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Henderson's Historical Method
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #13 - Autumn 2003
Written by Jim Combs   


Mr. Robert W. Henderson’s work entitled Ball, Bat and Bishop: The Origin of Ball Games is rightly regarded as an important work for historians of baseball, tennis and indeed many other ball games. In his introduction to Ball, Bat and Bishop, Mr. Will Irwin writes:

“the early critics of the Doubleday tradition base their scepticism mostly on observation and common sense. What they lacked was a thorough investigation undertaken in the scientific spirit. Mr. Henderson has supplied that.”

Whether or not Mr. Irwin’s accolade is deserved is not the subject of this short piece. I have quoted Mr. Irwin, however, to note that Mr. Henderson’s place in the history of ball games – not just baseball- is generally regarded as important. Indeed, my colleagues and I in the Bobby Thomson Chapter of SABR UK here in the UK generally regard Ball, Bat and Bishop as the authoritative source as to the origins of ball and bat games. I suspect that our view is shaped mainly by the expansiveness of the work, which ranges from Egyptian times to the present replete with references and pictures. For example, when Mr. Henderson quotes Jusserand’s description of the game La Soule on p.39 of Ball, Bat and Bishop we assume that the quote is accurate and that Jusserand’s description is based on convincing evidence. None of us has to my knowledge began a painstaking analysis of Mr. Henderson’s work which would, I submit, be quite a daunting task since he does not footnote his quotations.


An opportunity to verify one of the facts in Ball, Bat and Bishop presented itself to me fortuitously when the Chairman of our Chapter, Mr. Mike Ross, gave me a picture of a tapestry on display in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mike had noted that the tapestry showed a group of young persons playing some sort of ballgame. He asked me to translate the inscriptions. (Not unlike a modern day comic strip, each of the persons had their remarks set forth in a cloud shaped circle in close proximity to their heads.) The medieval french proved too difficult for myself and my French friends, so I wrote to the Metropolitan Museum and received in return a very helpful letter complete with an extract from a work by Edith Appleton Standen entitled European Post-Medieval Tapestries and Related Hangings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (hereinafter referred to as “Met Tapestries Work.”) Prompted by this article, I began a search of the British Library’s works on tapestries to see if I could find any similar tapestries. Eventually, I discovered that the tapestry seen by Mike Ross was indeed the same subject as the tapestry, which appeared in Ball, Bat and Bishop. Here at last was a chance to analyze the accuracy of one small part of Mr. Henderson’s seminal work.


Opposite p.133 of Ball, Bat and Bishop is an illustration which Mr. Henderson calls Ground Billiards, France, 1460 (From St. Lô tapestry, in J.M.J. Guiffrey, Les Amours de Gombaut et de Macee, Paris, 1882) This tapestry is quite similar to the one that Mike Ross saw in the Metropolitan Museum. A comparison of Ms. Standen’s discussion of these tapestries with that of Mr. Henderson should afford us a chance of determining whether Henderson’s conclusions drawn from the tapestry are consistent with those of a noted scholar on tapestries.

Henderson states on p.121 of Ball, Bat and Bishop that billiards, like hockey, football, and tennis “ . . . is a direct descendant of the old Egyptian fertility rites, a close relative of the other games.” According to Henderson, the source of both croquet and billiards (through the game of jeu de boules) is a game of jeu de mail. On p.114 Henderson describes jeu de mail as a game which developed in southern France during the 14th century. It was, he continues, on p.114 a game in which “...two sides strove to drive a ball to a given mark in the least number of strokes. ... The boxwood ball, about the size of a lawn tennis ball, was driven with a mallet, a stick with a wooden head.“ (p.114) On p. 115 Henderson writes that in England “Just as la soule had been reduced to ground billiards, so pall mall (the name of jeu de mail in England) was played on a definite ’ground’ and the ball had to be driven through an iron ring suspended in the air. The earliest rules of jeu de mail were published in Paris by Joseph Lauthier in 1717, some forty years before the earliest rules of golf.”

Returning to Henderson’s discussion of billiards, I note that on p. 121 of Ball, Bat and Bishop Henderson mentions a famous French tapestry known as “Les Amours de Gombaut et de Macee” which was made in about 1460 and was first inventoried at St. Lô in 1532. On pp.21-2 of Ball, Bat and Bishop Henderson writes

“This tapestry portrayed scenes around the country-side at St. Lô, two of which show a game called jeu de boules or de tiquet. A small ground is enclosed in a low wattle fence. Within the enclosure, at some distance from each other, appear an arch, or low hoop, later called a ”port”, and a small cone-shaped marker, later called a ‘king’. Three players and three balls indicate that each played his own ball, and each player carries a mace, or cure, which appears to be a long wooden stick with a spade-shaped, slightly curved end.”

“.... Jeu de boules is none other than the link between jeu de mail, as played on the ground, and the modern game of billiards, played on a table. The game was also called billard de terre, or ground billiards, a name which indicates a definite relationship. One other feature of this fifteenth century game justifies the claim that it was an ancestor of billiards: the ball could be caromed off the sides of the enclosure, which were commonly made of planks of wood.”

Henderson concludes his case on pp.121-2 by stating that the next step was to put this game on a table. He notes that some claim that this was done by Henrique de Vigne in about the year 1571 for Henry III for his summer palace in Blois, but that this claim is not too well substantiated. On p.122 Henderson notes that as late as 1674, in a portrait of Louis XIV playing billiards, there is still a port and a king with no change in the mace. “By 1700 the port and king had disappeared and by 1734 the modern cue began to displace the spade-shaped mace. The earliest rules of billiards known to us today appeared in Cotton’s Compleat Gamester which was published in 1674.”

Edith Standen’s work discusses the various versions of the “Jeu de Boules” tapestries and confirms as Henderson claims that the Jeu de Boules tapestry was indeed a familiar one in France and the Low Countries. Ms. Standen also gives us more information about the subject. She mentions that the game is being played by teenage boys and girls of presumably humble origin and that the dialog clearly indicates that the game is part of the courtship rituals, since it is played between boys and girls and the language is quite suggestive. For example, the remarks in the last scroll translate as follows according to the Met Tapestries Work of Ms. Standen:

“Gombaut, thy hand is too free, and then it is not good manners to smack the behind of a girl without promising to marry her.”


Ms. Standen attributes the version of Jeu de Boules which is hanging in New York’s Metropolitan Museum to Bruges and on stylistic grounds assigns it a date of 1600. Henderson assigns the date of about 1460 to the version of Jeu de Boules hanging in St. Lô and states that it was first inventoried in 1532. On the otherhand, Ms Standen in footnote number 13 of her work states that “none of the existing pieces can be assigned to so early a date (as 1532).” As authority for this proposition, Ms. Standen cites Guiffrey (Amours, p.14.) This is somewhat surprising since Henderson has also most probably relied upon Guiffrey, Amours for his date of 1460 although one cannot be sure because Henderson does not footnote. Thus, according to Standen, Henderson’s date is probably about 100 years too soon.


Somewhat surprisingly, a reading of Guiffrey, Amours appears to support Henderson. In referring to the St. Lô Tapestry Guiffrey writes on page 1 of Amours:

“Evidement, l’execution de la tapisserie remonte a une date anterieure a l’inventaire de trente ou quarante annees au moins. Ce document souffirait a lui seul pour faire attribuer a la fin du 15th siecle l’invention du roman qui nous occupe.”

“Clearly, the execution of the tapestry goes back to a date which is at least 30 to 40 years prior to the inventory. This document alone is sufficient to attribute the invention of the story (which is the basis for the tapestries) to the end of the 15th century.”

In his work (Amours) Guiffrey is seeking to date the story of Gombaut and Macee. He notes that this country tale was very popular in the 16th & 17th centuries. Indeed, it is averred to in Moliere’s Avare.

“Harpagon veut faire accepter pour mille ecus a son client: ....; plus une tenture de tapisserie des Amours de Gombaut et Macee.”

Guiffrey also notes that the name of Gombaut was frequently in the poetry of the 15th and 16th century and that Macee (the feminine form of Mathieu) was common in the 15th and 16th centuries. (p.54 of Amours.) Guiffrey in the end conjectures that a poet named Henri Baude had probably popularized the story.


What do we make of Henderson’s use of the tapestry to illustrate the development of table billiards? In balance, he seems to have used the tapestry Jeu de Boules quite legitimately to support his conclusion that, although table billiards was claimed by some to have been played in 1571, this claim has not in fact been “too well substantiated” (p.122 Henderson.) It would perhaps have been better to attribute the tapestry to the second half of the 15th century than to refer to a particular year (“about 1460”), but this is only a quibble. He seems to have dated the tapestry consistently with the information contained in his source, Guiffrey’s work Les Amours de Gombaut et Macee. Ms. Standen’s argument about the dating, if she is indeed including the St. Lô tapestries in what she refers to as “existing tapestries,” would appear to put the tapestry of St. Lô at 1600. Even this date would not cast significant doubt on the chronology which Henderson is advancing for the development of table billiards.

This brief attempt to assess the accuracy of the scholarship employed in the writing of Ball, Bat and Bishop would not seem to call into question Mr. Henderson’s research methods. Indeed, if the tapestry Jeu de Boule is in fact 100 years older than he asserts, this is a mistake which was made by his source, J.M.J. Guiffrey in his Les Amours de Gombaut et de Macee, Paris, 1882. Indeed, even if the 20th century fine arts scholar, Edith Appleton Standen, has discovered a 100 year mistake in Guiffrey’s dating of the St. Lô tapestries, this mistake does no serious damage to Mr. Henderson’s analysis of the emergence of the game of Table Billiards nor to Henderson’s reputation for scholarship. Ms. Stanton appears to be questioning the conclusions of Guiffrey based upon her analysis of various tapestries as being of a style much later than 1532, because of the design and style of the St. Lô version of Jeu de Boules.


Our first attempt to assess the scholarship of Henderson’s work, Ball, Bat and Bishop, suggests that in this work Henderson is faithful to his sources.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 April 2009 22:02