European Playing Cards

By M. K. Van Rensselaer.

According to Spanish writers, the authentic history of Playing Cards in Europe begins about 1332, for they point with triumph to an order issued by Alphonse of Castile, presumed to be of that date, forbidding his soldiers to play games or to gamble. It is pointed out by disputatious writers that the command was not directed against Playing Cards, since they were not expressly mentioned by name, as are the other prohibited games of chance. Then there is a second statement that Charles V of Spain, in 1369, denounced cards, calling them by the local name of Naipes, or prophets; and also a third record that, in 1387, dice, cards, and chess were banned by John of Castile.

It is evident through these trustworthy records that gambling was widely practised in Spain, and that, even if cards were not particularly named in the first-mentioned edict, it was but little more than eighteen years later that they had become so common it was necessary to forbid their use through an official decree.

In 1395 the Provost of Paris issued a proclamation against Playing Cards, showing that their abuse in the capital of France had become intolerable. With these and other evidences, it may well be asserted that by the beginning of the fifteenth century Playing Cards were commonly known in the capitals of Europe, where they were publicly used for games and gambling, as well as for fortune-telling.

It has already been mentioned that there are records of Playing Cards in the “Red Book of Ulm,” of 1397, and an account in Nuremburg, dated 1384, when a monk preached against the inordinate love of gaming among his congregation.

Aretino assigns the invention of cards, as well as of chess, to Palamedes, in the Grecian camp before the wall of Troy, thus claiming a very early date for their introduction to Europeans; but, while little credence has been placed on this record, it is more than probable that Tarots were part of the equipment of the camp if the soldiers wished to have their future foretold by the messenger of the gods, and gambling sticks, made of ivory and marked with men’s heads, have been found in the tomb of King Qa, at Abydos, Egypt.

History states that the Crusaders played at “tables” (as draughts or checkers were then called), and also that King Richard Cœur de Lion was fond of chess; but the English histories do not mention cards at that date. German authors infer that cards were introduced into Europe by the Crusaders, who, finding the Tarots common among their enemies (or prisoners), the Saracens, learned to play from them, and as the pictures on the cards were attractive, they used them to send home as missives to their families, and these authors support their theory by pointing out that cards are still called “briefe,” or letters, in Germany, while we might say that these pictures were the ancestors of the postal cards of the present day.

Writers harp on the lack of historical data concerning Playing Cards before the middle of the fourteenth century, oblivious of the fact that previous to that time it is probable that Tarots would not have been classed with games, and that educated people had not learned to use the pack for amusement, nor had the lower classes grasped the fact that they could be converted into a means for gambling, so they disregarded the ancient symbols, which they considered only useful for fortune-tellers, so cards at that date would not have been classed as gambling tools.

As soon as a game was arranged for the cards, however, they were eagerly adopted by all classes of society as a welcome diversion. From that time on, numerous descriptions are to be found in the archives of European countries, appearing almost simultaneously. Gough (a writer mentioned by the Rev. Edward Taylor in his “History of Playing Cards,” page 187) expressly states that “the Italian game called La Minchiate, which was played with the ancient Tarot pack, was invented at Sienna by Michael Angelo to teach children arithmetic.” It would seem that the writer was slightly confused in his ideas, for the cards invented for teaching arithmetic were not true Tarots. He may be correct, however, in supposing that cards were arranged by the painter for educational purposes, and that they followed closely the number and arrangement of the older pack, for there are such cards still to be found in collections, although hardly of so early a date.

There seems no reason to doubt the record that “Francis Fibbia, of Pisa, invented the game of Tarrochino (or little Tarots), in 1419, receiving as reward the permission to place his own coat-of-arms on the escutcheon of the Queen of Staves, and that of his wife on the Queen of Money,” as stated by Leopold Cicognara, for we are told that there is a picture extant showing this prince with a number of cards scattered before him, on which are these arms, so it may be that he arranged a game for common use from the more ancient one of L’Ombre, since the games closely resemble each other, and the former is popular to-day in parts of Italy, where the ancient Tarots are still used.

Rafael Maffei, who lived at the close of the fourteenth century, has left a description of what he calls “a new invention,” or a game played with Tarots. A Bolognese gentleman named Innocento Renghierri, who lived in 1551, declared that “cards were invented in days of yore, and by an industrious and very learned person.” Unfortunately, neither the name of the inventor nor the date is mentioned, for, if given correctly, it might have saved much trouble and dispute.

Gambling and Educational Cards


In the “History of Viterbo,” by Feliceano (1742), there is a statement quoted from Covelluzzo that cards called Naib were introduced into that city in 1279 from a Saracenic source. This name given to the cards in Italy is interesting, since it is the one used to-day in Spain, for which various derivations have been given. It was probably derived from the Hebrew word for prophet, emphasising the original intention of cards for divination purposes. It seems strange that one of the best known and most widely spread cults has received so little recognition or study among those who have interested themselves in the religious progress and civilization of mankind. Even if regarded as toys or gambling instruments, Playing Cards certainly fill a great part in the lives of men, while their origin and the influence they have wielded in the past should surely have created more interest than has been the case.

A Frenchman, Père Menestrier, studied the history of the cards that were known to him as early as 1704, when he published “Des Principes des Sciences et des Arts Disposé en Forme de Jeux.” Others followed his example, but they all looked upon cards simply as gambling instruments, or regarded them as interesting historical fashion plates picturing French celebrities, or else as rare engraved plates; so they treated the cards of their own countries only from this point of view. Of course, most of the writers knew only the cards of their immediate surroundings, and, if they ever were cognizant of the ancient Tarots, disregarded them entirely.

When, in 1836, Samuel Weller Singer published his “History of Playing Cards,” he was interested in engraving, with its kindred arts, and he found that the earliest work on wood or metal had been done to reproduce cards. This book was followed by the “History of Playing Cards,” by William Andrew Chatto; “Origin of Playing Cards” (1865); “History of Playing Cards,” by Rev. Edward Taylor, and many others. Although two persons in the priesthood devoted time to studying cards, they did not do so with reference to their religious influence on their congregations. Still, they acknowledged with surprise that these unbound leaves offered an interesting study, and, while each one pointed out the probable connection of Playing Cards with the Book of Thoth and the cult of Mercury, not one of them proved the statement, but slurred it over, as if rather ashamed of the idea, although the fact could easily have been proved through a careful examination of the marks, the pips, and the emblems on the cards themselves, that are so undoubtedly the heraldic devices through which Mercury is always recognised, and which he received from the most ancient forms of worship in Babylonia.

These authors, with other German, French, and Spanish writers, unanimously decided that, since there is no legal record or trustworthy mention of cards intended for use in games before the year 1392 (the one that they seemed to agree upon, ignoring the account given of the martyrdom of St. Cyprian in 258, who was killed for remonstrating against playing cards), and since chance has not disclosed a hitherto unknown monument to their birth and cradle, that these playthings were suddenly invented just about the date when they appeared simultaneously all over Europe for the amusement of pleasure-loving mortals. However, they quarrelled a bit as to whether cards were first known in the Occident or in the Orient, but none of the authors studied divination, and the rules known to astrologers, fortune-tellers or gypsies that are carefully preserved, as well as the evident connection of Playing Cards with the tools of the diviners of ancient days.

These authors proved entirely too near-sighted and would not read what the cards themselves displayed before their semi-opened vision, probably because they despised the professional prophets. Besides, the French, Spanish, German, and English writers each claimed for his own country the first knowledge of Playing Cards used for games, without recognising that their bantlings all came from a common mother stock, the great Tarot pack. Thus the arguments, deductions, and theories of these writers can command respect only to a limited degree.

Merlin and Chatto have treated cards as interesting examples of the xylographic art, and it is certainly true that they were an important factor in developing it; but this period in the history of Playing Cards was by no means its childhood, as the writers seem to consider. Many of them did not know that almost every one of the European countries had emblems peculiar to the locality, which is also the case in Asia. None of the museums have even now any packs except those peculiar to their own State.

In the Middle Ages games became necessary amusements in camp and home, so there was a demand for a rapid and inexpensive form of reproduction that should take the place of the expensively painted replicas of the Book of Thoth, which before had been within reach only of the wealthy.

Of course, the original emblems had never been entirely lost or forgotten, but had been concealed in the hands of the initiates, who regarded them with reverence and transmitted them secretly from one to the other, but did not use cards for gambling or amusement. These persons did not reveal the history or import of the Book of Thoth to the triflers of the outside world, and had no desire to see their treasured secrets cheaply reproduced, to be carelessly handled by curious or pleasure-loving people.

The author of “The Game of Gold,” published at Augsburg in 1472, says he has read that “the game of cards was introduced into Germany in 1300.” This is one of the first written accounts of Playing Cards used for games. It was pointed out by Chatto that there is a Chinese legend claiming Playing Cards as being used in China some two thousand years before Christ. Doubtless the Chinese recognized that their games of divination, as still commonly played, were identical with the cards used for chance, as the little flat cards are still used for both purposes.

When Columbus made his first voyage across the Atlantic, his men gambled continually, and, although the superstitious sailors threw the cards overboard when they feared that they would never reach land, they manufactured new ones immediately on their arrival in America, and taught the savages their game, so we know without question that cards reached America in 1492. They were called Naypes and bore the emblems of Swords, Money, Cups, and Rods.

After these records of Playing Cards come some that are of later date. In “Capitolo del Gioco della Primera,” by Berni, published in Rome in 1526, the author claims that “playing cards were invented by King Ferdinand,” which statement may be regarded with amusement, since other Italian records prove an earlier date.

There is an interesting invective against cards published in 1550, called “Il Traditor,” which may be translated:

What is the meaning of the female Pope,
The Chariot and the Traitor,
The Wheel, the Fool, the Star, the Sun,
The Moon, and Strength, and Death,
And Hell, and all the rest
Of these strange cards?

Showing that the Egyptian temples had not disclosed their secrets that identified these pictures on the Tarots common in Italy with the cult of Thoth, Mercury, and Nebo.

Painters have transmitted to us pictures of many games of cards, and perhaps one of the earliest is the one ascribed to Van Eyck, of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, about the year 1493. The early Dutch painters often depicted boors playing cards, and those by Jan Steen, the two Teniers, and others are well known. Hogarth devoted a series of engravings to depicting grotesque figures playing chess, draughts, and cards.

After the fourteenth century, it is easy to learn the important position that Playing Cards reached in Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and England through the works of other painters, miniaturists, and engravers, while books such as “Fortune-Telling,” by Francisco di Milano, published in 1560, or the one by Francisco Marcolini, published in Venice in 1540, prove the hold that the new amusement had taken on the people at that time.

Proclamations against cards followed each other rapidly from State and Church, so histories are filled with the denunciations of the clergy of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries against the old sin that had reappeared under a new form for them to combat. Mercury was as active as ever, and had quite as strong a hold on the affections of the people as he had in the days when St. Paul landed in Italy, close to the Temple of Mercury, and it was quite as hard to overcome his influence as it had been when Christianity first began to overthrow the heathen gods. Perhaps the day may come when those who believe in fate and predestination will confront these preachers with the divine commands to consult the prophets so often mentioned in the Bible, notably when the Rods of the Israelites were marked and laid before the testimony.


This is taken from Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards.





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