Meaning of the Cards

The deck of playing cards has a lengthy amount of symbolism behind it.  From Suicide Kings to One Eyed Jacks, the cards hold stories that have slowly fallen into obscurity.  To begin with, we know that playing cards were introduced into Europe some time around 1377 because that year marked the first time governments started banning card games as a form of gambling.  Cities who were trying to police the vices of their citizens had banned dice and chance games, but until 1377 (a German monk talked about the introduction of cards in “the year of our lord MCCCLXXVII”) that cards were banned in the cities of Florence and Basel.

The original deck of cards was similar to the current version, but had minor variations.  Some of the first sets of cards were split into the suits of Cups, Coins, Swords and Batons.  Over time, the Coin became the Diamond, the Cup became the Heart, the Sword the Spade and the Baton the Club.  German cardmakers took to using leaves, bells and acorns as symbols because they resonated more with their culture.  Speculation has been made that the suits represented classes of society; for example, the Bell suit in the German card sets was meant to represent hawking bells, a sport only accessible to the nobility.  Spades in French card sets represented a spearhead, signifying that it belonged to the warrior class (middle nobility).  The same applied to things like the clover (club) and acorn, because they were pig food and represented the peasantry.

Early versions of the cards had identification written on their sides.  Kings were thought to represent Solomon, Augustus, Constantine and Clovis, famed emperors and kings that all people would recognize.  However, in the late 1500s, the cards were standardized so that the king of Hearts would always be Charlemagne, Clubs would be David, Diamonds would represent Caesar and Clubs would represent Alexander the Great.  For some reason, we don’t know who the Queens are supposed to represent.  They bounced between wives of kings, women of the bible, and famous figures like Joan of Arc.  The Knaves or Knights in the deck were typically representative of famous knights from folklore: Lancelot, Ogier, Hector and La Hire.

Even the Aces in the decks of cards have some history behind them.  For example, the Ace of Spades is always the most ornate of the aces for the reason that it was the only card in a playing card deck that was taxed.  Because of the large amount of white space around the cards, the ace was able to be stamped as a taxed good.  For that reason, many people at the time took to purchasing 51 card decks with all the cards except the Ace of Spades.  The phrase “not playing with a full deck” is believed to have come from this era because people found themselves a single card short of a real game to avoid the taxation.



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