Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Floskaartjes is a children's card game played with a deck of 36 cards. They were produced on sheets of cheap paper ("catchpenny prints") and then cut apart and turned into playing cards by the children themselves. Judging from surviving examples, they were popular in the Netherlands and Belgium from (at least) the 17th century into the 19th century. The cards have numbers and names, and the series forms a social hierarchy. The exceptions are two allegorical cards, Life and Death, numbered 2 and 1 respectively. The social hierarchy, beginning with the Emperor and including nobles, religious figures, and assorted lower class figures, is reminiscent of other decks going back to the Italian Tarot and the German Householder deck, as well as the hierarchy in the suits of regular decks. The cards in Floskaartjes are not suited exactly, but they are paired. Even-numbered cards include an allegory of Life and the male figures; odd-numbered cards include the female figures and an allegory of Death—a skeletal reaper.

Floskaartjes is intriguing in several ways: 1) its present obscurity is puzzling, especially when combined with mentions by earlier writers; 2) the production of the game via catchpenny prints is similar to various other games; 3) the nature of the game seems poorly known, at least in English; 4) the existence and ready availability online of multiple examples adds some immediate interest; 5) the mors aequat omnia subject matter of the cards, an ancient and medieval moral allegory, is both obvious and explicitly stated on some sheets; 6) analogies between that moral allegory and what we know about games from other sources, from Alfonso X's Book of Games, chess allegories and their adaptation in Brother John's Tractatus, the justification for games in Iacopo Antonio Marcello's transcription of Martiano da Tortona's Tractatus, all the way through the 19th-century writers mentioned in the previous post, gives Floskaartjes a comfortable context. Games, even children's games, were often intended to convey profound and inspirational ideas. Today those messages might seem distastefully archaic (social hierarchy) or repulsively grim (memento mori and contemptu mundi) but this was both the pop culture and the moral philosophy of the day, not merely suitable for children but essential for all.

There are at least eight good images of these sheets online.

The cards were discussed a bit on an Aeclectic thread last year. "Spoonbender" translated the author's message of the game, which is printed on some of the sheets.

These pictures serve, sweet youth!
As pastime and joy, and that's the truth,
They teach you, how, from the emperor on,
In the end everyone to the grave will have gone.

As mentioned, the cards are paired with a male and female representative at each rank, along with two allegorical cards. Translations were given as follows, including corrected modern Dutch spellings.

  • Emperor - Empress
    Keyser/Keizer - Keyserin/Keizerin
  • King - Queen
    Coninc/Koning - Coningin/Koningin
  • Bishop - Bishop's Wife [Abbess, Bishop's Maid, Elevated Woman]
    Bisschop - Bisschopsvrou/Bisschopsvrouw [Abdisse, Bisschopsmeid, Verhevene vrouw]
  • Prince - Princess
    Prins - Princes/Prinses
  • Sovereign - Female Sovereign
    Vorst - Vorstin
  • Count - Countess
    Graef/Graaf - Gravinne/Gravin
  • Nobleman - Noblewoman
    Joncker/Jonker - Jonckersvrou/Jonk(ers)vrouw
  • Hunter - Hunter's Wife
    Jager - Jagersvrou/Jagersvrouw
  • Captain - Captain's Wife
    Capitein/Kapitein - Capiteinsvrou/Kapiteinsvrouw
  • Standard-bearer - Standard-bearer's Wife
    Vaendrager/Vaandeldrager - Vaendragersvrou/Vaandeldragersvrouw
  • Soldier - Soldier's Wife
    Soldaet/Soldaat - Soldaetsvrou/Soldaatsvrouw
  • Merchant - Merchant's Wife
    Coopman/Koopman - Coopmansvrou/Koopmansvrouw
  • Courier - Female Courier
    Bode - Bodinne/Bodin
  • Skipper - Skipper's Wife
    Schipper - Schippersvrou/Schippersvrouw
  • Artisan - Female Artisan
    Ambachtsman - Ambachtsvrou/Ambachtsvrouw
  • Countryman (Farmer) - Female Farmer
    Lantman/Landman - Boerrinne/Boerin
  • Manservant - Maid
    Dienstknecht - Dienstmeyt/Dienstmeid
  • Life - Death
    Leven - Doot/Dood

Unfortunately, the only modern article on the subject appears to be one in Dutch: Floskaartjes: Een dodendans met speelkaartjes (Floskaartjes: A Dance of Death in Playing-cards). As is apparent from the title, it follows the same line of thinking as the 19th century articles mentioned in the previous post, and it relies on them for much of its information. This article appears to have some good material on the game itself, but Google translation and Babelfish both yield pretty ragged results. (If I were more knowledgeable about games, then I could do better at interpolating from the sometimes bizarre machine translation... but I'm not.) It is noteworthy that the game employs trumps, including the highest numbered card, the Emperor, and the two lowest numbered cards, Life and Death.

I have brought this nifty game to the attention of David Parlett, who expressed an interest in the game and who, in addition to being a prominent playing-card historian also reads Dutch. So an English-language account of the game may turn up on his site at some point.

The most interesting iconography is, not surprisingly, that on the two allegorical cards. Death is shown as a skeletal reaper holding the hourglass of Time, which has run out. This could scarcely be more conventional. Life, however, is shown via a motif popular in Dutch Vanitas paintings and known as Homo Bulla. I'll post on that later.


  1. Hi Michael

    This has become my favourite site on the whole internet :o)

    Does the 1 (Dood) trump the 2 (Leven) or, do they trump each other .o?

  2. Thanks. I've tried to persuade prominent card-game historians David Parlett and John McLeod to write a page describing this family of games. That may happen at some point... but maybe not. I mention that fact because different games played used different ranking of the cards.

    According to McLeod, the highest cards for some versions were 36, 2, and 1, followed by the rest in order from 35-3. In another version the cards from 1-12 were ranked as the highest, with 1 (Death) as the highest, followed by 36-13. So it just varied.

    The game itself is also called Flikken, Flossen or Penteren, and is related to the single-suit family of games, including Kille.

    I hope that helps.

    Best regards,

    1. Michael, can't thank you enough. This stuff is crucial to some very important work for me. I am researching for a new big stage show centred around Homo Bulla and Vanitas. Here is a link to my work (and business) if you are interested. Dr Froth :o}

  3. P.S. I forgot to add a link to McLeod's page on single-suited card games, Cuckoo, Kille, etc.

    Games played with single suited cards

  4. Hi! can you tell me the periode and the museum where there is the german card "Life-Death?" Thank you for your page

  5. Regarding the provenance, the surviving examples are dated the 17th through the 19th centuries, coming from Belgium and the Netherlands. They are sometimes called "Dutch cards", and I don't know if there were any German examples, and I don't know what museums may hold examples. Most of the examples I've seen were posted to Picasa Web Albums.

    Best regards,