Saturday, January 31, 2009

Seneca, Petrarch, & Remediis

The previous post looked at a single attribute of a 20th-century Tarot card. Three generations of historical models were traced, from the most proximate to the most distant. Despite the fact that this led us back to 1531, it told us absolutely nothing about pre-Gébelin Tarot, and only established that the modern element itself, as invented and employed by Waite, had zero historical sanction. The symbolism was completely modern, imposing modern meanings on "the olde French cardes" rather than telling us anything about the Renaissance origins of pre-Gébelin Tarot.

Some Methodology

Evidence is essential and context counts. To actually understand the significance of Tarot's Old Man card (whether a Hermit or Time, to get ahead of our discussion a bit) requires looking at the early examples, in context. The evidence includes the historical names and images that define the card, which will be discussed more in a subsequent post. Context includes the Old Man's place within the trump cycle, the design and meaning of that hierarchical composition, and the larger social environment and cognate works of art and literature. Some of that cultural context is the main subject of this post.

First, however, regarding the design of the trump cycle, the understanding sine qua non is that there are three different types of subject matter: representatives of Mankind, the allegorical narrative per se, and eschatological subjects. From hundreds of other moral allegories we should immediately recognize the Emperor and Pope as representatives of Mankind and protagonists in whatever tale is being told. Lower-ranking cards are naturally part of that same category, while anything higher than the Pope is necessarily and obviously of a different order. This is not subtle, complex, obscure, or otherwise difficult to discern. The Devil and higher-ranking subjects are characteristic of Christian End Times illustrations, while the middle trumps include some of the most conventional allegories known: Love, Fortune, the three Moral Virtues, and Death. Each card must be interpreted in its correct sequential context.

Different names, pictures, and orderings naturally imply different meanings—a commonplace notion naively rejected by Procrustean Tarot enthusiasts. For example, Justice is a conventional allegory, conventionally depicted and conventionally named in early sources. The allegorical identity of the figure is dead obvious. However, in the Eastern ordering of the trumps it is moved into the section with eschatological subjects, appearing after the Angel of Resurrection and before the New World. It is equally obvious that the primary meaning of the card has been altered by this placement, and it now represents the Last Judgment. Neither the image nor the name were changed, but the context altered the meaning of the subject.

The Old Man card is much more interesting. It had several iconographies and various names, and there were at least two very different meanings intended. Moreover, the placement within the middle section immediately rules out some pseudo-historical folly. Consider these two statements: "The hermit was considered as a separate estate of man in the Dance of Death tradition" and "Hermits are not exempted from the Dance of Death, and indeed are frequently depicted in Death's clutches in medieval art". These writers literally do not know the first thing about the Tarot of history. The existence of three different types of subject matter is the first thing, the essential sequential context that constrains any genuine understanding of the trump cycle. Knowing that, it is absurd to turn the Hermit, (or any figure above the Pope), into just another representative of Mankind. Evidence is essential, and context counts.

The Larger Context

The central allegory of the Tarot trump cycle is a Stoic-Christian tragedy, and is well illustrated by the five images at the top of this page. These images are from a 1503 Parisian manuscript of Petrarch's De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, and are attributed to Jean Pichore. Petrarch's Remedies and Christian Stoicism in general owed a great deal to Seneca.

As we have seen, Cicero is an important source for Stoicism, and Petrarch's fascination with Cicero naturally led to a close familiarity with his accounts of Stoic philosophy. Not only that, Petrarch also found much of value in Stoicism, and the impact of Stoic ideas can be seen in a number of his works. Two in particular are worth noting. The first, My Secret Book, (Secretum, written c. 1347-53), takes the form of an imaginary dialogue between Petrarch the pupil and Augustine the master, in which Augustine recommends to Petrarch Stoic ideas taken from Cicero and Seneca. The second, On Remedies for Both Kinds of Fortune (De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, written c.1354-66), was inspired by a work attributed to Seneca (the De Remediis Fortuitorum) and draws heavily on the account of the Stoic theory of emotions [the four Passions of the Soul] in Cicero's Tusculan Disputations. It offers a Stoic-inspired therapy for the emotions conceived as a medicine for the soul.
John Sellars, Stoicism.

Petrarch's De Remediis was probably his most prestigious and influential work in the 15th-century. The basic design was a series of dialogs between Reason and the four Passions of the Soul, rationalizing that Fortune is never as good or as bad as it seems. As an example of the relationship between Remedies and Tarot, as well as an example of the format of the dialogues, consider the Hanged Man, more commonly called the Traitor. The practice of killing traitors by this method is documented in Northern Italy in the 14th century; it was illustrated in various contexts; and it was such a widely known method of humiliating execution that it became a common practice to depict such an execution as a means of hanging in effigy. The place of treason in the hierarchy of sins (Dante puts the traitors Judas, Brutus and Cassius, and Lucifer himself at the center of Hell) is also crucial to understand. Betrayal was the ruler's greatest and most archetypal fear, a terrible turn of Fortune's Wheel. Naturally, this was included in Petrarch's Remedies.

80. BETRAYAL (Sorrow and Reason)

Sorrow: I have been betrayed by my friends.

Reason: I would believe you had you said “by my enemies”. If they are your firends, they do not betray you.

Sorrow: I have been betrayed by members of my family.

Reason: That expression is ambiguous. “Family member” can designate a friend as well as a foe, who poses the greatest threat to be encountered in human life.

Sorrow: I have been betrayed by those I trusted most.

Reason: He who trusts no one is seldom betrayed. The more powerful a man is, the less can he safely trust anyone, yet the more people he must needs rely upon. Whence follows that betrayal is a common thing, but especially so when it comes to kings, who are more prone to this ill than any other class of men. We are told that Priam was betrayed by his own people; betrayed were Minos, Nisus, Aeethes, Agamemnon, Alexander, and, before him, Darius; by your countrymen betrayed were Romulus, Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, Africanus Minor, the great Pompey, Julius Caesar, and a thousand others—some kings, some more than kings. But why do I speak of those that have been betrayed as if they were few and far between? Who is there that has not been betrayed—daily betrayed in small and large matters—unless there is no one around to betray him? The worst outrage is that even Christ was betrayed, and that the King of Heaven Himself did not escape that curse of earthly kings.

Sorrow: I have been betrayed; and I am hurt more by the fraud than by its bothersome consequences.

Reason: Well and nobly said! According to Cicero, Africanus, whom I just mentioned, noted that he was terrified more by the thought of treachery among his own kinsmen than by the fear of death. Yet neither treachery nor fear should unduly upset you, because the way things are, it is a foregone conclusion that the perfidy of the betrayer will earn him riches and infamy, and the pain of the betrayed, a good name and bitter loses. Choose whichever you like.

Sorrow: A traitor has duped me.

Reason: The greatest injury is his, not yours. He betrays you, but he condemns himself; he pricks you, but knifes himself; and while he robs you, he slays himself. He may take from you a kingdom, perhaps, or your riches. But he deprives himself of his soul, his reputation, a peaceful conscience, and the company of all decent people. There is no filthier thing under the sun than a foul traitor, whose degradation is so great that those who employ his craft detest the craftsman, and others, who seek to profit by other crimes, shudder at his iniquity.

Sorrow: I have been betrayed.

Reason: Perhaps it is good for you—because you will not as easily be betrayed a second time. It happens often that those who have been alerted by small losses have learned to avoid large ones.
Conrad H. Rawski, Petrarch's Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul.

In addition to Seneca's philosophical writings, his letters and dramas were also influential.

In the Senecan tragedies over and over again comes the emphasis in some form upon the folly of all ambitious effort. Seneca is a fountainhead of much ready-phrased thought for Christian Europe; and one stream of it, not the least, eddies around the general idea that high place draws misfortune just because it is high. The lightning strikes the highest trees, cold blasts smite most keenly the highest mountains, tallest buildings are most easily shaken from their foundations, storms toss mariners who venture farthest from shore; the variations are endless, but the moral always is essentially as Seneca makes the chorus state it in his Agamemnon.
Willard Farnham, The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy.

Farnham then quotes the last line of the following passage. It is the opening chorus of Seneca's tragedy Agamemnon. It presents both the role of Fortuna and the nature of tragedy itself, and is worth quoting in full.

O Fortune, beguiler by means of the great blessings of thrones, you set the exalted in a sheer, unstable place. Never do sceptres attain calm peace or a day that is certain of itself. They are wearied by care upon care, their spirits tossed by some new storm. Not so does the sea in the Libyan Syrtes roll in rage wave upon wave; no so in the Euxine do the waters swell from the lowest depths—those waters close to the snowy pole where Bootes turns his shining Wain, never touching the azure waves—as Fortune whirls the fates of kings in headlong movement. They desire to be feared and dread to be feared; no save respite is afforded them by gracious night, no ease comes to their hearts from sleep, tamer of cares. What citadels have answering crimes not plunged in ruin, or kindred wars not weakened? Right and shame and the hallowed loyalties of marriage abandoned palaces; in place of these comes grim Bellona with bloodstained hand and the Erinys that dogs the proud, always attending immoderate homes—homes that any hour can bring from on high to the ground. Though weapons sleep and treacheries cease, greatness sinks by its very weight, good fortune is a burden that crushes itself. Sails that are filled with favouring southerlies fear the winds that are all too helpful; with its head thrust up to the very clouds a tower is thrashed by rainy Auster, and a grove that casts a heavy shade sees its ancient tree trunks shattered; the lofty hills are struck by lightning, larger physiques are prone to disease, and while the common cattle run out to roam and graze, the loftiest neck is chosen for the axe. Whatever fortune raises on high, she lifts to cast down. Modest estate is longer-lived. Lucky the man content with the lot of average folk, who hugs the shore where the breeze is save, fears to trust his boat to the sea, and rows a course close in to land.
John G. Fitch trans., Seneca.

This is the narrative of medieval tragedy in general and the trump cycle in particular. An inescapable connotation of Fortune's Wheel and one of the recurrent lessons from Seneca is the folly of ambition. This takes many forms, some apparent in the quote above. One of the most striking is in Boccaccio's De Casibus battle between Fortune and Poverty. In virtually all cases, Fortune's fickle behavior is illustrated with a Fall of Princes. This gives medieval tragedy the character of a speculum principis, even if the intended moral lesson applies to all.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Maier's Alchemist

On the Waite-Smith Hermit card there is a six-pointed star lighting the lantern. Richard Roberts attributed this idea to a book which Waite translated, Musæum Hermeticum (1678).

The Hermit, too, is a transformation of the Magician/Alchemist of Key 1. Waite translated a number of books on alchemy, one of which is The Hermetic Museum (1892), the original of which was published in Frankfurt in 1678. Waite used one of the pictures from this text as a model for his hermit, without revealing it in his explanations of the Major Arcana.
As to the star in The Hermit's lantern, it is composed of two interpenetrating triangles, which have a specific alchemical meaning that we shall treat in our second run-through. The alchemists are following the light carried by anima mundi, or spirit in nature, who appears in Keys 17 and 21 as The Star, respectively, and The World. By placing her light within The Hermit's own lantern, Waite makes the Hermit a light unto himself. Such a star of light, so placed, signifies the aspiration of the material plane for the spiritual, and the descent of the spiritual to the material. And this completes the numerical cycle that was initiated by the Magician's "above/below" gesture, with the two planes now conjoined within one lantern.

Roberts' explanation of Waite's source seems sound. The image Roberts reproduces comes from the bottom panel of the frontispiece/title page of the Musæum Hermeticum, an image created by Matthaus Merian. It appears in both the 1625 and the expanded 1678 editions, and in some of the English translations.

Merian's image is itself derived from an earlier alchemical text, Michael Maier's 1617 emblem book Atalanta Fugiens. Maier's emblem #42 (below) shows an Alchemist tracking Nature, his Guide. He follows her footsteps, using his staff (Reason), glasses (Experience), and lantern (Reading).

Giornale Nuovo points out that this emblem is notably different from most of the rest of Maier's images.

[Emblem #42], for example, appears to have been Maier’s own invention: de Jong, at least, was unable to find antecedents for it in the alchemical literature. The accompanying motto reads ‘May Nature, Reason, Exercise and Literature be the guide, staff, spectacles and lamp for him who participates in chemistry.’ Nature here is portrayed as the woman bearing fruit & flowers, and Reason is the pilgrim’s staff, Experience his spectacles, and Literature his light. Frankly, it is a relief to find symbolism so straightforward, amid all this esoterica.

It was derivative, but not from alchemical literature. It comes from Alciato himself, the creator of the emblem-book tradition. First, note that in both the Atalanta Fugiens and Musaeum Hermeticum images we have an alchemist (Hermeticist) following a woman (Nature), and in both cases the woman displays conventional attributes of Fortuna: a sail and a cornucopia. Alciato had Hermes and Fortuna together in a similar manner. The subject matter is closely related. Alciato says:

As Fortune rests on a sphere, so Hermes sits on a cube. He presides over the arts, she over the varied chances of life. Art was developed to counteract the effect of Fortune, but when Fortune is bad it often needs the assistance of Art. Therefore, studious youths, learn good arts, which bring with them the benefits of an outcome not subject to chance.

That is, Art improves upon Nature. Maier's Alchemist, indeed, all alchemists, attempt to do something natural by artificial means, to speed up or otherwise enhance natural processes. Maier says:

Nature presupposes Natural Bodies; and Spirits as the Subjects; first ministered by Nature, upon which Art may afterwards exert itself by Preparing, Purifying, and rendering them Capable of having that produced from them, which Art proposes for its end. So the Potter takes Earth and Water; the Glassmaker ashes and Sand; a Smith Iron, Brass, Lead, Tin, Copper, Silver and Gold; a Tanner raw Hides; and so other Artists take other things. The Chemist has regard to his Materials; theirs are known to them the very first day, but when he Begins, his are utterly unknown to him for many years, and perhaps for his whole life. Nature does indeed lay its finger upon the matters; but there are many things which obscure the impression of Nature, that it cannot be known. Therefore the first intention must be TO intimately contemplate Nature and to see how she proceeds in her operations, to this end that the natural Subjects of Chemistry, without defect or superfluity may be attained to. From whence let Nature be thy guide and companion of so great a journey, and follow her footsteps.

Roberts is certainly correct that Waite's use of the Star of David as the Hermit's light was based on Merian's image. That design was clearly a revision of Maier's image, which did not itself have the element in question. Only the most proximate source included the six-pointed star. Maier's Fortuna, the intermediate source, is clearly related both formally and semantically to Merian's many-breasted Natura figure. It is fascinating to note that Maier was probably inspired by Hermes and Fortuna in Alciato's original emblem, but also completely irrelevant to the initial question.

Significant changes were made at each step of the process. Each borrowing was understandable but partial, and each revision added things as well. This is the way artists have always tended to use their sources of inspiration. There may be even more potential influences to be considered, and the possibility of overdetermination. For example, here are Bob O'Neill's comments about the star in the lantern of Waite's Hermit card.

The hexagon appears on the magic lantern illustrated by Levi (Transcendental Magic, p 252). In The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry (p 36), Waite shows a similar symbol, a radiant hexagon which he describes as “The Hexagon, encompassed by a solar glory.” The Frontispiece in Waite’s Hermetic Museum shows the hermit following the bright hexagonal light being carried before him by a female spirit. A further hint may be offered in Waite’s poem: “At the End of Things” from The Collected Poems of Arthur Edward Waite. The poem describes a spiritual pilgrim:
And a star I stole for the good of my soul,
Lest the darkness came down on my sins...
I carried the star; that star led me...
Did my star more than the cozening guide?
The fool, as I think, at the chasm's brink...
Did, even as I, in the end rejoice.
The card suggests that the Hermit is now holding the star aloft so that others may find it. For example, in Lamps of Western Mysticism (p 307), we find “I put up this Lamp of the Heights as a beacon for others hereafter.”

This too is interesting, and tangentially relevant, but far more speculative and far less explanatory. The proximate source for the lantern carried by Waite's Hermit was the book which he translated. The other details of the story may be interesting, but in terms of explaining the symbolism they are “surplus to requirements”.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Medieval Triumphs (2 of 5)

In the first post of this series I talked about the two main meanings of "triumph" and the many forms by which these meanings were represented. During the Dark Ages and the High Middle Ages some of the ancient motifs, originally intended to represent military victories and political dominion, were assimilated by the Roman Church and converted into Christian triumphs. These ideas were closely associated with other archetypal concepts such as lordship and fealty, social hierarchy, and class obligations. It may helpful to remember that although many such archaic notions have been discarded since the Enlightenment, we still have triumphs. A few days ago, millions of people took part in a modern version of this ancient drama. Barack Obama, having defeated his enemies in a highly ritualized form of combat, indulged a triumphal procession along with his coronation as the 44th President of the U.S. Triumphal celebrations always presuppose a triumph over some adversary.

Both victory and the glorification of the victor were shown in several ways during this period. The most common allegorical examples of victory in battle were literary and artistic triumphs of Virtue over Vice. The most pervasive historical victories were the triumphs of Christ over the Devil (by virtue of his crucifixion) and over Death (by virtue of his resurrection). The Roman triumph itself, as an honorific procession announcing lordship, was reflected mainly in the Christian processions of popes, especially the inaugural possesso. Thus, even before the revival of triumphalism by Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, triumphs and triumphal processions remained a vital and diverse tradition.

Related Motifs

Prudentius' Psychomachia was the great example of allegorical triumph during this period. Psychomachia was the triumph of Virtue over Vice, and it became the foundation of medieval moral allegory in general, as well as personified allegorical figures in medieval art and literature and the central allegorical battle between virtue and vice. (The earliest precursor was Prodicus' 5th-century BC Hercules at the Crossroads, which remained popular for two millennia!) Psychomachia was also used as an introductory text in the Liberal Arts curriculum and was cited as authoritative on certain doctrinal questions right along with the Fathers of the Church. The design of the poem is a series of battles, with personified virtues triumphant over vices. Both the text and illustrations were primarily concerned with the violent conflict. Virtue's victory (triumph), however, was also stated and depicted (right) as the outcome. As an aside, Luxuria's chariot (below) was not a triumph but an extravagance.

Helios and Elijah were common examples of the chariot motif in medieval art. Depictions of charioteers, vaguely akin to a triumph but lacking the actual processional aspects which distinguish the Roman triumph, did exist. Most common were Helios in his quadriga, used as a symbol of the Sun, and the fiery chariot of Elijah, from the Bible. (Mars in his chariot, cherished by occult Tarot enthusiasts, does not seem to have been common, at least if we judge from the dearth of period examples given by those same writers.) The glorification of Elijah in 2-Kings 2:12 was a triumph, albeit in an unusual sense.

And Eliseus saw [Elijah], and cried: My father, my father, the chariot of Israel [currus Israhel], and the driver thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own garments, and rent them in two pieces.

Two Nikes holding a roundel depicting the emperor is another classical motif of triumph. Some striking examples of this being adapted as Christian symbolism are on the ivory covers of the Codex Aureus of Lorsch, also called the Lorsch Gospels.

The scheme had been transposed in the early Christian period to depict Christ in Majesty and was of frequent occurrence by the Carolingian period.... It is notable that in the Lorsch ivory book covers, c.810, the arcade is surmounted in one case by flying angels supporting a cross in a roundel. The classical prototype of the roundel and the flying angels lost none of its triumphalist intention when adapted to Christian art.
Peter Clemoes, Anglo-Saxon England

On the back cover (above) a cross is shown in the roundel, held by a pair of angels. The central figure is Christ standing triumphant over (trampling) symbolic animals, flanked by another pair of angels. "Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk; and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon." (Psalms 90:13, Douay-Rheims.) On the front cover Christ, also in a medallion held by angels (below), is depicted over the central figure of a Madonna.

Religious Processions

Papal inaugural processions through Rome were the grand example, with the pope riding on a white horse, recalling the eschatological rider: "And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and with justice doth he judge and fight. ...and his name is called, the Word Of God." (Revelation 19:11-13.) The pope was honored as "the father of princes and kings, the ruler of the world, the Vicar on earth of our Saviour Jesus Christ, whose honor and glory shall endure throughout all eternity." Near the front of the procession was displayed the Body of Christ, while at the end was the Vicar of Christ. Although ending at St. John Lateran cathedral, the pope's procession through Rome was modeled on the ancient Roman triumphs.

A similar traversing of Rome's topography as a ritualized means of proclaiming political and spiritual purpose was central to papal coronations rites. With the conclusion of the actual consecration ceremony in St. Peter's, the newly crowned pope marched in procession to St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome. This ceremonial passage was known, significantly, as the possesso (literally, taking "possession"). Originating in the ninth century, the possesso had been gradually embellished in the course of the Middle ages, reaching high points of pomp and splendor in the coronations of Innocent III [1198] and Boniface VIII [1294]. Even during the Great Schism the possesso continued to be performed by popes in Rome, but from Nicholas V on, and particularly in the coronations of Alexander VI and Leo X, it became ever more elaborate in its pageantry, and more purposeful in articulating the ideals, expectations, and intentions of individual popes.

The route of the possesso, known as the Via Sacra or Via Papalis, went from Piazza S. Pietro to Castel Sant' Angelo, then crossed Ponte Sant'Angelo to Monte Giordano, passed close to the southern end of Piazza Navona, proceeded to the church of S. Marco, traversed the Capitoline Hill, threaded through the Roman Forum, marched past the Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum, then ran uphill past S. Clemente and S. Quattro Coronati to the Lateran. The cortege, the exact composition of which was specified in the Ceremonial books, acquired added splendor in the course of the fifteenth century. Papal servants, the captains of the rioni of Rome each with the flag of his district, representatives of the Knights of St. John and other military orders, the Roman barons, papal secretaries, the papal singers, non-Roman clergy, abbots from the city's monasteries, the cardinals, and the heads of the various papal tribunals and other members of the Curia—all had their designated places in the hierarchically arranged order of procession. Near the front the consecrated host was carried on a white horse surmounted by a baldacchino. The pope, coming near the end, was also born on a white horse, and his presence, too, was dignified by a baldacchino. The sacramental real presence of the Body of Christ and the person of the Vicar of Christ thus were accorded equal treatment and marked the focal points of the procession. In addition, the colorful garb of men and horses, the fluttering standards, the glittering gold of the processional cross and thuribles, and the dazzling jewels of the papal triple tiara—all contributed to the overall sense of splendor.
Charles L. Stinger, The Renaissance in Rome, 1998.

Processions displaying holy relics were a far more common form of procession than papal inaugurations. These were also essentially triumphal, and they became an event embodying civic pride and promoting tourism. Superstitious people would make pilgrimage for such events, hoping to glimpse a miraculous object. Such objects were often dismembered body parts claimed to be from a local patron saint, pieces of the True Cross, or even the blood of Christ.

Corpus Christi processions were another common form of religious triumph, although developing later. The increased emphasis on the Holy Eucharist in the late Middle Ages was reinforced with these processions in celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi beginning in the 14th Century. The rise of dramatic performance and pageants is another aspect of the later medieval religious procession and liturgy, and was associated with Corpus Christi.

The period from the tenth to the sixteenth century saw a remarkable development of dramatic forms documented over all of Europe, uninfluenced by classical Greek and Latin drama, and themselves without appreciable influence on the more elevated tradition of the later European theatre. Medieval religious drama has its origin in certain innovatory forms of embellishment, musical additions to the authorised liturgy, known as tropes, which served to intensify the emotional appeal of particularly importants moments in the Mass. ... The drama was transposed from its original context in the church, in the context of the liturgy (especially the Easter liturgy), into the streets and squares of the town, where it was often accompanied by a procession from one site to the next, and later into the villages. The range of subject matter was extended to include not only the events of Easter but also Christmas, the Last Judgement, the lives of saints and religious legends as well. The performers, originally clergy, came to encompas the urban laity (including members of the tradesmen's guilds), and in a village context the peasants.... Some of the late medieval plays had elaborate sets (such as those attested for Lucerne) and were performed over a period of several days, and they thus came to be major events in the life of the community.
Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly, The Cambridge History of German Literature.

Return of the Roman

The classical Roman triumph was occasionally remembered in a more explicit form, even during the Middle Ages. A pictorial example comes from the 13th-century Liber Ystoriarum Romanorum, showing Caesar's triumphant entry.

There is also a manuscript, produced in the last two decades of the 13th century, which most probably was commissioned by a member of the upper senatorial echelon in Rome, if not by Charles of Anjou himself. This is the so-called Liber ystoriarum romanorum, with its many miniatures based on antique models. The picture of the Triumph of Caesar is derived from antique models such as the Triumphal Entry into Rome in the passage-way of the Arch of Titus or from the Triumph of Marcus Aurelius on the relief in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Whether it follows one or the other model, it is important to note that it harkens back to a classical theme, the classical triumphal entry with the quadriga and personifications. This has to be distinguished from related (religious) scenes with similar chariots, such as the Ascension of Elias, or other representations of the quadrigae of Sol or Luna in a religious context that were known throughout the Middle Ages. It is comparable, however, with the Vision of the Fire Chariot with Saint Francis in a cocchio as depicted in the Assisian Legend. In Assisi, the classicizing chariot pulled by horses appears in a visionary context. Its iconography is certainly indebted to models similar to those mentioned above. The Assisian scene, however, does not illustrate a biblical text, but describes and authenticates a visionary episode.
Jens T. Wollensen, "Images and Texts in the Early Trecento", in
Petrarch's Triumphs: Allegory and Spectacle.

Dante's Triumph of the Church was a climactic event in the Commedia. This was influential both directly and indirectly, via Boccaccio and Petrarch: "each of the three crowns of Florence made use of some aspect of the Roman military triumph as a poetic device to honor their beloveds while proclaiming basic truths regarding the human condition.". Boccaccio and Petrarch will be discussed in the next post of this series, but Dante represents the turning point, the revival of the Roman triumph.

While battle imagery was not uncommon in the love lyric of the Middle Ages, the use of the Roman military triumph as a literary device had never, to the best of my knowledge, been employed as elaborately as it was in 14th century Italy following its initial appearance in Dante's Commedia, and especially at the conclusion of his Purgatorio. The idea of adapting the form of a Roman triumph at perhaps the most critical juncture in the Commedia in order to provide the protagonist with the insights needed to qualify for the journey to the godhead was a brilliant artistic stroke. s the highest honor paid by ancient Rome to her victorious generals and by the Roman Empire to her emperors and poets, the triumph celebrated the most solemn moments in the evolution of the Sacred City that for the medieval mind reflected the earthly Jerusalem. It was therefore a most appropriate means of depicting the supreme moment of transition in Dante's Commedia when, at the summit of Purgatory in the Garden of Eden, under the guidance of Matelda, symbolizing the innocent active life, the wayfarer must grasp the full import of how and why the Church suffering and the Church militant strive and are destined to become the Church triumphant. But the real stroke of genius was having the poet's beloved, Beatrice, play a central role in the unfurling of the triumph. What better way for the poet to celebrate the triumph of chaste human love than by showing how it fuses with divine love?
Also S. Bernardo, "Triumphal Poetry: Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio", in
Petrarch's Triumphs: Allegory and Spectacle.

Giotto's depictions of Elijah and St. Francis in chariots are mentioned here because both had more in common with medieval chariot motifs than with the subsequent revival of Roman triumphalism. The figures must be noted primarily because of Giotto's influence on Petrarchian iconography, which will be discussed in the third post of this series. Beyond that, as noted above the vision of St. Francis and the translation of Elijah both have aspects of a triumph, specifically the triumph of the spiritual over this life.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Homo Bulla Vanitas

The "Dutch Tarot" or Floskaartjes deck includes an allegory of Life, card #2 depicting a small boy blowing bubbles (sometimes with a ship at sea in the background). Homo bulla, the metaphor of man as a beautiful but exquisitely fragile and transient bubble, dates back to the ancients. Varro (116 BC – 27 BC) wrote the following in the first line of the first book of De Re Rustica.

quod, ut dicitur, si est homo bulla, eo magis senex
for if, as they say, man is a bubble, all the more so is an old man

Varro tells us that the symbolism of homo bulla was proverbial in the 1st century BC. The page As Time Goes By notes that "In the sixteenth century, the Dutch philosopher Erasmus reintroduced the Latin expression “Homo bulla” (”man is a bubble”) in his “Adagia”, a collection of sayings published in 1572." The small boy blowing bubbles as an expression of this metaphor had a long and rich life of its own. Below I've collected seven highly varied examples of the motif in different kinds of works from 1588 through 1665, and there are numerous other examples online.

Jean Jacques Boissard, Emblemata cum tetrastichis latinis, 1588.

Transient and vain is everything in our life: everything hangs from the thread of Lachesis. As quickly as the wet swelling of the bubbled water perishes, so the certain hour of death comes to anyone.

Jacques de Gheyn the Elder, Vanitas Still Life, 1603. This image is reminiscent of Philippe de Champaigne's powerful and emblem-like Still-Life with Skull.

The Museum's panel is generally regarded as the earliest known vanitas still life in European painting. Images and texts of the period often compare human existence to a bubble, cut flowers, smoke, and other reminders of life's brevity. Fame and wealth share this fate, as is suggested by the Spanish coins (one of which represents the former Habsburg emperor Charles V and his mother, Joanna of Aragon and Castile). The laughing and weeping philosophers, Democritus and Heraclitus, reflect upon the vanity of human life, which is symbolized further by objects floating in the bubble, such as a wheel of torture, a leper's rattle, a broken glass, and a flaming heart.

Christoffel van Sichem, Homo Bulla, in Nieuwen ieucht spieghel, 1617. This is the only engraving in the New Mirror for Youth which was done by this artist. It appears to be based on an earlier engraving by Hendrick Goltzius, discussed at the end of this post. It is the second example here taken from an emblem book. Note the bubble to the right of the child's right hand. It has the word "Homo" written across it, in case the point wasn't sufficiently obvious.

David Bailly, Self-portrait with Vanitas Symbols, 1651.

In this Vanitas still-life, the border between the two genres of the still-life and the portrait are blurred. On the one hand, there are several portraits (as painting within the painting) forming part of a still-life arrangement on the table. The arrangement includes, among other things, a skull, an extinguished candle, coins, a wine glass on its side, a pocket watch, roses, a pearl necklace, a pipe, books and sculpture. Soap bubbles hover above them as symbols of transience. On the other hand, the entire collection functions as a statement about the young man on the left, whose face displays the typical features of a self-portrait.

Salvator Rosa, L'Umana Fragilita, 1656.

In 1655 a devastating plague swept Naples. Salvator Rosa's son, Rosalvo, his brother, his sister, her husband and five of their children, all died. The transience of human life was a recurring theme in 17th century painting and thought, but for Rosa, in the year he made this painting, the subject had a tragic immediacy. A letter to his friend Ricciardi makes clear the effect this multiple bereavement had upon him: 'This time heaven has struck me in such a way that shows me that all human remedies are useless and the least pain I feel is when I tell you that I weep as I write.'
Emerging from the thick, nocturnal gloom that surrounds the human figures, a huge winged skeleton directs the infant's wrist as he writes: 'Conceptio Culpa, Nasci Pena, Labor Vita, Necesse Mori' - 'Conception is a sin, Birth is pain, Life is toil, Death a necessity.'

Karel Dujardin, Homo Bulla as Fortune, 1663. This is a very interesting conception, conflating characteristic attributes of Fortune with the Homo Bulla motif, and showing ubi sunt ruins in the background. Because the figure is conflated with Fortuna and appears quite feminine, it may have been intended as a young girl rather than the typical boy.

This is one of the few allegories Dujardin painted. It shows a lifesize young boy in a blue tunic, blowing bubbles. The painting has long been known as an allegory of the vanity of human life. From the sixteenth century on, a small boy blowing bubbles symbolised the brevity of life. The purely allegorical 'homo bulla' (man as a bubble) of the sixteenth century was later transformed in Dutch genre painting into an ordinary boy blowing bubbles.

Jan Steen, The Life of Man, 1665.

The painting shows an ordinary interior with ordinary people, in a straightforward way, not particularly embellished. Yet, in this deceptively natural painting a moral is hiding. This is not a scene casually glimpsed but the presentation of a scene; it is presented, literally, by drawing up a curtain. This drawn-up curtain has a special function: it calls the scene to the viewer's attention: 'now look at this.' What the viewer sees are people, young and old, male and female, drinking and playing and, above all, eating a lot of oysters. As oysters were a conventional aphrodisiac, they became a common sexual symbol - and their abundance gives this picture an unambiguous erotic meaning. But then, almost exactly where in the middle of the curtain is drawn up highest, a young boy is hiding in the attic, blowing bubble; a skull is next to him. The connotation of the skull is clear enough - and so to the contemporary audience, was the boy. He is the illustration of a classic adage: 'homo bulla' - 'man is a bubble.' The inclusion of this symbol of the insignificance of worldly pursuits unavoidably changes the meaning of this painting.

One of the best known examples is from the late 16th century. It is the basis for Christoffel van Sichem's emblem, but it deserves special consideration for the light it may shed on Floskaartjes.

Hendrick Goltzius, Quis evadet?, 1594.

From the sixteenth century on, a small boy blowing bubbles, mostly with a death's head nearby, symbolised the brevity of life. Goltzius's engraving of this motif is inscribed with the words 'quis evadet?' - who evades [death]? The print also bears a caption in Latin that likens the transience of human existence, even a child's, to the fleeting life of smoke or bubble. The purely allegorical 'homo bulla' (man as a bubble) of the sixteenth century was later transformed in Dutch genre painting into an ordinary boy blowing bubbles.

The legend on Goltzius' engraving is revealing:

Flos novus, et verna fragrans argenteus aura
Marcescit subitò, perit, ali, perit illa venustas.
Sic et vita hominum iam nunc nascentibus, cheu,
Instar abit bullæ vanitas elapsa vaporis. -- F.Eisius

This is reminiscent of pseudo-Ausonius' 4th-century gather, maiden, roses:

Collige, virgo, rosas, dum flos novus et nova pubes,
et memor esto aevum sic properare tuum.

The better known English version is from Robert Herrick:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

Flos novus. Floskaartjes. In his post to Aeclectic, "Spoonbender" wrote:

If anyone is wondering about what the name means exactly: the only explanation I have come across is that 'flos' would mean 'rough', supposedly because the floskaartjes were printed on rough, cheap paper; and 'kaartjes' means 'little cards' ('kaartje' is the diminutive of 'kaart').

This would suggest "cheap little cards" as the name of the game. It certainly seems appropriate. However, the relationship between the Vanitas genre and flower buds suggests that Floskaartjes might be intended as "little flower cards". That a macabre subject like Floskaartjes' Dance of Death might be referred to as flowers seems a bit perverse today, but youth and fragile beauty have always insinuated age and loss in the contemptu mundi outlook. In any case, although far from certain, it appears that Floskaartjes was created in the 17th Century, which would be perfectly consistent with the popularity of the Homo Bulla motif in Dutch art at that time.

Finally, some 17th-century funerary art including Goltzius' figure and motto. Identified as the tomb of Thomas Bannantyne (d.1625; erected 1638), Edinburgh, this shows three scenes. On the left is Quis Evadet; on the right is Tempus Edax Rerum; dominating the composition is an angel, triumphant over Death, holding the Scriptures and gazing toward Heaven. Ross suggested that the three attributes of the angel represent the three Christian Virtues: the book signifies Faith; the upward gaze Hope; the exposed breast Charity. Rather than Homo Bulla and Father Time being redundant, the contrast of the toddler blowing bubbles and the old man with the scythe and hourglass may suggest yet another traditional vanitas motif, the Ages of Man. Most salient here, however, the pairing mimics Floskaartjes' two trumps, the two sides of morality: transient life and certain death.

11/22/09 P.S. Here is a modern variant from yesterday's comics section.

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.

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