Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Earliest Depiction of Playing Cards

This is about as pre-Gébelin as possible for a post on playing cards. It is an image that may date to the earliest decade or two of playing cards in Europe.

Playing Cards in Meliadus
Playing Cards in Meliadus - detail

This is the earliest known depiction of card play, a miniature in a 14th-century manuscript of Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois (part of the romance also known as Palamedes; also known as Le Roman du Roy Meliadus de Lennoys), by Hélie de Boron. The manuscript was written with areas left blank for bas-de-page miniatures, like this one, to be added. Hundreds were added to this manuscript, at various times and by various artists. The present image shows King Meliadus and his followers amusing themselves while in captivity. They are playing a 4-handed trick-taking game, following suit, and piling tricks cross-wise for ease of counting. The deck uses the Latin suit-signs, (coins and staves are shown), and the game is being played for money, shown on the table. Card playing is not mentioned in the text, but there is mention of the imprisoned men entertaining themselves. Apparently the artist simply imagined the scene as involving the newly introduced and highly portable game of cards.

The artist was obviously quite familiar with cardplay. He might not have been as familiar with the deference typically shown to monarchs, as the king is shown losing. A thread discussed this illustration in 2008 on Aeclectic Tarot's "Historical Research" forum. Unfortunately, there appears to be no way to date the image. Nonetheless, it is good to finally see a high-res version of it.

Thanks to Ross for his observations on the picture, several of which were incorporated into the descriptions included with the images. Naturally, any stupidity remains my own damned fault.


  1. Thank you Michael, a beautiful and very lively illustration!

  2. Never thought playing cards have great roots from the past. Beautiful interpretation. Thank you for sharing.