Nã'ib*, the game of lieutenants...
The early history of cards in Western Europe was related to the invasion of North Africa, Spain and Sicily by Islamic forces during the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt which ended in 1517. This coincided with the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada in Andalusia (13th - 15th century), the last Islamic stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula. Spain was the point of contact with the Arab world, where cultural, military and commercial interactions occurred. The game of cards became established in most West European countries by c.1375, but was being banned by the authorities shortly afterwards which suggests their rapid popularity.
The cards shown below are from a reconstructed XV or early XVI century Mamluk pack, hand-drawn and hand-painted, probably belonging to a wealthy or illustrious owner. They are a beautiful example of the important and often overlooked cultural, technical and artistic influence which Islam has bestowed upon the Western world, evident in the many artistic, architectural and archæological treasures displaying their characteristic geometric construction. In this case we are looking at the ancestor of our humble playing card.
The underlying design is very simple but the surface has been ornamented. The border of some cards is in the shape of a horseshoe arch as seen in Islamic doorways, windows, friezes and gravestone decorations. The suits are coins, cups, swords and polo-sticks (emblem of the most popular of the aristocratic sports in the Mamluk Empire) and there are 13 cards per suit: the numbers 1 to 10 plus 3 court cards, the King, the Lieutenant and the Second Lieutenant (all male). The ranks of the court cards are given in the blue inscription areas at the bottom of the cards. In European packs the court cards were of course represented pictorially, and it may be noteworthy that early Italian and Spanish court-cards did not always contain queens, possibly due to their origin in the Islamic or Saracenic pack, which is also suggested by the very similar suit symbols.
The calligraphic texts along the tops of the cards consist of rhyming aphorisms which are often very enchanting, sometimes strange, but always interesting: “With the sword of happiness I shall redeem a beloved who will afterwards take my life“ - “O thou who hast possessions, remain happy and thou shalt have a pleasant life.” - “Let it come to me, because acquired good is durable; it rejoices me with all its utility” - “Pleasures for the soul and agreeable things, in my colours there are all kinds” - “Look how wonderful my game is and my dress extraordinarily beautiful” - “I am as a garden, the like of which will never exist” - “O my heart, for thee the good news that rejoices” - “Rejoice in the happiness that returns, as a bird that sings its joy”.
“As for the present that rejoices, thy heart will soon open up“ - “I will, as pearls on a string, be lifted in the hands of kings” - “May God give thee prosperity; then thou will already have achieved thy aim” - “Rejoice for thy lasting happiness” - “Rejoice in the pleasant things and the success of the objects” - “I am as a flower, a string of pearls is my soil?” - “The alif rejoices and fulfils your wishes” - “Whosoever will call me to his happiness, he will only see joyful looks”.
The pack is incomplete and consists of 47 cards, divided into 4 suits, with 13 cards per suit, so that the complete pack would have contained 52 cards, with plain backs. The cards illustrated here are from a reconstructed facsimile edition published by Aurelia Books, Brussels and Louvain, 1972. The boxed set also contains a booklet produced by Jan Bauwens which contains the Arabic inscriptions on the cards translated by Prof. Tangi of the University of Istanbul. Unfortunately the scholarship in the analysis of the cards has been found to be inaccurate in that Bauwens mistakenly follows an earlier assessment by L.A. Mayer in thinking that the pack contained four, instead of only three, court cards per suit. Furthermore, some of the original cards have been replaced by reconstructed cards which conform to his faulty theory about which cards bore inscriptions.
Member since February 01, 1996View Articles
Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.
Andalusian playing cards designed by Marifé Montoya Carrillo with booklet by Jorge Lirola Delgado, 2012.
Another pack of Dutch costume playing cards c.1880.
Luxurious Spanish-suited pack made by Alphonse Arnoult, Paris, France, c.1850.
Dutch costume playing cards made for the Dutch market in the second half of the 19th century.
“Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne” cover historical events, both honourable and treacherous, during the period 1702 to 1704.
Wüst Spanish pattern c.1910 advertising Cuban ‘Tropical’ beer.
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.
Persian Miniatures, made in Hungary c.1990.
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.
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.
Red Sea fish identification cards published in several languages by Horus of Egypt, 2005.
There are some interesting packs from Goodall in the last quarter of the 19th century.
Gold plated souvenir playing cards from the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel in Dubai.
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.