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.
Much of the early history of cards in France is to do with standard designs and their spread, coupled with a keen sense of economic advantage. Having invented the French suit system (piques, coeurs, carreaux & trefles), which required only black and red, French manufacturers were able to introduce economies of labour which gave their products a competitive advantage. Jean de Dale (active 1485-1515), Jean Personne (1493-1497), Antoine de Logiriera (Toulouse, 1495-1518), Martial Gué (Limoges, c.1538) and Pierre Marechal. Several examples of cards by Jean Personne survive (see below right) in museums and libraries.
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”►
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.
Some early French cards have Latin/Spanish suit symbols, as do some early German cards, and the queens are replaced by cavaliers. They were used for playing games such as Aluette. Spanish-suited cards reached many different places, having spread along trade routes of the time. The only survivors among Spanish-suited cards in France today are Aluette cards (primarily of Brittany) and the French Catalan pattern of the Eastern Pyrenées.
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→
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, 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.
Disney characters deck from Euro Disney, Marne la Vallée, France, c.2000.
Revolutionary playing cards with decapitated courts published by ATYPYK, Paris, 2010.
Tiny 19th.century ‘Cartes Mignonnes’ playing cards depicting the fashions of the period
Wedding invitation and thank you card in the form of playing cards. France, 2019.
Advertising pack for Vivacidol pharmaceutical product, France, c.1960s.
Table tennis players in action published by La Ducale, an imprint of Grimaud, France, 1979.
Tarot game pack with fantasy sci-fi artwork on the trumps published by Pocket SF, France.
Jeu de 54 cartes, completely anonymous, designed to resemble locally produced French packs.
Luxurious Spanish-suited pack made by Alphonse Arnoult, Paris, France, c.1850.
Original designs from the French overseas department of Martinique by local artist Martine Porry.
Standard French designs adapted for children. Made by France Cartes for La Grande Récré, c.2016.
Pack promoting Beaujolais wine published by Editions du Nuton, France.
Complete re-design of traditional pack into what the publishers considered to be ergonomically efficient.
Dubois card makers from Liège in the Walloon Region of Belgium.
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.
My late mother found these miniature cards in a skip around 50 years ago.
La Sibylle des Salons facsimile of 19th century deck published by J M Simon, 1979.
Eurotrotter by La Ducale, c.1980s.
‘Tout Est Bien Qui Finit Bien’ family card game by Dondorf.
Puss in Boots card game manufactured by H. Fournier, 1981.
Bass & Bass ‘Jeu des Familles’ made by Franz-Josef Holler, Münich, 1989.
Gambling and Vice in the Hours of Charles V: card-playing in the local tavern
Jeu de Quaternes ‘Rizá’
A facsimile of an early 19th century French-suited deck from the collection of F.X. Schmid.
Le Jeu du Destin Antique, originally published by Grimaud in XIX c., republished many times since...
Eroticartes with drawings by Pino Zac, 1983.
Sleeping Beauty card game published in France, c.1980s.
Benedicte Morand-Bail’s striking and colourful abstract poker deck with French named courts
Kaffeehaus-Pikett featuring the old Viennese Large Crown pattern, made by ASS.
Bretagne (Brittany) playing cards, Grimaud, c.1970.
Jeu “Gerente” - published by Moncar in 1983 in the “Cartes de Fantasie” series.
Bicentenaire de la Révolution Française 1789–1989 created by Christian Offroy.
Jeu du Moulin by Watilliaux, Paris.
Playtex - le jeu de la beauté et du destin, Grimaud, 1971.
Jeu de Memoire card game promoting Véritable Chaumes cheese from the village of St Antoines in south west France.
Facsimile of “Le Jeu de la Guerre” designed by Gilles de la Boissière in 1698.
La Mariée du Mardi-Gras, published by Jeux et Jouets Français. Paris, early 1900s.
Parisian style Spanish deck by Grimaud for export to Uruguay.
Jeu des 7 Familles © K.F.S. Opera Mundi c.1960.
Chocolat du Planteur cards (reproduction) by French artist Louis Bourgeois-Borgex, c.1900.