The History of the Playing Cards. Part I.

I decided a few weeks ago to bring some life back to my Blog and felt that I would write a brief history of the Playing Cards, As a Master of Cartomancy I am fascinated by their history, however, much as I researched I found myself coming across conflicting reports of their origins. I have prepared a Time Line, but even now as my research is continuing, it is changing as I build up more information. Later on I will publish the Time Line; however as it keeps on changing its not quite there yet. I am trying to work with facts and not just fiction and hearsay. So in this first part I look to their actual birth and arrival into Europe. In later blogs I will explain in more detail how they evolved and developed into the Playing Cards & Tarot we use and know today. I am more than happy for people to comment or show me evidence if I have got something wrong, I am trying to build an accurate picture of their history, and as more information is uncovered I will keep updating until we get as close as possible to the story of their journey that they want to tell.

Earliest Mention.
The earliest mention regarding playing cards we have to go back to the reign of Emperor Yizong of Tang of China (December 28, 833 – August 15, 873). A book entitled “Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang” written by Tang Dynasty writer Su E described the Emperor’s daughter Princess Tongchang playing a game called The Leaf Game. This was reportedly in the year 868. She was playing with members of the Wei Clan who were the family of her husband. The scholar Ouyang Xiu (1007 – 1072) of The Song Dynasty reported that card games had been played since the mid Tang Dynasty. He also reported that this was as a result of the invention of sheets of single paper instead of paper rolls to write on.


Arrival into Europe.
The first mention and clear evidence of playing cards existing in Europe is found in a manuscript by Pipozzo di Sandro, dated as being from the year 1299; Lets look at a few paragraphs from “Lanzi’s History of painting in upper and lower Italy, Volume 1 By George William D. Evans and Luigi Antonio Lanzi” published in 1831;

“…On the subject of playing cards he adduces a manuscript of one Sandro, son of Pipozzo di Sandro, entitled, Trattato del Gorverno della Famiglia (Treatise on the Management of a Family). It was written in the year 1299 and has been quoted by the authors of the Cruscan Dictionary, who among passages, cite the following:-
“If he shall play for money, or thus, or at cards, you shall provide them for him” (se giuchera di denaro, o cosi, o alle carte, gli apparecchierai)”
Playing cards therefore, were known among us earlier than anywhere else; and if the invention of engraving on wood is to be dated from them, we have reason to lay claim to it. But in all probability it cannot be dated so far back: the oldest playing cards must have been wrought with the pen, and coloured by illuminators, and not wholly laid aside in the days of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan.

The first indication we have of stamped playing cards, is in a public decree made at Venice in 1441 where it is said that “the art and trade of preparing cards and stamped figures carried on at Venice” had declined, “in consequence of the great quantity of playing cards and stamped coloured figures” imported from other places; and it is there decreed that the importation of them should for the future be prohibited. They indeed must have been in use long before the year 1441; for we find the art was at one time in a flourishing condition, that it subsequently declined and finally revived again owing to the protection afforded it by the government. Such vicissitudes, which suppose a long course of years carry us back at least to the commencement of the fifteenth century.

XV Century Italian Playing Cards
XV Century Italian Playing Cards


So in this first article discussing The History of Playing Cards, I feel I can with some confidence conclude the following:-

  • The first playing cards were produced due to the invention of paper sheets in China. This was around the year 868.
  • Evidence seems to confirm that the first playing cards existed in Europe, in Italy in 1299.

I would be happy to take on any other comments or observations supporting or challenging the contents of this article.

©  Count Marco
images courtesy & thanks to The World of Playing Cards

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