The History of the Court Cards
How did the extraordinary designs of the court cards evolve, full of semi-circles and meaningless diagonal shapes? Are the pictures based upon any historical personalities? Has this question ever crossed your mind while playing cards amongst friends?
The court cards in English packs of playing cards derive from models produced by Pierre Marechal in Rouen around 1565. A pack of such cards is preserved in the museum at Rouen. All four kings in the Rouen pack wear a crown over a flat cap, and long fur-lined cloaks opening to reveal stockinged legs. Likewise, the Queens and Jacks are undoubtedly the ancestors of the English pack. During the passage of centuries, and even though master-copies may have existed in the workshops, a number of gross errors have been made by copyists and wood-cutters, so that hands, symbols of office and other attributes have lost their meaning.
The introduction of double-ended courts in the middle of the 19th century made the problem even worse. Playing card manufacturers usually try to preserve some kind of 'traditional' feel, but due to the constrained size of a playing card, as well as economy, many compressions and distortions have been introduced into the figures.
Queen of Diamonds. Mme de Maintenon kept this card in her journal. It had been taken from a pack with which she was playing a game of piquet at the time when her opponent, King Louis XIV proposed a clandestine marriage.
Towards the close of the 16th century French playing card manufacturers began naming the court cards after worthy heroes in the epics of mediæval history, as narrated in chronicles, romances and legends of the day. To begin with the practice was a bit arbitrary, but by the 17th century a definite set of names had become established
In this context, we may observe that the 15th century humanist scholars of the renaissance, in seeking the original classical texts and sources, wrongly convinced themselves that Carolingian manuscripts represented original Roman manuscripts. Thus, they began imitating Carolingian minuscule script, which in turn was adopted by the early printers as 'Roman' type. Likewise, Carolingian drawings and illuminations (9th century) were also mistaken for original, classical Roman sources: Charlemagne, Caesar, David and Alexander were all 'from ancient times'.
A similar idea seems to have been adopted by French card-makers in the 16th century who gave epic, heroic, pagan or biblical names to the court cards, such as Rolant, Charles or Caesar. However, there is no evidence that the same idea was taken up by any English playing card manufacturer, even though English playing cards can be traced back to 16th century French ones. Thus we may safely say that the English court cards do not partake of any mythological or historical derivation, and they have never been named after any mediæval heroes of antiquity or any historical personalities, as confirmed by the origin of the pack - except for 'Black Maria' the Queen of Spades.
The source of the costumes on the English court cards having been shown, the illustration below shows a formalised initial-letter portrait of James I, king of England (1603-1625) on an illuminated Letters Patent. The king is depicted in full-length, in ermine-lined crimson robes of state, and we might be tempted to see a connection to English playing cards. However, we must be content to know that, apart from the Queens' head gear, which is Tudor, the rest of the costume is late mediæval in style as seen in the pack by Pierre Marechal of Rouen