Earliest Playing Cards


I came across this picture of people playing cards, dated to 1352-62. Isn't this earlier then most estimates for when playing cards entered Europe?

Here's the text given at Art Resource:

A game of cards, c1352-c1362. From "Le Roman du Roi Meliadus de Leonnoys" written by Helie de Borron for Louis II, King of Naples.
Location :British Library, London, Great Britain

Anyone have any ideas about this?


  • cards 1352-1362 enhanced.jpg
    cards 1352-1362 enhanced.jpg
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Hi, Mary,

Teheuti said:
Anyone have any ideas about this?
Check Kaplan I:31-2. He includes it under "Interpolations and Translation Errors", and notes that it was first mentioned by Samuel Weller Singer (1816). The dating of the original text is apparently uncertain, as is the dating of the manuscript in question, and there is no mention of playing cards in the text.


This pic is also at the British Library site and there are B&W woodcut variations of it, for example, in Hargrave.


The earliest known print of persons playing cards is a miniature in Le Roman du Roy Meliadus de Lennoys, by Helie de Borron, which was probably written some time in the latter half of the fourteenth century. A king and three attendants play, while three others look on, and the cards themselves bear the old suit marks of batons and coins. So the antiquity of French playing cards is well established.
Best regards,


Kilted Kat said:
Hi, Mary.

trionfi lists the earliest date at 1340:


re "Playing Cards in Bohemia".

Doesn't trionfi also make a strong argument for 1337 tho' in France? :) Either way, Mary, your pic is at least a decade after card playing appears to have hit Europe.


About the very early playing cards:

Playing cards historians had developed a custom to sort out "too early playing cards dates" and attack them in their (possible) value as informations ... Kaplan's list of "Interpolations and Translation errors" and the arguments in his "Omissions "(Kaplan I, p. 31-34) give the impression, that before 1370 there was nothing going on with playing cards in Europe. This seems to have been a general trend of playing card historians to move the begin of the development back to 1376 and the following big density of playing cards notes, which "without mistake" allow to assume, that playing card were generally receivable in Europe, at least in the middle and southern parts of it.
So a myth was born, that the distribution of playing cards had a very quick development, "unkown before" with other media.

Hoffmann, a German expert, expresses himself sceptical about this analysis in his book about Schweizer Spielkarten. There is for instance "Bern 1367" (a prohibition), which was taken in its dating in the error-box, also assuming a later interpolation - although inside the German experts' discussion this opinion was contradicted and the document was testified as reliable.

Meister Ingold, living in Strassburg around 1430, a vivid city, told, that playing cards arrived in 1300. Generally this tainformation was taken in the error box and especially in English speaking the opinions spread, that Master Ingold lived about 1470 ... no, only his text was printed for the first time in this period.

Generally we know from the chess-development in Europe, that it developed first inside the nobility and then found its way also to the citizens of the cities, such forming the feature, that chess in 14th century was the "second theme" in literature behind Bible and Apocalypse.

This logic of development "from the upper parts of the society to the lower parts" should also be assumable for the distribution of playing cards. First we should find this new custom in the nobility. Naturally we would find in its time as "game of the nobility" not much documents, which talk of prohibition ... and these are the major sources of information, that we have in the late 14th century, the time, in which the existence of playing cards in Europe was definitely proven. Interestingly we find the first prohibition in the rebellious Bern and Switzerland, which early developed some independance against the nobility.

Generally there is some general data about 14th and 15th century in Europe ... often either not known or not calculated in the opinions.

1. The crusades, which started in 11th century, had the backgound of an increasement of European population.
2. The fall of Akkon in 1291, which finally definitely lost the earlier miltarical successes, likely should be interpreted in the way that this earlier "manpower" -feature of European development didn't exist anymore.
3. We have a period of years of hunger in the begin of 14th century. Already before 1348-1350 we have losses of population.
4. 1348 - 1350 took the lifes of 1/3rd of the population and other times of the plague followed. This was a heavy break. It's said, that that population started to increase again since ca. 1450. A lot of the earlier cultivated country wasn't used in this period.

Generally we have a slow development of the ability to read and to write. Generally it seems that we have a slow increasing development (in the cities), but a fall of literary activity in cloisters ... and likely we already have a fall of the lower nobility - which generally are "knights". The process against the Templer in 1314 ... it tells that knights had already lost a great part of their function. The winner of the long time social development were the cities and the merchants, which used these cities as their strongholds, "money-knights" as the Medici and the Fugger - the real knights became the loosers.

We have no or only few documents in the early 14th century about playing cards ... why? ... :) ... Generally we've much more documents since the begin of printing press ... but that's not really surprizing :)
Generally very old documents - in the case, that they survived - offer much more difficulties for the modern reader ... so they get less attention, especially as these greater difficulties get a summarizing effect, that researchers are "less interested".

Now there is in this general situation of decreasing population and the attack of the plague in Europe a situation, in which one monarch - Emperor Charles IV. - gains some fame and other parts of Europe are strangling with wars and oeconomical difficulties. The 100-years of the English-French wars had begun.

Petrarca, who knew France from Avignon and better times, is 1460 in Paris to arrange a marriage between Visconti-house and French crown. He is desperate about the bad state, in which he finds the country he had once known. France needs the the Visconti-money to get some ransom for their own king, who had become prisoner to the English.

It's the "golden age" of Prague ... the Emperor in Prague detects the trade with the East, and uses the trade way of the river Donau, which is not too far the Prag region. Charles doesn't visit the Western border, the frontier to the French kingdom till the end of life, just in 1376 and 1377 he is in this region.

Here rules his half-brother Wenceslas, and we know of documents, that the cultural very interested Wencelas had playing cards at his court from 1379 till his death 1483.
Wencelas' region has the first court, from which it is definitely known, that there was some "playing card fever" for some time ... as we know, it followed later ...

1. The French court from 1392 - 1397 with Charles VI the crazy and Louis d'Orleans and his brother with his wife Valentina Visconti.
2. The Ferrarese court all the 15th century, starting 1422
3. The Milanese court likely all the 15th century, starting with Filippo Maria Visconti
4. The French court again, after 1454 a smaller period.

If we assume, that playing cards ... as chess ... went the way from nobility to citizens, then we've logically to draw a line from the highest point of society - that would be the emperor in Prague - to the other parts of Europe. If we place this assumption in the actual proven data ...

1. Playing cards reached the German and European cities after 1377
2. The Emperor visited 1376/77 the Western border, after he long haven't been there.
3. The Emperor visited naturally also his brother Wncelas then
4. Wencelas started 1379 his playing cards court

... then we get the natural line of action:

1. The Emperor brought with the normal cavalcade of a few 1000 men and between them naturally artists and traders the playing cards to the Western border of the empire - during his journeys to the West 1376, 1377/78.
2. Here the cards became popular and the famous "quick distribution" of them started.
3. Johannes of Rheinfelden in Freiburg (Western border of the Empire) stated 1377, that playing cards came this year in his city
4. Wencelas naturally got his playing card fever from his half-brother.

Then naturally we have to assume already some existent playing card culture in Bohemia before, which curiously didn't leave Bohemia in direction to the West.
It's the time "after the great plague". Trading ways and traffic had slowed down ... this must explain the curious difference between East and West. But why is this development unknown?

Charles VI. died in late 1378 - his successor Wencelas (the son, not the brother) wasn't accepted, finally (German) people were so dicontent with him that he lost the Empire (1400), although he stayed king of Bohemia (till his death 1419). Bohemia and the rest of the world isolated from each other - also they went different religious ways. Jan Hus was killed 1415, the new German Emperor Sigismondo and the Hussites had wars, which stayed undecided. Still in 1464, there was a strong difference between Bohemia and the other Europe ... Pope Pius II. and his follower wanted a crusade against the Bohemians.

When we look in history, we see, that Bohemia and his king Wenzel got a bad "Western" press short after the death of King Charles IV. An "honouring" detail
like a note, that playing cards came with Emperor Charles, easily could have gone lost, especially as this new way of playing got quickly a "bad name" ... it was prohibited in many cities.

We have some data, which let us assume, that Nurremberg has with some right (38 cardmakers are named in Nurremberg in 15 century, more than in any other European city) the fame to have been the location with the highest card production in the early time. Nurremberg is very near to Prag and it was in Charles IV.' time the "second capital".

Going back to the situation of the battle of Crescy (1346), then we see, that Charles IV. and his father was near the to the French nobility then. Likely these persons, this social group of higher nobility, knew playing cards and played them.
The battle of Crescy saw an English victory, a dead father of Charles IV. and a wounded Charles IV. and a lot of other dead French nobility. This was a decision.
Charles IV. became German Emperor and went to Prag, forming there another world. The Western world, the French nobility, had a social break-down with
a following black death and the early beginnings of a playing card development got lost and more or less forgotten ... as it seems. In Prag they became part of the culture.

This seems to be the story of the early playing cards, roughly taken and interpreted.

The Hofämterspiel ... this seems to be a relict (or better: a successor) of an older Bohemian deck, as it was described by Johannes of Rheinfelden.

The probable owner of the Hofämterspiel, Ladislaus posthumus, was king of Bohemia.



Michael -

Of course, I now remember seeing the woodcut before but not the illustration itself. It seems that some investigation into the actual work: "Le Roman du Roi Meliadus de Leonnoys" and its author Helie de Borron might help with the dating or the context. Doesn't this picture provide unambiguous proof and dating within a decade?

It's interesting because it isn't Bohemian but written for the King of Naples, which, I suppose, puts it in southern Italy.


mjhurst said:
This pic is also at the British Library site and there are B&W woodcut variations of it, for example, in Hargrave.


It seems that Helie de Borron lived during the latter half of the 12th century - so the date given was for the actual illustrated manuscript in the British Library.

Helie de Borron was a relative (brother?) of Robert de Boron/Borron who wrote the story of Joseph of Arimathea that Waite used as the basis of the Cups suit (see Waite's book on the Graal/Grail).



Hi, Mary,

Teheuti said:
It seems that some investigation into the actual work: "Le Roman du Roi Meliadus de Leonnoys" and its author Helie de Borron might help with the dating or the context. Doesn't this picture provide unambiguous proof and dating within a decade?
IMO? Well, I haven't read any detailed information, much less discussion, of the manuscript in question, nor have I seen the well-known (for two centuries) image referred to by any modern playing-card historian as proof that cards were present at a particular date. In areas where I'm hopelessly ignorant (which includes most of playing-card history) I tend to accept the verdict of the most sober, conservative, generally reliable and scholarly sources. Have the playing-card historians, or at least a couple of them, commented on the provenance of this image and its significance?

There are some strong pressures in the online community to accept every scrap of evidence uncritically as meaning exactly what we might hope it means. For example, any picture that can conceivably be interpreted as fortune telling is interpreted that way, even if it is much more plausibly read as a genre picture of sexual flirtation during a card game. As another example, any term that might refer to playing cards is taken as evidence of playing cards and, worse yet, then used as a basis for subsequent speculation as if it were fact. Guesses based on hunches, and so on. And having an online Tarot enthusiast merely mention second-hand such a piece of evidence is taken by casual readers as a "strong argument". There should be either a real argument made, based on some reliable and detailed information, or at least a conclusion put forth by a generally reliable scholarly source.

On the other hand, despite the overwhelming evidence that playing cards were largely unknown in Europe prior to the late 1370s, and that they spread very rapidly at that time, it is certainly plausible that isolated introductions occurred earlier. Given the apparent failure of playing cards to spread from such a hypothetical earlier introduction, it doesn't seem like the most historically significant question. However, it is certainly possible and even probable that such isolated examples were known, and also that new evidence, or a re-evaluation of existing evidence, might demonstrate that.

The single (1371) generally-agreed upon reference to playing cards before 1377, combined with the dozen references to cards between 1377 and 1380, from various areas in Europe, and the multiple references to the game having been just introduced, fixes the date of their general introduction to Europe in the mid-to-late 1370s. As Dummett put it, "The evidence thus strongly suggests that there was no long period of evolution at the end of which the playing-card pack as we know it emerged, but, on the contrary, that, a matter of at most a few years before 1377, the pack was either invented or introduced from elsewhere, in a fully developed form, and immediately spread over a wide area of Europe." Relatively isolated references from the 1360s, such as the 1365 Amsterdam and 1367 Berne mentions, are entirely consistent with this scenario. This image, assuming the circa-1360 dating, falls into that category. However, decades-earlier references such as the 1310 Barcelona and 1337 Marseilles mentions, if they were authentic references to playing cards, would require that this hypothesis be reconsidered. Likewise, if the 1429 copies of Brother John’s Tractatus are accurate copies of a 1377 document, with no later amendments, then they strongly suggest that playing cards had been introduced years (perhaps decades) earlier, long enough to develop the variety of decks mentioned. That seems quite unlikely, so the existing copies of the Tractatus are probably elaborated in a number of ways.

Best regards,

Ross G Caldwell

I don't know the latest treatment of this image, but the miniatures in the manuscript were done by different artists over at least a few decades. If you google-image "Add. 12228" you'll get a few that will show you the obviously different hands at work, and for the manuscript itself you'll find some information.

Jeremy Montagu, for instance, in his bibliography of mss. containing depictions of musical instruments in the British Library notes of Add. 12228 that “the miniatures differ in date and some are 15th c.”


It seems like the miniature’s dating is very uncertain – maybe within a half-century. So while still early, no matter when dated, it can’t be relied on to propose a revolution in the chronology of playing cards in Europe.

If Huck could translate some of this German discussion about the 1367 document, we could understand the arguments better. But like Michael says, there is nothing implausible about earlier isolated instances, it's just that all known families of card-styles do seem to derive from a single kind of model, or are simply pure inventions after the idea was known.

If there were an evolution in eastern Europe from Mongolian cards there in the 13th or early 14th century, there is no trace of them. Knowing what the Turfan card looks like (like a Chinese card), if cards went straight into Europe looking like that, the development would have been very different than those having been mediated by Mamluk-style cards.



Ross G Caldwell said:
If Huck could translate some of this German discussion about the 1367 document, we could understand the arguments better.

I wrote:
"Hoffmann, a German expert, expresses himself sceptical about this analysis in his book about Schweizer Spielkarten. There is for instance "Bern 1367" (a prohibition), which was taken in its dating in the error-box, also assuming a later interpolation - although inside the German experts' discussion this opinion was contradicted and the document was testified as reliable."

I think, it's recognizable, that I read Hoffmann, but not necessarily the discussion of the experts. No, as far I remember, Hoffmann summarized the
debate in its own words, remarking about Dummett's handling of the subject, who hadn't full information of the discussion, when he wrote about it.