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Playing cards have been with us since the 14th century, when they first entered popular culture. Over the centuries packs of cards, in all shapes and sizes, have been used for games, gambling, education, conjuring, advertising, fortune telling, political messages or the portrayal of national or ethnic identity. All over the world, whatever language is spoken, their significance is universal. Their popularity is also due to the imaginative artwork and graphic design which is sometimes overlooked, and the “then & now” of how things have changed.

Gambling and Vice in the Middle Ages

Gambling and Vice in the Hours of Charles V: card-playing in the local tavern

The month of September in the Book of Hours of Charles V, produced in Paris around 1500, has a miniature painting showing the sinner gambling accompanied by two women. Playing cards can be seen arranged on the table, along with money and other items. One of the women is distracting him whilst the other cheats. This is a frequent theme in Northern European medieval art. The moral message is that not only is he losing his soul but also all his goods, leading to misery. A libra sign is shown at the top left-hand corner. The right-hand miniature depicts salvation through prayer.

Above: detail from the month of September from Libro de horas de Carlos V, Biblioteca Nacional de España, online here  (click 13th thumbnail).

Apart from the theological meaning, the illustration offers what was most probably a typical scene in taverns or public houses of that time.

Above: the french artist has not painted much detail on the playing cards, but black and red pips can be seen on fairly elongated cards. The manner of holding the cards is one just above the other, in a single pile, rather than fanned out more


Further Thoughts

“La primera conclusión es que todo el mundo jugaba a las cartas a pesar de que estaba prohibido jugar apostando”... more

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

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Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996.

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