created 2003 - 2005       

Opinion to the Origin of the word Karnoeffel

updated January 2004
Simon Wintle reports the following (page version October 2003):

1400 EGYPT:
A passage in Ibn Taghri-Birdi's "Annals of Egypt and Syria" (dealing with events of the year 1417-1418) mentions that the future sultan al-Malik al-Mu'ayyad won a large sum of money in a game of cards. This confirms that playing cards were known in Mamluk Egypt not long after they first appeared in Europe. The text reads:

"The reason for the seizure of the aforementioned Akba'i [the governor of Syria residing in Damascus] was that the Sultan al-Malik al-Mu'ayyad [reigned from 1412 to 1427] had, in the days when he was emir, purchased a youth for 2000 dirhams which he had won playing 'kanjafah' [or 'kanjifah']. Al-Malik al-Mu'ayyad was at that time a qa'id and he was playing cards with one of his comrades and had won many dirhams from this man. Then the aforementioned Akba'i was brought into his presence together with his dealer. He [al-Mu'ayyad] was taken with him and he purchased him. The dealer then sought out his [al-Mu'ayyad's] bursar in order to collect the price of the aforementioned Akba'i, but he could not find him; so al-Mu'ayyad himself paid him the price from the dirhams which he had won gambling..."

The name of the game -- 'Kanjafah' -- is apparently of Persian origin, and from this extract it can be seen that it was a gambling game involving high stakes. Al-Mu'ayyad was appointed emir in 1399, and elected sultan in 1412, and so the account refers to somewhere within these dates."

My Note:

My mother language is German and to me it's an easily acceptable idea, that a foreign spoken "kanjifah" or "kanjafah" could transmute in German language to Karnoeffel, or, as the game is called in contemporary manuscripts, Karniffel, Karnueffel and Karnoeffelins. The differences in German dialects are considerable and in older German, when written language still were searching for a real form and anybody wrote, as he personally heard and understood the words, the differences in writing were a logical result. Some general German was developed with Luther and printing industry (stronger in the protestant reigned countries), but minor differences in writing forms persisted till 18th/19th century.

Ka - n ji f ah
Ka r n i ff el

You don't hear in German language much of a "r before n" (for instance "Kaninchen" sounds like Karninchen, it's just a habit to write this Kan- and not Karn-), also you can't differentiate much between "f and ff" especially when it is opening the final syllable at the end of a longer word). "ji and i" are different, but not far to each other (Ross Caldwell suggested that the ji in the original word might have turned to the "oe" sound), and "ah" and "el" are easily exchanged endings.

Ross Caldwell added the following consideration: "The first cards are known as Naibs (nayb etc.) It refers to a low court card, perhaps like the Unter. The Karnoeffel is the Unter - right? So there is a potential relation. But why would the German game have the "real" Arabic name for cards in general, while the Italians and Spanish made up a name never apparently used by Arabs?"

To the above question of Ross I developed the following plausible imaginations:

In playing card history it's general considered that playing cards wandered by imports to Italy or Spain. However, there is a third bridge between the Islamic world and Western Europe, mostly not very intensively considered: the Balkan.

In the historical situation the word "Karnoeffel" appears first 8-12 years after the council of Constance, in our opinion the great meeting place of different playing cards ideas in Europe. The most important and dominant person at the whole council was Emperor Sigismondo, who led 3 popes to abdiction and created a new one. Sigismondo dominated especially the Eastern part of the German Empire, he had much to do with Poland, Bohemia and Hungary. Very early, 1496, then not having reached his state as emperor, he made serious experiences in the following context (from Wikipedia):

"Through his marriage to Mary, queen (1382-1385 and 1386-1395) of Hungary, Sigismund became the country's king in 1386 despite opposition among the nobility. In 1396 he organised a crusade to repel the Ottoman Turks, who were threatening Hungary from the south, but the Christian forces were routed at Nicopolis (now Nikopol, Bulgaria)."
Contradictory another internet source reports: "When Beyazid, the son and heir of Murad, heard of the assassination of his father he went into a rage and ordered all Serbian captives killed. Beyazid became known as Yildirim, the lightning bolt, for his temperament. He conquered most of Bulgaria and nothern Greece in 1389-1395 though he suffered defeat at Nicopolis the 25th of September 1396 against the Venician-Hungarian army led by the Hungarian king Sigismund. The Ottoman campaign in Europe was halted. Beyazid then turned his attention to the east, conquering the turkish emirate of Karaman in 1397."

Independently, if this was a "lost battle" or a "victory", it stands, that Sigismondo had opportunity in his early life to gather oriental influences, under them card playing influences (he was with military in the region, there are no better playing card transporters then soldiers). In the case, that a game called "kanjifah" was around at that time (probably a cultural bridge between Osmans and Mamelucks might be assumed), then Sigismondo or people around him had a good chance to get informations about it.

We've to look at the puzzling double naming of Karnoeffel or Keyserspiel (Emperor's game) - and additionally the council of Constance in 1414. At the council were important things to do - but of course a lot of free time to exchange cultural items, making music, playing cards, having some fun with the 1000s of prostitutes, which are reported to have been there, some hunting, some tournaments, a great spectacle full of great and minor events. If my suggestion is right, the men of Sigismondo brought with them a game (or cards), which they called "Karniffel" or similar. To all the others participants, which were not familiar with that name for cards (or "game") - they used either "cartae" or "nayps" in various writing forms -, this was a new word and perhaps their tongue had difficulties to spell the word. They said "Emperor's game" and they meant with that "Emperor Sigismund's game", as he was the current emperor at the moment. By this the development of two names for the same game appears as rather naturally - and the whole context speaks for a relationship between the names Kanjifah and Karnoeffel.

Dummett relates "kanjifah" to the Indian term "Ganjifeh". The large distance between India and west-islamic countries suggest a "stable word" in this region - it can't be excluded, that the word reached European countries, although modified in local meaning and spelling.

Emperor Sigismondo visited Italy in 1431 - 1433, he was in Milano, where he didn't meet Filippo Visconti, who avoided a direct confrontation perhaps of fear of being killed, then in Siena a longer time cause of political conflicts between the Council of Basel and the pope, later in Rome. At his way back he was a week in Mantua and a result of this visit was the marriage between the local heir Ludovico Gonzaga (later called the Turk after the Congress of Mantua) and Sigismondos niece Barbara von Brandenburg, which established an enduring marriage connection during various generations between Gonzagas and German princesses. He also visited Ferrara and knighted some persons there, also the just born babe Sigismondo D'Este, who got his name from the Emperor (and later became a rather addicted card player with heavy losses). A hidden result of this visit (in September 1434) was perhaps the new interest in playing cards in Ferrara (observable since 1434, cards again imported from Florence), which had slowed down to nothing (at least to our eyes) since the death of Parisina and Ugo in 1425 (Parisina was known for her high interest in playing cards).

A second hidden result of the visit might have been a printing press for playing cards, which arrived under unclear conditions in 1436 in Ferrara. The most active person in this matter was the Mantovoano (somebody from Mantua, probably the printer) and the context is (perhaps) as follows: Leonello had married 1435 a daughter from Mantua, a sister of Ludovico the Turk. The fresh imported Barbara von Brandenburg (she arrived 1436 in Mantua as 13-years-old girl), now wife of Ludovico the Turk, reassured "German connections" to the court of Mantua and part of these communications should have been the observation of German progresses in the art of playing card printing, which should have led to an import of German technology to the court of Mantua, which was given by other marriage connections also to the court of Ferrara.

A 3rd hidden result might have been the production of Trionfi decks in Ferrara 1441/1442, which perhaps never would have taken place, if Emperor Sigismondo hadn't visited Ferrara in 1433 and opened a way to accept playing cards as "not prohibited". The Ferrarese court had in the early 30ies a good relation to San Bernardino, who was the foe of playing cards (but also the San Bernardino von 1431 - election of Pope Eugen IV. - was not the San Bernardino von 1423, who caused 100 000s of persons to gather in the cities to hear "emotionally moved" his preachings, in 1431 he had experienced stronger opposition and taken a few steps back. Pope Eugen, who in his 16 years as pope favoured San Bernardino and his movement, had friendly contact to the Ferrarese court and organised the his Council there in 1438 - obviously he could live with playing cards at this court and tolerated it, perhaps with thanks to the Emperor visit - Sigismondo was his guest for 3 monthes in Rome in summer 1433.

Emperor Sigismondo by Dürer in 1512 after an original portrait

Second Note: Grimm's Wörterbuch

I checked my assumption about the word "kanjifah" by Grimms "Deutsches Wörterbuch". The production of the "Deutsches Wörterbuch" started around 1830 by the brothers Grimm and finished 1960, and it is the major resource for the origin of German words. The article to the word Karnöffel was published 1873. Many passages are not really translatable, as the authors refer to older German language. So here is only my personal excerpt, the informations available didn't contradict my assumption, that Karnoeffel might have derived from Kanjifah.

The "Deutsches Wörterbuch" will soon become available online (see here).

1. Karnöffel, Karnüffel, Karniffel, Karnöpfel is an expression for scrotal hernia., also it seems to have been used in joking language also for the testicles. The use of the word was probably unknown in 15th century in most parts of Germany, but is noted 1475 in the Teuthonista (lower Rhine language, although the word doesn't seem to originate from there). The origin is in question, one suggestion notes French cornifle, Latin ceratophyllum, a water plant, which develops nuts-similar fruits. The nuts of the water plant might have associated the testicles-idea.

2. karnöffeln appears as word for "playing the game Karnöffel", but is also very farspread in various dialects as "beating" (especially with feasts), also used in variants in North European countries (Norwegia, Sweden, Denmark; karnifle, karnefle, karnuffla). A "Karnöffel" could also be a brutal man. In German language "taken a figure in chessgame or other game" is "schlagen" (identical with "to beat"). The writer of the Grimm-article stays undecided, if this beating-karnöffeln derived from the name of the card-game or if the name of the game derived from the already existing word with the meaning "beating". The farspread use in North European countries he explains with the Hanse (from John McLeod's page we know, that many variants of Karnöffel are just played in North European countries).

3. A Karnöffelmeißel is a special tool of metall for the tinsmith to beat holes in plates. Probably that derived from the general meaning "beating".

4. Karnöffelstag, "day of Karnöffel", probably a humoristic expressions for days which lasted longer than midnight and ended in a pub playing Karnöffel (? or an expression for the second hour after midnight ?; article text is unclear).

5. As name of the card-game it appears first 1426 in Nördlingen, where it is an allowed game (I've found no earlier appearance of the word mentioned somewhere else - by this my above suggested conclusion still stands). The Karnöffel is also an expression for the highest card in the game, the trump-Unter, either understood as cardinal or as Landsknecht (the cardinal seems to be only a speculation of J. Voigt, 1838, probably not reliable). There are at least 30 notes about the game in 15th and 16th century, it's often used in satirical political speech, cause Emperor and Pope appear as roles in the card game. The Karnöffel is often noted together with the devil ("tut im der Teufel icht und karnoffel"; "ach du verfluchter böswicht und teufelskopf mit deinen brüdern den carnöffeln und carnalischen messbischoven"), as also the devil is a personalised card in the card game, the trump-seven. From the trump-seven a German proverb has derived, the "böse sieben" (bad seven).

Some notes:

a. Luther: "die lieben kind (der Welt) ... die macht man zu bauer, karnüffel und babst im karten."

b. unclear source, article is unsecure (Luther ?): "nun wöllen wir bitten für die zween stend der christenheit, weltlich und geistlich, für unseren vatter den babst, das ist der sechst in den karten. Helfent mir bitten für den weltlichen stand, für den römischen Künig und alle seine unterthonen, das ist de carnöffel und der bawer. " (With "das ist der sechst in der Karten" is meant, that the pope was presented by trump-6, which is of special interest regarding the pictures to the right).

c. Rachel 2, 200 (?): "Es kam ein weib ins haus, wein, bier, karnüffel, trumpf und hunderteins war aus" (especially interesting, as Karnüffel and Trumpf (= Trionfi) are noted in the same sentence; "hundertundeins"(= 101) is another card game.

Jerg Ratgeb (1480 - 1526) painted the Resurrection scene at the Herrenberger Altar (see the complete picture at the site of Jürgen Ludwig), and decorated the soldiers scene with some playing cards. The heart-6, according to some knowledge about the origin of the Karnoeffel as "Pope" identifyable, is centralised. Concluding from that it seems that Heart is the trumps-suit in Karnoeffel. Peter Floetner, painting during the same time of reformation and religious changings, paints the heart-Unter with a heart hanging down like testicles from his genital. Perhaps he reflects with this painting the various double meanings of the word Karnöffel current at his time.

Peter Floetner, 'The Karnoeffel' ?

Third Note: Karneval

Variously it is suggested, that Karnoeffel might have a relation to the word "Karneval" or "Carneval". The German "Karneval" is given as being in use since 17th century for earlier "Fastnacht", relating back to earlier used forms of French "carnavale" and Italian "carnevale". The origin of that forms is unclear, as probable is given the Latin "carnelevale" ("taking away the meat").(Duden, Etymologie)

Curiously one can find under the Karnoeffel documents the following, reported by Jürgen Ludwig: Interessant ist Mathesius’ Bericht (1592), dass zur Fastenzeit Bergleute sich beim Mummenschanz als Figuren des Karnoeffelspiels verkleiden konnten. Zu Luther kamen sie allerdings als Schachfiguren verkleidet ..." ( Translated: "Interesting is the report of Mathesius (1592), that minors at the occasion of Fastnacht disguided as figures of the Karnoeffelspiel. At Luther's time they came disguided as Chess figures ...). Jürgen Ludwigs report further proceeds: "Sebastian Frank, dessen erste Sprichwoertersammlung im Jahre 1532 erschien, hat ein Sprichwort über das Karnoeffelspiel. Dies weist wieder auf die Verwurzelung des Spieles im Bewusstsein des Volkes hin." (Translation:"Sebastian Frank, whose proverb collection appeared in the year 1532, knows a proverb about the Karnoeffel game. This points to deep roots of the game within the mind of the people."). I mention this here just as curiosity. Karnoeffel is related to the Emperor's game, the Emperor's game to the Imperatori decks first mentioned in Florence 1423, and there is (my suggestion) from this game a relation to chess, as shown at other places here, and carneval developed it's first well known forms in Florence, where perhaps this Imperatori deck developed and Lorenzo de Medici was an enthusiastic carnevalist ... and carneval has some parallels to the Italian Trionfi development (triumphal processions, not playing cards).

I dont know, why these German minors disguised as figures of chess or Karnoeffel and I don't know, where this word carneval comes from ... and I've no intention to follow this line of exploration. Perhaps somebody else is interested. Or?

Kanjifah ... perhaps it turns out, that not Karnoeffel got its name from carneval, but Karneval from Karnoeffel .. or kanjifah.

We've started to research the case (November 2003). Perhaps we'll get some results.
First Result: Some notes appeared, that disguised Karnoeffel figures already appeared around 1460 - 1480 in the southern German - Suisse region. A note from the below mentioned Karnöffelzunft Willisau reported, that this is a still living tradition, demonstrated by an internet page. Further Information: see below, Note 5.

4th Note: Karlchen Müller

This note might be of interest to readers, which know the German game "Doppelkopf". Already in Grimm's Wörterbuch the question is raised: "Ist der Alte im heutigen Schafkopfspiel, der Eichel-Ober, etwa der Nachkomme des Karnöffels?" Probably the German Doppelkopf developed by the way of Schafkopf (sheephead). Der Alte became "die Alten" in Doppelkopf, however the Unter (= Kreuz-Bube) developed into "Karlchen Müller" known to every Doppelkopfspieler (the question of the Grimm is wrong, the Karnöffel was an Unter, not an Ober). The way from Karnöffel to "Karlchen Müller" is between friends of an interesting card game not a far way.

5th Note: Carnifex, the Hangman

It exists in the Internet a "Karnöffelzunft Willisau" (Willisau is a location near to Lucern), a Fastnacht community bewaring some older traditions. They present the opinion, that the word Karnöffel might relate to Latin "carnifax" or "carnifex", meaning "hangman" or "tormenter". From this the negative meanings of the word Karnöffel as a name for a brutal man might have developed (which looks plausible), also on a longer way the use of Karnöffel as the name for the Landsknecht appears as natural.
However, this language development also doesn't negate the possibility, that the word Karnöffel originally started as the foreign word Kanjifah, just being assimilated with the time to the meaning of a better known word with similar sound.

Interestingly, the Karnöffelzunft knows an otherwise rather unknown playing card legend, called the Heilig-Blut-Legende: At the 9th of July 1392 in Willisau three guys played with cards. Ulj Schröter, one of the three, lost all his money at that occasion. With a curse he threw his dagger against the heaven and after that 5 drops of blood fell on the table. The blasphemer is caught by the devil, the other try to clean the table without effort, finally they also die. A still existing chapel (Heilig-Blut-Kapelle) and a yearly procession reminds the bloody case.
The precise date and the related name suggest, that there was a real murderous action at the 9th of July 1392 in Willisau and probably also the involvement of playing cards in the matter refers to a true, not legendary fact at the event.

Additional note (January 2004): A request via email to the above mentioned Karnöffelzunft was replied by adding the information, that they still disguise as Karnöffel figures and I was directed to an internet page, where persons in costumes could be viewed, together - now it starts to become interesting - with old playing cards, which - according to a legend of the Karnöffelzunft - are identical to the game, that was used by the above mentioned Ulj Schröter - if legend speaks true - in the year 1392. If this information is correct, this would be the oldest existent European playing cards, so there is enough reason to doubt the validity of it.

On the other hand ... one doesn't know. During our work at it was our general observation, that playing card research isn't well organised. There are lots of people working in that direction, but they do not act coordinated. It takes years to adapt new information. That's why we build up to generate a platform, at which these informations are gathered and reachable immediately.
A further request didn't get an answer until now - people are slow with replying to emails, another experience of playing-card research.