A History of a Deck of Cards and Its Suits


In the second half of the 14th century merchants introduced what was then commonly called “Saracen cards” into medieval Europe. Those who had survived the bubonic plague moved to cities, where they formed a new class of merchants and craftsmen – the urban bourgeois. Once the poverty and prejudice of the dark era eased, trade, guilds, and universities began to revive, and new scientific perspectives were discovered along with the time for leisure, play, and pleasure.

In the early days of the Renaissance, books, cards and prints were created by hand. Card games were spread across Italy by a society of art appreciators formed at this time. At the end of the–th century many key cities in Europe including Viterbo near Rome, Paris and Barcelona, were able to obtain illuminated manuscripts of card manuals. Traveling artists and scholars spread these manuscripts across the continent and their popularity flourished. Early in the 15th century, a lone artisan was enough to satisfy the demand of a city. By mid-century, however, there became a need for several shops devoted to their creation.
Card manuscripts were not loved by everyone. Indeed many were threatened by this foreign entertainment and saw it as a force to promote gambling and as an immoral and counter cultural product of the devil. At the time of the protestant Reformation, the cards were referred to as “Devil Pictures.”
Nonetheless, the fashion persisted. Mary, Queen of Scots liked to bet big even on Sundays and by late 17th century London published The Compleat Gamester, describing over a dozen game types and the basic strategies for all of them. In Venice, special facilities – casini – admitted privileged aristocrats for card games and courtesans. From there, a game called primero spread to Europe and later transformed into poker.
After a while, the game was played and enjoyed by women as well as men, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants as well as courtesans and aristocrats. The suits at the time from a popular Swedish deck were in order of rank: sun, king, queen, knight, dame, valet and maid. In Florence, cards were depicted as nude dames and dancers, with dancers being the lowest rank.
There was no standard number of cards or designs in a deck at that time. The number of cards could vary from 36 to 40 to 52. The suits of the time were symbolic of wealth, tasty victuals, military defense, and sports popular with the court. These were coins, cups, sabers, and clubs. Signs familiar to us were in use in France in the 15th century: in red, Couers (Hearts) stood for the church, carreaux (a rectangular floor tile) represented the merchant class; in black, there were piques (spear and arrow heads) depicting state authority, and trefles (trefoil clover leaf) as a sign of the farmers. Some brave soul at one point along the way ditched the vice-royals for queens.
After a period of time, the deck of cards that we know today took form. 52 cards with- ranks comprising 4 distinct suits. The suits include Spades, Diamonds, Hearts, and Clubs with the Ace, King, Queen, and Jack counting for ten and the rest of the cards, 2 through 10, being counted at their face value.

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