The Origin of European Playing cards

Game historians have shown that playing cards first seems to appear in Europe in the 1370s. But the riddle has been where did they originate?

There are four common theories: 

  • Cards appeared first in China, and gradually found their way west. 
  • The Roma people introduced them to Europe.
  • Crusaders brought them back to Europe with them from the Holy Land. 
  • Playing cards crossed the Mediterranean from Egypt.
19th century Chinese Money Cards
19th century Chinese Money Cards

China The earliest unambiguous reference to paper playing cards in China dates to a trial in 1294 in which two gamblers, were arrested with their paper playing cards and the woodblocks used to print them. However, while Chinese “money cards” did have four suits (representing coins), there were no face cards and 38 cards in a deck. So China is likely the origin of playing cards, but there seems to be no direct connection between them and Western-style cards.

The Roma The idea that caravans of Roma traveling from village to village could have introduced playing cards to Europe might seem plausible. But the Roma did not arrive in Europe in any significant numbers until the early 15th century. By then, playing cards were well established in European culture. 

Crusaders It has been suggested that cards may have come back from the Holy Land with the Crusaders. But there is no evidence for cards in Medieval Palestine, and the last crusade ended in 1291 almost 100 years before cards seem to appear in Europe. 

The Mamelukes The remaining theory is that European style cards came from Egypt, and it is the strongest one. The Mamelukes ruled various parts of Egypt from 1254 until 1517. A deck of cards in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul called the “Mameluke Deck” dates from the 1400s. However, there are even older examples of these cards dating to the 12th century.

A modern facsimile of the Mameluke deck from the Topkapi Museum, Istanbul form

The Mameluke Deck closely resembles the earliest European cards. It is a deck of 52 cards divided into four suits. Each suit is numbered 1 to 10, with three court cards: a “King,” “Viceroy,” and an “Under Viceroy.” The resemblance to the earliest surviving Italian decks is immediately clear right down to the shape and arrangement of suit symbols. The court cards are similar as well – not figures of nobles yet, but as abstract geometric designs. The Mameluke Deck is close enough to the cards we have today that you could play any modern card game with them.

It is reasonable to suspect that Mameluke cards evolved from Chinese money cards, perhaps through trade contacts between east and west on the Silk Road. But so far, we don’t have any examples of transitional decks illustrating that evolution. So, it seems clear that the Mameluke decks are the most direct ancestors to the playing cards we know today.

The theme music is “Scully’s  Reel/Mrs.McCloud’s/Cooley’s Reel” by the band Slánte from their Album Cup of Tea and is used under a Creative Commons share-alike license.

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