Medieval Europe

Europe was introduced to playing cards in the 1300s, when the new plaything arrived and took the country by storm. There are references to cards in Spain in 1317 and Switzerland in 1377, and by 1380 there were mentions of cards in multiple European cities. These early decks were made up of thin wooden rectangles, decorated with an Arabic style. These cards were created by hand, so they were expensive and often viewed as a status symbol because only the wealthy could afford them. The invention of woodcuts and movable type made it possible to mass-produce the cards, making them easily available and more affordable to the general public. In fact, it is believed that the early card-makers and card-painters at Ulm, Nuremberg, and Augsburg were also wood engravers. Art historians have dated the oldest surviving examples of paper playing cards to the reign of Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan from 1412 to 1447.

For some time, Marco Polo was credited with bringing cards back to Europe following his voyages to China, but the dates do not coincide. Another myth is that soldiers returning from the Crusades brought back decks of playing cards, but the Crusades ended too early for this to be true.

Court Cards

Cards went through a wealth of changes during the 1400s. The court cards were changed to represent European royalty — the king, chevalier, and knave. Queens were introduced in a variety of ways. In some decks, two queens replaced two kings as the highest cards, with the other two kings remaining in the other suits. Other decks contained fifty-six cards, with the four court cards being kings, queens, chevaliers, and knaves. Yet other decks replaced the queens with knights.

The French began naming the court cards after heroes and heroines, especially in the deck of cards made in the manufacturing center of Rouen. In a Rouen deck, the king of spades is David, the king of hearts is Alexander the Great, the king of diamonds is Julius Caesar, and the king of clubs is Charlemagne. The queen of spades is Pallas (also known as Athena), the queen of diamonds is Rachel (mother of Joseph), the queen of clubs is Argine, and the queen of hearts is Judith (of the Apocrypha). The knaves were named after Hector (prince of Troy), La Hire (comrade-in-arms to Joan of Arc), Ogier (a knight of Charlemagne), and Judas Maccabee. The Parisian cards used the same heroes but assigned the kings to different suits. The king of spades is David, the king of hearts is Charlemagne, the king of diamonds is Caesar, and the king of clubs is Alexander.

The king was always the high card in early card games, but eventually ace-high games were added to the mix. It is believed that the French Revolution introduced ace-high games to represent the lower classes rising above the royalty.

By the late fifteenth century, card decks had become pretty much standard and contained fifty-two cards. The majority of countries dropped the queen, but the French cards replaced their knight with the queen. The lowest court card remained the knave, later changed to the more popular name of jack.

Modern decks of playing cards manufactured in Italy, Spain, Germany, and Switzerland still do not include queens in their court cards. Instead, the third court card is the knight, usually depicted riding a horse.

The Suits

The suits varied across the European countries, but by about 1500 there were three main suit systems that had evolved. The Germanic countries used the suits of hearts, hawk bells, leaves, and acorns. Italian and Spanish cards used the suits of swords, batons (or clubs), coins (or money), and cups (or chalices). French and English cards used the common suits of hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs.

Laws and Protestations

Because of their popularity and the rising interest in cards, restrictions began to be placed and enforced on both cards and card playing. A German ordinance was introduced in July 1378 that declared specific games punishable by fines if players bet higher than permitted. In France, Edward IV in 1461 and 1462 prohibited playing cards and dice games at any time but the twelve days of Christmas. Henry VII in 1495 and 1496 forbid servants from playing card games except during the twelve days of Christmas, and even then they could play only in their masters' homes.

In Bologna, Italy, in 1423, Cardinal John Capistran, a disciple of Bernadine of Sienna, reportedly organized a massive bonfire of seventy-six sledges, 3,640 backgammon boards, 40,000 dice, and a comparable quantity of cards. Through this time, and despite all the regulations and protestations, cards continued to be manufactured, and card games continued to be played.

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