Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Fragmentary Belgian Tarot

A week ago, Huck Meyer pointed out on the Aeclectic forum a "curious deck" described in an 1849 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine. That issue included a review of Chatto's The History of Playing-Cards and another article, Tarocchi Cards. Both articles were anonymous, and identifying the author of the article appears to be impossible. (James M. Kuist published The Nichols File of The Gentleman's Magazine: Attributions of Authorship and Other Documentation in Editorial Papers at the Folger Library (1982), but it offers no help. Cf. page 129.) The articles can be accessed via Google Books.

The author had examined 19 woodcut cards, 13 being suit cards and 6 being trumps. The Two and Three of Staves included the letters "I.A.", while the Six and Ten of Coins "represent some of the real coins of the period, among others an English rose-noble". The trumps had no titles, and the writer stated numbers for the trumps which were inexplicable. As an example, he described the World and claimed it was numbered XIIII. Worse, he described only five of the six trumps.

  • I. Time or Saturn, carrying a naked man by the hair of his head over mountains. This may be supposed to be Le Pendu of the modern Tarocchi, in which the man is hung by one foot, a design of which Mr. Chatto gives no explanation, excepting some absurd conjectures of Mons. Court de Gebelin, which are not worth transcribing.
  • XIII. A winged and hoofed devil, marching in the attitude of an heraldic lion rampant. Il Diavolo is one of the usual modern Tarocchi.
  • XIIII. A naked figure walking over a mound, or figure of the world, which is banded and ensigned with a cross, (as in the regalia of emperors and kings.) She holds at her back a red sail; and at the side are clouds and various puffing heads representing the Winds. This is evidently meant for Fortune; which in the ancient French set attributed to Gringonneur is represented as “standing on a circle which represents the world, and holding a globe in one hand, and in the other a sceptre.” (Chatto, p. 197.) But in the modern Tarots the design adopted for this card is the old emblematic representation of the Wheel of Fortune, with four human figures, -- the aspirant, the rising, the prosperous (on its summit), and the falling.
  • XVIII. Justice, standing, a helmet on her head, a balance in her left hand. This emblematic figure occurs in the oldest Tarocchi, and is retained in the modern Tarots.
  • XX. A stooping old man, with a long beard, walking with a staff as high as himself. This no doubt is L'Hermit of the ancient Tarots, still represented by the Hermit, also called the Capuchin.

The descriptions of the trump cards range from obvious to obscure. Each, however, can be connected with a trump from the Belgian tradition. The Devil rampant and the Fortune Triumphant over the World are readily identified as characteristic of the Belgian pattern. Two of the descriptions are quite odd (Justice with a helmet and an Old Man dragging someone over a mountain), so we will assume that the cards he saw were worn, and that some details were unclear on those two cards. His numbering, on the other hand, will be ignored as wholly uninformative. The description of the Coin pip cards is strikingly reminiscent of the Parisian deck, itself a member of the Belgian family of decks.

Justice shown standing and the Old Man with a full-length staff appear inconsistently, present in some Belgian decks but not others. There is an image of Pandemonium(?), in place of the usual Tower or Lightning card, that is unique to the Parisian deck. A worn version of that design might appear to have an old man dragging someone by the hair. Similarly, a Janus-faced Justice is shown in one of these decks, and the second face might have appeared as a helmet on a worn card. The Parisian deck also has realistic-looking "coins" in the suit cards, making a match with all the described features of the "curious deck".

Among the cardmakers/decks either exemplifying or related to the Belgian pattern are the following: Francois-Jean Vandenborre (K:I 145, 284), Jean Galler (K:I 152), Jacques Vieville (K:II 308), Parisian Tarot deck (K:I 135, K:II 311), Adam C. de Hautot (K:II 323), Antoine Jar (K:II 329), Martin Dupont (K:II 330), and Nicolas Bodet. Kaplan, in v.II of his Encyclopedia of Tarot, discusses the suit of Coins in the Parisian deck, in which each "coin" displays a heraldry from different regions of Europe. The coins in the present deck, showing "real coins of the period" from different areas, may have been a variation on that idea.

The dating of the deck is suggested by at least two factors. First, the absence of titles on the trumps suggests a terminus ante quem of early 17th century. Later decks all had titles, but decks like that Sforza Castle trumps and the Vieville Tarot had only numbers. A second factor is the inclusion of a Rose-Noble coin on one of the pips.

In 1344, Edward III introduced a new series of gold coins in imitation of the gold coins produced by Venice, Florence and other leading European cities. These were called florins or double leopards, half florins or leopards, quarter florins or helms. This first issue was not a success, mainly because they were overtariffed, and was soon replaced by another new series. The Noble was introduced shortly after, with a value of 6 shillings and 8 pence. Although this sounds odd, it was one third of a pound, and equal to half a mark. Pounds and marks were both units of account rather than actual coin denominations. Effectively this assumed a gold silver ratio of 11.04 to 1, which must have been about right at the time because this new denomination was to endure for over a century until 1465. The Angel replaced the Noble in 1465 under Edward IV at the same value of six shillings and eight pence, and were to continue in use until 1642. At the same time as the angel was introduced under Edward IV, the Ryal or Rose Noble valued at ten shillings was also introduced. These two changes had the effect of unifying the two systems of account prevailing at the time, although the ryal dropped out of use slightly earlier, in 1600.
(Gold Sovereigns)

That suggests an early dating, as does the absence of titles on the trumps. Otherwise, given the cards' apparent relationship with the Belgian family in general and the Parisian Tarot in particular suggesting a familiar lineage, this fragmentary deck seems almost like an old friend.