[The Historical Tarot: Facts and Questions . . .

What we know about Tarot’s earliest origins

Sometime in the later fifteenth century, deep in the mountainous heart of Italy, an unknown Franciscan friar preached a long sermon on the subject utilis de ludo — the use of games.

He began his discourse by distinguishing three kinds of games of chance: “Namely the dice, the cards, and the trumps.”

This sermon is the first detailed reference we have to the Tarot trumps. It’s clear from the friar’s presentation that the “trumps” were by then — sometime between 1450 and 1470 — considered separate from ordinary “cards.” And as the sermon continues, it also becomes clear that trumps were thought of in quite a different light:

Concerning the third class of games, that is trumps. There is nothing so hateful to God as the game of trumps. For everything that is base in the eyes of the Christian faith is seen in trumps, as will be evident when I run through them. For trumps are said, so it is believed, to have been given their names by the Devil, their inventor, because in no other game does he triumph (with the loss of souls to boot) as much as in this one. In it not only are God, the angels, the planets and the cardinal virtues represented and named, but also the world’s luminaries.

I mean the Pope and the Emperor, are forced, a thing which is degrading and ridiculous to Christians, to enter into the game. For there are 21 trumps which are the 21 steps of a ladder which takes a man to the depths of Hell.

By the time of the friar’s sermon, card-playing had been going on for about a hundred years, and was all the rage in Italy as well as some other parts of Europe. Written references to cards and gaming had begun to appear sometime in the latter half of the fourteenth century, as exemplified by a Swiss monk’s description of the four-suited card deck in 1377.

But there are no references to the trumps in the 14th century, so it seems unlikely that they yet existed. The most probable scenario is that early card games were not unlike our own modem ones, such as gin or canasta, played with only the four-suited deck.

And then . . .

Changing the Game

Sometime in the first half of the fifteenth century, a new game appeared, requiring the use of twenty-two picture cards. These additional cards were referred to as “triumphs” (trionfi in Italian) because they could win over any of the suit cards.

The word “triumphs” was eventually shortened to “trumps” in English, and much later — when the twenty-two fixed trumps were no longer used with the four-suited deck — the idea of trumping was preserved in games like bridge by allowing one suit to be designated as “trumps” during the course of play.

From the time of its first documented appearance, the game of Tarot seems to have gained popularity quickly, and by the end of the fifteenth century, decks with Tarot-type trump cards were being produced in considerable quantities. The game was played at all levels of society, throughout Italy.

There were many variants, but the games had a common pattern, as described by Tarot historian Michael Dummet in The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards.

The game is a trick-taking one in which the trionfi, exclusive of the matto (The Fool), serve as permanent trumps. A player must follow suit, or, if he cannot, must play a trump if he has one. The matto has no power to win a trick, but may be played regardless of the obligation to follow suit or trump; it does not in normal circumstances go to the winner of the trick to which it was played, but is placed among the cards won by the one who played it. A player scores one point for each trick, but, in addition, extra points for other cards capturcd or brought home in tricks.

In the earliest Tarot decks, the trump cards displayed neither names nor numbers, and players were expected to memorize the order in which trumps were valued. It’s only thanks to the sermon described above that we have a record of how the trumps were identified in early times.

The righteous friar named off the cards, and the order in which he gave them is close to the order which appears in the first numbered decks, printed several decades later. The friar’s list:

That list is well known in Tarot lore today, but less often discussed are the parenthetical notes included by the friar. Though he gave the names of the trumps in vernacular Italian, the sermon itself was written — as customary at the time — in Latin.

Several of the notes are expressions of woe about the inclusion of religious figures in this mundane game. With respect to the card La papessa, he chastises the rejection of Christian faith (it’s not clear what he thought about the idea of a female pope); and concerning El papa, he laments that one who deserves sanctification should be made captain of “these rogues” (ribaldi).

Two other notes explain the game-values of El bagatelle (“least of all”) and El matto (“nothing, unless the player wishes otherwise”). Following La rotta, there is a sort of proverbial comment that translates as “I reign, I reigned, I am without reign.” That line was written out on some later versions of the Wheel of Fortune card.

There are also two notes in the sermon that remain intriguing. Lo caro triumphale is described as vel mundus parvus (“or small world”). This comment has often been interpreted to mean something like “a trivial or ephemeral victory.”

But the Latin phrase mundus parvus is used elsewhere during this time as a translation or reference to the Greek word microcosm. So the friar’s note could be associating Lo caro triumphale with the idea that our human world reflects and connects with the macrocosm, or divine world. This interpretation lines up to some extent with the fact that El mondo — the culminating trump — is identified by the friar as Dio Padre (“that is,God the Father”).

Although the “friar’s order” was frequently found in popular decks when they began to be numbered, some of those early numbered decks had somewhat different orders. Other decks contained more or fewer than twenty-two trumps, so there is no certainty at all about what the sequence of the trump cards was “supposed” to be — if, indeed, there ever was a meaningful order.

We do know that a different trump order was used in each of the various places where the early game of Tarot was played. And much later, when the Tarot began to be given esoteric associations, the matter of order became a matter of energetic debate.

But for now, we’ll stay with historical fact . . .

Enter the Suits

The matter of sequence is only one of many unanswered questions about the Tarot trumps and their history. That’s true in part because our knowledge of the early Tarot comes mainly from incidental sources, such as bookkeeping records and legislative references.

We know, for example, that three packs of hand-painted cards were purchased for the King of France in 1392 — but we don’t know if these decks included trumps. Again, probably not, for the first documentary references to trumps are not found until more than fifty years later.

Similarly, we know that in 1441, the Magistracy of Venice banned the importation of cards in order to protect its own card-making industry, and that by 1464, the Parliament of England had followed the Venetian example.

But still, we don’t know what proportion of the decks being manufactured at that time included trumps, and therefore were true Tarot decks rather than four-suited decks.

Actually, though, the origin of “ordinary” four-suited decks is still just as mysterious as the origin of the Tarot trumps. Though playing cards had been known in the East — Korea, China, Persia, Arabia — well before they made their way into Europe, there is no clear information about who invented these cards or how they evolved; and while it is frequently supposed that Eastern cards (most likely brought home by the Crusaders) were the basis for Western cards, there is no evidence at all to support that idea.

In fact, the original Western suit markers of Swords, Batons, Cups, and Coins don’t seem to correlate with any of the Eastern suits — such as Korean Crows and Antelopes, or Hindu Shells and Water Jars. So if Eastern cards were in fact brought to the West, it appears likely that they provided the inspiration, rather than the model, for European-style cards.

One possible link, as far as symbolism goes, is suggested by images of the androgynous Hindu deity Ardhanari, one of Shiva’s incarnations. In some illustrations, Ardhanari holds in four hands a cup, a scepter (or wand), a sword, and a ring (or circular shield). These tokens bear an obvious resemblance to the four suit markers, and could have been their source.

But even if that were true, the motives and mechanisms behind such a process remain a complete mystery. Why would these objects in particular be chosen from among the many different objects found in other representations of Indian deities?

Perhaps it was because these items bear an immediate resemblance to icons found in chivalric romances. Such tales were immensely popular in the late Middle Ages, and often featured knightly swordsmanship, along with pursuit of the grail-cup.

The origin of playing cards was not given much thought until early in the nineteenth century, when the first serious study of the topic was published in 1816 by Samuel Weller Singer. In 1848, another classic work on the subject appeared, this one by W. A. Chatto.

Both men suggested a Hindu origin for the cards, and each related the history of cards to the early development of chess. Those basic speculations have since been refined and elaborated — but never proven —while new theories continue to emerge.

An Influential Error

The study of playing-card history overlaps with the “exoteric” approach to the study of Tarot, which doesn’t suppose any occult background for the cards. Both draw not only on scholarship related to commerce and to social customs, but also on art history.

Along those lines, there have been ongoing attempts to date and trace the origins of Tarot by establishing — through comparisons of style, subject matter, and so on — the artists responsible for existing hand-painted cards, among which are the earliest known examples of trumps.

One example of this effort led to a confusion that shaped modern Tarot studies for quite a while.

The confusion arose in the early eighteenth century, when someone proposed that seventeen illuminated cards (some of them Tarot trumps) in the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale were in fact surviving examples of the cards mentioned in an account book of the treasurer to Charles VI, King of France from 1380–1422. There a payment was recorded to a painter named Jacquemin Gringonneur “for three packs of cards, gilt and colored, and variously ornamented.”

The date of that entry was in the year 1392 — and if the Bibliothèque Nationale cards were really those painted by Gringonneur, the introduction of Tarot-style decks would be placed before the end of the fourteenth century.

Such dating was in fact widely accepted by Tarot enthusiasts in the early twentieth century, in spite of the fact that ascription of the Bibliothèque National cards to Gringonneur had been disputed for more than fifty years. Chatto had suggested in 1848 that the cards were actually Venetian and dated from the late fifteenth century — which is generally accepted by scholars today as fact.

Nevertheless, several influential twentieth-century Tarot books began the known history of Tarot in 1392, citing the existence of trumps in the so-called “Gringonneur deck.”

Misdating the appearance of the trumps in this way can make a considerable difference in interpreting the origin and nature of the Tarot. For example, the 1392 date would effectively dispose of a once-popular theory that the Tarot was brought into Europe by “Gypsies,” since the Romany people didn’t arrive in Europe until 1411.

But if the Tarot trumps really appeared in the early fifteenth century, it is possible that they were, after all, drawn from Gypsy lore.

Possible, yes. But there is nothing to substantiate this idea — or any other, for that matter — about the earliest days of Tarot. Our best starting point for a more rigorous historical analysis is with the group of hand-painted trumps that we do know (with reasonable certainty) were created sometime between 1420 and 1450.

And that brings us to the next part of this series, which takes a further look at the role of art history in our understanding of the early Tarot.