Ernest Pitiot on the birth of petanque

Ernest Pitiot’s memories of how the game of Petanque got started.

It was in 1910 at La Ciotat, Bouches du Rhone, at the “Beraud” boulodrome that I used to run with my brother, that the game of pétanque was born.

All the great Jeu Provençal players of the region used to meet under the large plane trees at Beraud — players from Marseille: Grand-Jean, le Blond, Lombard nickname le Noir, Petit-Paul — players from Toulon: le Grele, le Pice, Chibalon, le Moult, the brothers Espanet de la Garde — players from Ciotat: Pinot, big Cesaire, Saint Jean, etc. All the top players used to play le Jeu Provençal for money every day with several shopkeepers from the town, games that used to attract a large number of spectators – who were allowed, for 5 centimes, to take a chair to follow the games but far too often they would stop the boules that were shot, for being seated they couldn’t get up fast enough.

We therefore took away the chairs to keep the players happy who, quite rightly, used to complain.

This decision was against the wishes of a good customer and friend “Jules le Noir”, a shopkeeper at La Ciotat who, crippled by rheumatism, could no longer hardly stand on his legs. Exceptionally, we granted him permission to have a chair on the condition that he would carefully keep to the side of the circle drawn on the ground before the jack was thrown and where the players regularly used to leave their boules while waiting their turn.

And from there, our Jules who could no longer participate in any game, used to amuse himself shooting at 1.5 or 2 meters with the boules left in the circle. “I’m practicing” he used to say to me. Very well one day, certain of pleasing him, I offered to play with him, without moving, “feet planted” [pieds tanqués] from 2 to 3 meters and we played.

We started again the next day, and the following days. The old players, who numbered quite a few, watched how we played, well enough that my brother organized a competition for the following Saturday. There were 8 teams of 2 players with a first prize of 10 francs.

“Pieds-tanqués” was born.

Subsequent competitions were successful and we played from 3 to 5 meters.

The game spread throughout the region, but thanks to numerous sailors, to builders from La Ciotat, that it took a rapid hold, because these sailors used to play Pieds-Tanqués in all the ports where they used to stop over.

The game that was casually called “Pieds-Tanqués”, “Piedstanques”, or “Pétanque” definitively became “Pétanque” during the preparation of the official rules by the Languedoc-Rousillon Federation of which I’m one of the founder members and President for several years.

E. Pitiot
With all my thanks to the Council at La Ciotat [hand-written note]

There are a number of interesting things about this account.

  1. There is a tradition, or legend, that pétanque was invented in 1907, and the first tournament held in 1910. However, Pitiot’s account says quite clearly that the game was invented in 1910, and the first tournament was held only a few days later. Pitiot says that the players played every day for money, so the idea of a competition “with a first prize of 10 francs” being organized very soon after the invention of the game seems quite plausible. That the games were played for money also helps explain the regular presence of spectators — who were probably doing some wagering as they watched.
  2. Pitiot says that “top players” from Marseille and Toulon used to come to Beraud to play against the Ciotat top players and local shopkeepers. In many versions of the legend, Jules le Noir was a famous and skillful Jeu Provençal player — a top player — disabled by rheumatism and frustrated by his inability to play. But in Pitiot’s account, le Noir is simply a local shopkeeper (commerçant) who is also a good customer and friend. There is no suggestion that le Noir was ever one of the top players.
  3. Legend has it that “Jules le Noir” was a nickname, and that the man’s real name was Jules Hugues.
  4. Pitiot says that petanque was invented at le Jeu de Boules “Béraud” — the Béraud boulodrome. Some accounts say that the boulodrome was called La Boule Etoilée, named after reflections of light from the nailed boules (boules cloutées) which were used at the time. Still other accounts say that the brothers ran a café called La Boule Etoilée and the boulodrome (terrain, piste) was attached to the café.
  5. It seems that the invention of the circle preceded the invention of the game of petanque itself. Apparently, Jeu Provençal players used to draw a circle on the ground, to mark off a spot where they could set down their boules when they weren’t playing. Le Noir was allowed to keep his chair, but only on condition that he kept it to the side of this circle. So it was a natural development that, in the very first game, le Noir should throw from the chair where he was sitting, and Pitiot should throw while standing next to him, in the circle.
  6. When the first petanque games were played, they were played at a distance of 3 to 5 meters. Today, of course, it is twice that— 6 to 10 meters.

This memoire exists in the form of a typewritten letter to the Fédération Française de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal (FFPJP). The original is now, I believe, in the possession of the Boulodrome Jules le Noire, in La Ciotat. You can click on the image at the right to see a full-size version.

The English translation was prepared by Raymond Ager (aka “A Lot of Gaul”). I have tweaked that translation in a few places in an effort to better convey the flavor of the original. I translate Toulonnais as “from Toulon” rather than “from Toulouse”. I translate pieds tanqués as “feet planted” (on the ground) rather than “feet together”.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy some of our other history posts.

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