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History

Playing cards arrived in Europe the late 14th century and rapidly became a part of popular culture. Perhaps their appeal was because they were seen as a miniature representation of the world. The 52-card pack with four suit signs and a hierarchy of court cards was an allusion to the late medieval world: four seasons, four cardinal points, four elements, 52 weeks in the year. Later the 78-card version included higher level images representing moralised astronomy, religion and other narratives. Cultural ideas spread to different parts of Europe by various processes such as trade, settlement, immigration, etc. and likewise we see how playing cards appeared in different styles in different regions as they spread across the continent and to overseas colonies. So what do the oldest surviving playing cards look like?

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