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Published July 03, 1996 Updated June 12, 2023

Playing cards in the Upper Rhine region

Documentary evidence suggests that card playing established itself in Italy in 1376, and then spread rapidly northwards across the Alps into the Upper Rhine regions of Germany and Switzerland and westwards into France and Spain.

Germany Italy Switzerland History Add to Collection

Playing cards in the Upper Rhine region

Documentary evidence suggests that card playing established itself in Italy in 1376, and then spread rapidly northwards across the Alps into the Upper Rhine regions of Germany and Switzerland and westwards into France and Spain, as suggested by the pink arrows on the above map.

In 1377, the Dominican monk Johannes von Rheinfelden from Basle wrote an allegory on the pack of cards in which he described packs containing queens, or two kings and two queens each with their 'marschalli', or packs with four, five or six kings each (i.e. 4, 5 or 6 suits), and so on…

North of the Alps, the Upper Rhine emerged as an important area for early playing card manufacture. A major economic factor was the city of Basle, a significant commercial centre situated on the transit route between Italy and the Rhine valley. Many of the extant early painted and engraved playing cards originated here.

Factors facilitating the dissemination of card playing include the emergence of an urban mercantile class whose trading activities necessitated fast transport routes; the existence of cheap raw materials for printing in the form of paper; and finally the technique of reproducing the images by means of wood carving.

See also: The Stuttgart Playing Cards | The Ambras Court Hunting Deck | The Master of the Playing Cards | Early German Engraved Cards | Hofämterspiel, c.1460 | XV century Spanish cards | XV century Italian cards | Spanish-suited cards made in Germany | Early French cards | XVI century Swiss cards.

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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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