Michael Dummett wrote the history of Tarot, in terms of the early development of playing cards and Tarot, in terms of the subsequent diaspora of various decks and games, and in terms of the invention and development of occult Tarot. His contributions to the iconography of Tarot are not so generally recognized. Many specific identifications were discovered and presented, but more important were two broad analyses that necessarily constrain subsequent studies. First is the development of a "null hypothesis", what some misleadingly call the theory of no symbolism.
We shall gain no enlightenment if we study iconography of the Tarot pack. …it is highly improbable that, by this means, we shall learn anything relevant to the game played with Tarot cards, or, therefore to the primary purpose for which the pack was originally devised.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 164.)
The Null Hypothesis
That sounds like a bleak pronouncement from an iconographer. What he was referring to is the history of Tarot -- the subject matter of the trump cycle is not going to tell us much about the history of the game. Moreover, he demonstrated that this was true by creating a vastly more comprehensive and documented history of early playing cards and the history of Tarot than had been previously conceived, without recourse to any strong theory regarding the meaning of the trump cycle. The Game of Tarot proved, by example, that virtually all of Tarot history is independent of any such iconographic interpretation. But there was more. He suggested a sufficient alternative to any such strong reading.
Not all those who have sought to decode the symbolism of the Tarot pack have been occultists; some have been serious scholars, well versed in the iconography of later mediaeval and early Renaissance art. One W.M. Seabury wrote a book to prove that the symbolism of the pack was based upon Dante; Miss Gertrude Moakley, in her fine book about the Visconti-Sforza pack, advanced an interpretation of the pack, supported by much evidence from Italian art and literature; Mr. Ronald Decker has engaged in complicated speculations, linking the pack to the astrology of the time. I am not going to advance another such theory. I do not even want to take a stand about the theories that have been advanced. The question is whether a theory is needed at all. I do not mean to deny that some of the subjects, or some of the details of their conventional representation, may have had a symbolic significance obvious to fifteenth-century Italians, or, at least, to educated ones, that escapes us and may be revealed by patient research; that is very likely to be the case. But the question is whether the sequence as a sequence has any special symbolic meaning. I am inclined to think that it did not: to think, that is, that those who originally designed the Tarot pack were doing the equivalent, for their day, of those who later selected a sequence of animal pictures to adorn the trump cards of the new French-suited pack. They wanted to design a new kind of pack with an additional set of twenty-one picture cards that would play a special, indeed a quite new, role in the game; so they selected for those cards a number of subjects, most of them entirely familiar, that would naturally come to the mind of someone at a fifteenth-century Italian court. It is rather a random selection: we might have expected all seven principal virtues, rather than just the three we find—and, of course, we do find all seven in the Minchiate pack, and they were probably present also in the Visconti di Modrone pack. With the Sun and Moon we might have expected the other five planets, instead of just a star; with the Pope and the Emperor, we might have expected other ranks and degrees. But of course, in a pack of cards what is essential is that each card may be instantly identified; so one does not want a large number of rather similar figures, especially before it occurred to anyone to put numerals on the trump cards for ease of identification. Certainly most of the subjects on the Tarot trumps are completely standard ones in mediaeval and Renaissance art; there seems no need of any special hypothesis to explain them. Whatever may be the truth about those who first designed the Tarot pack, the inventors of the Minchiate pack surely approached their task in the spirit I have suggested: they wanted twenty additional subjects, and they choose ones which it was natural for men of the sixteenth century to think of—the four elements, the remaining virtues, the signs of the Zodiac—and inserted them en bloc in a convenient place. I do not think that anyone has suggested that there is any hidden significance in the sequence of Minchiate Trumps.
That is my opinion; but I do not want to insist on it. It may be that those who first devised the Tarot pack had a special purpose in mind in selecting those particular subjects and in arranging them in the order that they did: perhaps they then spelled out, to those capable of reading them, some satirical or symbolic message. If so, it is apparent that, at least by the sixteenth century, the capacity to read this message had been lost. There are many references to tarocchi in sixteenth-century Italian literature, in which their symbolic potentialities were exploited, but always in an obvious way: no hint survives that any more arcane meaning was associated with them."
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 387-8.)
Thus, in his view, the trumps were a kind of triumphal sampler. This is the iconographic null hypothesis, an essentially incoherent triumphal sampler. The only way to reject that null hypothesis is to provide a more compelling alternative, and that is what he refers to as a potential unicorn hunt or the riddle of Tarot.
We can derive some entertainment from asking why that particular selection was made, and whether there is any symbolic meaning to the order in which they were placed; and we may or may not come up with a plausible or illuminating answer. (If we do not, that may not indicate that we have failed to solve the riddle; there may be no riddle to solve.)
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 165.)
The search for a hidden meaning may be a unicorn hunt; but if there is a meaning to be found, only a correct basis of fact will lead us to it. The hidden meaning, if any, lies in the sequential arrangement of the trump cards; and therefore, if it is to be uncovered, we must know what, originally, that arrangement was.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 388.)
This recognition that the only significant meaning the trumps might have is as a sequential group is fundamental. In A Wicked Pack of Cards, Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett put it this way: “The test of whether a coded text has been correctly deciphered is that it allows a coherent message to be read.” (Page 250.) We either understand a coherent meaning or we don't, and if we don't, the null hypothesis stands as the most parsimonious and yet sufficient explanation. The sequence of the subjects is the composition of any overall design. Most would-be Tarot iconographers pay scant attention to order, and many reject it outright. However, Dummett's statement still appears bleak: we need to know something which we can't actually determine before we begin our analysis. If this were the case, we would have a serious difficulty: Dummett identifies a dozen different early orderings of the cards, based on a variety of sources.
But it is not really necessary to know in advance which was original, nor even if the original still survives. We can study all of the variations and attempt to decipher each separately, looking for the one that shows the best evidence of integrated design. Rather than knowledge of the original order being a prerequisite for such a unicorn hunt, it may be the unicorn itself. Such a study might find that one particular sequence, and its corresponding iconography, appears exceptionally well designed, while the others are most easily explained as derivatives which, while making intelligible changes, nonetheless failed to maintain much of the overall meaning and coherence. (Such an approach is analogous to that of textual criticism, by which biblical scholars attempt to reconstruct the evolution of texts.) If such an approach proved successful, then we might actually learn something with important implications for the origin of Tarot, we might indeed gain some enlightenment by studying the iconography. By studying all of the orderings, we might identify commonalties that point to the larger design, an underlying conception that was maintained despite the specific changes, a generic meaning to the trump cycle.
Three Types of Subject Matter
Many of the most puzzling aspects of variant decks such as Minchiate, Bolognese, and Sicilian decks have been explained satisfactorily. The biggest remaining challenge is to discern the underlying design, the archetypal design from which those variants derived, the generic meaning of the standard Tarot trumps. Dummett has again done much of the hardest work, and presented us with a second great iconographic gift.
We need to identify design commonalties within the different orderings, and today, over a dozen different orderings of the trumps have been identified. They do share a common design, and Dummett discovered this and outlined it in some detail. Although his analysis of the sequence into three groups of cards was published over a quarter century ago, no one has followed up on it with a corresponding iconographic study. No doubt in part because of Dummett’s antipathy toward occultist fictions, no one in the Tarot “community” has even attempted to use Dummett’s historical work as a basis for interpreting early Tarot. (Among other things, his findings violate the occultists' preconception about a septenary structure to the trump cycle.)
When we look closely at the various orders, we find that there was far from being total chaos. A first impression is of a good deal of regularity which, however, is hard to specify. Now the cards which wander most unrestrainedly within the sequence, from one ordering to another, are the three Virtues. If we remove these three cards, and consider the sequence formed by the remaining eighteen trump cards, it becomes very easy to state those features of their arrangement which remain constant in all the orderings. Ignoring the Virtues, we can say that the sequence of the remaining trumps falls into three distinct segments, an initial one, a middle one, and a final one, all variation occurring only within these different segments.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 398.)
This is a crucial finding. In 1985, Dummett wrote “Tracing the Tarot”, an article in the periodical FMR, which correctly identified the three groups. (In his earlier analysis presented in The Game of Tarot, Dummett included Death in the third group.)
The lowest trumps represent Everyman. This first group consists of the Bagatto (the “trifle”, aka Mountebank, Juggler, or Magician) and the four “papal and imperial cards”. The Fool is not included in most early lists of the trumps, it is generally not numbered, and it has a unique role in the game. However, as part of the allegorical design of the series, its place as the lowest of the low is obvious, and essential to the design. The Fool considered as an one of the 22 figures belongs in this group, and these six cards form a social hierarchy, a “ranks of man” design, showing two representatives from each of the “three estates” of medieval society. In every ordering of the Tarot sequence, the Mountebank is the lowest of the trumps and the Pope is the highest. This clearly suggests a rather simple, intelligible design is present.
(Above-right: This ranks-of-man design came from a Milanese MS of Petrarch's De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, c.1400. The figures include Jester (w/monkey, red-beaked black bird, cage of other birds), Minstrel (playing a lute), Merchant (w/open chest of money), Doctor of Law (w/books), Pope (w/tiara and croizer), Petrarch (in Gothic cathedra, w/pen and open book showing the incipit of Remediis: Cum res fortunasque), King (crowned, w/orb, scepter, ermine trimmed robe), Soldier (w/crossbow), Gentleman (w/falcon and hounds), Woman (blond, w/red dress), Shepherd (w/ragged clothes, sheep, cudgel).
Thanks to Ross for the scan.)
The middle trumps represent allegories of life: success, reversal, and downfall. "The next group of cards could be described as representing conditions of human life: love; the cardinal virtues of Temperance, Fortitude..., and Justice; the triumphal car; the wheel of fortune; the card now known as the hermit; the hanged man; and death." These images are allegory properly so-called, rather than the representatives of social rank in the first section. They reflect a "conditions of man" design which, like social ranking, formed a well-known organizing principle in didactic art. The Moral Virtues, Love, Death, and the Wheel of Fortune are among the most common allegories of the era.
(Above-right: This cycle-of-life design came from a 15th-century MS of Pierre Michault's La Danse aux Aveugles. The figures of Love, Fortune, and Death, portrayed as blind powers to which all mankind is subject, condense Boccaccio's De Casibus cycle to the most concise possible story with the three most common allegorical representatives of success, reversal, and downfall.)
The highest trumps represent eschatological triumphs. "The final sequence represents spiritual and celestial powers; the devil, the tower, the star, the moon, the sun, the world, and the angel. The angel is the angel of the Last Judgment." These images derive from Christian eschatology, and although they are not the most conventional representations, they derive from chapters 20 and 21 of Revelation, and tell the central story of Christ’s triumphs over the Devil (the lowest card of the section) and Death (via an image of resurrection.)
(Above-right: This 1513 engraving by Albrecht Durer is an allegory of the good Christian, shown as a Knight, turning his back to the Devil and Death. This iconic moral triumph also parallels the eschatological triumphs of Christ over the Devil and Death in Revelation 20, themselves made fait accompli by his own death and resurrection, respectively, in the Gospels.)
Iconographic analysis results in the same three groups as Dummett’s analysis of historical sequences, and adds meaning to the structure, making sense of the design. Dummett himself couldn’t resist characterizing the groups by their subject matter, even though his analysis was primarily based on sequence rather than iconography. However, even looking at the sequential analysis alone, if we cut the deck properly, analyze the sequence correctly, we can see these striking commonalties across the dozen historical orders. The cards ranked below the Pope were never moved above that card, and the cards above the Devil were never moved below. None of the changes that were made in Tarot’s assorted revisionings disturbed the larger design, division of the sequence into three blocks or segments, corresponding to three types of subject matter. (Dummett’s analysis excluded the three Moral Virtues, because they seemed to confuse things. The three virtues were the cards most widely varied in their positions. They don’t need to be excluded, merely explained within each sequence.)
These two results, 1) the statement of an iconographic null hypothesis in terms of a meaningful overall sequence and 2) the analysis of all known sequences into three sections, reflecting three types of subject matter, were huge steps toward solving the riddle of Tarot. The former clarified the problem and presented the default solution. The latter paved the road to finding a much more explanatory theory of the trump cycle and its meaning. As with every other area of Tarot studies, a solid factual and analytical basis for Tarot iconography was provided by Michael Dummett.