Gnomon: Playing Cards

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Before we start, some terminology.

    Spot or pip - the symbol on a "number" card that indicates the suit. It might be a heart, club, diamond or spade. A 10 of spades has 10 pips on it, the ten spades. The little spades in the corners are not included in the pip count.

    Court card or Face card - a card showing a person, such as the King, Queen or Jack (Knave). In some packs there are Knights as well.

Chinese Cards

Playing cards appear to have started in China. The first Chinese cards appear to have been made of paper, although it's not really clear, as the word for "card" is the same as the word for "tile". The original playing cards might have been carved on something hard like a Mahjong tile. They represented amounts of money. A description of a deck from about 1300 shows four suits with 9 cards per suit. These were are follows:

  • Coins - the first suit had coins on it as the pips.

  • Strings of Coins - the second suit had strings of coins. Chinese coins had a hole in the centre, and the coins could be put on a string for carrying around. Each strings represented 100 coins.

    One theory is that the strings of coins looked a bit like rods or sticks, so these gave rise to the bamboo sticks on Mahjong cards and to the Polo Sticks on the Egyptian cards, and are therefore the indirect ancestors of our "clubs" suit.

  • Wan - the Chinese word 'wan' means 10,000. The Chinese number system writes the number 12,345 as "one wan two thousand three hundred four ten five". These cards did not use pips. Instead, the number of wan was written on these cards, for example the 3 wan card had the symbol for 3 followed by the symbol for wan.

  • Higher Numbers - the fourth suit had various higher numbered cards - mainly multiples of 10 wan.

Mamluk Egypt

Cards appear to have spread from China to Mamluk Egypt. Mamluk cards were much larger than modern cards. They had four suits, with 10 number cards with pips and 3 or possibly 4 court cards in each suit. The suits were swords, cups, polo sticks and coins.

  • The coins are similar to the Chinese coin cards, although patterns of the coins are not the same.
  • The cups were like chalices. The cup cards were not called "cup", they were called "tumann" which means "ten thousand" in the Mamluk language - suggesting they got the cards from China. Some have even suggested that the Chinese wan symbol turned upside down looks like a cup and this may be where the cups came from.
  • The polo sticks may have been a misinterpretation of the Chinese strings of coins, which do look like sticks of wood.
  • The swords are curved (scimitars) and may be shaped like a letter S. They don't really correspond to the 10 wan designation in the Chinese pack.
  • The "face" cards included King, Lieutenant and 2nd Lieutenant, with possibly a fourth court card as well. They did not have pictures of people because this was forbidden. They just had written titles.

The cards were very heavily decorated.

There is a pack of Mamluk cards in the museum of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. While they're not generally on display, pictures of almost all of them are available online. The pack appears to have been made from combining cards from a few different packs. Also, some of the face cards were made by partially painting over the pattern of an existing non-face card. One researcher concludes from a detailed analysis of this pack that there must have been four court cards in each suit.

Arrival in Europe

Cards came from Egypt to Europe in about 1370 and spread very quickly. There are four main types: Spanish, Italian, German and French. The Spanish style are common in Spain, Portugal and much of Italy. Italian style are from northeastern Italy around Venice. German cards developed from these and are common in Alpine Italy and in Germany. French cards come from the three other types. The cards used in the English speaking world are the French type.

Italian Cards

These appear to be the closest to Mamluk Cards. Three of the suits - swords, coins and cups - are the same. The polo sticks have been replaced by “batons” which are straight, narrow, ornamental sticks. This is probably because no one in Europe played polo or was familiar with it. The three people cards now have pictures on them - a king, a guy on a horse “the knight”, and another guy “the page”.

The cards, unlike modern cards, are not double-ended. The number cards do not have a number on them, just the pips. The swords are curved, like the Egyptian ones. The Italian for sword is "spada" and swords is “spade”, a word we will see later.

Spanish Cards

These are very similar to the Italian cards except:

  • Instead of a baton, the Spanish cards have a club - this is a proper offensive weapon with a narrow handle and rough, thick end.
  • The card is often surrounded by a thin black line forming a frame. There are breaks in the top of the frame which indicate which suit the car is, which is useful when they are closely fanned in a hand. This is a more recent invention and was not on the original Spanish cards.

German Cards

German cards clearly developed from the cards in Spain or Italy but are quite different. The traditional suits of cups, coins, swords and some sort of stick have been replaced with four new ones:

  • Acorn
  • Leaf
  • Heart
  • Bell

The bell is a spherical bell, like the sort you would tie on a cat's collar.

French Cards

The final developement was French cards - the four suits of the German deck have become stylised:

  • The Heart remains as it is
  • The Acorn has become a black silhouette of an acorn and then has changed somewhat to be a trefoil shape like a clover leaf.
  • The Leaf, originally an oak leaf, has been coloured black and been smoothed out so it looks more like a generic leaf.
  • The bell has been replaced with a red rhombus, known in French as a tile.

The other main change is that the Knight has been replaced by a female figure, the "Dame" representing a queen or high-ranking lady. In later years, the Roi (King), Dame (Lady) and Valet (Page) have R, D and V in the corner. The later A is used on some packs and the digit 1 on others for the "one" of each suit.


The only difference between the English and French packs is that the letters on the King, Queen and Jack (R, D, V) have been translated into English (K, Q, J), and the 1 has been replaced by A in all decks.

Because Spanish and Italian cards were already in England when French cards arrived, the English names for the suits were a mix of French, Italian and Spanish names:

  • Hearts retained their French name, after translation into English.
  • Tiles were renamed diamonds.
  • The clover suit was given the name of the club suit in the Spanish packs so they became clubs.
  • The pikes suit took the name of the swords suit from the Italian pack. For some reason this was not translated, so Italian plural "spade" meaning "swords" became English singular "spade" and the plural became "spades".

The Tarot Pack

The Tarot pack was a variant of the standard Italian pack dating from the 15th century, with lots of extra "joker" style cards which don't belong to any suit. The four suits are the same as the standard pack, and there are four court cards in each suit: King, Knight, Page and Queen. The 22 joker cards are numbered from 1 to 21 with the last card not having a number (sometimes referred to as 0).

The Tarot cards were invented to play a particular card game. A couple of centuries after they were invented, someone had the idea of using them for telling fortunes, and since then they've built up a huge mystique among the dabblers of the occult. Modern Tarot packs often have pictures on all the cards rather than just the court and joker cards. The "coins" suit has been renamed "pentacles" and the "batons" are "wands" to make them sound more mysterious. The joker cards are known as the "Major Arcana" and the suit cards are the "Minor Arcana".

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