The earliest European playing cards which survive belonged to King Charles VI of France. In 1392 a painter called Jacquemin Gringonneur was paid for "Three games of cards, in gold and divers colours, ornamented with many devices, for the diversion of our lord the King". A few of these cards still survive: they formed part of a tarot pack.
These are cards from a modern reproduction of a slightly later tarot pack, produced in Marseilles in the 16th century. (All the pictures in this essay are of cards in my collection)
There are 78 cards in a tarot pack. The four suits are Cups, Swords, Money and Clubs, each of which have ten pip cards and four court cards: the King, Queen, Knight and Servant, making 14 cards in each suit. In addition there one card, "Le Mat" with value zero, who is clearly the ancestor of the modern Joker, and 21 "Atouts". These include such cards as the Sun, Moon and Stars, the Emperor and the Pope, and abstract virtues like Strength and Temperance. Death is, of course, number 13. Some are highly mysterious: there is a Lady Pope, "La Papesse", a Hanged Man, "Le Pendu" and "La Maison Dieu", which in mediaeval French meant a hospital, but which is always depicted as a tower struck by lightning.
There are games which can be played with tarot packs, but nowadays they are mostly used for fortune-telling. Many magicians design their own tarot packs, and often alter them after their own ideas: the suits of Money and Clubs are changed to Pentangles and Wands, the Pope and Papesse becomes the Hierophant and High Priestess, and so forth.
There are strong grounds for believing that present-day cards derive from the tarot pack. In Spain and Italy the four tarot suits have been retained, and the Queen has been dropped from the court cards, leaving the King, Knight and Servant. This is from a modern Spanish pack:-
and one from Italy. It will be noticed that there are only 12 cards in each suit, with 9 pip cards; the Servant being number 10, the Knight 11 and the King 12. Spaniards and Italians thus cannot play whist or bridge with their native packs!
There are charmingly different suits in central Europe, such as Acorns, Daisies, Leaves, Bells and Shields; and the court cards feature an "Ober" who holds his suit symbol up, and an "Under" who holds it down. Here are a couple of examples:-
The pack of cards with which we are familiar today has its origins in France, probably some time in the 15th century. The French card-makers eliminated the Knight from the tarot pack, leaving a suit of 13 cards with the court cards of King, Queen and Servant (called the Valet in a French pack). The four suits became Coeurs (Hearts), Piques (Pikes, or Spear-heads), Carreaux (Tiles) and Trefles (Clover-leaves). These pictures are a modern reproduction of a French pack from the early 19th century:-
An unusual feature of the French pack is that the court cards all have individual names. The Kings are called Charles (Charlemagne), David (with the harp), Cesar and Alexandre; the Queens are Judith, Pallas, Rachel and Argine; and the Valets are famous warriors: La Hire, Hogier, Hector and Lancelot. (In case you are struggling to remember a Queen with the name of Argine, it is merely an anagram of the Latin "Regina"! I have no idea why)
The only change in a modern French pack is that the court cards have "lost their legs". They retain their names, albeit partially obliterated by the suit symbol, and King David still has his harp.
The French system was followed in Germany, where, as can be seen below, the court cards are by far the most beautiful in the world. They are no longer named, though "David" retains his harp and "Caesar" wears a laurel-wreath:-
The French system was also followed in England, and indeed is now familiar throughout the world, though the names of the suits were changed. Hearts remained Hearts, and it is easy to see how Carreaux became Diamonds; but the suit we call Spades is still obviously a Spear-head, and the fourth symbol remains obstinately a Clover-leaf, with no resemblance to a Club at all. Perhaps this is a reversion to the old tarot name for the suit?
It will also be noticed that in the French and German packs only one King is shown in profile, and, as in British packs, it is the King of Diamonds.
How the British pack reached its present appearance will be explained in the second part of this essay, to follow shortly.