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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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→
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).
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.
A limited edition art print of the Jack of Clubs 1984 woodblock joker.
A limited edition art print of the King of Diamonds 1984 woodblock joker.
A political pack designed by Pino Zac and published in 1977 by Editions Arts et Lettres.
Geometric designs by the French artist Jean Garçon for Knoll International, the furniture company.
Standard French cards but printed with fluorescent inks on a black background.
Free reinterpretation of the traditional Paris pattern courts by the artist Claude Weisbuch.
Publicity pack for the Campanile hotel and restaurant chain featuring French provincial costumes, wi...
Trappola pack of 36 double-ended cards published by Anton Herrl, Graz, Austria.
French-suited Bavarian deck by Andreas Benedict Göbl, late 18th c.
“Les métiers et leurs protecteurs” playing cards published by Editions Dusserre, c. 1995.
Famous people associated with Nicolas Fouquet’s splendid château of Vaux-le-Vicomte.
French navigators and explorers on a promotional pack for the C.M.C.R shipping company.
Characters from the 2007 film Shrek the Third, a DreamWorks Animation production.
Advertising pack designed by James Hodges for a company specialising in regional cakes and biscuits....
Joan of Arc and her contemporaries in a colourful pack designed by Patrice Louis.
Psychedelic designs promoting Louis De Poortere, a company selling carpets and rugs.
Typical costumes and views of Alsace together with lists of the principal sights.
Egg-shaped cards created by Rodolfo Krasno employing photographic images by Michel Leclerc.
French Cartomancy cards published by J. Gaudais; printed by Mansion, Paris, c.1830.
Costumes from four operas premiered at the Paris Opera between 1830 and 1840.
Honouring the bicentenary of the Montgolfier brothers’ first balloon flights in 1783.
A colourful pack aimed at children, with illustrations by Muriel Kerba.
Review of “Trzes’ Moorish Deck” facsimile published by Ulrich Kaltenborn, Berlin, 2023.
Publicity pack for Gibert Jeune, the famous Parisian bookshop, with designs by James Hodges.
Costumes des Peuples Étrangers & Jeu d’Or dedicated to young people and likely used for games and fo...
“Le Nouvel Etteilla” cartomancy deck published in Paris by La Veuve Gueffier, 1806.
Révolution 1789-1989, celebrating the bicentenary of the French revolution, France, 1989
Scaramouche cartes à jouer with designs by Henri Favre, published by Le Triboulet, France.
Some early examples of popular German playing cards from the XV and XVI centuries.
Cyclists from the Domex-Weinmann team who took part in the 1989 Tour de France.