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Published July 19, 2023 Updated October 25, 2023

Early German playing cards

Some early examples of popular German playing cards from the XV and XVI centuries.

1450 Germany History Archaic Patterns Patterns and Suit Types Add to Collection
hand-coloured woodcuts circa 1450-1500. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Above: 3 and over-knave of bells, king of hearts in the act of giving a blessing, hand-coloured woodcuts circa 1450-1500. © The Trustees of the British Museum • Museum number 1867,0309.292

Playing cards arrived in Germany very soon after they first reached Europe in the last few decades of 14th century. Public demand required that affordable cards should be produced economically for ordinary folks - as opposed to the exquisite luxury packs made for the super-rich. The earliest German cards emanated from Frankfurt a/m, Munich, Nürnberg and Leipzig. Thus the humble form of popular medieval German playing cards was born - king, over-knave and under-knave with the suits of acorns and leaves growing from a central stem, whilst hearts and hawkbells are loose. Printed from woodblocks, coloured using stencils.

Stukeley's Cards discovered in the binding of a fifteenth century book, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Above: Stukeley's Cards discovered as stiffener inside the two pieces of the cover of a fifteenth century book, total 48 cards: 2-10, lower knave, upper knave & king in each suit (i.e. no aces or queens). Manufacturer's device on the twos plus a unicorn on the two of acorns. © The Trustees of the British Museum • Stukeley's Cards

Above: cards from an incomplete set, stencil-coloured woodblocks, c.1500 or possibly earlier. The kinh of hearts is seen sitting on his throne. The two of leaves has the proverb "Ach an dich und nicht mich thu ich unrecht so hüte dich", popular motto which can be translated as "Take heed of yourself and not of me, and if I do wrong, be on your guard." It is very likely that this sentence will have its counterpart on another card (absent from this set), the continuation of the proverb reading: "Dann Glügselig ist der mann der sich vor schaden wahren kann". Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France • Cartes d'un jeu à enseignes allemandes 1500-1525

Above: 4 more early German-suited cards, c.1500-1525, with similar colour palette and technique to example shown above. The ten of bells shows ten hawkbells arranged in three columns. The difference between Ober and Unter can be judged from the position of the suitmark, high or low. Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France • Cartes d'un jeu à enseignes allemandes 1500-1525


The “banner-10”

German and Swiss cardmakers often represented the 10 of each suit, not by a pip card with ten suit-signs, but by a card displaying a banner bearing a single suit-sign and sometimes a Roman X to indicate its rank.

The pip-cards were 2-9 plus the “banner-ten”. As there were no aces, this made a complete pack of 48 cards (the “banner-ten” is no longer used in Germany but can still be found in modern Swiss-suited packs).

uncut sheet of early German-suited playing cards of rudimentary quality, c.1500. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Above: uncut sheet of early German-suited playing cards of rudimentary quality, c.1500, with banner-10s, wild boars on the twos, an owl on the three of acorns, a dog on the six of hearts and a lion on the nine of hearts. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

There were plenty of skilled woodcutters, working in large or small workshops; different areas developed their own local varieties which led, over time, to emerging regional patterns. A degree of standardisation began to appear in the seventeenth century.

Some modern regional patterns, even though now they may be double-ended, still contain features or idiosyncrasies inherited from earlier days. This can be observed in the Bavarian and Franconian packs, also the Ansbach and Saxon patterns, for example.

Heinrich Hauk


References

O’Donoghue, Freeman M: Catalogue of the collection of playing cards bequeathed by Lady Charlotte Schreiber, Trustees of the British Museum, London, 1901 (German 1) [digital version here]

Willshire, W. H.: A Descriptive Catalogue of Playing and Other Cards in the British Museum, Trustees of the British Museum, 1876, reprint 1975. (German 124).

fragment from an uncut sheet of German-suited cards, c.1500. Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

Above: fragment from an uncut sheet of German-suited cards, c.1500. We can see the kings seated on thrones, and also the banner-10s instead of ten separate symbols. The overall design shows some elaboration in the costumes as new poses evolve for the figures. Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France • Fragment de planche de cartes d'un jeu à enseignes allemandes

fragment from an uncut sheet of German-suited cards, c.1500. Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF fragment from an uncut sheet of German-suited cards, c.1500. Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

Above: fragment from an uncut sheet of German-suited cards, c.1500. Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France • Fragment de planche d'un jeu de cartes à enseignes allemandes, 1500-1525

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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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