the 1870s. This 1874 drawing shows Wingfield’s design for a Sphairistikè or lawn tennis court. Wingfield borrowed many terms for his lawn tennis game from the original French game, which by then was widely called real tennis. (Illustration: Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, 1874.)

The Nine-Year-Old: “But if that’s true, why does my teacher score tennis 0-1-2-3?”

Just because things have always been done one way doesn’t mean that that’s how they should always be done. King believes more people would play tennis if the scoring were more clear-cut. Her World Tennis League eliminates the Love-15-30-40 business entirely, replacing it with the much simpler 0-1-2-3.

No doubt The Nine-Year-Old’s coach is a Billie Jean King fan.

Billie Jean King after winning (Photo: Peter Clarke via Wikipedia)

Billie Jean King at the Irish Open in Fitzwilliam LTC in Dublin in the 1960s. (Photo: Peter Clarke via Wikipedia)

The Nine-year-Old, curiously:  “So what is love, Mommyo?”

Mommyo, poetically: “Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs.”

The Nine-Year-Old, impatiently: “In tennis, Mommyo.”

Ah. It’s the weird word English-speakers use for zero when announcing tennis scores. No one really knows why, so you can pick your favorite theory.

It could be because zero looks like a goose egg. The French word for egg is “l’oeuf” which can be easily mispronounced as love. (This theory is complicated by the fact that the French don’t say “Love” or “l’oeuf” at all. They say zero.)

The theories get progressively worse from here. One posits that zero is announced as love because if you finish a game of tennis without ever scoring a point, clearly you have played for nothing more than the love of the game. Another claims that it’s because when the score is zero-all (Love-all), the players are filled with love for one another. I could go on, but no one here really wants me to, right?

The Nine-Year-Old, decisively: “Let’s go with the goose egg one, Mommyo.”

Yes, let’s.

****Updated a couple of hours after publication to reflect the fact that a circle contains 360 degrees, not 60. Thanks to all the alert readers who wrote in to remind me of that fact.*****

Mommyo, red-faced: “Darn it! I used to know that!”

The Nine-Year-Old, kindly: “That’s ok, Mommyo. If I hadn’t read Penrose, I wouldn’t have remembered it either.”

This going back to work thing is hard.

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Dinner at Caterpickles

Mommyo, anxiously: “Oh dear, I think these green beans may be just a tad overdone. What do you think, The (then) Eight-Year-Old?”

The (then) Eight-Year-Old, using skills honed from hours watching Chopped, Master Chef Junior, and the Great British Baking Show: “I think we can all agree that green beans should not melt in your mouth.”

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What’s The Nine-Year-Old reading this week?

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Our mostly-weekly survey of the tidbits that cross The Nine-Year-Old’s desk. This week, The Nine-Year-Old stumbled across the best book of the entire summer. I’ll give you a hint: it’s one of these three.

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Wordless Wednesday: Back to School

And we’re back. The Nine-Year-Old went back to school this week. Fourth grade already. Amazing. Astounding. 

If I were a normal parent, I’d post a picture of The Nine-Year-Old in her back-to-school outfit with her freshly washed and brushed back-to-school hair.  But both The Nine-Year-Old and I would rather share this: 

A scrap of graffiti that we saw on our walk to school yesterday. (Photo: Shala Howell. Artist: Unknown)

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