The Introduction of Playing-Cards to Europe


The history of playing-cards in Europe has been subject to a good deal of misinformation. You should evaluate all information about this subject cautiously because of this (and that includes this paper). I have relied heavily upon David Parlett and Michael Dummett, both of whom are acknowledged experts in this field. Keep in mind that there is still a lot of speculation in this field, and that tomorrow may bring a discovery of new information which changes our current perception of this history. When looking for evidence of anything in history, there is always the possibility that we are missing documents that describe what we are looking for; or that they were not documented until well after, or not at all. Next, throw in the fact that people who copied documents would quite commonly change (like by adding information to them). Thus when examining the known evidence of the introduction of playing-cards, we have to look for both existing evidence (where cards are mentioned) and the lack of evidence (places where we would expect cards to be mentioned, if they were present).

A brief summary of European playing-card history follows. Cards were introduced into Italy and Spain around 1370. They most likely came from Egypt. Within a few years they had spread to many parts of Europe, although record of their introduction into England dates almost 90 years later. The Tarot deck was invented in Italy around 1440, based on the existing card decks of the time (not the other way around, as popular legend has it). The idea that Gypsies introduced cards to Europe is contradicted by the fact that cards were known in Europe for about 40 years before the first appearance of Gypsies.

Origin of Cards

Cards were probably invented in China. On New Year's Eve, 969, the Emperor Mu-tsung is reported to have played "domino cards" with his wife. Chinese Dominos corresponded to the fall of two dice (i.e. 1-2, 6-5, etc.). Unlike the Western versions of Dominos, Chinese Dominos were not used in positional games, hence they were played much like cards. Chinese "money cards" bear an even closer resemblance to Western playing-cards. They had four suits cash (2-9), strings [of cash] (2-9), myriads [of strings] (2-9), and tens [of myriads] (1-9). Later versions dropped the "tens" suit, but doubled or quadrupled the cards in each suit.

The current "best" theory of the origin of European playing-cards, is that they came from a region near Mameluks of Egypt. Fragments of cards have been tentatively dated to 12th or 13th century. A Mameluke card deck dating around 1400, consists of 52 cards with suits of swords, polo-sticks, cups, and coins. Each suit has numbers 1-10, and three court cards malik (king), na'ib malik (Viceroy or Deputy-King), and thani na'ib (Second Under-Deputy). These cards are virtually identical to early Italian cards (batons instead of polo-sticks). It seems likely that the na'ib court card gave the early names of European cards: naibbe (Italian) and naipes (Spanish).

Michael Dummett proposes that the Mameluke cards originated from the Indian card game of Ganjifa. It was played with circular cards (usually 8-12 suits, with 10 number and 2 court cards). Ganjifa was played in 16th century Persia as Ganjifeh. In Arabia it became known as Kanjifah (a word that appeared in an inscription on one of the circa 1400 Mameluke cards), and was expanded by the addition of a third court card.

There are a number of other card origin theories, which currently seem discredited. The idea that Marco Polo brought back cards from his 13th century voyages to China does not mesh with the known dates of introduction (almost 200 years later, there are a number of people describing cards as a "new" game). Similarly, the Crusades ended too early (around 1300) to be a good suspect. Some people have pointed to the Persian Poker-like card game of As-Nas; but this is only recorded back to the 17th century. Another theory has cards being developed from Indian 4-sided chess. As already mentioned in the abstract, Gypsies did not appear in Europe until 40 years after cards were already known. While on the subject of Gypsies and cards, note that the "layout" style of fortune telling with Tarot cards was not invented until approx. 1790 (which probably by no coincidence, is also when solitaire games depending upon a particular layout first appeared).

Early Dates in Europe

"Thus it is that a certain game, called the game of cards, has reached us in the present year, namely AD 1377."
-- John of Rheinfelden, Basle, Switzerland

According to Michael Dummett, the first reference to cards in Europe are in Spain (1371) as "naip" in a Catalan document. The current Spanish spelling is "naipes". Cards are described in detail in Switzerland by 1377 (a monk in Basle named John of Rheinfelden). By 1380 they are reported in such diverse places as Florence, Basle, Regensburg, Brabant, Paris, and Barcelona.

The city of Florence passed statute on Gambling in March 23, 1376 (1377 by current calendar), on a vote of 98 to 25 regulating the playing of "A certain game called naibbe, [which] has recently been introduced into these parts". A German ordinance in Regensburg on July 23, 1378 declares various games, including "spilen mit der quarten' punishable by fine if played for stakes higher than permitted.

Cards could be quite expensive. The Register of the Duke Wenceslas of Brabant (May 14, 1379) shows paying four peter and two florins to buy playing-cards with. For much of the 19th century, the following account book entry for Charles VI `the Mad' of France was the earliest known reference to playing-cards: "Paid to Jacquemin Gringonneur, painter, for three packs of cards in gold and colors of various designs, to present to his said Majesty for his entertainment; 56 Parisian sous." This led some people to propose that Gringonneur "invented cards".

It would be a mistake, however, to think that cards were only played by the upper class. The Town ordinances of Paris (1377) and St. Gallen (1379) prohibit card-play in contexts directed at the working classes. Bernadine of Sienna preached against gaming at Bologna in 1423, and thousands of cards were burned. John Capistran, a disciple of Bernadine, in 1452 organized a bonfire of "76 sledges, 3,640 backgammon boards, 40,000 dice, and a comparable quantity of cards".

If cards were introduced earlier than circa 1370, there are a number of places we would expect to see them mentioned. Despite strong interests in games; Petrarch (1307-74), Boccaccio (1313-75), and Chaucer (1343-1400) do not mention cards. Guillaume de Machau's address to Charles V in 1364 (which denounced gaming in general, and dice in particular) does not mention cards. There are also ordinances controlling gaming from Paris (1369) and St. Gallen (1364) which don't mention cards.

Although England probably knew of cards much earlier, solid references to playing-cards in England don't occur until the mid-15th century. Parlett feels that the 1418 reference mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) really describes wool carding instruments. Letters from the Paston family are probably the earliest solid reference. The OED dates these letters to 1483-4, but there is some evidence that they were written in 1459 or before. Edward IV's first parliament (Nov. 1461- May 1462) prohibits card playing (and dicing) except for the 12 days of Christmas. The earliest known English card games date around 1520, and the earliest surviving English deck (French suited) dates around 1590.

Composition of Card Decks

John of Rheinfelden's text describes a deck with 52 cards, 10 number cards (from 1 to 10), and 3 court cards (king, and two marshals). There are further descriptions in the manuscript, but these were probably added around 1429. They describe 52 card decks with Queens instead of Kings, and 56 deck cards that added Queens. The suits are not described except as "some of these signs being considered good but others signifying evil". The earliest Italian and Spanish decks use the same suits (Swords, Batons/Clubs, Cups and Coins), but with some minor differences. These suits are known as the "Latin" suits. The Italian batons were well finished, and usually interlaced swords and batons on the number cards. The Spanish tended to use clubs (often with leaves and knobs left on), and usually arrange number card suit-symbols in a non-overlapping manner. The Italian suits are very close to the Arabic Mameluke suits which probably provided the origin of European cards.

There was much experimentation with the number of cards and suits, and suit markers. National standards started to appear by the late 15th century. The traditional Swiss (Shields, Flowers, Bells, and Acorns) and German (Hearts, Leaves, Bells, Acorns) suits appear in complete packs around 1475 (individually from 1450). France's national suits (Spades, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds) first appeared around 1480. Parlett feels that early English decks were probably Latin suited, but most surviving decks (circa 1590) are French suited.

Queens usually replaced the King in early decks, or were added into the deck (making 4 court cards per suit for a total of 56 cards). The Rheinfelden manuscript copy from 1429 describes the 56 card deck as ideal (note this was around the time that the Tarot was invented, which added 22 special cards to a 56 card deck). By the late 15th century, cards had pretty much standardized on the 52 card deck. Most countries dropped the queen, except for the French who replaced the "knight" with the "queen". Note that the lowest court card was called a "knave" (in England) until out of period, when the name "Jack" became more popular.

Putting indices on the corner of the cards dates to the 19th century, as does the double sided court cards. Some period decks has indices of a sort: Parlett mentions a 16th century Spanish deck that has a dashed line across the top which indicates the suit of the card. Due to the lack of indices and the generally large size of the cards, card hands were typically held with both hands (as can be seen in period illustrations of card games). The Joker was invented for Euchre around 1850. It evolved from a "deck maker's mark", and probably is related to the Jack. Many card games used Jacks as special cards. The Joker is almost certainly not related to the Tarot "Fool".

Tarot Cards

(This section is coming soon)


The Complete Anachronist #71: Period Pastimes
A good overview of medieval card games. Not much historical background. Some simplification of the rules, but a good starting place.
Salamallah the Corpulent: Medieval Games, Raymond's Quiet Press (and SCA Stock Clerk)
A must have for the serious SCA gamer. A new 3rd edition is out, from a different press.
David Parlett: The Oxford Guide to Card Games, Oxford Press
Much of the information for this paper came from this book. An excellent source. The paperback version (titled: History of Card Games, also by Oxford) does not have color plates, but is much cheaper. The only fault is that cards games are often not fully described. (But see A Dictionary of Card Games below).
David Parlett: A Dictionary of Card Games, Oxford Press
This is a companion paperback to the History of Cards Games paperback. It describes the card games in detail, with fairly easy to understand rules.
Michael Dummett: The Game of Tarot, ?
I'm told this is an excellent book, but I have not been able to find it. Much of the historical information in the Oxford Guide to Card Games is based on this book. If you find a copy of it for sale, please pick one up for me.