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Playing cards have been with us since the 14th century, when they first entered popular culture. Over the centuries packs of cards, in all shapes and sizes, have been used for games, gambling, education, conjuring, advertising, fortune telling, political messages or the portrayal of national or ethnic identity. All over the world, whatever language is spoken, their significance is universal. Their popularity is also due to the imaginative artwork and graphic design which is sometimes overlooked, and the “then & now” of how things have changed.

Hofamterspiel, c.1460

Hofamterspiel, c.1460

Hofamterspiel, c.1460
narr jeger junckfrawe Capplan
marschalk hofmeister k?nigin k?nig

The cards were printed from woodblocks and then hand coloured. Each suit in turn shows members of the royal household - from the court jester up to the king's steward, including servants and court officials. These are depicted in a hierarchy, numbered 1 - 10 in Roman numerals, plus a queen and king, instead of the more common arrangement of multiple pip cards and three or four court cards. There are 48 cards in total.

Click images to see enlargements.

See also: The Stuttgart Cards, 1437
The Princely Hunting pack, c.1440
The Visconti Tarocchi, c.1445
Mamluk Playing Cards.

Cards shown above are from the facsimile edition published by Piatnik, Vienna, edited by Ernst Rudolf Ragg, 1976. Size of cards 140 x 100 mms.

The Hofämterspiel reflects political relationships in Central Europe in the mid-15th century. The suit signs are the coats of arms of four kingdoms: France, Germany, Bohemia and Hungary. The single-headed eagle represents the 'regnum teutonicum', the kingdom of Germany (as opposed to a double-headed eagle representing the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation). Each individual card depicts a function or profession that enjoyed official status at a late medieval princely court.

In some respects the Hofämterspiel reminds us of the so-called Mantegna Tarocchi, a set of 50 copper engraved cards from Italy, c.1465, which also represents a world order, or hierarchy. However, the Italian set reveals cosmological overtones more akin to Renaissance humanism than to medieval European feudalism. The Hofämterspiel shows a feudal social hierarchy and is a good indication of what the oldest German playing cards may have been like, before they adopted symbols from the royal hunt…

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

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Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996.

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