The History of the Court Cards
How did the extraordinary designs of the court cards evolve, full of semi-circles and meaningless diagonal shapes? Are the pictures based upon any historical personalities? Has this question ever crossed your mind while playing cards amongst friends?
The story is different in different countries...
The court cards in English packs of playing cards derive from models produced by Pierre Marechal in Rouen around 1565. All four kings in the Rouen pack wear a crown over a flat cap, and long fur-lined cloaks opening to reveal stockinged legs. Likewise, the Queens and Jacks are undoubtedly the ancestors of the English pack. During the passage of centuries, and even though master-copies may have existed in the workshops, a number of gross errors have been made by copyists and wood-cutters, so that hands, symbols of office and other attributes have become corrupted or lost their meaning.
The introduction of double-ended courts in the middle of the 19th century made the problem even worse. Playing card manufacturers usually try to preserve some kind of 'traditional' feel, but due to the constrained size of a playing card, as well as economy, many compressions and distortions have been introduced into the figures.
Names on French Court Cards
Towards the close of the 16th century French playing card manufacturers began naming their court cards after worthy heroes in the epics of mediæval history, as narrated in chronicles, romances and legends of the day. These names were never imitated by English cardmakers. To begin with the practice was a bit arbitrary, but by the 17th century a definite set of names had become established
French cards spread around Europe and sometimes carried the names on their court cards with them. See Ken Lodge's blog►
In this context, we may observe that the 15th century humanist scholars of the Renaissance, in seeking the original classical texts and sources, wrongly convinced themselves that Carolingian manuscripts represented original Roman manuscripts. Thus, they began imitating Carolingian minuscule script, which in turn was adopted by the early printers as 'Roman' type. Likewise, Carolingian drawings and illuminations (9th century) were also mistaken for original, classical Roman sources: Charlemagne, Caesar, David and Alexander were all 'from ancient times'.
A similar idea seems to have been adopted by French card-makers in the 16th century who gave epic, heroic, pagan or biblical names to the court cards, such as Rolant, Charles or Caesar. However, there is no evidence that the same idea was taken up by any English playing card manufacturer, even though English playing cards can be traced back to 16th century French ones. Thus we may safely say that the standard English or Anglo-American court cards do not partake of any mythological or historical derivation, and they have never been named after heroes of antiquity or historical personalities, as confirmed by the origin of the pack - except, perhaps, for 'Black Maria' the Queen of Spades.
Queen of Diamonds. Mme de Maintenon kept this card in her journal. It had been taken from a pack with which she was playing a game of piquet at the time when her opponent, King Louis XIV proposed a clandestine marriage.
The source of the costumes on the English court cards having been shown, the illustration below shows a formalised initial-letter portrait of James I, king of England (1603-1625) on an illuminated Letters Patent. The king is depicted in full-length, in ermine-lined crimson robes of state, and we might be tempted to see a connection to English playing cards. However, we must be content to know that, apart from the Queens' head gear, which is Tudor, the rest of the costume is late mediæval in style as seen in the pack by Pierre Marechal of Rouen.
Other Parts of the World
The histories of Spanish-suited, Italian-suited, German and Swiss-suited cards are different.
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 Queen of Clubs 1984 woodblock joker.
A limited edition art print of the Jack of Clubs 1984 woodblock joker.
“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.
Typical costumes and views of Alsace together with lists of the principal sights.
Katie Abey’s rainbow-coloured designs using crazy animals to convey motivating phrases.
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.
On-line offsite data backup publicity playing cards produced by The Bunker, United Kingdom, c. 2004....
54 different dinosaurs, both large and small, illustrated by Cecilia Fitzsimons.
Commemorative Olympic Playing Cards produced by Waddingtons exclusively for Stanley Gibbons Antiquar...
Clamcleats playing cards for sailors designed by Celia Allison, New Zealand, 1986.
Costumes from four operas premiered at the Paris Opera between 1830 and 1840.
“Around the world in 54 cards” hand-coloured transformation pack produced by Peter Wood, United King...
Honouring the bicentenary of the Montgolfier brothers’ first balloon flights in 1783.
Jessel’s Bibliography of works in English on Playing Cards and Gaming describes “The first book on P...
A colourful pack aimed at children, with illustrations by Muriel Kerba.
Characters from The Broons and Oor Wullie comic strips on their 75th anniversary.
A catalogue in 54 cards of some of the treasures held within the Museum of London collections.
The first company to register Bezique materials with Stationers’ Hall was Josh Reynolds & Son in Sep...
Publicity pack for Gibert Jeune, the famous Parisian bookshop, with designs by James Hodges.
Complete contents of a sample book of advertising cards by De La Rue
Photographs of flowers, herbs and vegetables by leading photographer Tessa Traeger.
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.
Two sets of conjuring cards published by G. Martin, 6 Great St Thomas Apostle, London, early 19th ce...
Calendar events and visitor attractions to be found in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire.