Pétanque is a form of boules where the goal is, while standing with the feet together in a small circle, to throw hollow metal balls as close as possible to a small wooden ball called a cochonnet (jack). The game is normally played on hard dirt or gravel, but can also be played on grass or other surfaces. Soft sandy beaches are not suitable. Similar games are bocce and bowls.

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 in the Provençal dialect of the Occitan language, deriving from the expression pès tancats, 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. There are about 375,000 players licensed with the Fédération Française de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal (FFPJP) and some 3000 in England.

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 B.C. 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, King Charles IV of France 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 provençale 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 & 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.

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