A Breef History of Playing Cardes
by Charles Knutson, MacGregor Games
Playing cards have always possessed a nearly magical aura, due, perhaps, to the images they carry. Always allied with gambling, and regularly preserving in their hierarchies a reference to the structures of worldly, and even heavenly, power, playing cards have maintained both a steady flirtation with the dark and mystical forces of the universe, as in the Tarot, or with the more mundane orders of society, as in the simple progression from Jack to King of a playing deck. A deck of cards, in whichever form, is able to draw on our special relation to the powers of number and image.
Among the earliest surviving decks of playing cards is a pack from 13th-century Egypt, suggesting that European playing cards may actually have had Middle Eastern origins. But most of the earliest references to cards come from gambling statutes, three of which describe the cards as being "new." One of the most interesting is the Tractatus de moribus et disciplina humanae conversationis, an allegorical look at the game of cards, written in Basil by a medieval monk known as John of Rheinfelden. He describes the decks as having four kings, with further details leaving no doubt that the packs he saw were configured in a manner recognizable and usable for games we play today.
The earliest playing cards were restricted to the wealthy classes, due to the expense of being individually hand-painted. However, less expensive decks were produced in large numbers, not long after their introduction to Europe. In fact, by the 1400s, playing cards were a "growth industry" in Europe. By 1420, German and Swiss cardmakers were producing packs in the thousands, first by stencil and wood-block printing, and later by metal-engraved plates for higher-priced decks.
By the 15th century, playing cards had become widely available. In 1423, Bernadine of Sienna is said to have preached so successfully against the evils of gaming that his congregation in Bologna is said to have burned their cards by the thousands. In 1452, an even larger bonfire was inspired by Bernadine's disciple, John Capistran, in the city of Nurnberg. The flames were reportedly fueled by 3,640 Backgammon boards, 40,000 dice, and a comparable number of playing cards. Even if these numbers were exaggerated, it is plain that playing cards must have been commonplace in 15th-century Europe.
Standardization in suits had begun by the end of the 15th century, at least on a national basis, with Germans and Swiss favoring shields, acorns, flowers and bells; and the Spanish swords, clubs, cups, and coins. The French are credited with inventing the standard suits now known in the United States (hearts, spades, clubs, diamonds), in about 1480.
As for Great Britain, it appears that playing cards may also have been introduced to England in the late 1300s, but early references can be deceiving. A 1418 source which refers to "a paire of cardes" was once quoted by the Oxford English Dictionary as referring to playing cards. But when read in context, it appears much more likely to be a reference to the tools used for carding wool. However, by the reign of Edward IV, cards had reached sufficient popularity in England for the government to pass a statute in 1463 prohibiting the importation of cards in order to protect the local printing industry.
For a long time, card games seem to have been merely a holiday pastime indulged in during the 12 days of Christmas. In 1495-6, an edict signed by Henry VII forbade:
the practice of card-playing by servants and apprentices, excepting during the Christmas holidays, and then only in their master's houses.
One of the significant early lists of card games appears in Rabelais' Gargantua, first published in 1534. It lists 195 games, of which 35 appear to be card games. The first technical description of card games appears in 1564. The Book on Games of Chance (Liber de ludo aleae) was basically a manual on gambling in which the author mentioned several card games, and how they differed from each other. However, little attempt was made to compile a comprehensive list of game rules until the 1600s, nearly 300 years after the introduction of the "tools" of the game. Even the Book on Games of Chance merely gave advice on how to play, rather than describing the basic rules and mechanics of the game. Thus, many of the early games were probably learned through social interaction among the upper classes, or were passed on through training in other social arts, much like dancing and music.
By the late 17th century, a passion for gambling had reached manic proportions in England. During Cromwell's rule, some exiled royalist supporters seem to have been infected by the gambling contagion already present on the continent. Upon their return to England after the restoration of Charles II to the throne, there was apparently just as little resistance to this "infection" among the general populace. No doubt, the thousands of British mercenaries who served on the continent during the Thirty Years War also contributed to the spread of new card and gambling games, as their surviving numbers returned to Great Britain.
Whether for use in gambling, or pastime, playing cards have preserved their appeal of linking the luck or fate of the player with a larger order. A sense of the company of kings survives in the most ordinary deck, and perhaps a sense of danger lingers in each "wicked pack of cards."