There are a few points to add to Michael’s discussion of the 19th century precursors to his interpretation of the trump sequence as a Dance of Death, in "Tarot and the Dance of Death (January 10). Paul Lacroix (pseudonym “P.L. Jacob” or “Bibliophile Jacob”) published a slightly more detailed analysis of his 1835 insight (the one in Michael’s post) in 1858.
The following is from “Recherches sur les cartes à jouer”, in P.L. Jacob, Curiosités de l’histoire des arts, Paris, 1858, pp. 34-36, 60.
The tarots, that is to say the atouts (atutti) of this pack, offering a philosophical representation of life from the Christian point of view, were not pleasing, without a doubt, at the court of Charles VI and his successor, a frivolous and corrupt court, where, despite the tumult of the riots and the civil discord that ripped cruelly through society, they were only busy with pleasure, feasts, masquerades and tournaments, under the influence of a romantic and voluptuous chivalry. In this brilliant and refined court, which sought to deafen itself to the gravity of political events, and believed it had shut out, by the joyful noise of instruments, dances and singing, the ferocious cries of the population in the food markets, surely one worried little about playing with cards among which one happened to see the Sun and Fate, the Hanged Man, the Devil, Death – Death above all! – the House of God, the Last Judgment; it was good enough to encounter these gloomy allegories on the stained glass and in the sculptures in churches, in the miniatures of Books of Hours, in preachers’ sermons, in the writings of moralist poets and religious writers, without having again before the eyes the same teachings depicted, the same sinister and menacing images, in the middle of a game invented to distract and refresh the spirit.Later in the same essay (on page 60), Lacroix offered another broader interpretation of the whole pack of cards, including the trumps, postulating that it was a story of war and the glory of the afterlife (perhaps of dead warriors?). I can’t tell whether he thought this contradicted his earlier opinion, or was just another way of looking at the Dance of Death.
We think that, if Tarot served as a pastime for the poor King Charles during these sad years of dark and furious madness, they were never very much in fashion at the Hôtel Barbette, in the orgies of Queen Isabelle of Bavaria; in the Château of Vincestre (Bicêtre), in the literary gatherings of the Duke de Berri; at the Hôtel du Petit-Musc, in the jousts and pas d’armes of the Duke of Bourbon; in the séjour d’Orléans, and in the halls of other princes and their favorites, who dreamed only of amusing themselves and to frolic, while war, famine and the plague took hold of the realm.
On the other hand, the tarots did not fail to strike vividly the naïve and melancholy imagination of the good people of Paris: for them, fully prepared for the mystical and religious allegory, this was the game of Life or Death; the moral idea of the inventor found itself suddenly understood, explained and discussed. This game represented Man in the different estates which birth assigns to him and in the diverse conditions where nature places him: here, the Fool and the Lover; there the Pope and the Emperor. Man, whatever social rank he might be, has to flee the Devil, heed religion (the Hermit) and practice the virtues: Fortitude, Justice and Temperance, in pursuing Fortune, for, one day or the next, Death could come, Death which seizes the living on a gallows (the Hanged Man) as if on a triumphal Chariot, Death which brings Judgment to souls and who opens the House of God to the just.
Perhaps this was the origin of the famous Danse Macabre, that awful and philosophical morality which was at first a poem, an allegory in prose or verse, and which soon became a pious spectacle, a scenic representation, accompanied by music and dance, before furnishing images and emblems to all the plastic arts. According to Fabricius (Bibl. lat. med. et inf. Latinitatis. Hamb., 1736, 6 vol. in-8°, t. V, p. 2), the first Dance of the Dead, represented in painting, was executed in Minden in Westphalia, in the year 1383: it was thus contemporary with the first playing cards or tarots. According to the Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris, sous le règne de Charles VI, the Danse Macabre was performed or painted in the cemetery of the Innocents in Paris in 1424. Since that time, all over Europe, every cemetery, every church, every convent wanted to have its own Dance of the Dead, in painting, sculpture, or tapestry. This subject, funereal and burlesque at the same time, with which the eyes and the spirits of the masses familiarized themselves, terrified the rich and the great, consoled and distracted the poor: artists in every medium thus did not cease to reproduce it constantly and in every form; it has been found even in the chiseled lines of a woman’s jewelry... It was definitely found in a pack of cards!
Playing cards and the Dance of the Dead were certainly mixed at the invention of xylography.
The atouts or allegorical cards, which Court de Gébelin tried to explain with the help of the Egyptian theogony, in making them go back to the epoch of the Pharaohs, are merely rather clear emblems of war itself: one sees the virtues necessary for the head of the army, the gods and goddesses which he should invoke, the chariot of triumph, death, the voyage of the soul in the celestial spheres, its judgment and its entry into the next life. As for the kings, the knights, and the knaves or squires, these are those who give themselves to the battle, in the presence of these depicted teachings that the game offers to all, a tutti, as the Italians say to designate the allegorical cards in tarocchi.Additionally, Lacroix’s 1835 account, quoted by Michael, contains two statements which require clarification. The first is that Breitkopf sought the origins of tarot in Siberia. This is really what the text says:
Breitkopf est allé chercher les premiers tarots en Sibérie, où les paysans jouent le trappola avec des cartes semblables à celles dites de Charles VI.Despite finding it hard to believe Breitkopf reported that, and not being able to find it in Breitkopf's dense fraktur text, I didn’t know what to make of it until rereading Gabriel Peignot (1767-1849) a few days ago. Peignot had set himself the task of summarizing the historical writers on playing cards up to his time, and in his lengthy account of Breitkopf he writes in a note that
“This game of trappola, says Breitkopf in a note, is still in use among the peasants of Silesia…”(Gabriel Peignot, Recherches historiques et littéraires sur les Danses des Morts et sur l’origine des Cartes à Jouer (Dijon/Paris, 1826), p. 246 note 1.)
So it seems that Lacroix’s “Sibérie” is either the result of sloppy writing or sloppy editing. Breitkopf does in fact report that peasants in Silesia (Schlesien) play trappola (page 25, note “y”).Lacroix's other statement is that “Peignot was wiser than he knew” when he brought his studies of the Dance of Death together with his historiography of playing cards. Lacroix says this because Peignot explicitly denied any such relationship, in his note explaining why he published the study of playing cards in combination with his study on the Danse Macabre:
Notice regarding the “Recherches sur l’origine et l’histoire des cartes à jouer".As I noted above, Gabriel Peignot was not offering a new and independent account of the history of playing cards – he was merely summarizing the historiography up to his day, which included the following eleven authors: Menestrier, Daniel, Bullet, Heineken, Bettinelli, Rive, Court de Gébelin, Breitkopf, Jansen, Ottley and Singer. An account of each one is given in chronological order, so that, as Peignot says, “the progress of erudtion” in this study can be followed.
When putting our “Recherches sur les Danses des Morts” to press, we thought that the manuscript would furnish a volume which, by its pleasing proportion, would be worthy of a place in an amateur’s cabinet; but the printing being nearly finished, we saw that the number of pages containing this research would not satisfy our intention. Thus we believed we should add to our first work a piece of erudition, chosen from among the different literary studies that we have still in our briefcase. This new subject, in truth, has nothing in common with the former, except for the obscurity of its origin; but from the historical and technological points of view, it offers no less complexity for the discussion to be full of interest, and curious details, tending to pique one’s curiosity. We would be speaking of playing cards, which have acquired such great importance among all modern peoples, whether as an object for relaxation, whether an object for serious occupation, and, we should say, unfortunately as an object of foolish passion, whose results are sometimes so disastrous. But here we consider cards not at all as a moralist: we are viewing them from the perspective of their origin, history and the speed with which they spread all over Europe and even overseas. Above all we are interested in the difficulty of dating this unique invention, which has floated about in a very uncertain way in the space of the two or three centuries already past.” (ibid. pp. lvii-lviii.)
Peignot does not therefore offer much in the way of his own insights. When it comes to the trump sequence, he is content to summarize Court de Gébelin, while parenthetically rejecting his attribution of them to ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, Peignot does offer a “contrasting” interpretation of the sequence in a footnote, which he seems to give tongue-in-cheek:
“Such is the explanation of the 22 atouts given by Court de Gébelin. Here is another which is doubtless much less learned and much less illustrious, but which I place on the same level, as far as for the confidence it inspires. I do not know the author of it; but his little story can stand on par with the tall tales of Gébelin.I think it is likely that Peignot was himself the author of this “interpretation”, which, probably unbeknownst to him, is actually in the old tradition of tarocchi appropriati.
‘Pagad or Paguai who, in looking for Fortune, would run around the World, and often sleep at the lovely Star, saw, one beautiful evening, by the light of the Moon, the Empress, who was going about on her Chariot; he immediately fell hopelessly In Love, and resolved to take her by Force. The Emperor, who was not amused by this event, swore by Jupiter and Juno that Death should be his punishment. Therefore he gave the guilty over to Justice; but the tribunal, indulgently, used Temperance, and in Judgment, condemned him to a simple seclusion in the House of God, where they made him take the habit of a Capucin. The poor Devil became Mad, as if he had received a Sun stroke on the forehead, and a little afterwards he was found Hanged in his cell.’ Such is the origin of the Tarot pack according to an anonymous, who has dared to enter into competition with Gébelin.” (pp. 231-232, note 1)