Debunking Common Myths About Playing Cards

Debunking Common Myths About Playing Cards

by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame

Claim: Court cards are based on real people

The artwork of the court cards in a regular deck of playing cards is very firmly established in tradition, and deviation from this familiar look is considered to be a novelty, even today. 

But where does this traditional look originate? It is sometimes claimed that the figures of our modern playing court card characters are in fact based on historical personages. For example, you may sometimes hear the suggestion that the four kings in a deck of playing cards represent historical leaders Charlemagne, David, Caesar, and Alexander. Is there any truth to this?

Fact: False

It is certainly the case that there was a period in history where court cards were closely connected with specific personages. There's a long tradition with French playing cards, dating back to the 16th century, that every court card be associated with a particular figure in history and literature. In this time period, there was a popular trend to associate each court card with a different figure from the past, so that particular heroes and heroines from antiquity and literature became connected with playing cards. The source material for these popular characters includes mythology, theology, and history.

But this practice of assigning identities to the court cards was a later development in the history of playing cards, which only began in the mid-15th century, long after playing cards had already been used throughout Europe, using court cards that had no such connection to any individuals in particular. So this was only a temporary practice that was eventually abandoned, and was never adopted to the point where the entire set of court cards was associated with a commonly accepted or standard set of characters. Scholars are not even in complete agreement about which characters exactly are represented by which court cards, and this is in part because there was not always unanimity or consistency on this point in 16th century French decks!

Common characters 

But while it is not true that the characters of the court cards originated in representations of important figures from literature and history, at least for some time in France this identification was a common practice, and is still sometimes evident in modern French decks today. Here is a list of common characters that were typically used in 16th century French decks, including four kings that represent the four great empires of Jews, Greeks, Franks, and Romans:

● David, Biblical king (Spades)
● Alexander the Great, Greek leader (Clubs)
● Charlemagne, king of the Franks (Hearts)
● Julius Caesar, Roman leader (Diamonds)

● Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess (Spades)
● Argine, an anagram of the Latin word Regina meaning Queen (Clubs)
● Judith, from the apocryphal book of the same name (Hearts)
● Rachel, the wife of the Biblical Jacob (Diamonds)

● Ogier the Dane, legendary knight of Charlemagne (Spades)
● Lancelot, legendary knight of King Arthur (Clubs)
● La Hire, French military commander Étienne de Vignolles (Hearts)
● Hector, the mythological hero of Troy (Diamonds)

Playing Cards Common characters

Not all these identifications can be certain, nor were they universally accepted. Some argue that Judith was in fact an obscure reference to the wife of Charles VI. Others suggest that Rachel is actually Ragnel, the wife of Sir Gawain of the Round Table, and that Argine should actually be Argeia, legendary princess from Argos, and that both have suffered an unfortunate fate at the hand of poor copyists and artists. The Jack of Hearts (La Hire) could also be Caesar's comrade Aulus Hirtius, while the Jack of Clubs is also sometimes associated with Judas Maccabeus, an important Jewish leader. 

In some cases these names were even printed on the cards themselves. But this tradition is a later development that is unique to France, and was not practiced prior to the 16th century. Playing cards were in common use in Europe for well over a hundred years before historical and literary figures were identified with the court cards for the first time. And even in the time when this practice became more common, many different identities were used prior to any kind of standardization, with early choices for the Kings also including historical personages like Solomon, Augustus, Clovis, and Constantine.

Modern tribute decks

Several beautiful modern decks have been produced that commemorate this period of rich designs in France, by deliberately taking court card designs inspired by the personages commonly seen in 16th century French decks. Here are three relatively recent examples:

Memento Playing Cards (Legends Playing Cards)

The Memento deck takes its name from the word "memento", which refers to a keepsake or object kept as a reminder of an event or person or place. Illustrated by Valerio Aversa, it is intended to help us remember and reminisce about the roots of card design. This deck offers a unique interpretation by arranging the characters featured in the deck according to the symbolic meaning sometimes ascribed to the four suits. The historical characters selected to feature on the court cards are in line with what theme each suit traditionally is associated with: Spades (Death), Hearts (Love), Clubs (Knowledge), and Diamonds (Ambition).

In this deck, the character names are also mentioned on the cards. As an example, the King of Spades depicts the Biblical king David with a harp and a sword, reflecting his different roles as a warrior, musician, and poet. The Queen of Diamonds depicts Rachel, as she is called on the French deck, likely a reference to the Biblical figure who was the wife of Jacob, and seen below holding a flower. Since she was a shepherdess, a lamb is often found in works of art depicting her.

Voltige Playing Cards

Voltige Playing Cards (Art of Play)

Another example is the Voltige deck from Art of Play. This deck derives its name from the French word for "aerial", and is in part a tribute to the art of card flourishing. It was designed as a collaborative project with French designers Henri de Saint Julien and Jacques Denain, and is a homage to a vintage French deck. Even the colours that this deck is available in give a nod to its French origins, with Deep Parisian Blue and Moulin Rouge Red being the two colours of choice.

Henri and Jacques drew upon a classic French court card design as their inspiration, giving it their own hand-drawn reinterpretation. The commonly accepted names of characters are actually printed on the cards, just as was sometimes done with French designs centuries ago. The French origin of these playing cards has been made into a central theme of the entire deck, and the deck also draws inspiration from Baron Haussmann's 19th century urban renewal program which saw new boulevards, parks and public works emerge as part of the reconstruction of the streets of Paris.

Bona Fide Playing Cards

Nouveau Playing Cards (Bona Fide Playing Cards)

A final example is the series of exquisite Nouveau decks produced by Karin Yan from Bona Fide Playing Cards. Karin has opted to employ an artistic style that has its origin in the philosophical and artistic Art Nouveau movement, which was popular in France in the late 19th century. But more importantly, the court cards depict the characters that have been traditionally featured in French-style playing cards since the 16th century, and goes back to original images of these heroes and heroines as the inspiration of its artwork.

To enhance the sense of authenticity, Karin has drawn on actual sculptures and famous art works depicting these characters as the basis for the designs of her court cards. This adds an extra sense of historical realism, and connection with the past. There are several different theories about the meaning of the four suits, one being that the original French suits represented nobility (Spades), clergy (Hearts), merchants (Diamonds), and commoners and the peasantry (Clubs). This is the theory Karin has adopted, and used as background for her artwork choices for the four suits in her Nouveau decks.

Vintage playing cards


Where does today's court card artwork come from? 

While there was a temporary 16th century trend to identify the court cards with historical and literary figures, the artwork of French playing cards was actually quite diverse and rich in variety. But this practice of printing names on court cards also came to end, and the French Revolution was a significant factor in this development away from named court cards. Having figures from the royal court on playing cards wasn't exactly popular in a time where revolutionaries were beheading the monarchy. Royal figures did eventually return to playing cards, but the practice of identifying specific individuals with the court cards was discontinued, and this happened well before the artwork itself became standardized to any degree.

The standard artwork for our modern deck actually owes more of a debt to England than it does to France. Playing cards first arrived in England via mainland Europe, and especially via Belgium, which had many manufacturing houses of playing cards, and produced a large amount of exports. One design from Rouen, Belgium, was especially popular and influential. But even in England there was a real diversity of designs, due to the large number of different printers that eventually sprang up there. But this all changed with the success of printer Thomas de la Rue, who developed new printing techniques that enabled him to increase productivity and reduce the cost of playing cards, and which eventually enabled him to gain somewhat of a monopoly on the playing card industry. Independent designers and producers were absorbed under his leadership, and his work also led to the standardizing of playing card design in England. The designs of De la Rue's court cards did receive some modernization at the hands of Reynolds in 1840 and again by Charles Goodall in 1860. But it is the de la Rue design, inherited and updated by Goodall, that is effectively the design still used today.

It is difficult to establish with any degree of certainty the significance of the precise details of the characters, clothing, and accessories seen in court cards today. Why does the Jack of Clubs carry a leaf? Why do Queens carry a flower? Why is the King of Hearts (commonly described as the Suicide King due to the position of his sword) the only one not to have a moustache? Why is the King of Diamonds the only king that bears an axe instead of a sword? Some of these details may be corruptions from royal accessories like sceptres and arrows, but we can't be sure. But rather than see them as deliberate choices with a singular and clear origin, it is more likely that our playing cards today simply bear the marks of the different cultures that they passed through in order to arrive at the present day. What we see in our Kings, Queens, and Jacks today owes just as much a debt to 15th century rural Germany as it does to 16th century France, and to 19th century England. What remains in our modern deck today are faint remnants of dust from the past, which have a permanent place in standard playing card artwork even while their original significance has long been lost. So next time you're admiring a court card, think about the hundreds of years of evolution through multiple countries that played a role in shaping it to be what it looks like today!

Playing Cards

Where to get them? If you like the idea of a deck of cards that pays tribute to the characters commonly used in 16th century French playing cards, consider picking up one of the Nouveau decks by Bona Fide Playing Cards. You'll find most of the Nouveau range here at Nouveau, Nouveau Bourgogne, Nouveau Bijoux, and Nouveau Perle.

16th century French playing cards

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About the writerEndersGame is a well-known and highly respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.

Last update date: 11/08/21

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