Playing cards are an interesting object. They are used in many different games in today’s world. They also have a very engaging past, and were involved in different aspects of society.
The object from the late Middle Ages and Early Modern European history I have researched for my object biography are playing cards. Playing cards have an interesting tradition in Europe. They were a common object in Europe, especially Central Europe, during this period, and were used by practically everyone. The European decks varied based upon where in Europe they were made and who they were made for.
Playing cards were not native to Europe, but developed a deep tradition in the parts of Europe they were originally introduced to. According to Rita Reif, in her article on playing cards, “[p]laying cards reflect…political, educational and social customs…” . Laura Smoller suggested that the cards originated in “the East since early evidence of playing cards is found in both India and China…” . Apparently, “[p]laying cards first appeared in Europe around the late 14th Century, probably through trade” . The earliest mentions were from the late 1300s . The spread of the cards was fast, as “[c]ards…were first seen in Italy and passed rapidly into Germany, Flanders, Holland, and France” . Unfortunately, decks from the introduction of playing cards to Europe have not lasted the years . Also, according to Reif, “the origins of playing cards are still a mystery, [but] some experts think cards came into existence in the late 14th century as Tarots…” . Apparently, tarot cards were “among the oldest playing cards” and were usually involved in betting money . Despite this, nothing seemed to have been done to keep people from using cards, even though “gambling” was looked down upon .
There is some disagreement among academics about people’s reactions to them . Card games were not always looked positively upon . According to Smoller, “[l]ittle is known about the types of card games played in the sixteenth century, but it seems that most of them involved some element of chance, and therefore, were conducive to gambling” . Tim Husband focuses on this point with his statement that, “[a]t the very least, playing cards was condemned as an idle pastime, and at worst, when associated with gambling, it was perceived as an animator of avarice and a portal to poverty” . Also, according to Smoller, “not until the late sixteenth century in England does controversy begin to arise over whether all games of chance, not just gambling, are sinful” . “A frequent complaint in later, seventeenth-century English tracts against card-playing is that gambling causes people of noble birth to mix with those of humble origins” .
Everyone could play with cards, and there were different types of games . People from all levels of society, and members of both sexes used playing cards . Also, according to Smoller, “[o]ne important aspect of the study of popular culture has been to distinguish popular attitudes and activities from those of an educated or moneyed elite” . However, there was no one deck of cards, as there were many different types and designs . These types of cards were also “used for instruction, as propaganda, or simply to illustrate an argument” . For instance, a professor named Thomas Murner used “card games” to educate his pupils about “the elements of logic and the Institutes of Justinian” . Cards were common forms of entertainment, and “[p]laying cards are frequently found in inventories of burgher households alongside backgammon boards and dice” . Even Martin Luther used cards . He, according to Smoller, used them “as Lutheran propaganda” and often referred to an allegory “of God’s card game” .
Anyone could make the decks: “artists as well as artisans”; however, “[t]he competition between card-makers was…fierce…” . For example, in 1441, card “makers” in Venice “ask[ed] for protection against the foreign import…[and] regulations were made forbidding the import of every kind of print…” this might have been due to Germany’s exporting . Some of the best-known artists and creators of playing cards in the Late Middle Ages were Konrad Witz, Master E.S., Master of the Playing Cards, and Peter Flötner . Peter Flötner dabbled in many different types of art, and created a “deck of hand-painted woodblock cards…[around] 1540” . Flotner’s cards have been associated with many different meanings, and his cards mixed “popular and elite culture” . He used what he saw around him in his deck; he relied upon “subject matter from the rich visual repertoire of graphic arts in Germany” .
According to Smoller, “[n]ew production techniques made possible the fifteenth-century spread of card-playing”, as well as made the decks cheaper . Artists went from designing decks by hand, to “us[ing] wood-block techniques” to create more cards at once . The “woodblocks were by far the most common” although this type of card was not very decorated . Smoller emphasized the fact that there was no one style of deck, and that the decks varied in the numbers of cards, and in the designs on the cards . “[A]rtisans’ cards either use[d] simple designs based upon older fifteenth-century patterns, or they…[took] up the new fashion of depicting humorous scenes on the lower halves of the cards” . According to Smoller, “[b]oth types exhibit to some degree bawdy, popular images, which, as the presumed markets for the cards show, appealed to both common people and the elite” . Most of the higher class decks featured hunting scenes . Decks from different countries also had different decorations on them . According to Husband, these designs represented “a different worldview…shifting from nostalgic and idealized visions of a chivalric past to an unvarnished and biting assessment of early Renaissance society” .
There were many different types of decks created in Europe. However, cards were not made to last forever . Therefore, “[o]nly three decks of European hand-painted playing cards are known to have survived from the late Middle Ages” . One such is a mid-1500s deck from Germany named the “Stukeley Cards” which has “images of hearts, leaves, bells and acorns, some held aloft by kings and knaves” . This deck is “among the earliest known playing cards that bear a date and were actually used as playing cards” . Another important deck is the Cloisters Playing Cards.
The Cloisters Playing Cards is a deck from the Netherlands, specifically from the “Burgundian territories” . It is “the only known complete deck of illuminated ordinary playing cards…from the fifteenth century” . It is dated from about 1475 to 1480 . The deck is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Cloisters, Gallery 13 . There are 52 cards, in total . The deck is very Germanic in its design, and features objects which would have been “use[d] by a huntsman” . They were hand-drawn and decorated, and the figures on the cards have “elaborate, magnificent costumes of the kings and queens…” . However, there are discrepancies in the costuming and who wore them . According to Tim Husband, the cards are probably a “parody [of] the extravagances of the Burgundian court” . This deck was not for royalty, but “a…member of the mercantile class” . Unlike the Stukeley Cards, the Cloisters Playing Cards were probably made just for show .
Even though everyone had access to playing cards in society, there was a difference in the types of decks which different classes had access to. According to Smoller, “[t]he rich bought more expensive and ornate playing cards, some of which could only have been viewed as a curiosity or as part of a collection” . “[O]ne aspect of sixteenth-century culture—playing cards and card-playing—shows, first, that the lines separating popular from elite culture are not so easily drawn…second, that the Reformation had little effect on card-makers and card-players” . “[T]he cards themselves, both in their universal popularity and in the types of images depicted on them, manifest a shared culture of both common people and elite, a unity which remained in existence well after the Reformation” .
Playing cards were an important item from the late Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe. The cards are reflective of Early Modern European society, and the changes society faced with the shift to Modern Europe. They were common among people from all levels of society, and were available to people from different parts of society. Cards had a variety of uses in society, from diversion to the spread of information.
Footnotes Reif, “Antiques View.”  Smoller, “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 184.  “The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430-1540.” [4-5] Smoller, “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 184.  Husband, The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1430-1540, 15. [7-8] Reif, “Antiques View.”  Smoller, “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 183.  Husband, The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1430-1540, 14.  Husband, “Living by Their Wits.”  Smoller, “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 189.  Husband, The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1430-1540, 13.  Smoller, “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 190.  Smoller, “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 213.  Husband, “Living by Their Wits.”  Smoller, “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 184 and 187.  “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 183.  Husband, “Living by Their Wits.” [20-25] Smoller, “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 187, 186, 189, 188 and 189, 191.  Wintle, “Early References.”  “The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430-1540.”  Husband, The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1430-1540, 102.  Smoller, “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 206-207 and 212.  Husband, The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1430-1540, 117. [31-32] Smoller, “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 185.  Husband, The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1430-1540, 47. [34-36] Smoller, “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 186, 193, 212.  “The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430-1540.”  Reif, “Antiques View.” [39-40] Husband, The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1430-1540, 13.  “The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430-1540.” [42-43] Reif, “Antiques View.” [44-48] “The Cloisters Playing Cards.” [49-53] Husband, “Sport and Spoof.”  Reif, “Antiques View,” and “The Cloisters Playing Cards.” [55-57] Smoller, “Playing Cards and Popular Culture,” 214, 183, 183-184.
“The Cloisters Playing Cards.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed September 23, 2016.
“Print / Playing-Card.” The British Museum. Accessed September 23, 2016.
Husband, Tim. “Living by Their Wits: Card Games in the Middle Ages.” In Season (blog). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 24, 2016.
Husband, Tim. “Sport and Spoof: The Cloisters Playing Cards.” In Season (blog). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 13, 2016.
Husband, Timothy B. The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1430-1540. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.
Reif, Rita. “Antiques View; Playing Cards Reflect Their Time.” The New York Times, July 1, 1984.
Smoller, Laura A. “Playing Cards and Popular Culture in Sixteenth-Century Nuremberg.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 17, no. 2 (Summer, 1986): 183-214.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The World in Play: Luxury Cards, 1430-1540.” January 20, 2016.
Wintle, Adam. “Early References.” The World of Playing Cards, February 3, 2016.