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Published March 13, 2014 Updated November 17, 2023

XV Century Catalan playing cards

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

1490 Catalonia Spain Gothic History Archaic Patterns Add to Collection

These ancient playing cards were discovered inside the binding material of a printed Catalan book dated 1495. As 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that it is a sole remnant of an archaic Spanish-suited pattern, perhaps used in a particular area, which has been superseded.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 are quite similar to those in later Portuguese packs. But are they female, or in fact young male figures? They wear long robes reaching the floor and each holds their respective suit symbol in their right hand.

It seems likely that the complete pack contained 48 cards = 4 sheets of 12 cards. We do not know whether the kings were seated or standing, or whether there were cavaliers or knights on the missing cards. 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. The four aces are decorated with primitive acanthus leaves or foliage, and two of them are also supported by lions.

XV Century Catalan Playing Cards, Barcelona

Above: uncoloured and uncut sheet of 12 XV Century Catalan Playing Cards, Barcelona, printed in black onto thin paper and then glued onto a manuscript (latin) page, discovered during restoration inside the binding material of a Catalan book titled El Llibre de les Dones, printed by Johann Rosembach and dated 1495. 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 cards were housed in the Instituto Municipal de Historia (Barcelona) when the photograph was taken (1986), and also illustrated in Trevor Denning's The Playing-Cards of Spain, Cygnus Arts, London, 1996.

NOTE: the original cards are now preserved in the Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat de Barcelona • 26453-Antiquàriazoom


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. More than one example has come to light inside book bindings when these needed to be repaired, as in this case. 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

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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