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
“Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne” cover historical events, both honourable and treacherous, during the period 1702 to 1704.
In standard English packs the Ace of Spades is associated with decorative designs. This is a historical survey of why this should be.
Dubois card makers from Liège in the Walloon Region of Belgium.
PLAYING CARDS: A Secret History
This deck was inherited from ancestors, it has has a family history surrounding it. Details of the lives of previous owners make it all so fascinating.
Video by Art of Impossible. In this video you will get a short overview of the most important historical facts about playing cards and their history.
Archaic Spanish-suited deck with 48 cards made in Toledo in 1584.
Gambling and Vice in the Hours of Charles V: card-playing in the local tavern
A facsimile of an early 19th century French-suited deck from the collection of F.X. Schmid.
Reproduction of Richard Blome’s Heraldic playing cards, 1684, presented to lady guests at WCMPC Summer Meeting in 1888.
Facsimile of “Le Jeu de la Guerre” designed by Gilles de la Boissière in 1698.
Corner Indices were a major innovation in playing card production.
Baraja Carlos IV, Félix Solesio en la Real Fábrica de Macharaviaya, 1800.
A presentation of the main characteristics of the wood-block courts of the heart suit.
This is a presentation in a more straightforward fashion of the work done by Paul Bostock and me in our book of the same name.
My wife and I have recently commissioned a unique pair of stained glass windows for our home.
Some further material relating to cards from nineteenth and twentieth century periodicals.
Facsimile of patriotic 1878 Tyrolean playing cards published by Piatnik in 1992.
Here are a few early advertisements relating to cards from newspapers 1684-1759 and a number of later 19th century documents of interest.
Hand-made playing cards by French prisoners of war in Porchester Castle, Hampshire, c.1796.
A continuation of the development of the off-spring of the Paris patterns and a few examples of how the French regional figures have inspired modern designers.
A great many regional patterns were exported from France and subsequently copied elsewhere. Some of them became local standards in their own right.
Continuing our look at the figures from the regional patterns of France.
On page 11 I illustrated several examples of the regional French patterns from Sylvia Mann's collection; this is a more in-depth look at the figures of these patterns ("portraits" in French).
Facsimile of Tarot de Marseille by Iohann Christoph Hes, Augsburg, c.1750.
Notgeld - Emergency Money - was in rare cases issued on playing cards.
There are some interesting packs from Goodall in the last quarter of the 19th century.
Modern English court style by Games & Print Services Limited, c.1997.
1st edition of famous Bicycle Playing Cards printed by Russell & Morgan Printing Co., Cincinnati, 1885.
Primiera Bolognese by Modiano, c.1975
Facsimile edition of Swiss suited deck first published by Johannes Müller in c.1840.
Archaic Navarra pattern produced for the Pamplona General Hospital Monopoly by Pedro Varangot in 1786.
Navarra pattern produced for the Pamplona General Hospital Monopoly in 1682.
“Money Bag” pattern by Hermanos Solesi, late 18th c.
Illustrated playing cards featuring comical engravings and rhymes about saints, c.1740.
Navarra pattern by an unknown cardmaker with initials I. I., 1793.
Anonymous archaic Spanish Suited pack, c.1760
Geographical playing cards sold by Henry Brome, second edition, c.1682.
French suited German engraved cards c1610 to 1650,