European Playing Cards

“The best memorizers in the world – who almost all hail from Europe – can memorize a pack of cards in less than a minute.”

Joshua Foer, American journalist, Memory Champion, 2005

Whether you’re betting your house on a round of Hold ’em, foretelling the arrival of a tall dark stranger, or just letting your young nephew win at snap: Whatever you’re doing with a pack of cards, it pays to tell your Swords from your Shields and your Cups from your Coins. Over the centuries, people have used packs of cards to gamble, trade, or tell the future; an activity ideally suited for drinkers and hucksters as much as for families seated around the Christmas table. Yet today, even the most avid player of bridge or blackjack knows little about the militaristic and mystical origins of the modern deck. The modern international pack of cards has its roots in Egypt, evolving via Spain, Italy and Germany to France, from where it eventually took over the world: a transformation follows centuries-old patterns of trade, industry, migration and conquest; scratch the surface, and you still have a window into the structure of medieval society. From courtly Kings to botanical roses, take a look at the EuropeIsNotDead guide to playing cards: as useful a thing to have up your sleeve as the Ace of Acorns.

Spain – Italy (South) – Malta

The Spanish deck
Swords, Clubs, Cups, Coins

Nothing modern about this set-up: the Coins are of solid gold, Swords straight as they are deadly, Clubs like knobbly prehistoric cudgels and Cups resembling the ravenous piranha plants in Super Mario. Spain’s deck of cards is also the most venerable and authentic: most closely resembling the earliest card systems imported into Europe from Mamluk Egypt in the 1370s. In Spanish, indeed, the cards are still called naipes – a corruption of the Arabic nā’ib, meaning deputy or lieutenant. This somewhat bewildering deck – also called Baraja Española – is, in some Latin American countries, still associated with the occult, though back in Spain it is still widely used for mainstream card games and gambling. The four suits were originally intended to depict the four classes of medieval society, from fighters and farmers to traders and priests. 

The four suits are thought to represent the four social classes of the Middle Ages. The suit of Swords is said to represent the military.

The four suits are thought to represent the four social classes of the Middle Ages. The suit of Clubs is said to represent the peasants.

The four suits are thought to represent the four social classes of the Middle Ages. The suit of Cups is said to represent the church.

The four suits are thought to represent the four social classes of the Middle Ages. The suit of Coins is said to represent the merchants.

Italy (North)

The Italian deck
Swords, Batons, Cups, Coins

Sixteen! Not the average number of times per day an Italian scoffs his pasta, but the total number of “official” decks of cards found in different Italian regions – without counting a few others which have gone extinct. Whether it’s the Trentine, the Bresciane, the Bergamasche or the Triestine: all spring directly from the tarot cards found in the 14th and 15th centuries and are closely related to the Spanish deck, sharing the  suits of Cups, Coins, and Swords. However, there are notable visual differences: the Swords are curved like a scimitar. Meanwhile Clubs have evolved from being rough cudgels or tree branches to become straight ceremonial Batons.

In the Italian deck, the Swords are curved like sabres – though probably the real origin of this shape is the Arabic scimitar, as the pattern is most likely a development of cards brought into Italy and Spain by the Mamluk.

In the Italian deck, the Batons look like ceremonial staffs: straight, often decorated with coloured ribbons or patterns along the shaft, and with knobbly ends. Mamluk cards used polo-sticks: but Italians, unfamiliar with that exotic sport, changed them into something more familiar. 

In the Italian deck, the Cups usually appear as hexagonal goblets, often with sharp-edged details. The four suits were  originally thought to represent the four social classes of the Middle Ages. The suit of cups was said to represent the church.

The Italian designation of Coins as denari, referring to low value copper coins, links to the original Mamluk cards which represented dinars. The Ace of Coins is a white empty space, round or oval in shape, where tax collectors used to place their official stamp. 

Germany (South) – Austria – Czechia – Slovakia

The German deck
Acorns, Leaves, Hearts, Bells

Whether you prefer to play with people’s Hearts or their Acorns, if you like games with Bells on then the German deck is made for you! Far from the courtly splendour of their Latin cousins, Germans adopted a more bucolic approach to their gaming. While early cards would have resembled those used today in Italy and Spain, German-speaking lands evolved to favour symbols more familiar from everyday country pursuits like hunting. After much experimenting with alternatives, the system settled around 1450 into the four suits of Hearts, Bells, Leaves and Acorns – and three personalities – the König (king), Obermann (upper man), and Untermann (lower man). Until the 17th Century, this deck was used in all German-speaking regions of Europe. However, the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) saw French-suited cards being introduced by travelling soldiers, leaving the native variety confined to southern Germany and Austria.  

In the German-suited cards, the Hearts are very similar to those found in international decks, but are coloured in two halves. The original four suits are thought to represent the four social classes of the Middle Ages. The suit of Hearts was associated with the church

The signs of the German-suited cards were probably inspired by the early “hunting decks” – replacing the Latin suits by symbols which recalled everyday’s country life. A large pool of candidates was whittled down and Acorns became part of the canon as of the 15th century. 

Early “hunting decks” replaced Latin suits with symbols familiar to everyday country life. After much trial and error different suits, Leaves became the standard as of the 15th century. The stylised green leaf has a left half coloured in a lighter tone, and can sometimes be yellow

The Bells, sometimes called hawk-bells, are a symbol from local folklore: found, with a small stone inside to make them sound, and a ring for tying at the top. 

Switzerland

The Swiss deck
Acorns, Shields, Roses, Bells

Perhaps inevitably given its longstanding tradition of neutrality, of course the Land of Milk and Honey couldn’t play favourites between France, Italy and Germany and had to plough its own furrow. Switzerland copied its neighbours by opting for Acorns and Bells. But the other two signs became Shields and Roses: the former, also known as Escutcheons, probably resembling the fifth suit of Germanic hunting decks. Roses, meanwhile, appear to be a graphical corruption of suits used in northern Italy: the increasingly elaborate geometrical patterns depicted on the faces of their Coins came to resemble the petals of a flower. The Swiss-suited cards are mostly used for Jass, the “national card game” of Switzerland.

The Shields were invented in 15th century German speaking lands and are a survivor from a large pool of experimental suit signs created to replace the Latin suits. While the symbol didn’t make it into the final German deck, the Swiss kept it – probably to pay tribute to the wide variety of flags and coats of arms of the country’s many cantons. The shape is in fact consistent with the German Leaves.

The symbols of the Swiss-suited cards were probably inspired by the early “hunting decks” – replacing the Latin suits by symbols which recalled everyday’s country life. The Acorns were among the lucky ones to make it into the final German suit in the 15th century after surviving from a large pool of experimental suit signs. The Swiss kept it in their deck. 

In the Swiss pack, the Roses may have been a graphical corruption of the Coins used in northern Italy, whose increasingly elaborate decorations came to resemble the petals of a flower. 

The Bells may be distantly descended from Italian Coins, with their distinctive round shape. But these came less directly, via Germany, where symbols familiar to countryside life were chosen to replace more exotic Italian ones. 

Portugal – France – Iceland – Ireland – United Kingdom – Norway – Sweden – Finland – Denmark – Netherlands – Belgium – Luxembourg – Germany (North) – Poland – Lithuania – Latvia – Estonia – Belarus – Ukraine – Moldova – Romania – Hungary – Slovenia – Croatia – Serbia – Bosnia and Herzegovina – Montenegro – Kosovo – Albania – Bulgaria – North Macedonia – Greece – Cyprus – Turkey

The French-suited cards
Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades

The French like to do it with style. Around 1480, they changed suit symbols to the now classic and stylised Diamonds, Hearts, Clubs and Spades. These were likely a simplified version of German norms – Leaves becoming Spades, Acorns morphing into Clubs and Bells to Diamonds. One early French deck even had crescents instead of Diamonds. These graphic symbols, or “pips,” bear little resemblance to the items they supposedly represent, but they were much easier to copy and print than more lavishly drawn alternatives. Over the centuries the so-called Rouen pattern of cards became the international standard – the Norman city being at the time an important centre for trade, commerce and manufacture. With the advent of printing at the end of the 15th century, Rouen specialised in cards and brought them to the world – first northern and eastern Europe, then the United States. One of the most distinguishing features of the French cards is the queen. Mamluk cards and their derivatives, the Latin-suited and German-suited cards, all have three male picture cards, but the French were the first to bring a bit of gender-balance to their deck. 

French suits supposedly represent the four social classes; Hearts refer to the church.

French suits supposedly represent the four social classes; Clubs refer to the peasants. The Clubs sign seems to originate from the Acorn in the German deck, stripped of its details for printing purposes and strongly stylised. 

French suits supposedly represent the four social classes; Diamonds refer to the merchants. The Diamonds probably developed from the round Coins in the Spanish and Italian suits, via the round Bells in Germany. Finally it was stripped of its details for printing purposes, eventually taking the shape of a lozenge.

French suits supposedly represent the four social classes; Spades refer to the nobility. The French name for this suit, Pique (English Pike) originally referred to a spear-like weapon. For playing cards, the term may have been coined by analogy with the Latin symbol from which it is derived, the Sword.

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