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Published September 18, 2023 Updated September 19, 2023

Moorish Deck

Review of “Trzes’ Moorish Deck” facsimile published by Ulrich Kaltenborn, Berlin, 2023.

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early Moorish playing cards formerly preserved in the Instituto Municipal de Historia in Barcelona

Above: the two uncoloured sheets of early Moorish playing cards (c.1420) formerly preserved in the Instituto Municipal de Historia in Barcelona.

Above: there are two versions of Ulrich Kaltenborn's new edition, an uncoloured and a coloured version.

This is a recreation produced by Ulrich Kaltenborn based on the two sheets of Moorish playing cards which I discovered in the Instituto Municipal de Historia in Barcelona in 1987. Having made a prior appointment to view some early playing cards I was greeted on arrival and presented with a selection which turned out to include two sheets of Moorish cards. This was quite an unexpected surprise.

Over 35 years later, Kaltenborn has taken a fresh look at these cards and produced an original and plausible new perspective. His Kickstarter campaign for this project raised €4,288 from 75 backers.

First, some background data.

We know from documentary evidence (dictionaries, inventories, wills, etc) that the Catalan word for playing card, ‘naip’ or ‘nayp’, has been recorded since 1371 and derives from the Arabic word na’ib (deputy, viceroy or governor who is a court figure). This word is ‘naipe’ in Spanish.

In a Barcelona inventory from 1414 we find an entry “j joch de nayps moreschs” which means “1 pack of Moorish playing cards”. Another inventory dated 1439 records "x jochs de naips moreschs; iij altres jochs de naips plans petits" (10 moorish packs and three other small plain packs). "Moorish" playing cards were evidently recognised in Barcelona at that time, and distinguished from other varieties of cards.

None of these early literary references mention how many cards the Moorish packs contained, nor the structure of the pack. These references are also earlier than the Topkapi museum Mamluk pack, which is a luxury and more evolved version of the Moorish cards or “nayps moreschs”. Thus the Moorish cards are a link between Arabic playing cards and the emergence of playing cards in Europe; Kaltenborn coined the phrase “the little sister of the mother of all European playing cards".

Kaltenborn’s new edition of the Moorish deck comes in two versions: black-and-white and coloured. It includes facsimiles of the surviving original cards, plus a 56-card recreated pack in which the missing cards have been imaginatively conceived. Interestingly, he has reconstructed it as a 56-card pack with numerals 1-10 plus four court cards per suit, in line with the format in which early Italian playing cards and tarot appeared, and also featured in his facsimile of the Mamluk deck.

Uncoloured version

the suit of polo sticks (batons) from Ulrich Kaltenborn’s new edition the suit of cups from Ulrich Kaltenborn’s new edition

Above: the suits of polo sticks (batons) and cups from Ulrich Kaltenborn’s 2023 edition of the Moorish deck, uncoloured version. The number cards run from 1 - 10, with first deputy, 2nd deputy, 3rd deputy and king. Islamic cards do not contain images of human figures but have abstract representations only. Cards measure 56x100 mm.

After comparing the designs of the Topkapi museum Mamluk deck, Kaltenborn contends that the cards with more elaborate ornamentation must be court cards. Although speculating, he suggests that there were four court cards per suit, namely king, 3rd deputy, 2nd deputy and 1st deputy, as can be seen in the illustration above. This amouts to a significant re-interpretation of the structure of the deck.

There are interesting affinities with another contemporary, early Catalan pack, the “Baraja Morisca” where the cavalier of swords holds a Saracenic shield and the suit system may derive from early Arabic cards, reinforcing the link between the two systems.

Coloured version

In his kickstarter campaign, Kaltenborn discusses the uncertainty regarding the original colouration of the pack. He mentions that the original sheets only contain outlines, with no information about the colours which might have been used. Whilst not intended to be historically accurate he decided on a creative reinterpretation in the coloured version of the pack, “a modern take on the card design that is nice to look at”.

Polo Sticks (Batons)

the suit of polo sticks (batons) from Ulrich Kaltenborn’s new edition

Coins

the suit of coins from Ulrich Kaltenborn’s new edition

Cups

the suit of cups from Ulrich Kaltenborn’s new edition

Swords

the suit of swords from Ulrich Kaltenborn’s new edition

Further References

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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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