Jeu de mail was a French ball-and-mallet sport that led to the development of croquet and may have influenced the development billiards. The goal of this medieval sport was to pass a ball through a series of upright hoops in as few strokes as possible. Though often associated with golf and perhaps tangentially related to it, jeu de mail is not thought to have played a role in the development of golf. Given the use of mallets instead of clubs, large balls instead of small, man-made courses instead of natural landscapes, and upright hoops instead of holes in the ground, this game bears much more similarity to croquet than to golf.
The term jeu de mail is Middle-French, translated as “game of the mallet” or “game of straw;” both feasible translations, as the use of mallets is apparent and in some variations the upright hoops were made of woven straw. The game was enjoyed by young and old alike, and was touted as an agreeable and sophisticated sport lacking in violence. Joseph Lauthier tells as much in his 1717 treatise on the sport, Le Jeu de Mail: “It is not at all violent; indeed, one may at the same time play, talk, and walk about in good company. We get more exercise from it than in an ordinary walk; the exertion that we make in driving a ball from space to space…”
Billiards is generally believed to have developed out of lawn games such as jeu de mail. Though there isn’t an abundance explicit evidence to suggest such a development, the similarities between these table games and the precedent lawn games leaves little room for debate over such a connection. However, the connection between billiards and jeu de mail itself is more questionable, primarily due to a tight overlap in timeframes. Whereas records of billiards tables reach back to the 15th century (notably, a table owned by King Louis XI of France), the earliest uncontested records of jeu de mail only reach to the 17th century (though there are a few 15th-century possibilities, as discussed immediately below). This doesn’t preclude the possibility of jeu de mail influencing the development of billiards, though it does stress the relationship.
Due to scant records, it is difficult to determine a specific period of origin for jeu de mail. Henri Jakubowicz’s article “Jeu de Mail – Part Two” in the March 2003 edition of Through the Green suggests several early references, including a few 15th-century sports referred to by different names. Notably, he references a 1609 map of Paris that depicts in two different locations several people playing what appears to be jeu de mail.
Sir Robert Dallington (1561–1637) in his account of his travels through France in 1598, “A Method for Travell,” tells of a sport called “Paile Maille” that matches descriptions of jeu de mail. Given the description, region, and similarity in names, it is safe to assume this is the same game. In fact, during this same period, references to an English sport called Pall Mall, which is generally understood to have developed out of jeu de mail, begin to appear in number. Whether this was influenced by Sir Robert Dallington’s writings is unknown, but the emergence of this game in England helps gauge jeu de mail’s early history.
As such, though we cannot easily ascertain a specific point of origin for jeu de mail, we can put together a rough outline of its history. We can assume that jeu de mail developed sometime during the 15th to 16th centuries and, based on these sources, had reached a fairly high level of popularity by the mid to late 16th century, leading to the development of Pall Mall in England. Jeu de mail enjoyed a few centuries of popularity before falling almost completely out of practice in the 19th century.
How to Play
Jeu de mail appears to have been played quite similarly to how croquet is played today. A group of individual players would take turns striking a large wooden ball with a mallet, attempting to pass the ball through a series of upright hoops staked into the ground. The player who passed their ball through all of the hoops in the fewest strokes would win the match.
Early depictions, both illustrated and literary, reveal that this sport was played on narrow, man-made fields, much different from the natural landscapes used in golf and related sports. How this developed is left to speculation, but the smaller space requirements allowed for jeu de mail courses to be built in more restrictive environments; for example, in public parks.
Wheatley, H. B. (1881, April). The Game of Pall Mall. The Antiquary: A Magazine Devoted to the Study of the Past.
Tee Shots. (1902, August 15). Golf Illustrated: The Weekly Organ of the “Royal & Ancient” Game.
Jakubowicz, H. (2003, March). Jeu de Mail – Part Two. Through the Green.
Everton, C. (1986). The history of snooker and billiards. TBS The Book Service Ltd.