Dispelling Common Playing Card Myths
Court cards are based on actual persons, according to the claim.
The artwork of the classic style court cards in a standard deck of playing cards is deeply rooted in history, and divergence from this recognizable design is regarded a curiosity even today.
But where did this classic style come from? It is frequently said that the figures on our current playing court cards are based on historical people. Some people believe that the four kings in a deck of playing cards symbolize historical leaders Charlemagne, David, Caesar, and Alexander. Is there any validity to this?
True or FalseIt is undeniable that there was a time in history when court cards were intimately associated with specific individuals. Every court card in French playing cards has a lengthy tradition, extending back to the 16th century, of being identified with a certain figure in history and literature. There was a widespread practice at the time to identify each court card with a different historical person so that certain heroes and heroines from history and literature became associated with playing cards. These well-known personalities are based on mythology, theology, and history.
However, attributing identities to court cards was a later development in the history of classic style playing cards, beginning in the mid-15th century, long after playing cards had previously been played throughout Europe, using court cards that had no such link to any specific person. As a result, this was just a brief practice that was subsequently abandoned, and it was never widely established to the point where the complete set of court cards was connected with a widely acknowledged or standard set of characters. Scholars aren't even sure which characters are represented by which court cards, in part because there wasn't always consensus or consistency on this issue in 16th-century French decks!
Characteristics in commonWhile it is not true that the characters of the court cards started as depictions of prominent persons from literature and history, for a period in France, this identification was prevalent, and may still be found in current French decks today. Here is a list of common figures seen in 16th-century French decks, featuring four monarchs representing the four major empires of Jews, Greeks, Franks, and Romans:
David, the Biblical king (Spades)
Alexander the Great was a Greek ruler (Clubs)
Charlemagne, the Frankish ruler (Hearts)
Julius Caesar, Roman emperor (Diamonds)
Pallas Athena is a Greek deity (Spades)
Argine is an anagram of the Latin word Regina, which means "Queen" (Clubs)
Judith, from the same-named apocryphal book (Hearts)
Rachel, the Biblical Jacob's wife (Diamonds)
Ogier the Dane, Charlemagne's fabled knight (Spades)
Lancelot, King Arthur's famous knight (Clubs)
Étienne de Vignolles, French military commander La Hire (Hearts)
Hector, Troy's mythical hero (Diamonds)
Characters from Playing CardsNot all of these identifications are certain, and they are not commonly recognized. Some suggest that the name Judith was an oblique allusion to Charles VI's wife. Others argue that Rachel is actually Ragnel, the wife of Sir Gawain of the Round Table, and that Argine is truly Argeia, the fabled princess of Argos, and that both have met an untimely death at the hands of incompetent copyists and painters. The Jack of Hearts (La Hire) may represent Caesar's companion Aulus Hirtius, whereas the Jack of Clubs may represent Judas Maccabeus, an important Jewish leader.
These names were even printed on the cards in certain circumstances. However, this is a later invention that is peculiar to France, and it was not done before the 16th century. Before historical and literary people were connected with court cards for the first time, playing cards were widely used in Europe for much over a century. Even as this practice grew more prevalent, many various identities were employed prior to any form of standardization, with early selections for Kings including historical figures such as Solomon, Augustus, Clovis, and Constantine.
Decks of modern tributesSeveral stunning classic style modern decks have been created to memorialize this time of great design in France, with court card designs influenced by the personages typically seen in 16th-century French decks.
Playing Cards Memento (Legends Playing Cards)
The Memento deck is named after the term "memento," which refers to a souvenir or something maintained as a recall of an event, person, or location. It is illustrated by Valerio Aversa and is meant to help us remember and reflect on the origins of card design. This deck provides a novel interpretation by organizing the deck's characters according to the metaphorical significance occasionally assigned to the four suits. The historical figures chosen to appear on the court cards correspond to the themes connected with each suit: spades (death), hearts (love), clubs (knowledge), and diamonds (Ambition).
The character names are also listed on the cards in this deck. The King of Spades, for example, represents the Biblical king David with a harp and a sword, signifying his various roles as a warrior, musician, and poet. Rachel, as she is known on the French deck, is seen below clutching a flower, and is most likely a reference to the Biblical figure who was Jacob's wife. Because she was a shepherdess, a lamb is frequently shown in works of art depicting her.
Playing Cards Voltige (Art of Play)Another example is Art of Play's Voltige deck. This deck takes its name from the French term for "aerial," and it is a homage to the growing art of card making. It was created in collaboration with French designers Henri de Saint Julien and Jacques Denain as a tribute to a historic French deck. Even the colors available for this deck pay homage to its French heritage, with Deep Parisian Blue and Moulin Rouge Red being the two options.
Henri and Jacques were inspired by a historic French court card design and reinterpreted it in their own hand-drawn style. Characters' popularly acknowledged names are actually printed on the cards, as was occasionally done with French designs centuries ago. The French origins of these playing cards have been made a central theme of the entire deck, and the deck also draws inspiration from Baron Haussmann's 19th-century urban renewal program, which saw the creation of new boulevards, parks, and public works as part of the reconstruction of Paris' streets.
New Playing Cards (Bona Fide Playing Cards)A last example is Karin Yan's collection of magnificent Nouveau decks from Bona Fide Playing Cards. Karin has chosen a creative style that stems from the philosophical and aesthetic Art Nouveau movement that was prevalent in France in the late nineteenth century. More significantly, the court cards portray the figures that have historically been included in French-style playing cards since the 16th century, and the artwork is based on actual depictions of these heroes and heroines.
To add to the impression of authenticity, Karin based her court card designs on genuine sculptures and iconic art pieces representing these figures. This heightens the impression of historical reality and connectedness to the past. There are numerous hypotheses concerning the meaning of the four suits, one of which is that the original French suits symbolized nobles (Spades), clergy (Hearts), merchants (Diamonds), commoners and peasants (Diamonds), and commoners and peasants (Diamonds) (Clubs). This is the premise Karin has accepted and utilized as the basis for her artwork selections for the four suits in her Nouveau decks.
Playing cards from the pastWhere did the artwork for today's court cards come from?
While there was a brief 16th-century tendency of associating court cards with historical and literary characters, the artwork of French playing cards was really fairly broad and rich in variation. However, the tradition of printing names on court cards came to an end as well, and the French Revolution played a crucial role in this shift away from named court cards. In a period when rebels were beheading the monarchy, having characters from the royal court on playing cards wasn't exactly popular. Although royal figures did ultimately return to playing cards, the practice of identifying specific persons with court cards was abolished, and this occurred long before the artwork itself became standardized to any degree.
The basic artwork for our modern deck is actually more influenced by England than by France. Playing cards initially came in England via continental Europe, particularly Belgium, which had several manufacturing firms and exported a lot of them. One design from Rouen, Belgium, was particularly well-liked and influential. However, because of the enormous number of various printers that finally popped up in England, there was a true range of designs. This all changed with the success of printer Thomas de la Rue, who invented new printing processes that allowed him to boost output and lower the cost of playing cards, eventually allowing him to obtain a monopoly on the playing card market. Under his guidance, independent designers and manufacturers were incorporated, and his efforts also resulted in the standardization of playing card design in England. The designs of De la Rue's court cards were modernized by Reynolds in 1840, and again by Charles Goodall in 1860. But it is the de la Rue design, which Goodall inherited and refined, that is basically the design that is still in use today.
The importance of the particular characteristics of the characters, dress, and accessories found in court cards today is impossible to establish with any degree of accuracy. What is the significance of the Jack of Clubs carrying a leaf? What is the significance of Queens carrying a flower? Why is the King of Hearts (also known as the Suicide King owing to the location of his sword) the only character without a moustache? Why is the King of Diamonds the only king who wields an axe rather than a sword? We don't know if any of these elements are corruptions of regal equipment like sceptres and arrows. However, rather than seeing them as purposeful decisions with a single and obvious origin, it is more probable that our playing cards today merely bear the markings of the various cultures that they traveled through on their way to the current day. What we see now in our Kings, Queens, and Jacks owes as much to rural Germany in the 15th century as it does to 16th century France and 19th century England. What remains in our contemporary deck today are small traces of dust from the past, which have earned a permanent position in standard playing card artwork despite the fact that their original meaning has long since been forgotten. So, the next time you're enjoying a court card, consider the hundreds of years of development across many countries that shaped it to be what it is now!
Cards to Play
Where can I buy them? If you appreciate the notion of a deck of cards that pays homage to the figures typically employed in 16th century French playing cards, try purchasing one of Bona Fide Playing Cards' Nouveau decks. The majority of the Nouveau decks are available at PlayingCardDecks.com, including Nouveau, Nouveau Bourgogne, Nouveau Bijoux, and Nouveau Perle.