Saturday, January 10, 2009

Tarot and the Dance of Death

Years ago I had noted a passage in Theodore Low De Vinne's The Invention of Printing which described Tarot's trump cycle as being related to the Dance of Death. Recently Ross Caldwell has pointed out a number of earlier 19th-century books which talk about playing cards in the context of the Dance of Death genres. Gabriel Peignot's 1826 Recherches sur la Danse des morts et sur l'origine des cartes à jouer, more than one work by Paul Lacroix (aka, P.L. Jacob), including "des Cartes à jouer", in the publication le Moyen âge et la Renaissance, Schultz Jacobi's 1849 de Nederlandsche Doodendans, Georges Kastner's 1852 Les danses des morts: dissertations et recherches historiques, philosophiques, littéraires et musicales sur les divers monuments de ce genre qui ont existés tant en France quʹà lʹétranger, as well as De Vinne's 1878 The Invention of Printing.

De Vinne seems to have gotten his information on Tarot from Johann G.I. Breitkopf's 1784 Versuch, den Ursprung der Spielkarten, which might be the source for all the others. Unfortunately, it is not available online. Here are some of the most salient passages from several of the works.

The first is from Paul Lacroix, 1835. The translation is by Ross Caldwell.

[Before Piquet] only Tarot was used all over Europe; but after the invention of the game of Piquet, they very much lost their bizarre shape and did not remain in France, despite the marked favor for them of many famous French of the seventeenth century: Breitkopf sought the first tarots in Siberia, where peasants play trappola with cards similar to those called Charles VI. These seventeen cards which are preserved in the Cabinet des Estampes in Paris, and which are attributed to the imager of the King, Gringonneur, form part of a deck which was certainly an imitation of the famous danse macabre, that intensely philosophical allegory of human life, which the Middle Ages so multiplied with the help of all the arts. These cards, painted and gilded, show the Pope, Emperor, Hermit, Fool, Pendu, Squire, Triumphator, Lovers, the Moon and astrologers, the Sun and Destiny [“La Parque”, the three fates, obviously here particularly Clotho], Justice, Fortune [he is interpreting the World as Fortune here], Temperance, Fortitude, then Death, then the Judgment of souls, then the House of God! Do we not have here that dance of the dead which sets in motion the living of all conditions, and which guides that immense round which carries off the great and the small, the happy and the unhappy?

The second passage is from Georges Kastner's 1852 Les danses des morts: dissertations et recherches historiques, philosophiques, littéraires et musicales sur les divers monuments de ce genre qui ont existés tant en France qu'à l'étranger. Also translated by Ross.

The game of tarot, very much in vogue at this time, seems to have been an allegory of life and death. It also offers, as much by its moral signification as by the series of its personages or atouts (a tutti), a striking analogy with the Dances of the dead, and the late Gabriel Peignot was more logical than he thought himself, when he brought together in the same place his dissertation on the funereal cycles and his notice on playing cards. The rapport which exists between these two subjects has not escaped other distinguished writers, who have even supposed that these two conceptions had at the base the same idea, and that the deck of cards could have given birth to the funereal cycle. (See M. Paul Lacroix, des Cartes à jouer, in the publication le Moyen âge et la Renaissance, and J.-C. Schultz Jacobi, de Nederlandsche Doodendans. Utrecht. Daunenfelaer en Doormau. 1849.) Be that as it may, it is certain that in the tarot are found figures which belong to the Dances of the dead; the famous deck of cards known under the name Charles VI cards, includes the pope, emperor, squire, hermit (perhaps a close relation of the hermit in the legend of the three dead and three living), the fool, lovers, and finally death herself, death riding a horse with bristling hair and knocking down under her scythe kings, popes, bishops and other eminent names of the world, just like the skeleton of the wall paintings. The Last Judgment figures there also. Other tarot decks, for example the tarocchi of Volterrano, add to these figures those of king, of itinerant or man of the by-way, world, star, fire, devil, old man, popess and empress. In the Dutch tarot or pentertjes, the gallery of characters is still more complete. From the emperor and empress down to the male and female servants, all the estates, all the social positions are there represented. The series seems to be subordinate to two principal figures, life and death: life, who is shown as a child who blows soap-bubbles, and death, shown as a skeleton who is getting ready to fire off a fatal shot (See Schultz Jacobi, in the work cited, pl. II, figs. 1 and 2.) The penterjes seem to be a veritable Dance of the dead as a deck of cards. Nevertheless, whatever resemblance the tarot has with the gloomy cycle of the middle ages, it is impossible to give as certain that it had been the primitive form; but what is not in doubt is that it pertains to the same order of ideas.

The third passage is from De Vinne's 1878 The Invention of Printing.

The illustration on the next leaf is the reduced facsimile of a suite of twenty-two playing cards, intended, apparently, to convey solemn religious truths in the form of a game of life and death. We do not know how the game was played: we have to accept the figures upon the cards as their own explanation and commentary. In the figures of Jupiter and of the Devil, we see the powers which shape the destinies of men. The Wheel of Fortune is emblematic of the fate which assigns to one man the condition of a Hermit, and to another that of an Emperor. The virtues of Temperance, Justice and Strength which man opposes to Fate, the frivolity of the Fool, the happiness of the Lover (if he can be happy who is cajoled by two women), and the pride of the Empress, are all dominated by the central card bearing an image of the skeleton Death -- Death which precedes the Last Judgment and opens to the righteous the House of God. In these cards we have a pictorial representation of scenes from one of the curious spectacle plays of the middle ages, which were often enacted in the open air to the accompaniments of dance and music. The union of fearful mysteries with ridiculous accessories, and the ghastly suggestion of the fate of all men, as shown in the card of Death the reaper—these were the features which gave point and character to the series of strange cartoons popular for many centuries in all parts of civilized Europe under the title of the Dance of Death.

The most striking thing is that such a number of 19th-century writers were more accurate in their interpretation of the genre of Tarot's trump cycle, rather casually considered, than any of the legion of devoted Tarot writers in the 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries.

Mankind’s Exemplars from Holbein’s Danse Macabre
The Fall of Man > Death and the Pope & the Emperor & the Empress & the Abbess

& the Drunk & the Cripple & the Fool & the Gambler > Last Judgment

Another remarkable element of Kastner's account is the so-called "Dutch Tarot", or pentertjes. These are more commonly known as Floskaartjes. Although they are a very different kind of cards for a very different game played by a very different demographic, and they come from a very different time and place than Tarot, the description is nonetheless apt in one crucial regard -- the meaning of the cards and the game.

February 6, 2010 Addendum:
The same year in which DeVinne wrote about Tarot's moral allegory, the following article described the British Museum's “recently purchased” copy of Brother John’s Tractatus, the earliest moralization of regular playing cards.

History of Playing-Cards

The date of the first introduction of the game of cards into Europe is still uncertain, nor is it known in which of the European States it first came into use. The earliest trustworthy authority appears to be the Chronicle of Giovanni Covelluzzo, which states that the game was brought into Viterbo in the year 1379. It seems to be admitted that the records of the city of Nuremberg make mention of the game about A.d. 1380-1384, and a Treasurer's Account of Charles VI. of France, of the year 1392, is extant, having an entry of payment for illuminating cards for the King's use. The German treatise, 'Das Giildin Spil,' written by the Dominican friar Johann Ingold, and published in 1482, asserts that the game of cards was introduced into Germany in the year 1300; but the manuscript authority is wanting, and it is suspected that the date is incorrectly given. In this unsettled state of the question the appearance of a new witness, contemporary with the event he speaks of, becomes of some interest. The British Museum has recently purchased a Latin manuscript entitled 'De Moribus et Disciplina Humane Conversationis,' but which is a moralization of the game of cards, in three parts. In his Prologue, the author gives his name as “Johannes, in ordine preedicatorum minimus, nacione Theutonicus,” and he asserts that the game of cards was introduced into the country where he is writing in the then year 1377. He prefaces this statement by an argument that terrestrial beings are, in the sphere of their actions and passions, subject to super-celestial influences, and that Heaven not only disposes and prepares things on earth for the reception of its impressions, but ordains instruments or games by which they may be signified. Then he proceeds:

Hence it is that a certain game, called the game of cards [ludus cartarum], has come to us in this year, viz. the year of our Lord M.CCC.LXXVIJ. In which game the state of the world, as it now is, is excellently described and figured. But at what time it was invented, where, and by whom, I am entirely ignorant. But this I say, that it is of advantage to noblemen and other persons of leisure that they may do no worse, especially if they practise it courteously and without money.

After citing the authority of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas in support of the proposition that games are a healthful diversion for overworked minds, he goes on :

Wherefore I, brother John, the least in the order of Preachers, a German by birth, sitting, as it happened, abstractedly at table, revolving in my mind one way and another the present state of the world, suddenly occurred to me the game of card?, and I began to think how it might be closely likened to the state of the world. And it seemed to me very possible, and that it had a likeness to the world. Therefore, trusting in the Lord, I determined to compile a treatise on the subject, and began it on the following day, hoping by God's aid to complete it. And should persons find some passage in it not easy to understand, but obscure and difficult, let them get out of their boat at Burgheim and enter it again at Rinveld, and proceed, reading this treatise, as before, until they come to the end of it. For the said passage is dangerous to boat passengers, so that many get out and, at the other end, return into the boat and proceed onwards as before. But the subject of this treatise may be compared with the game of chess, for in both there are kings, queens, and chief nobles, and common people, so that both games may be treated in a moral sense.
And in this treatise I propose to do three things: first, to describe the game of cards in itself, as to the matter and mode of playing it; second, to moralize the game, or teach noblemen the rule of life; and third, to instruct the people themselves, or inform them of the way of labouring virtuously. Wherefore it seemed to me that the present treatise ought to be entitled 'De Moribus et Disciplina Humane Conversationis.' For the first part will have six chapters. In the first will be stated the subject of the game and the diversity of instruments. In the second will be set forth that in this game there is a moral action of virtues and vices. In the third it will be suggested that it is of service for mental relief and rest to the tired. In the fourth it will be shown that it is useful for idle persons, and may be a comfort to them. In the fifth will be treated the state of the world, as it is, in respect to morals. In the sixth will be demonstrated the aliquot parts of the number sixty, and the properties of numbers.

The first chapter treats "de materia ludi et de diversitate instrutnentorum," and contains all that directly bears upon the game. It is as follows:

In the game which men call the game of cards they paint the cards in different manners, and they play with them in one way and another. For the common form and as it first came to us is thus, viz. four kings are depicted on four cards, each of whom sits on a royal throne. And each one holds a certain sign in his hand, of which signs some are reputed good, but others signify evil. Under which kings are two ' marschalli,' the first of whom holds the sign upwards in his hand, in the same manner as the king ; but the other holds the same sign downwards in his hand. After this are other ten cards, outwardly of the same size and shape, on the first of which the aforesaid king's sign is placed once; on the second twice; and so on with the others up to the tenth card inclusive. And so each king becomes the thirteenth, and there will be altogether fifty-two cards. Then there are others who in the same manner play, or make the game, of queens, and with as many cards as has been already said of the kings. There are also others who so dispose the cards or the game that there are two kings, with their ' marschalli' and other cards, and two queens with theirs in the same manner. Again, some take five, others six kings, each with his 'marschalli' and his other cards, according as it pleases them, and thus the game is varied in form by many. Also, there are some who make the game with four kings and eight ' marschalli' and the other common cards, and add besides four queens with four attendants, so that each of those four kings, with all the family of the whole kingdom, speaking of the chief persons, is there, and the number of the cards will then be sixty. And this manner of making the cards and in this number the most pleases me, and for three reasons: first, because of its greater authority; second, because of its royal fitness; third, because of its more becoming courteousness. First, I say, because of its greater authority, for we have its express figure in Holy Scripture, Daniel iii.; and again in that statue which King Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, saw in his dream, and which Daniel interpreted to him, the which statue had a golden head, a silver breast, a brazen belly, and legs of iron.

Unfortunately the holy friar is so fascinated with his view of the moralization of the game that in the remainder of his work he omits to describe the various methods of playing it.

At the end of many of the chapters are blank spaces for the painted cards, the subjects of which are stated; as at the end of the first part, “Sequitur hie figura siue ymago regis sedens in maiestate sua imperiali, etc., ut patebit in figura.” At the end of the treatise is the note, “Anno domini, etc., lxxij°. tunc temporis regnauit pestilencia, etc.” The character of the writing is German, of the end of the fifteenth century; and it must be presumed that the note implies that the manuscript was copied in the year 1472. The evidence that the work was composed in the year 1377 is the direct statement in the Prologue, and this is repeated in the fifth chapter in the following passage: “Cum igitur ab hoc ultimo dicto computetur quod dictum fuit tempore domini nostri Jesu Christi et dum predicauit in terra, transiuerunt interim 1344, quia si ab annis domini 1377 sicut modo est demantur 33 anni quibus uixit remanebunt ad hue 1344.” Subsequently, in the same chapter, the author refers to the English wars in France, and to the French people having succeeded in eventually supporting their own sovereign—an allusion which very well agrees with the termination of Edward the Third's attempts on the French crown at about this period. Again, in the earlier part of his Prologue, the author says, “In Germany we have had two earthquakes in my time, and have frequently been afflicted with pestilence, nor is there a corner of the world where this scourge has not been felt.” And here he is evidently referring to the great plagues of 1349, 1361, and 1369. It will be found, moreover, that of the numerous authors quoted in the treatise, none are of later date than the thirteenth century.

The work is not referred to by writers on the history of cards, although there is another copy of it in the Imperial Library of Vienna, closely, as it would seem, agreeing with the present MS., written in double columns, with the same vacant spaces for illustrations, and stated at the end also to be written in the year 1472. It is described by Denis in his Catalogue, 2 vols. folio, 1793-1802, under No. cccxii. and No. 209 of 'Codices Dogmatici,' vol. i, col. 1234.

E. A. Bond.

The Athenaeum, Part 2
No. 2621, Jan. 19, 1878

Text in Google Books

Sir Edward Augustus Bond

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