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XV Century Catalan Playing Cards

Uncoloured and uncut sheet of XV Century Catalan Playing Cards, featuring four female Sotas, four Aces and four cards from the suit of batons.

XV Century Catalan Playing Cards, Barcelona

These ancient playing cards were discovered inside the binding material of a printed Catalan book dated 1495. Although there are no other surviving examples, it is likely that it is a sole remnant of an archaic Spanish-suited pattern, perhaps used in a particular area, which has been superseded. The four female Sotas (not Queens) stand inside niches and on circular bases. They wear long robes and each holds their respective suit symbol in their right hand. We do not know whether the Kings were seated or standing. The batons are knobbly and arranged in a similar way to what we know today as ‘Spanish’: we might expect the cups, coins and swords to be similarly arranged.

XV Century Catalan Playing Cards, Barcelona

Above: uncoloured and uncut sheet of XV Century Catalan Playing Cards, Barcelona, printed in black onto thin paper and then glued onto a manuscript (latin) page, discovered inside the binding material of a Catalan book titled El Llibre de les Dones, printed by Johann Rosembach and dated 1495. The four Aces are decorated with primitive acanthus leaves or foliage, and two of them are also supported by lions. The four (female) Sotas stand inside niches and on circular bases. They wear long robes and each holds their respective suit symbol in the right hand. Note that they are not 'Queens' and have no crowns. The batons are knobbly and arranged in a similar way to what we know today as 'Spanish' suit symbols: we might expect the cups, coins and swords to be similarly arranged. Thus possibly all that is missing are the Cavaliers and Kings. The cards were housed in the Instituto Municipal de Historia (Barcelona) when the photograph was taken, and also illustrated in Trevor Denning's The Playing-Cards of Spain, Cygnus Arts, London, 1996.

If the Latin suit system, including the Spanish variant illustrated here, derived from Islamic cards, then we have an early example of cards faithful in some ways to their Islamic origin, produced at a time when possibly both styles were still in use, and before other versions of Spanish-suited cards were adopted.  See also: Moorish Playing CardsMamluk CardsMaster of the BanderolesGothic Spanish Cards.

The materials used in card games are very perishable so surviving early specimens are very rare. Because games are a magnificent way of promoting social relationships, as well as “unleashing passions”, these late fifteenth century playing cards give us a sense of how the Catalan capital absorbed foreign cultural elements and in turn spread their own style abroad.

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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. 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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