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Johannes of Rheinfelden, 1377

My text is mainly based upon "Der Ludus cartularum moralisatus des Johannes von Rheinfelden" by Arne Jönssen, in: Schweizer Spielkarten 1: Die Anfänge im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert. Schaffhausen 1998, pp. 135- 147, together with some shorter remarks in other playing card sources, under them also Michael Dummett, Game of Tarot, p. 10 - 12, and Roger Tilley, Spielkarten, Frankfurt

Arne Jönssen is a latinist by profession and prepares a text critical edition of the work of Johannes of Rheinfelden. The work has however been delayed for the moment cause of other, more urgent projects. Johannes von Rheinfelden was a Dominican monk, but he is wrongly called von Rheinfelden (he notes the location only in the text), actually he lived in Freiburg im Breisgau (that's 50 km near to Strasbourg, and Strasbourg was in 15th century a center of playing card production), which he calls oppidum nostrum (our city). He declares himself as being from German origin and the text is written, as Johannes himself notes, in the year 1377. He is only known by this text, not otherwise. The text is long, the critical edition in preparation is calculated with around 300 pages.

4 different manuscripts have survived, unluckily the original is not present (Dummett refers to Kopp, who offered the opinion, that it was destroyed in the Franco-Prussian war).
  • 1. Hs. F IV.43 (Universitätsbibliothek Basel) from 1429
  • 2. Hs. 4143 (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Wien) from 1472
  • 3. Hs. 225 (Bibliothek der Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht) from 1472
  • 4. Hs. Egerton 2419 (British Library, London) from 1472
In his analyses Arne Jönssen contradicts earlier results from other researches, which doubted the authenticy of the text. He comes to the conclusion, that the earlier observed discrepancies between the texts were mere errors of the copyists and that the original writing of Johannes is retrievable. Earlier other results of investigations he explains with the difficulty, that no printed versions of the texts existed, so that a solid comparition of the texts was very troublesome.

Dummett in his Game of Tarot refers to discussions of Dr. Kopp and Dr. Rosenfeld (I didn't read them), which suggest, that the original was interpolated in 1429, but arguments himself, that a lot of the text basically connects with a 60 cards game and for that reason the range of interpolation must have been rather fargoing. He closes with "... the case is unresolved."
Ortalli in his "The Prince and the Playing cards" from 1996 then has the clear opinion, that the dating 1429 is correct.

However, Arne Jönssen, writing in 1998, suggests, that the text is really from 1377, and some details, that he had shown in the article (see below), suggest, that he perhaps has seen more of the texts than others.

The contradictions result from the condition, that Johannes speaks of very much playing cards in his surrounding, "the children play on the streets with them", although in playing card research the reigning opinion suggests, that they still should be a novelty, perhaps invented 10 years before. And Johannes knows a lot of different decks and playing card research thinks, that so much variants couldn't exist in 1377 (Roger Tilley, going back to a translation of the London version of the text by a bibliothecarian in London, Mr. Bond, writing in January 1878, gives the text in a way, that the game came to the city Freiburg in the same year 1377).

Arne Jönssen states contradicting, that 3 passages in the text verify the date of 1377.
  • 1. Johannes gives the date (part , chapter 5).
  • 2. A Ludevicus is called the present king of Hungary, which should be Ludvig the Great reigning from 1326 - 1482)
  • 3. He relates to an event in the 100-years-war between England and France, which happened around the date.
Another source I recall from rememberance only - probably Parlett-, noted two heavy earthquakes being mentioned in the text (they are noted in other sources for 1356/57 and did lead to annual memorial processions in the near Strasbourg centuries later), which also solidifies the date of 1377. In the prolog Johannes declares 3 intentions:
  • 1. describing the card game and its material and its ways to be played.
  • 2. using the card game to give moral advices for noble men, related to 5 courts in the 60-cards-game.
  • 3. similar advices for normal people, related to professions, which are attributed to the number cards.
Johannes explicitly declares, that he doesn't know, where he playing cards come from.

Arne Jönssen notes decks with 52, 60 and 72 cards (which contradicts the above noted translation used by Roger Tilley, Dummett speaks similar as Tilley; in this earlier description plus a short translation it seemed obvious to me, that Johannes describes 6 decks, 3 with 4x13-structure, one with 5 suits, so 5x13-structure, one with a 6th suit and 6x13-structure and finally Johannes' favourite game, a 60 cards deck).

Arne Jönssen describes the 60-cards-deck-version, which is obviously a favour of the author and probably that deck, that determines the very positive impression, that Johannes has of card-playing generally. This consists of the common courts King and two Marshalls, but has also Queen and a Maid (totally 5 courts), and 10 number cards, which present professions (Jönssen notes "baker, miller, butcher, physician and others" and at other place also "farmers", totally "nearly 40 professions").

This last information was new to me and not given in any source I read. It contains exciting informations: The description speaks of a deck, which is more or less rather similar to the Hofämterspiel, which is dated for ca. 1455! And the Hofämterspiel is technically difficult to design, at least the problems are technically similar as in a Tarocchi or Trionfi game. And the court-construction with 5 courts (3 male, 2 male) is very near to that, what was realised by Filippo Maria Viscontis Cary Yale (3 male, 3 female; King, Knight, Page and Queen, female Knight and female Page). This is also very remarkable.

From this I conclude, that earlier researches stayed (perhaps, I might err) a little bit at the surface and perhaps Arne Jönssens expertise might be rather valueable.

As suits Johannes perceives symbols for the 4 world regiments Babylon, Persia, Greek and Rome: "Schellen" (still a German/Suisse suit sign) present the Greek King, eagles (shields, often with eagle, are a known suit sign) the Roman king, the Babylonian has a man-head (perhaps coins?) and the symbol of the Persian king even Johannes doesn't recognize. He points to a painting ... which is missing in all copies of the text. Tilley - in the contrary - gives the analyses, that there are no details about suits in the text.

Johannes gives only few details about the way how the cards are played with, but is especially fond of the symbolism on the cards. Also he thinks about comparitions between war and card playing, and from the description it seems, that he doesn't think of partnership-games, but of "everybody against everybody" and winner in the end is, who has gotten the most cards. Some cards present noble men, other common people, and it can happen that the normal men win against the noble men (which points perhaps to the follow-the-suit-rule or rules-which-change-the-order-occasionally).
The Unter (lower Marshall) counts 11 points, the maid 12, the Ober (upper marshall) 13, the Queen 14 and the King 15. Compare to this the analyses to the Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo deck, which originally probably was counted 1-14 for the 5th trump suit. Number cards probably counted 1-10 (Jönssen doesn't mention them), so one should assume, that the deck had totally 4x120 = 480 points; it must have been a mess to count in this game. This opens an interesting view on social aspects of the situation in 14th century, when in German cities "Rechenschulen" are opened to teach the use of numbers and counting and other trivial mathematic. The question how much this movement of education and playing card development touches each other, is also "unresolved", it's a practical experience, that card playing is good for learning addition.

Arne Jönssen then describes the main part of the text, which is a great sermon about all and everything, but not very much about the game and playing cards details. In this it seems in style a little comparable to the work of Marziano da Tortona, in which the description of the figures takes much more text than the actual rules of the games and other technical matters. Johannes uses the free place to show his reading and higher education. Actually it seems, that only one thing is transported: Playing cards are "good", useful for the world, useful for education, useful to learn strategy in war and a pleasant mirror of a good society in a not totally perfect world. And God loves them .. or similar.
It's the year 1377 and in Florence an edict is given, in which playing cards are prohibited for the first time. Quite a contrast, which solidifies a little the assumption, that card playing north of the Alps was less prohibited than south of the Alps.

With thanks to Eberhard Lutz for some practical help in this matter.