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Published January 22, 2010 Updated June 06, 2023

French Playing Cards

Some of the oldest cards still in existence come from France. During the 16th and 17th centuries France was the major supplier of playing cards in Europe.

France Grimaud Archaic Patterns Paris Pattern Add to Collection

Card playing was introduced into France at an early date. The game of Tarot was also brought from Italy into France. During the 16th and 17th centuries France was the major supplier of playing cards in Europe.

Some of the oldest cards still in existence come largely from Lyons, a city in which the craft of cardmaking flourished from an early date and which became an important centre of French card-making. It seems that the provinces bordering on Italy and Germany were the first to produce playing cards. Indeed, an ordinance from Paris, 1377, forbade card games on workdays. Another ordinance from the city of Lille, dated 1382, when Lille belonged to France, forbade various games including dice and “quartes” (an early word for cards). There is also the well-known account of a certain Jacquemin Grigonneur who in 1392 was paid 56 “sols Parisis” for three packs of gilded cards, painted with divers colours and several devices, to be carried to the king for his amusement. No-one knows what sort of cards these were as they did not survive.

If the French suit system was invented in circa 1480, the question arises what type of cards were the French using before that invention?

Cartes à jouer d'un jeu au portrait de Lyon, F. Clerc, 1485-1496. Source / BnF

Above: archaic cards with a suit of crescent moons and a court of king, queen and knave, coloured in red, violet, green and yellow, by F. Clerc, Lyons, 1485-1496. Source / BnF • Cartes à jouer d'un jeu au portrait de Lyon

Latin-suited cards

Some early French cards have Latin/Spanish suit symbols. Spanish-suited cards reached many different places, having spread along trade routes of the time or where there were dynastic connections. They were also produced in France for home consumption in certain regions, and not necessarily for export. The only survivors among Spanish-suited cards in France today are Aluette cards (primarily of Brittany) and the French Catalan pattern of the Eastern Pyrenees.

Latin-suited cards produced by J. Deluy c.1490? Source / BnF

Above: Latin-suited cards produced by J. Deluy c.1490? Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

French-suited cards

Having invented the ‘French’ suit system (piques, coeurs, carreaux & trefles) in the late 15th century, which required only black and red, French manufacturers were able to introduce economies of labour which gave their products a competitive advantage over those with Spanish or German suits. French suits rapidly gained popularity and became standard in France and later spread to many parts of the world. Much of the early history of cards in France is to do with standard designs and their spread, coupled with their keen sense of economic advantage.

Cartes à jouer et fragments de cartes au portrait lyonnais, 1475-1575. Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Above: fragments of early playing cards from Lyons, 1475-1575. There are kings and queens seated on thrones and a cavalier on horseback. Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France • Cartes à jouer et fragments de cartes au portrait lyonnais

Fragment of an uncut sheet showing four cards, late-fifteenth century

Above: fragment of uncut sheet containing red knaves, G. Cartier (Lyon), late-XV century. • V&A Museum

Cards by Jean de Dale, c.1500

Above: cards by Jean de Dale, c.1500.

Four cards by Jean Personne, c.1495

Above: cards by Jean Personne with inscriptions such as "Paris", "Melusine", "Conte de Chalou" and the maker's name "Jhan Personne" on a scroll.

Fragment de feuille de moulage d'un jeu de cartes au portrait de Lyon.  Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Above: Lyons, c.1500

Cards from the 'Provence' pattern

Above: the Provence pattern

Above: Lyons, c.1780

Jean de Dale (active 1485-1515) • Jean Personne (1493-1497) • Antoine de Logiriera (Toulouse, 1495-1518) • Marcial Gué (Limoges, c.1538) • Pierre Marechal

French regional patterns, primarily originating in Paris, Lyons or Rouen, spread across Europe in all directions and many of their descendants survive today. See the origin of the “Suicide King

To illustrate this we show 4 playing cards from a Florentine manufacturer in a French pattern produced by Borghigiani, between 1631 and 1636.

Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Above: stencil coloured woodcut; 9.6 x 5.9 cm. Square corners, Italian-style turned-over edges with geometric decoration in black. Many of the figures on early French court cards were interchangeable and go back to the fifteenth century. These were widely exported; consequently local manufacturers such as Borghigiani might imitate these foreign cards in their own workshops. Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France • Cartes d'un jeu florentin au portrait français

Spanish-suited pack by Benoist Laius, Montpellier, c.1712

Above: Spanish-suited pack by Benoist Laius, c.1712

Charles Cheminade Marseille Tarot, early 18th century

Above: Marseille tarot by Charles Cheminade

Above: Paris pattern

See also: The Dauphiné pattern   The Genoese pattern.

At an early period French card makers introduced the practice of giving the names of heroes from literature or epics of chivalry to the court cards: Alexander, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, David, Rachel, Argine, Judith, Pallas, Hector, Lahire, Lancelot and Hogier. In each case a romantic story or legend is associated with the person named on the card.

By the fifteenth century French suit symbols - hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades - had crossed to England. During the sixteenth century Rouen and Lyons became centres for the exportation of French playing cards, and cards were imported to the British Isles from Rouen and to the Netherlands and Germany. From England, of course, they spread to America and have become ubiquitous throughout the world.

Playing cards soon attracted the attention of tax authorities in France. As early as 1613, Louis XIII decreed that cardmakers should place their name on the knave of clubs. In 1701 a further law was passed laying down fixed designs for the cards from each of the nine regions, so that stereotyped figures (portraits) from each region were produced which could be identified by the authorities. Some individual court designs reoccur in different regional or even foreign (exported) patterns, sometimes reversed or with a different suit symbol.

Cards by Bouvier

Tarot cards had arrived in France from Italy in the first half of the 16th century, with Italian suit symbols, introducing the idea of trumps. Subsequently, French-suited tarots were also produced. There appear to have been three standard tarot types in France: "Tarot de Marseille", "Tarot de Besancon" and "Belgian Tarot" but today most tarot games are played in France with the "Bourgeois Tarot". The esoteric tarot was also developed in France during the 18th and 19th centuries.

During the seventeenth century a number of attractive non-standard cards were issued, including educational and quartet games, heraldic or armorial cards and geographical cards. These have been followed more recently by important editions of cartomancy cards, several types of tarot cards and elaborately engraved costume cards.

The backs of playing cards used to be plain, without any printed patterns. As an economy measure, incomplete packs would not be thrown away. Instead the plain backs were often re-used as notelets, invitations, calling cards, library cards, bookmarkers, and so on more

At the time of the Revolution and the first Empire packs were published, artistically designed by David, Gatteaux and others, which harmonised with the new ideas. These enjoyed only a brief popularity and the old type soon reappeared.  See: Jeu de l'an 2

French Revolutionary figures on the court cards, end of 18th century

Above: Revolutionary figures on the court cards, end of 18th century. Stencil-coloured woodcuts, French suit signs. Images courtesy Dan Dragojevich. See also: French Revolutionary anti-Royalist playing cards, subtitled “Jeu des Philosophes de l’An II”, first published by the printer Gayant in Paris, 1793.

Nouvelles Cartes de la République Française

The kings, queens and jacks are replaced with Geniality, Liberty and Equality, above which there is only the Law (the true sovereign of free people).

Nouvelles Cartes de la République Française

Above: Nouvelles Cartes de la République Française printed by U. Jaume et J.D. Dugourc.

Le Petit Cartomancien

Above: three cards and wrapper from "Le Petit Cartomancien" manufactured by B.P. Grimaud, Paris. The miniature playing cards in the top corners depict full-length 'Paris' type courts, whilst the rest of the cards contain divinatory interpretations and images of different personalities.   See more →

Cards by F. d'Alphonse Arnoult, c.1860 title=

Above: cards from a finely engraved deck by F. d'Alphonse Arnoult (Paris), c.1860. 52 cards.   more →.

See also: Pierre MarechalRichard BouvierBenoist LaiusThe Dauphiné patternThe Lyons patternGayant, 1793Cartes Comiques du Colonel AtthalinCartes Recréatives, 1819The Paris patternThe Genoese patternSpanish-suited cards by B. P. GrimaudCards for Algeria by B.P. GrimaudJeu Louis XVMauclair Dacier Sept Familles, c.1890O. Gibert, Paris, c.1850Translucent Playing CardsThe 'Parisian' Spanish patternFrench Catalan patternCartes EspagnolesÉpinal TarotCartes Questions-DevinettesBoisse English pattern, c.1870Grand Jeu Mlle Le NormandDieudonné & Cie, AluetteLe Jeu de MarseillePhilibertDusserreOrient-ExpressJeu Moyen AgeFrench tarotChamboramaGeneviève LirolaJeux L.G.L., ParisLivre du DestinSalvador DalíCassandre for HermèsLegendary Harley-DavidsonMasonic Playing CardsS.S. FranceMarché 7 Familles

1440 Articles

By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

Founder 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.

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