Lavishly Illustrated Medieval Playing Cards Flouted the Church and Law

Secular and religious officials alike frowned on card playing in Europe’s Middle Ages

The Knave of Horns, like all the figures from the Cloisters' deck, was draw in pen and ink and colored with typical medieval pigments. The parody-like nature of the deck may mean that the set was commissioned by a wealthy merchant who "felt sufficiently secure in a newly established social order to hazard satirizing a declining one," the exhibition notes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
World from the Visconti Tarot, part of the deck's 21 trump cards. Tarot cards today are usually associated with fortune-telling, but there's also a game that can be played with them. "Tarot is a game of trick taking and the rules of the game likely have not changed significantly since the fifteenth century," the exhibition website notes. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven
The Queen of Collars reigns over her card from the Cloisters Playing Cards, a set that has been dated to around 1475-80 and attributed to the Burgundian Netherlands. Her dress and display of the quotidian dog collars is so extravagant that the deck just might be satirizing the Burgundian court's excesses. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Tarot cards came after basic playing cards. This Knave of Cups is part of the Visconti Tarot, which was likely made for Filippo Maria Visconti, the last duke of Milan of that name, prior to his death in 1447. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven
The Queen of Stages, like all the people in the Stuttgart Playing Cards, has a "round, smooth" face that projects the "insouciance of a world free from worry or strife," writes the Cloister's online exhibition guide. Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart, photo: H. Zwietasch
The Under Knave of Ducks belongs to the Stuttgart Playing Cards (Das Stuttgarter Kartenspiel), an usually large, exceptionally fine deck featuring images about the hunt. "The birds and animals in the pip cards are vibrant and lifelike, suggesting observation of nature and knowledge of various types of hunts," the Cloisters online guide notes. andesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart, photo: H. Zwietasch
The Nine of Hounds from the Courtly Hunt Cards (Das Hofjagdspiel). This image of canines circling a cat, was created at Schloß Ambras, near Innsbruck, Austria, sometime after 1567. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The lines of the Courtly Hunt Cards are so fine and expressive, even in these non-face cards, that they appear to be finished. However, as the light blue wash over the birds in this Five of Herons shows, the creatures were supposed to be painting. Why this deck was left unfinished is lost to history. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
A Lady-in-Waiting of France strums her instrument on this card from the Courtly Household Cards (Das Hofämterspiel), created in c. 1450. Her counterpart ladies-in-waiting appear in the other suits of the deck, which feature Germany, Bohemia and Hungary. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
A Trumpeter of Hungary from the Courtly Household Cards. This deck was in the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Much changes over the centuries—customs, costumes and food spring to mind. Games from centuries past have also evolved; though intriguing, most of the time, ancient games prove unplayable if you don't know their rules. This is not the case with card games, however. While the painted images on early cards might look different, the game itself is familiar, as an exhibition at the Cloisters in New York, shows.

"The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430-1540," which is on view until April 17, features carefully crafted cards from the only decks that have survived from the late Middle Ages.

"To be good at cards requires more skill than dice but less than chess, both of which were well established by the 14th century when card-playing came to Europe (from Egypt perhaps, or the Middle East)," the Economist's "Prospero" blog reportsPeople from all classes would play cards, though the ones on exhibit at the Cloisters were clearly intended for the rich and wouldn't have been subjected to the roughness a deck meant for actual use would have experienced. 

"Nobles and rich merchants kept these cards in decorated, fabric-lined boxes. Only occasionally were they taken out to gaze upon and dream, laugh or ponder," the Economist points out.

The Cloister's exhibit features several decks of cards, whose gilded backgrounds and careful lines make them appear like tiny paintings. The museum holds one set in its permanent collection, while the others in the exhibit are on loan. All were commissioned, the museum reports; most are from southern and southwestern Germany and in the Upper Rhineland. "Each deck reflects a differing worldview, slowly but inexorably shifting from nostalgic and idealized visions of a chivalric past to unvarnished and probing scrutiny of early Renaissance society," the exhibition's website explains.

Unlike modern card decks, those on display at the Cloisters do not have standard suits: falcons, hounds, stages and bears mark a hunting-themed deck. A late 15th-century deck from Germany uses acorns, leafs, hearts and bells. Kings, queens and knaves (knights, now) do appear on some decks, but also popular are clerics, fishmongers, chamberlains, heralds and cupbearers. 

The World of Playing Cards writes that cards rather suddenly arrived to Europe around 1370 to 1380 and, seemingly just as swiftly, a ban on card games followed. The Church frowned upon cards, as they saw how the game promoted gambling. The World of Playing Cards references text from the special Register of Ordinances of the city of Barcelona, in December 1382, that prohibited games with dice and cards to be played in a town official's house, "subject to a fine of 10 'soldos' for each offense." 

In 1423, St. Bernardino of Siena preached against the "vices of gaming in general and playing cars in particular" and urged his listeners to toss their cards in the fire. As the story goes, a card-maker then cried out, "I have not learned, father, any other business than that of painting cards, and if you deprive me of that, you deprive me of life and my destitute family of the means of earning a subsistence." St. Bernardino then directed the man to paint more sacred images.

Of course, card playing was never successfully quashed by degree or sermon and now, centuries later, they still serve their same initial purpose: to entertain and divert.

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