The 15th century Italian historian Angelo Covelluzzo writes: “In the year 1379 the game of cards was brought into Viterbo, which game came from Sera-sinia and is called by the Saracens naib.”   The Arabic word nabaa  means “prophency,”  which seems to underline the theory that the Saracens told fortunes with cards rather than playing games with them.  (Incidentally, though the Spanish for “cards”- naipes-is a word with a lost etymology, it might be derived from Arabic, or might be a corruption of Naples, the town that is thought to have first exported cards to Spain.)

The earliest European cards were the Tarot pack, used for a now obsolete game called tarocco (tarot is French adaptation of tarocco).  So far as Europe was concerned, the Tarot pack was used almost solely in Hungary, Italy, Spain, and France.  Britain (to which cards migrated about 1425) always used the 52-card pack, which had become popular by then.  Only fortune tellers and philosophers clung to the Tarots for their mystic purposes.

The earliest known Tarot card pack was made in Lombardy in the 14th century and had four suits: Cups (or Chalices), Swords, Money, and Batons (or Clubs).  In each suit there were 10 numbered cards and four pictures: king, queen, knight, and varlet.  And in addition to these 56 there were 22 trump (or triumph) cards, numbered from 0 to 21, and called: The Fool; The Juggler (or Mounte-bank); The Popess; The Empress; The Emperor; The Pope; The Lover; The Chariot; Justice; The Hermit (or Old Man); Fortune (or The Wheel); Force; The Hanging Man; Death (this card, for superstitious reasons, is invariably left unnamed, but there is no doubt about what the design of the card is supposed to represent); Temperance; The Devil; The Hostel (or Hospital ); The Star; The Moon; The Sun; The Judgment; The World.

Later, in Florence, a pack was developed with another 20 trumps.  Twelve of the additions were called by the names of the signs of the zodiac, four were virtues (faith, hope, charity, and prudence), and four were elements (earth, air, fire, and water).  The fool was discarded from this pack, and the entire 97 cards were used in a game called le minchiate, now obsolete.

As the playing of card games increased in popularity in Europe during the 14th century (except, for the time being, in Britain, European Casino Russia, and Scandinavia), all the trump cards of the Tarot pack were dropped-though this time the fool was retained, and still exists in modern packs as the joker.  The four knights were dropped from the court cards, and the pack as used for play became the new standard one of 52 cards plus the joker.  Both the 97-card and the 78-card Tarot packs continued to be used for fortune telling throughout Europe, and are still used today to some extent.  (Some American magazines have carried advertisements for Tarot packs, offering them as “a fortune-telling novelty.”)

The 52-card pack may have come into being for much the same reason that, in the East, dominos were developed from dice: to separate gambling from occult explorations of the unknown.  Or, more simply, a pack of 78 or 97 cards may perhaps have seemed too unwieldy and the rules too complex, so the trumps were dropped and left for the fortune tellers.  Also, the change might have happened partly for practical reasons: Before printing (and indeed for some time after, until suitable techniques had been evolved), cards had to be drawn and painted by hand.  Stencils were used, but the cards were so elaborately designed and gorgeously colored that they must have been very expensive –too expensive to keep pace with their growing poker play popularity. So for economy the fewer the better.



aside from the games possible with the conventionally designed pack, there are some countless games that are played with specially illustrated cards.  These three cards are from an 18th century French pack used for playing a now obsolete game called jeu de guerre(war game). They  depict soldiers carrying branches to fill in the ditch separating them from a besieged fort.

Production problems may also have had an effect on the symbols chosen to represent the different suits and the names given to them.  Both symbols and names have undergone considerable change in most countries.  In the past each country had its own set (or sets) of symbols, and therefore its own names.  But in 14th century France a pack was introduced bearing the stylized symbols of hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs.  These symbols were eventually adopted by most western countries; but the names attached to the symbols have mostly remained widely different from country to country.

            The French names are (and have been for centuries ) Coeur (hearts), Pique (Pike), Carreau (tile), and Tréfle (trefoil).  The French queen probably took the names from appearances: A pike’s head resembles the “spade” symbol; a paving tile is lozenge-shaped like the “diamond” symbol; and a trefoil is a clover leaf, shaped like the “club” symbol.

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