A good game of cards by a roaring fire is a Christmas ‘must’ for many families that seems to have been carried into January this year within ours.
Whilst losing yet another hand of Whist the other night, I tried diversionary tactics by turning the discussion to the four suits found in a pack of cards and questioning how they originated. No one knew the answer so we turned to our trusty pal Google. We were so enthralled by our findings, we decided to share them with everyone via WoodNote.
Like so many things, playing cards were originally made in China, making an appearance around 900 AD. They were created as a gambling game that was cheaper to produce than dice or dominoes, but made using similar markings.
From China, playing cards found their way to Egypt and it was here that the idea of having four suits came into being around 1360. However, the Moorish suits were represented by goblets, gold coins, swords and polo sticks of all things! Slowly, the game of cards then made its way across the Mediterranean to Europe.
The Spanish and Italians knew nothing about the game of polo so the sticks were substituted for batons but, apart from that, the design stayed close to the Egyptian version for centuries to come.
The Germans decided to change things up a little and came up with acorns, leaves, hearts and bells. It was the French, however, who created the designs with which we are now so familiar. In 1480, they decided to start mass producing playing cards as the game was becoming increasingly popular. To do so, they needed to simplify the designs to make the stencilling easier. Using the German suits as their starting point, they came up with a trefle (clover or clubs), a pique (pike-head or spade), a coeur (a heart) and a carreau (a tile or diamond).
What’s more, the symbols also represented different classes in society with spades being the nobility, hearts being the clergy, diamonds representing the merchants whilst the clubs stood for the peasant classes.
So, what about the Royal cards?
The Egyptian cards featured court cards as part of their deck, including the malik (king), naib malik (viceroy) and the thaim naib (deputy). These morphed into a more European version that had kings, cavaliers and servants.
It was the French who gave women a look in by introducing the Queen and it was also their idea to introduce the Ace, making it of higher value than the king. This was done at the time of the French revolution and reflected the toppling of the monarchy by the peasants.
Other interesting facts and myths
Cards have rounded edges for a specific reason. Pointed edges wear a lot more easily and could therefore help people identify the value of an individual card during games like poker!
There are all sorts of theories surrounding the number of cards in a pack – most of which have little, if any, substantial proof behind them. Some say the four suits correspond to the four seasons, the 52 cards represent the weeks of the year and there are 13 cards in each suit to reflect the number of annual lunar cycles. And why are there red and black cards – supposedly the black represent night, whilst the red stands for day?
Others believe that the four kings represent a variety of historical figures – the King of Spades being the bliblical King David, the King of Hearts being Charles V11 of France, the King of Diamonds is said to be Caesar whilst the King of Clubs us Alexander, the King of Macedonia. There are also suggestions for the Queens and the Jacks, but they are even more obscure in the 21st century.
The Masons have also been associated with the Royal Cards with some amazing theories abounding that there are complex codes embedded within their design.
If you dig around it seems likely these are co-incidences rather than truths. But they do make a rather nice story to accompany a game of cards by the fire! We’d love to hear from you if you’ve come across any other great stories linked to playing cards!