Playing cards

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by John Ruse

A general history.

When playing games of chance, dice was most popular but during the early C17 cards began to take over. Most games included a lot of gambling and side bets, especially in dice games. __ TOC __


No one can definitively say when playing cards were invented. The first playing cards found were in China in the 9th century and may have been paper money, which was used for gambling, as they were both the 'tools' and currency of the bet. It is likely that the precursor of modern cards arrived in Europe from the Mamelukes (members of a former military caste, originally composed of slaves from Turkey, that held the Egyptian throne from about 1250 until 1517) in the late C14, by which time they had already assumed a form very close to that in use today.

It was during the C14 that cards spread rapidly through Europe but, interestingly, Chaucer makes no reference to cards, even though there are mentions of various games.

In 1423 a Franciscan friar, Saint Bernard of Siena, preached in Bologna that ‘playing cards were the invention of the devil’. In 1576 an Elizabethan Puritan, John Northbrooker, asserted that playing cards were invented by the devil ‘that he might the easier bring in Ydolatrie among men’. The earliest woodcut to show cards is dated 1418


The Mameluke deck contained 52 cards comprising four "suits": polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. Each suit contained ten "spot" cards (cards identified by the number of suit symbols or "pips" they show) and three "court" cards named malik (King), nā'ib malik (Viceroy or Deputy King), and thānī nā'ib (Second or Under-Deputy). The Mameluke court cards showed abstract designs not depicting persons (at least not in any surviving specimens) though they did bear the names of military officers.

  • In Germany they still use the suits of Hearts, Bells, Leaves and Acorns for some games.
  • Italy and Spain used: Cups, Swords, Money, Batons/Cudgels (I believe that these suits are still used for some games nowadays).
  • France used: Coeur (hearts), Pique (Pike) Trefle (Trefoil or clover leaf), Carreaux (paving tile)

Court Cards

  • Germany: King, Uber-knecht (upper servant), Unter Knecht (under servant our knave),
  • Italy sometimes four court cards: King; Queen, Knight on horseback (Cavallo), Fante (foot-soldier or knave)
  • Spain: King, Caballo (Knight), La Sota (Knave), no queens
  • France: King, Dame (Queen, but did not use Reine even though she wore a crown), Valet (squire).

The suits as we now know them originated in France around the end of the C15.

  • Also in the 15th century, Europeans changed the court cards to represent European royalty and attendants,
  • In the C16 the Knight was dropped and the 52-card pack was more or less standard
  • C17 the Knave was renamed Jack; This may have come from a game called All Fours (or Old Sledge or Seven Up in USA), where the Knave was called ‘Jack’. All Fours was considered a game of the lower classes, so the use of the term Jack at one time was considered vulgar.

The extra "Joker" card is believed to have been invented by American Euchre players who, when modifying the rules sometime during the 1860s, decided that an extra trump card was required. Originally he was called "The Best Bower" and then later "The Jolly Joker".


The invention of the reversible court cards is attributed to a French card maker of Agen in 1745; but the French government, which controlled the design of playing cards, prohibited the printing of cards with this innovation. In Italy and Spain the innovation was adopted during the second half of 18th century. Reversible court cards meant that players would not be tempted to turn upside-down court cards right side up. Before this, other players could often get a hint of what other players' hands contained by watching them reverse their cards.


It would appear that the tarot, with its suits similar to the old ones, would have been the precursor, but the evidence does not stack up, the tarot pack being invented in Europe in the early 15th century and originally used for specific games: Italian Tarocchini and French Tarot. The earliest known use of Tarot packs for fortune telling was in Bologna, around 1750. However, divination using similar cards is in evidence as early as 1540; a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forli shows a simple method of divination using the coin suit of a regular playing card deck. The value of each trump card in a tarot pack (21 of them) was indicated by a large numeral (the forerunner of corner-indices).


A Charter granted by King Charles 1 on 22nd October 1628 founded the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards as the "Mistery of Makers of Playing Cards of the City of London" and from 1st December that year all future importation of playing cards was forbidden. Cards were taxed at a farthing per pack. The King's Office which regulated Playing Cards was founded in the year 1637 in St. Bartholomew's parish, as appears by an order that a search should be made for any defective cards and such when found should, with the moulds, be carried to '...his majesty's office for cards in Great St. Bartholomew's...'.

The earliest known English cards are from 1675; I suspect that most being used would have been the imports from a few years before. Examples of cards are frequently found in bookbinding.


Great care must be taken if using the propaganda packs frequently sold at re-enactors' fairs. Ensure you know their date and provenance. There is one showing "The History of the Rump" which is dated 1679. Bear in mind that in Great Britain the deck with reversible court cards was patented in 1799 by Edmund Ludlow and Ann Wilcox. The Anglo-American pack with this design was printed around 1802; therefore any cards used in C17 must be non-reversable. The fanciful design and manufacturer's logo commonly displayed on the Ace of Spades began under the reign of James I of England, who passed a law requiring an insignia on that card as proof of payment of a tax on local manufacture of cards.

Sizes vary greatly: C15 appear to be around 4” x 3”, by C16/17 they had reduced to around 3” x 2”

Most of the information contained in this short thesis is taken from Playing Cards, the history and secrets of the pack and there is a wealth of extra knowledge to be taken from it, including the various postulations around the 1640s by the Wardens of the Company of Cardmakers: ‘Baptist Pendleton’ prosecuting John Harlowe and Mrs Heather for using the same mark, or Mr Geo. Miningkin registering 'The King’s Arms' & 'The Crown' as his in 1654.