The current form of the game originated in 1907 in La Ciotat, in Provence, in southern France. The English and French name pétanque comes from la petanca [peˈtaŋkɔ] in the Provençal dialect of the Occitan language, deriving from the expression pès tancats [ˈpɛ taŋˈka], meaning “feet together” or more exactly “feet anchored”.
The casual form of the game of pétanque is played by about 17 million people in France, mostly during their summer vacations. It is also widely played in neighboring Spain. There are about 375,000 players licensed with the Fédération Française de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal (FFPJP), some 3,000 in England, and 1,000 in Lafayette, Louisiana, United States. Another 20,000 or so play in Quebec, Canada. Additionally, pétanque clubs have arisen in cities throughout the United States in recent years. Petanque is also played in Southeast Asia due to the French presence in the area during the last centuries: Laos, north Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
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, as early as the 6th century BC. 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, with nails to give them greater weight. In the Middle Ages Erasmus referred to the game as globurum, but it became commonly known as ‘boules,’ or balls, and it was played throughout Europe. King Henry III of England banned the playing of the game by his archers, and in the 14th century, Charles IV and Charles V of France also forbade the sport to commoners. Only in the 17th century was the ban lifted.
By the 19th century, in England the sport 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. In the South of France it had evolved into jeu provençal, similar to today’s pétanque, except that the field was larger 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 at the turn of the century are memorably described in the memoirs of novelist Marcel Pagnol.
Pétanque in its present form was invented in 1907 in the town of La Ciotat near Marseilles by a French boule lyonnaise player named Jules Lenoir, whom rheumatism prevented from running before he threw the ball. The length of the pitch or field was reduced by roughly half, and the moving delivery was replaced with a stationary one.
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 sport grew with great speed, and soon became the most popular form of boules. The international Pétanque federation Fédération Internationale de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal was founded in 1958 in Marseille and has about 600,000 members in 52 countries (2002).
The first World Championships were organized in 1959. The most recent championships were held in Faro (2000), Monaco (2001), Grenoble (2002, 2004 and 2006), Geneva (2003), Brussels (2005), and Pattaya / Thailand (2007). Fifty-two teams from 50 countries participated in 2007.