The earliest history of cards is hard to trace. It’s not like there was a paper document noting the day of invention. However, it is widely believed that playing cards were devised in the 9th century in China. What’s more important is that they reached Europe around the 1370s. Yet, that wasn’t a direct import from China. Instead, cards and all the wonders they brought with them arrived through the Mamluk Sultanate and the Emirate of Granada. On the European continent, playing cards started a new, glorious existence and, in due time, changed so many features of the original deck of cards, yet managed to establish them as the norm. Let’s now have a look at how this world domination came about.
The Basics: Deck & Suit
In the contemporary world of cards, a deck is a collection of an identical number of ranks from four suits. The standard 52-card deck, for example, includes 13 ranks of each of the four French suits. That means you should expect to see cards 2 to 10, J, Q, K, and A in hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. The 32-card deck, respectively, features the same cards except that the ones marked 2 to 6 have been removed. Apart from those standard decks, there are other modifications popular at certain parts of the world or for specific games. For instance, there’s an even slimmer deck which only has 24 cards and is popular in Austria and Bavaria – that one would use only 9s, 10s, and the face cards.
A suit is one of the symbols used to differentiate between the four groups of cards in the French cards. Those, as we have already mentioned, are namely spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds. The symbols haven’t always been the same. For example, when the cards entered Europe, the first (Latin) suits were coins, clubs, cups, and swords. The suits went through a number of changes, mainly because people couldn’t relate to some of the symbols. What was vital for the final result, however, was the simplicity of representation and recognition. That happened towards the middle of the 15th century in Germany. The French appropriated those symbols, calling them, cœurs (hearts ♥), carreaux (tiles or diamonds ♦), trèfles (clovers or clubs ♣) and piques (pikes or spades ♠). These were easily stamped onto the numbered cards – that’s why they stood the test of time.
The French Playing Cards
The French cards are the ones using the four suits we’ve already listed. Those suits feature three face cards each, namely the valet (knave or jack), the dame (lady or queen), and the roi (king), and pip cards ace through 10. Naturally, you’ll find all these ranks only in the standard 52-card deck. We have selected the French deck to focus on not simply because the symbols have become the norm but also because its spread has been the most significant considering the geopolitical reach of France and England through the centuries. But what is the most easily recognisable feature of the French cards? It must be the introduction of the queen. You see, both the Mamluk and the Latin cards used three male figures for the face cards. The Mamluk face cards were king, deputy king, and under-deputy, while the Latin face cards – king, knight, and knave. The French dropped the knight and established the queen as the card ranking between the king and the knave.
The Paris Pattern
But differences don’t stop there. Even within the French cards, there are differences when it comes to the patterns. Many regional patterns have appeared through the years. For instance, the Paris pattern rose to importance around 1780. Popularly known as portrait official, it relies on famous people from history and mythology for the face cards. The king of spades was David, while the queen of hearts was Judith. Talking of appearance, an important step in the development of contemporary cards was the addition of the indices and rounded corners in the 19th century – that allowed cards to be reversible, as they looked the same way from both sides, no kings with their heads downwards anymore.
The ace holds a special place in a deck of cards because it can count as one or eleven, depending on the game. There are those games, however, in which it can be both. In blackjack, it is whatever is more beneficial to the player, accounting for the so-called soft hands. It has a single symbol in the middle of the card, which is often decorated. That is particularly true in the case of the ace of spades because historically it was there that the stamp acknowledging the payment of tax was placed. The ace of spades is also the inspiration for the huge rock anthem with the same name by Motörhead.
The king is the highest-ranking card in cases where the ace counts as one and it presides over the face cards. The image of the king is probably the most contested one, with famous people having been used as inspiration for the card drawings, such as King Charles and Alexander the Great. There have also been quite a number of speculations as to whom a face card represents. For instance, some believe that the king of hearts is none other but Charlemagne but that assumption is not well-founded. Moreover, the obsession with royalties dwindled with the fall of the Bastille in 1789.
The queen owes its appearance and popularity exclusively to the French deck because the face cards in the earlier ones were totally male-dominated. The Paris pattern uses two biblical figures – Judith (queen of hearts) and Rachel (queen of diamonds), the Greek Goddess Athena with her other name Pallas (queen of spades), and Argine – the name’s an anagram for Regina. A curious example of using the queen of hearts in popular culture is found in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the Queen of Hearts far from being a positive character is, in fact, the primary antagonist famous for saying “Off with their heads!”.
So far, we’ve referred to the jack as a knave. That’s because that is the original name for the face card standing below the queen in ranking. How and why did the knave become a jack? There are a few theories but the most logical reason for the switch seems to be the fact that knave and king are both abbreviated to a “K” when added to the corner indices of the cards. And that led to confusion. The change to jack was especially helpful when a player wanted to fan the cards – a real benefit as the player could hold the cards in one hand, instead of two, and still see what the cards were.