Boules games, broadly speaking, are games that involve rolling or throwing balls toward some sort of target. The category includes such games as (French) petanque, (Italian) bocce, (English) lawn bowling, and (American) bowling. Boules games have a very long history.
Boules games in history
Boules player, by Paul Gavarni, 1858.
As early as the 6th century BC the
ancient Greeks are recorded to have played a game of tossing coins, then flat stones, and later stone balls, called spheristics, trying to have them go as far as possible. The
ancient Romans modified the game by adding a target that had to be approached as closely as possible. This Roman variation was brought to
Provence by Roman soldiers and sailors. A Roman sepulchre in
Florence shows people playing this game, stooping down to measure the points.
After the Romans, the stone balls were replaced by wooden balls. In the
Erasmus referred to the game as globurum, but it became commonly known as
boules (i.e. 'balls'), and it was played throughout Europe.
King Henry III of England banned the playing of the game by his archers — he wanted them to be practicing archery, not playing boules. In the 14th century,
Charles IV and
Charles V of France forbade the sport to commoners; only in the 17th century was the ban lifted.
By the 19th century, in England the game had become "bowls" or "lawn bowling". In France it was known as boules and was played throughout the country. The French artist Meissonnier made two paintings showing people playing the game, and
Honoré de Balzac described a match in La Comédie Humaine.
South of France the game evolved into
jeu provençal (or boule lyonnaise), similar to today's pétanque, except that the playing area was longer and players ran three steps before throwing the ball. The game was played in villages all over Provence, usually on squares of land in the shade of plane trees. Matches of jeu provençal around the start of the 20th century are memorably described in the memoirs of novelist
Invention of pétanque
According to a document in the Musée Ciotaden in La Ciotat signed by Ernest Pitiot, pétanque in its present form was first played in 1910 in what is now called the Jules Lenoir Boulodrome in the town of
La Ciotat near Marseilles. It was invented by Ernest Pitiot, a local café owner, to accommodate a French jeu provençal player named Jules Lenoir, whose rheumatism prevented him from running before he threw the ball.
 In the new game, the length of the pitch or field was reduced by roughly half, and a player no longer engaged in a run-up while throwing a ball—he stood, stationary, in a circle.
The first pétanque tournament with the new rules was organized in 1910 by the brothers Ernest and Joseph Pitiot, proprietors of a café at La Ciotat. After that the game spread quickly and soon became the most popular form of boules in France.
Before the mid-1800s, European boules games were played with solid wooden balls, usually made from boxwood root, a very hard wood. The late 1800s saw the introduction of cheap mass-manufactured nails, and wooden boules gradually began to be covered with nails, producing boules cloutées ("nailed boules"). After World War I, cannonball manufacturing technology was adapted to allow the manufacture of hollow, all-metal boules. The first all-metal boule, la Boule Intégrale, was introduced in the mid-1920s by Paul Courtieu. The Intégrale was cast in a single piece from a bronze-aluminum alloy. Shortly thereafter Jean Blanc invented a process of manufacturing steel boules by stamping two steel blanks into hemispheres and then welding the two hemispheres together to create a boule. With this technological advance, hollow all-metal balls rapidly became the norm.
Global spread of the game
After the development of the all-metal boule, pétanque spread rapidly from Provence to the rest of France, then to the rest of Europe, and then to Francophone colonies and countries around the globe. Today, many countries have their own national governing bodies.
In France, the Fédération Française de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal (FFPJP) has more than 300,000 licensed members.
There are strong national federations in Germany, Spain, and England. Petanque is actively played in many nations with histories of
French colonial influence, especially in
Southeast Asia, including
Pétanque was featured at the
2015 All-Africa Games, which were hosted by the
Republic of Congo, a former French colony.
Petanque is not widely played in the Americas. There is a Canadian petanque federation based in
(FPUSA) about 30,000 play nationwide. As of December 1, 2015, FPUSA counted 2141 members in the US, in 52 affiliated clubs.
On the international level, the
FIPJP). It was founded in 1958 in
Marseille and has about 600,000 members in 52 countries as of 2002 .
National and international competitions
There are a number of important world championship tournaments.
FIPJP world championships take place every two years. Men's championships are held in even-numbered years, while Women's and Youth championships are held in odd-numbered years.
Perhaps the best-known international championship is the
Mondial la Marseillaise de pétanque, which takes place every year in
Marseille, France, with more than 10,000 participants and more than 150,000 spectators.
The largest annual tournament in the United States is the Petanque America Open, held in November at
Amelia Island, Florida.
Pétanque is not currently an
Olympic sport, although the
Confédération Mondiale des Sports de Boules — which was created in 1985 by several international boules organizations specifically for this purpose — has been lobbying the Olympic committee since 1985 to make it part of the summer Olympics.