The Ancient Origins of Handball, And Its Popularity in Modern France

France against Hungary in the European Men’s Handball Championship
France against Hungary in the European Men’s Handball Championship | © Steindy / WikiCommons
Photo of Jade Cuttle
6 September 2018

France excels at one sport unlike anywhere else: handball. And yet, this exhilarating game largely remains eclipsed by football outside of Europe. We trace the ancient origins of this unique sport, from the Roman conquest to Medieval aristocracy, right through to the present-day French champions.

An introduction to handball

Handball is a fun mix of basketball, football and netball. Two teams of seven players, each including a goalkeeper, pass a ball using their hands across a walled court.

It’s one of the most high-action sports in the world, as a standard match consists of two short 30-minute bursts, with teams regularly scoring 20 goals or more in this time.

France against Hungary in the European Men’s Handball Championship | © Steindy / WikiCommons

The sport dates back to the Roman era

Handball is one of the oldest known ball games, first originating in Ancient Rome. Roman women pioneered the handball technique in a game called expulsim ludere, while Roman men preferred a more rugby-like game called hapastum. The popularity of the game spread through European countries during the Roman conquest.

Handball was popular in Medieval France

There are records of handball-like games in medieval France and what’s interesting is the variety of people who enjoyed this sport. Some sports were reserved for certain classes of French society; for example, fencing, croquet and polo were played by the aristocracy. However, handball was universal as it was popular with both French nobles and peasants alike.

Medieval handball game in Bretagne, France | © Olivier Perrin (1761-1832) / WikiCommons

The game was known as Jeux de Paume (palm play) in French and inspired a great level of ingenuity when it came to the materials involved. There was no mass-production or industrial factories when handball was first played and so, the French had to fabricate everything by hand. The balls used in Medieval times were often made of pieces of clothes stitched together, rags or whatever people could find.

Handball in modern times

As the popularity of this sport increased, the rules started to become more strict. This standardisation allowed different countries to compete against each other in major tournaments.

The first written set of team handball rules was published in 1906 by a Danish gym teacher and later revised into the modern version in 1917 in Germany.

Under these new rules, the first international games were played in 1925 for men and in 1930 for women, the popularity of which inspired the creation of The International Handball Federation in 1946. Today, this organisation oversees administration and is responsible for upholding the sport’s values.

Luc Abalo (BM Ciudad Real), French handball player | © Steindy / WikiCommons

Proof that the French excel at this sport

In France, sports play an important role in French society, especially handball, since the national team’s players have proven themselves to be world masters.

Hailed as the finest national team in the history of handball, they have been the reigning World Champions since January 2017.

In fact, France is the only country in the world to have a handball team that has held all three titles twice and the only national team in its sport to hold six world titles.

Daniel Narcisse (THW Kiel), French handball player | © Steindy / WikiCommons

France has some of the best players in history

The team boasts some of the greatest players in handball history, such as Nikola Karabatic, a centre-back who plays for Paris Saint-Germain and the French national team. He is well-known for his powerful throws securing last-minute wins.

A handful of his awards include two Olympic gold medals, four World Championship gold medals and three gold medals in the European Championships. As well as this, he has been IHF World Player of the Year three times (in 2007, 2014 and 2016), which is a record.

Most recently, during the Men’s 2018 EHF European Handball Championship, Karabatic brought France glory by securing a 32:29 victory against Denmark. Only time will tell what 2019 has in store for France, but if their track record is anything to go by, then it is likely to be favourable.

France is jubilant at the European Men’s Handball Championship | © Steindy / WikiCommons

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