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History of Playing Cards - 1

Where did Playing Cards come from?

The Origins of Playing Cards
Mamluk playing card, c.1520

Above: Mamluk playing card, three of cups, c.1520. [Istanbul, Topkapi Seray Museum].

Four of Cups from a set of Moorish playing cards, 15th century

Above: four of cups from a set of Moorish playing cards, XV century.

A cluster of early literary references refer to the game being introduced by 'a Saracen', 'the Moorish Game' etc. Etymological evidence also suggests that the Arabs introduced playing cards into Europe in the second half of the fourteenth century and that European cards evolved from the suit system and composition of these cards.

How were they introduced?

Scenario 1: playing cards might have been introduced into Europe by a fourteenth century traveller returning from afar, who said 'Hey chaps, guess what I saw in ….' and then proceed to manufacture a set of cards out of scraps of cardboard according to his recollections of seeing a similar game being played elsewhere. The symbols and courts might have been what he thought that he had seen, and also the game played with them.

Archaic Spanish or Italian suited cardsScenario 2: a number of travellers to Asia or Africa learned some card game, individually or as a group, and having played it with local inhabitants and perhaps each other during their travels, they decided to bring a pack or a few packs back with them, so that they could continue playing at home in Europe. When the original cards wore out they had copies made locally in Europe.

Right: ace of cups from a set of early XV century playing cards.

Objection: The early reference says 'introduced by a Saracen' so it seems that it was more a case of an Arabic game being introduced by a Saracen rather than some Europeans discovering it on their travels. However, any of the above may contain some truth: words shift their meanings, carry multiple meanings or outgrow their etymologies.

What do you think?

Download article about Early Introduction of Playing Cards into Europe. (400Kb PDF)

Last Updated April 15, 2016 at 09:44pm

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