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Links and Opinions to "Playing Cards before 1370"

Very humble Opinion of Huck Meyer

In Internet discussion the argument is relatively often met, that there were no playing cards in Europe before 1375 or 1370.

Contradicting to this statement there are vague informations about playing cards in 1371, as it seems even accepted by Michael Dummett. The playing card prohibition "Bern 1367", by Dummett as insecure or "in discussion" presented, was revived by Hoffmann in 1998. He relates to the same discussion between two Suisse experts, to which Dummett also relied upon. The discussion wasn't finished, when Dummett wrote his influential "Game of Tarot", so his presentation - in which he did, what he should do, just leaving the question open - somehow worked, that anybody thinks, there was nothing before "the proven date" 1377. Bern 1367 seems to have reality enough, one should start to think different.

The article "Omissions", presented by Kaplan, only proved local conditions for Bocacchio, Petrarca and Chaucer and others, the informations can't be viewed as a general evidence for "no playing cards in all Europe", especially as Europe was in the years 1350 - 1370 in an "after-a-catastrophe" condition. The catastrophe was 1348-1350, the black death took place on a large scale and a third of the former population was dead. Foreigners, who might have transported the illness, were regarded with suspicion. This should have lead to much less traffic and exchange as before 1348, so all - trade, travelling, communications between cities and spreading of possible existent playing cards - was limited in this time. A second condition was it, that at least many cities in Germany simply didn't write to paper, what happened, their traditions had been "local customs" which endured till 15th century, when they were by accident written down. And other scriptures, which really were written, didn't survive. So telling what was there and what was not there is difficult. The use of paper and writing generally increased with the advance of time (in an exploding manner), so we have in historical research the general condition, that there is not much written before this writing-explosion, before paper.
For instance: Generally it is (or was) believed, that the first German paper mill was in Nuremberg 1392, but recently I found notes about paper-production near Cologne 50 years before! I can't guarantee for the source, but the unclearity in this question may serve as example, how unclear the picture is, that we do have from events in 14th century.

Alain Bougearel and Ross Caldwell recently discussed at LTarot an entry about "pagina" in 1337 in France, which seemed to have been used for (card) playing. Kaplan neglects the Würzburg entry from 1329, perhaps we will see in the future, if this was correct.

Playing Cards were spread in China in 12th century. Mongols, who had then recently overcome the northern part of China (and should have had become acquainted with playing-cards there), appeared in Liegnitz in 1241 with ca. 150 km distance to Praha and fought victorious a great battle, then drifted to Hungary for some more time and left the region, cause one of their leaders had died and they had to clear who becomes follower. Their appearance was not a very long time ... but it is not excludable, that they didn't transport a few playing cards. If they did, these few items didn't cause naturally a great development, especially as one media, paper, was more or less missing. But one cannot exclude a spreading in small circles or regions, perhaps using a media different to paper, but with a similar idea of playing. And a slow development till the time of 1370, which possibly did lead of the entry from Bern 1367.

We've the curious condition, that playing cards seem to spread from the southern German and Suisse region, although - if they had come via Italy or Spain and Mamluks - one should suspect greater production centers there. Between Italy and southern Germany are the Alps - there were different cultures at both sides, of course with some connection, but ... especially under the conditions "after the black death" there should have been a problem to cross the mountains with cultural innovation (compare: Johannes of Rheinfelden and Council of Constance and Name of Karnöffel, also the general strange figure of Emperor Sigismondo and his visit in Italy in 1431 - 1433, who was in his existence "before being Emperor 1410 - 1437" a "King of Hungary" for a longer time; he was half-brother to King Wenzel reigned (1378 - 1400) and son of Emperor Karl VI. (1446 - 1378), both with their reigning center in Praha).

Johannes in 1377 reports about a deck, in which number cards are associated with professions. The same idea is displayed about 80 years later, contemporary to the great Trionfi time in Ferrara, in the socalled Hofämterspiel, which is said to have been produced for the young king of Bohemia Ladislaus Posthumus. The heraldic devices used in the game relate to Germany, France, Bohemia and Hungary, by this indicating the region, where it comes from (ignoring England for instance). It's a complicated deck, not easy to paint or produce.

From contemporary book production we do know, that chess was a very hot theme in 14th century. The citizens of the cities learnt the game, which before was a domain of the nobility. It is said, that it was a bestselling theme in book production around that time. With Cessolis, a Lombard, started probably a development in first half 14th century around 50 years before official playing card industry, in which the pawns of chess were connected to professions, probably after an astrological system, in which special professions were attributed to "children of the planets", still in use in 15th century, for instance in "De Sphaera", a manuscript, which was produced for the Sforza. Naturally these profession-figures were painted to give them expression already in the earlier texts.

The game of Johannes of Rheinfelden - who compares the playing card figures with chess figures in his text - is a natural continuation to these earlier chess-personalisations regarding the pawns.

These specialities around the Hofämterspiel make it plausible, that there was something, which possibly arrived via Hungary or Praha or north-eastern parts of Germany - the front-line to the Mongols. The riddle around the name Karnöffel point in a similar direction.

(in visionary mood - Huck Meyer)
(based upon discussions with autorbis, jokes, laughter and some beer in the evening and playing the game of Doppelkopf)

Addition: The following states, that John Capistranus, Saint and playing cards destroyer, was not only active in Nuremberg 1452, but also in Vienna. Playing cards are burnt, they even know by legend about stairs from which John Capristanus preached. It proves a great distribution of playing cards east from Nürnberg (which is until now only unsufficiently reported for the early times). In playing card research there is NOT much documentation about playing cards east from Nuremberg, probably due to the political conditions between 1945 - 1989, in which Western playing card development developed and communication via the frontiers was difficult. Actually we simply are stupid in this question and do not know, what might turn up from there.


Am Münster zu Sankt Stephan wird noch die Steinkanzel gezeigt, auf welcher im Jahre 1454 der heilige Johannes Capistranus, vom Orden des heiligen Franziskus, gepredigt gegen die Sündhaftigkeit der Welt und ihre Freuden, der gewaltiglich eiferte gegen Putz und Spiel, gegen Schimpf und Scherz. So wundersam wirkte, wie die Sage geht, sein Wort, daß, obgleich er lateinisch predigte, doch von allem Volke, Männern, Frauen, Mägdlein und Knaben, seine Rede ebenso verstanden wurde, als ob er in deutscher Sprache geredet. Da strömte alles hinzu, und die Männer brachten herbei vor die Kanzel ihre Schachzabel, Brettund Pochspiele, ihre Karten und Bälle, die Frauen Perlen und Ringe, Schmuck und Geschmeide, Hauben und Zierkleider, Gold und Agtstein, Silber und Edelgesteine, und die holdseligen Jungfrauen schnitten ihre langen Zöpfe ab, die der eifernde Capistranus auch als sündlich verdammte. Und wenn ein großer Haufe von Schmuck und Zierat, Spiele und Tand beisammen war, da ließ der Heilige es mit Feuer anstoßen und brannte den ganzen Haufen zu Asche.
Viele der Zuhörer taten sich ihrer Sünden ab, taten zerknirscht Buße, legten das härene Gewand des Pater Seraphicus, Franz von Assissi, an oder griffen zum Schwerte gegen den Erbfeind der Christenheit und folgten dem heiligen Manne, der voranzog, die Scharen gegen Mohammed zu Kampf und Sieg zu führen.

Quelle: Volkssagen, Mährchen und Legenden des Kaiserstaates Österreich, Ludwig Bechstein, 1840

Schachzabelbook: Innkeeper

Schachzabelbook: Scholar

Schachzabelbook: Player with balls and dices

The pictures are from 2 Schachzabel-books, appearing ca. 1460 - 1480. They are very likely similar to that, what Johannes of Rheinfelden saw in 1377, when he discussed playing cards in his famous manuscript.

At the AEIOU - Bilder-Album you can see more of them.