Originally, Basque pelota was a game played on Sundays and other church days in Basque Country. It was played against the wall (or walls) of the local church, with the open-air church courtyard as the playing field. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that Basque pelota moved to indoor facilities.
In Basque Country, the tie between church buildings and Basque pelota has always been strong, and there is even a patron saint for Basque pelota: Saint Ignatius Loyola. Ignatius Loyola is most famous for forming the Jesuit order, but he was also an avid pelota player.
Basque pelota and tennis are believed to have a common ancestor: jeu de paume (also known as jeu de paume au gant). In the early 1700s, this game began to evolve into a version played with a racquet. In England, th racquet game turned into royal tennis and then into lawn tennis. In Basque Country, jeu de paume instead evolved into Basque pelota.
During the 18th century, Basque pelota players started putting leather on their hands to protect them from the hard ball. Towards the end of that century, the practice of tying a basket (a cesta) to your hand appeared. With a basket, the player could hurl the ball faster and harder. The design of the basket-glove-racquet as we know it today (the chistera), is generally attributed to a player named Gantxiki who were active in the mid-1800’s. This was a time when Basque Country and nearby regions were caught in a “pelota craze” that helped spread awareness of the game outside its native range. People flocked to see the super-fast (and also quite dangerous) balls being bounced against the walls.
Since Basque Country is partly located within Spain, and the Basques were skilled sailors, it comes as no surprise that Basque pelota spread throughout the Spanish colonies around the globe during the Age of Sail. When the International Federation of Basque Pelota was formed in 1929, this historic moment didn’t take place in Basque Country or even in Europe, but in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The founding organizations was the Argentinian, the Spanish and the French Federation of Basque Pelota.
About Basque Country
Basque Country, known as Euskal Herria in the native language, stretches from the Atlantic coast and into the western Pyrenees mountains along the French-Spanish border. Basque Country is not a sovereign state, it is comprised of three autonomous communities: Northern Basque Country in France and the Basque Country and Navarre in Spain.
The origin of the Basques and their language is a controversial topic. The language is the only Pre-Indo-European language still spoken in Western Europe. This indicates that the Basques might be a remnant of a pre-Indo-European European population.
The Pyrenees mountain range forms a natural border that separates the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of continental Europe. The mountain range runs from the Bay of Biscay in the Atlantic to Cap de Creus in the Mediterranean Sea.
The dramatic landscape of the Pyrenees mountains has helped preserve the Basque language and culture. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that fairly large amounts of Galicians and Castilians migrated into Basque Country.