DDBspotlight: Playing cards – about Diabolical Prayer Books, Trionfi and Regional Suits

By Theresa Rodewald (Online Editor)

In Casino Royale, James Bond foiled the plans of the villain Le Chiffre with a dramatic poker tournament; in the opera Carmen, the cards foretold the heroine’s ominous fate and in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, the private detective Hercule Poirot solved a tricky case with the aid of a bridge game score table. It is apparent that cards, therefore, are of decisive importance in a cultural-historical aspect. Reason enough to throw the spotlight on the history of the playing card in this DDBspotlight.

Playing card from Iran (no date), Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

„Game of leaves", Mamluk ranking and Ganjifa

Playing cards presumably originated in East Asia, from where they spread out across national borders and cultures at the latest from the 13th century onwards – regional games and distinctive card-painting developed from Iran to Tierra del Fuego. Cards were already to be found in Korea and China in the 12th century; these were in the shape of long pieces of paper which were not held fanned out in the hand, but were folded. It is possible that card games already existed in China at the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). There is namely talk in some sources of yezi ge (“game of leaves”) It is not clear, however, whether this referred to an actual game of cards as we know it today. 

Dividing the cards into four suits as well as into court, respectively picture cards and number cards probably appeared for the first time among the Mamluks in Egypt. The picture cards were oriented towards the courtly hierarchy with the king or vizier being the highest card. This ranking basically still exists today, with regional variations. For example, although the cards from the Indian game Ganjifa are round and have a total of eight suits and two trumps, they still portray the hierarchy of the Imperial Mogul Court. 

Round playing cards: “Kartenspiel: Mogul Ganjifa” (“Card game: Mogul Ganjifa”) (before 1977), Rajasthan, Landesmuseum Württemberg (Wuerttemberg State Museum) (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The widespread French-suited playing cards of today also reflect a social hierarchy, that of the social standing at the time of King Louis XV of France: clubs(or clovers) stood for the peasants, spades (or pikes) for the aristocracy, hearts for the church and diamonds (or tiles) for the merchants. 

Diamonds, bells or batons?

In addition to the French-suited playing cards, there were also numerous regional playing card designs in Europe, some of them which are still used today. For example, the German-suited playing cards with acorns, spades (or leaves), hearts and bells; the Swiss-suited playing cards with acorns, shields, roses and bells or the Italian-Spanish playing cards with swords, cups, coins and batons. There are also special forms – for instance, cards which show the German and the French suits at the same time. Up to the present day, the game of Skat is played with French-suited cards with German colours, that is, black, green, red and yellow. There are so many varied regional cards as there are games played with them – from the Bavarian Schafkopf to the Swiss Jass. 

German-suited playing cards: “Gesellschaftsspiel (Kartenspiel Deutsches Blatt)” (“Parlour game (German-suited cards)”) (1st half of 20th century), Dorfmuseum Schönwalde (Schönewalde Village Museum) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 DE)

One of the oldest surviving card games is Tarot, (or Tarock), which is played with its own tarot cards today. You can recognise this from the 21 trump cards which are numbered consecutively with Roman numerals. The predecessors of the tarot cards were the so-called Trionfi cards, which were widespread in Italy in the late 15th century. We not only owe the tarot game to the word “Trionfi”, but also our concept of “trumps”.

“Kartenspiel: Tarock mit Wiener Ausrufern” (“Card game: Tarot with Viennese exclamations”) (1880), Landesmuseum Württemberg (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Forbidden luxury

The earliest mentions of playing cards in Europe come from the last third of the 14th century. These are often to do with prohibitions, like in the case of the Florentine playing card prohibition of 1377, for example. Such prohibitions were also known for China, Persia and India – because where there are playing cards, gambling is not far away. It was particularly the Church which preached against playing for money; in the 15th century, playing cards were even burnt symbolically at the stake, as was the case in Vienna in 1451. In puritanical circles, card games were still known as the “devil’s prayer book” until the 20th century. 

These prohibitions did not make any difference to the popularity of playing cards, but they did cause financial problems for the painters of such cards. Before the advent of the printing press, cards were namely individually painted by hand and were often small treasures. For instance, the Stuttgart card game – made around 1430 and thus one of the oldest surviving games – is undoubtedly a luxury item in view of the cards designed with gold, which were probably never meant to be played with. 

The cards “Enten-König” (“Duck king”) „and “Falken-Banner” (“Falcon banner”) from the Stuttgart card game (around 1430). The four suits (duck, falcon, stag and hound) are based on hunting motifs, Landesmuseum Württemberg (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It was not until the advent of the printing press that making playing cards became easier, with the result that the cards no longer needed to be painted by hand. Instead, they were decorated by means of woodcutting techniques and copper engraving. Paper was in short supply in the meantime, which is why spoilage, that is defective paper was recycled in bookbinding. This is why designs for playing cards can sometimes be found in unusual places, in book covers for example. 

This playing card comes from the book cover of a volume by Martin Luther “Sermon von dem ehelichen Stand, gepredigt im Jahr 1519, Leipzig” (Sermon on the marital status, preached in Leipzig, 1519”): “Kartenspiel: Eichel-Unter, ‘Stukeley-Typus’” (“card game: Knave of Acorns, ‘Stukeley-type’”) (probably 1540-1560), Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

From 1500 onwards, Lyon developed into a production centre for playing cards. Thus, the fact that the French-suited cards with clubs, spades, diamonds and hearts are so widespread today probably has to do with the popularity of cards from Lyon. 

Taxes on playing cards

Where playing cards were not prohibited, the territorial rulers often imposed a tax on them. From the 16th century onwards, principalities and cities increasingly issued decrees which only allowed the possession of stamped playing cards. If other cards were used, then there was not only the threat of these being confiscated, but also a large fine. As a rule, a manufacturer was granted the privilege to make playing cards and then left space on the cards for a tax stamp. In the French-suited cards, it was often the Ace of Hearts that was stamped, which is why there is still space for the stamp on this card today. The territorial rulers also set the price for playing cards, with the result that these soon became a constant source of revenue. 

"Decree: It is forbidden in the royal seat of Mainz and in the entire Electorate of Mainz, under severe penalty, to sell playing cards other than those bearing the new stamp of the St. Rochus Hospital (poster)" (Mainz, 1741 November 14), Hessisches Staatsarchiv Darmstadt, Hessisches Staatsarchiv Darmstadt, E 3 E, 5/35 (CC BY 3.0 DE)

Quite independent of the prohibitions, cards, and in particular games of chance, were also considered to be morally reprehensible. The devil frequently appeared as a tempter on copper engravings from the 16th and 17th centuries. Cards stood here symbolically for an immoral lifestyle and, in this respect, they even made it onto wall paintings in churches such as, for example, in the Jesuit Church of the Annunciation in Litoměřice in the Czech Republic. In other portrayals, the devil even sits at the table as one of the players

This copper engraving, which is based on a woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger, associates the card game with death and the devil. The warning quotation comes from Matthew 16:26: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?“: “Spieler” (“Players”) (1651-1680) Wencelslaus Hollar, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Beyond religious portrayals, cheating at cards is a popular motif in painting. The cheat here is either shown where he keeps the cards secretly in his belt, instead of hiding the Ace in his sleeve, or that there are violent fights after the deception has been discovered. In contrast, it seems that there are more and more portrayals of a peaceful or even sociable card game from the 18th century onwards – probably because card games had developed into acceptable leisure activities in the meantime. 

A creative type of cheating is shown in this etching. Working together as a team and with the aid of a mirror, the elegant ladies are looking at the cards of the no less elegant gentleman: “Le Galant dupe” (1701-1725) Cornelis Danckerts, Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

About Tarot, poker and other cards games

Fortune-telling with playing cards, also known as cartomancy, became fashionable in the France of the 18th century. Esoteric-occultist clubs were significant here. For a long time, there was the legend that fortune-telling with cards originated in Egypt. Today, however, it is assumed that playing cards were already used for fortune-telling in China in the 7th century. The first fortune-telling cards in Europe probably date from the 15th century. Tarot cards, which are for the main part connected with fortune-telling, belong to the family of the “Tarock” cards. From the 18th century onwards, the tarot deck with explicitly symbolic significance developed from the Tarock cards. There are also different decks of cards among the tarot cards, the most widespread being the Marseille, the Rider-Waite- and the Thoth decks

“LA CREDULITÉ SANS REFLEXION; [Women at a fortune-teller’s]” (1770), Louis Michel Halbou, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Card games like poker, bridge or Skat did not emerge until the 19th and 20th centuries, whereby the “new” card games by no means appeared out of nowhere. Poker, for example developed in New Orleans at the beginning of the 19th century from the French “Poque”, a game that had already been very popular on the European continent since the 18th century. The joker appeared for the first time in a poker game, but actually came from the game of euchre. Bridge emerged at the end of the 19th century from the English game of whist. 

Whist card game with motifs from Goethe’s Faust: “Faust im Kerker bei Gretchen” (“Faust in the prison with Gretchen”) (1817), Freies Deutsches Hochstift / Frankfurter Goethe-Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The game of Skat originated likewise from older games like L’Hombre and Tarock in Altenburg in Thuringia in 1810 –a city which is still an important centre for the production of playing cards today. At first, the game was still called “Erzgebirgischer Schafkopf” (“Ore Mountains’ Sheep's Head”), but was soon renamed and spread out all over Germany. In 1889 the “Allgemeine Deutsche Skatordnung” (“General German Skat Rules”) were agreed upon at the first Skat congress – up to this point in time, the different rules for playing the game had namely often led to arguments. By the way, you are traditionally wished “Gut Blatt” (“a good hand”) in card-playing associations and clubs. 

“Etui für Spielkarten (Englisches Etui für eine Dame)” (“Box for playing cards (English box for a lady)”) (2nd half of 19th century), Museum der Landschaft Eiderstedt (Eiderstedt Landscape Museum) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 DE)

In the 19th century, playing cards were no longer luxury items; everyone could play cards regardless of their social origin. Whereby the type of card game as well as the amount of the stake varied, depending on the social class. L’Hombre and Tarock were increasingly played in aristocratic and bourgeois circles; Schnapsen was popular among the common people. In Victorian England, card game were divided into the categories “respectable” and “disreputable” – under the pretext that the bourgeois games were more challenging. In this way, the upper class not only distanced itself from the lower classes, but also legitimised its own “immoral” gambling. 

“Früchte aus Feld und Garten Nr. 342” (“Fruits from the field and the garden No: 342”) (1930s), Saarländisches Schulmuseum Ottweiler (Saarland School Museum in Ottweiler) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 DE)

Besides card games with German or French suits, there were also some with quite individual cards. In the 19th century, for example, conversation card games appeared. Moreover, educational theory discovered the card game, for example in the form of educational games - with names to undoubtedly inspire learning fun – like “Fidele Nachhilfestunde” (“jolly private lessons”), or quartets, which were supposed to communicate knowledge. 

Whether with French or German-suited cards, whether Indian Ganjifa, Bavarian Schafskopf or Mau-Mau, whether at home, while travelling or out in the open air, people play cards just as passionately today as in the 15th century. But it is often not really about winning, but about being sociable together. However, today people do not only play face to face, but also online. During the lockdown, this made it possible to spend time playing cards with family and friends in accordance with the pandemic rules. As with so many other pandemic solutions, this has also shown how precious it is to play together in person. There is no sign of an end to the playing card and so we wish all of you “Gut Blatt”!

In the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library) you can admire other historical card games, read the centuries-old rules of card games or be inspired by richly decorated playing cards. For example, what about transforming some motifs into your own personal sticker set for your Signal messenger? You can learn how to do this here. The Deutsches Spielearchiv Nürnberg (German Games Archive in Nuremberg) made historical card games from the product archives of the Spear company available to the cultural hackathon Coding da Vinci in 2019. This led, among other things, to the development of a strategy game and a quartet about important women in history. You can see the projects here.

More card games and playing cards in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek.



Wikipedia: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kartenspiel und https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spielkarte#Geschichte sowie https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Face_card

mdr.de: https://www.mdr.de/kultur/ausflug-tipps/skat-regeln-kartenspiel-altenburg-100.html

zeit-online: https://www.zeit.de/zeit-wissen/2019/05/kartenspiele-tradition-tamnoi-spoons-gesellschaftsspiel?utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F

br.de https://www.br.de/radio/bayern2/sendungen/kalenderblatt/in-florenz-wird-das-kartenspiel-verboten-102.html

Wien Geschichte Wiki: https://www.geschichtewiki.wien.gv.at/Kartenspiel

Deutscher Skatverband e.V.: https://dskv.de/der-dskv/geschichte-des-dskv/

jstor.org: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1559494?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

parlettgames.uk (englisch): https://www.parlettgames.uk/histocs/leafgame.html

The World of Playing Cards (englisch): https://www.wopc.co.uk/china/