The Medium is the Message
Many early playing cards had titles or legends alongside the images. These referenced a written/literary tradition of some form (historical, religious or secular literature, legends, etc), connecting the image to a wider cultural sphere, extending the visual impact. For example, French court cards were given names of heroes of antiquity, such as Caesar, Charlemagne, Paris or Lancelot, thereby connecting to the written body of French literature. This tradition goes back to the fifteenth century or even earlier. Some historians believe that court cards are actually based on these historical personages, but this is not necessarily true.
But many early cards were unnamed and unnumbered, so they were understood by card players on their own terms. If the cards are just images, with no title or legend, then the images must speak for themselves. There is no explicit reference to any text, or suggestion that the cards are based on historical persons.
The advent of printing with movable type boosted the spread of literacy and the playing card was also used as a medium to propagate the printed word.
Thus the presence of printed text or titles on playing cards adds a new level of meaning and raises their cultural status to a more rational, literate or pedagogic level; a vehicle for political or educational purposes (as well as a game of luck and skill). Today of course this might be an advertising message.
The early Arabic Mamluk cards incorporated calligraphic texts, rhyming aphorisms, evoking thoughts of a religious nature, on the court cards (inside the blue areas). But because of Islamic law, instead of images of human figures we see only abstract geometric designs on the rest of the cards. The written words transform these into sublime messengers.
These Arabic playing cards are believed to be the progenitors of playing cards in the West more →
In the case of tarot trumps the early examples are unnamed and unnumbered. Again, they were implicitly understood or memorised by the players. In some instances initial letters or monograms were added to denote a secret meaning which is often lost.
Legends and numbers were added later to tarot trumps to denote their value or hierarchy so that a canon was established which today we take for granted. Some people believe the tarot cards are a channel for esoteric thought. There were exceptions to this: Animal Tarots and other games with non-standard trump cards did not usually have titles or metaphysical associations.
The phonetic alphabet is a unique technology which, through its uniform and sequential logic, has created civilized man, with codes of law, ledgers and ultimately, printed books. In a humble way, playing cards have participated in this development by becoming a medium for the message....
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 Hearts 1984 woodblock joker.
Trappola pack of 36 double-ended cards published by Anton Herrl, Graz, Austria.
Review of “Trzes’ Moorish Deck” facsimile published by Ulrich Kaltenborn, Berlin, 2023.
Some early examples of popular German playing cards from the XV and XVI centuries.
The “Parisian Tarot”, early 1600s, with imagery and design synthesizing several influences.
Antique playing cards in Vittoriosa Church Museum dating back to the Knights of Malta period.
When there are official taxes to pay, people will find a way to avoid paying them - often illegally....
An in-depth review of the history of card-playing, gambling, legislation, manufacture and taxation o...
The Russian Playing Card Monopoly was established in March 1798 with all revenue going to support th...
15 Trappola playing cards possibly made by Johann Ziser of Prague, c1760.
XV Century Spanish-suited playing cards with moorish influences
Andalusian playing cards designed by Marifé Montoya Carrillo with booklet by Jorge Lirola Delgado, 2...
The old Languedoc pattern was known at the beginning of the seventeenth century, if not before.
Another pack of Dutch costume playing cards c.1880.
Archaic Spanish-suited playing cards published in Toulouse by Antoine de Logiriera (1495-1518).
Jean Noblet: the oldest known ‘Tarot de Marseille’ deck, Paris, c.1650.
Dutch costume playing cards made for the Dutch market in the second half of the 19th century.
“Royal Cards Reign of Queen Anne” cover historical events, both honourable and treacherous, during t...
In standard English packs the Ace of Spades is associated with decorative designs. This is a histori...
This deck was inherited from ancestors, it has has a family history surrounding it. Details of the l...
Video by Art of Impossible. In this video you will get a short overview of the most important histor...
Gambling and Vice in the Hours of Charles V: card-playing in the local tavern
A facsimile of an early 19th century French-suited deck from the collection of F.X. Schmid.
Reproduction of Richard Blome’s Heraldic playing cards, 1684, presented to lady guests at WCMPC Summ...
Baraja Carlos IV, Félix Solesio en la Real Fábrica de Macharaviaya, 1800.