The Combination of Images and Text on early playing cards
Many early playing cards had titles or legends alongside the images. These referenced a written/literary tradition of some form (historical, religious or secular literature, legends, etc), connecting the image to a wider cultural sphere, extending the visual impact. For example, French court cards were given names of heroes of antiquity, such as Caesar, Charlemagne, Paris or Lancelot, thereby connecting to the written body of French literature. This tradition goes back to the fifteenth century or even earlier. Some historians believe that court cards are actually based on these historical personages, but this is not necessarily true.
But many early cards were unnamed and unnumbered, so they were understood by card players on their own terms. If the cards are just images, with no title or legend, then the images must speak for themselves. There is no explicit reference to any text, or suggestion that the cards are based on historical persons.
The advent of printing with movable type boosted the spread of literacy and the playing card was also used as a medium to propagate the printed word.
Thus the presence of printed text or titles on playing cards adds a new level of meaning and raises their cultural status to a more rational, literate or pedagogic level; a vehicle for political or educational purposes (as well as a game of luck and skill). Today of course this might be an advertising message.
The early Arabic Mamluk cards incorporated calligraphic texts, rhyming aphorisms, evoking thoughts of a religious nature, on the court cards (inside the blue areas). But because of Islamic law, instead of images of human figures we see only abstract geometric designs on the rest of the cards. The written words transform these into sublime messengers.
These Arabic playing cards are believed to be the progenitors of playing cards in the West more →
In the case of tarot trumps the early examples are unnamed and unnumbered. Again, they were implicitly understood or memorised by the players. In some instances initial letters or monograms were added to denote a secret meaning which is often lost.
Legends and numbers were added later to tarot trumps to denote their value or hierarchy so that a canon was established which today we take for granted. Some people believe the tarot cards are a channel for esoteric thought. There were exceptions to this: Animal Tarots and other games with non-standard trump cards did not usually have titles or metaphysical associations.
The phonetic alphabet is a unique technology which, through its uniform and sequential logic, has created civilized man, with codes of law, ledgers and ultimately, printed books. In a humble way, playing cards have participated in this development by becoming a medium for the message....