The Origin of Playing Cards
and their Introduction to European Culture
The origin of playing cards stretches so far back into the shadows of history that it is impossible to point to a specific time or place as their first point of origin. It is more likely that playing cards emerged at different times and in different cultures across the ages. For Europe, this time came around the latter half of the 14th century with one of the earliest historical references coming in 1379 (Giovanni de Covelluzzo, City of Viterbo). By that time, however, playing-cards were as well known in Switzerland and Germany as they were along the Mediterranean coast.
The riddle puzzling historians is how did they get there in the first place. The exact origin of playing cards and their introduction to European culture has been an elusive thread to trace.
There are basically four theories which are discussed in the literature:
- The idea that playing cards were invented in China, and gradually found their way west until they arrived in Europe.
- The idea that bands of roving Gypsies introduced them to Europe as they journeyed from village to village side-show and entertaining.
- The idea that Crusaders returning from the Holy Land brought them back to Europe with them.
- The idea that playing cards crossed the Mediterranean from Egypt.
China and the Far East
The idea that playing cards somehow made their way from China to arrive in Europe around the 1370s is an idea born more out of the tendency to ascribe all things unknown to the “East”, than it does out of evidence or plausibility.
It is true that China provides us with the earliest tangible artefacts, in the form of paper money cards dated from the 12th century. It has long been recognized that China was highly advanced in paper manufacture, they had invented woodblock printing, and they lived in a sophisticated society – all the semblances necessary for the production and widespread diffusion of playing cards.
Yet, it is difficult to piece together any connections with 14th century Europe, or to suggest a route by which they may have come to the Continent. It was certainly not by the Turkish Empire, because that road had long since been blocked off.
More importantly, however, is that these early Chinese “money cards” bear no resemblance to the earliest European designs at all. Chinese playing cards were long and narrow, and were covered in Chinese characters. It’s difficult to see a relationship or how these may have transformed into the cards we have today.
It is more likely that these playing cards arose in China, or perhaps Korea, as similar artefacts have been found there.
The other "Eastern Empire" from which playing cards are thought to have originated is India. It is true that India traded with a number of European countries around and along the Mediterranean. However, playing-cards were not known in India until the 16th century, or so the evidence would suggest. Which makes it highly improbable that India was the birth place of playing cards. Playing-cards had appeared in Europe a full 150 years before then. Some have even speculated that the journey was the reverse, and that playing-cards were introduced to India from Europe. But this is a difficult proposition to sell as the playing-cards of India are so different to those of Europe both in style and in shape. There is simply no apparent relationship.
The idea that roving Gypsies travelling from village to village to delight, deceive, and entertain the village town folk is a romantic notion, and one that seems a plausible explanation for the introduction of playing-cards to Europe. The problem with this theory is that Gypsies are not known to have arrived in Europe in any significant numbers until the early 15th century. By then, playing cards were well and truly vested in European culture.
There is some speculation that Gypsies journeyed through the Turkish Empire, so there does remain the possibility, however remote, that they may have acquired playing cards there, if they existed. But how they got them to Europe, remains another question, since by the time Gypsies arrived, everyone in Europe was already playing cards.
So nearing now the coast of the Mediterranean itself, it has been suggested that playing cards were brought back from the Holy Land by returning Crusaders. There is nothing to suggest their existence in Palestine in the first place. But significantly, the last crusade ended in 1291. Playing cards were not known in Europe until almost 100 years later.
This then leaves us with the Islamic countries bordering the Mediterranean as the only other place from which playing cards could have originated. According to this theory European playing cards originated in Egypt.
The jewel in the crown of this theory is a deck of cards discovered in the Topkapi Sarayi Museum, Instanbul, in 1939. The Mameluke Deck, discovered by Professor L. A. Mayer, dates from the 15th century. However, subsequent finds have yielded even older examples from the 12th century.
The Mamelukes were a caste of hard nail warriors who ruled in various parts of Egypt from 1254 until 1517.
The Mameluke Deck closely resembles the earliest European designs in many important respects. Firstly, it is a deck of 52 cards divided into 4 suits of 13 ranks. Each suit has numbers 1 to 10, represented by suit symbols or “pips” on the card. And each suit has 3 Court Cards "Malik", "Na'ib Malik", and "Thani Na'ib", meaning “King”, “Viceroy”, and “Under Viceroy”.
The resemblance to early Italian packs is immediately apparent. Even in the shape and arrangement of suit symbols on the cards, and also in the way the court cards are represented – not as faces, but as abstract geometric patterns.
It was the refinement and modification of the early Italian design, that we understand as the foundation of the modern European playing card.
The Mameluke Deck is a stunning artefact because it is so much like the standard modern playing card we have today. In fact, you could play any one of our modern games with them today.
The cards from China of the same period are not like these at all, and are not arranged in the same manner. Similarly, we can say the same of Indian cards, and of the games we play with them. The history of European card playing is distinct and unique, like that of other cultures.
In our search to trace the origin of playing cards back into antiquity, some rich and interesting facts have been unearthed. The exact route by which playing cards arrived in Europe may never be fully understood or known. We have seen that playing cards and games of chance and skill have been practiced in many cultures and in many different time periods.
French Regional Patterns of the 18th Century
By the beginning of the Eighteenth century, war, and no doubt extravagance, had drained France's national treasury to little more than copper coins in a tin pot. In 1701 a new duty was imposed on playing cards of 18 deniers a deck. In order to collect the new tax, the country was divided into nine manufacturing regions. Each manufacturer was required to submit a design block to the ‘Recettes generales’. It was in this manner that each region was allotted its own design. Read More »
Early Standard Playing Cards
Very little is known about the history of card making in England. However, through a pictorial history of French, English and American patterns it is clear to see the origins of the English Pattern and its patrimony in the French Rouen design.
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Card Masters of the 19th Century
L I N K S
Chinese Origin of Playing Cards
Great Inventions: Playing Cards