hist-games: Early German cards symbolism

ADRIAN SEVILLE adrian.seville at btopenworld.com
Tue Jul 3 12:48:09 PDT 2007

I am no expert on early German playing cards but the question raised is interesting - I hope therefore that these few remarks will trigger a fuller discussion.
  A useful starting point is the book by Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt: Gutenberg and the Master of the Playing Cards, Yale University Press, 1966.  In this, the author looks at the iconography of the earliest set of German 'playing cards' (the quote marks are because the cards may not have originally been intended for playing purposes).  He shows quite conclusively that the images in this set of cards, by the so-called Master of the Paying Cards (the earliest-known copper engraver) are to be found also in the marginalia of various manuscript volumes current in Mainz in the fifteenth century. Chief amongst these is the "Giant Bible of Mainz".  However, there is a crucial difference between the miniatures of this Bible and the copper engravings:  the former show the subjects (deer, bear, etc) interacting with foliage, trees etc, e.g. by climbing - whereas the copper engravings show the animals detached from their 'natural' context but in the same poses.  Although it might be
 tempting to infer that the latter were copied from the former, the author points out that there existed in Mainz at the material time books of images, of which at least one page is preserved, so that the image books may well have been a pre-existing source.
  The author also attempts to show a link between Gutenberg and this Master of the Playing Cards, but the evidence is by no means conclusive.
  Returning to the question posed by Chas, it is clear that in the business of early playing cards, the existence of an image on a card - however early -  gives no sure indication of its originality, nor - if it has indeed been copied - is it clear that the engraver necessarily had any idea of the original source, or of the symbolic significance of the image.
  Adrian Seville

webmaster at historicgames.com wrote:
  Since we have some early German cards now I've been getting this 
question more often.
Does anyone know if there are any good explanations of the symbolism for the
illustrations on some of the early German cards by artists like Peter 
Flotner and Jost

Some of the illustrations, like the monk in Flotner's deck who has had 
too much to drink
and is vomiting is obviously a satirical poke at the clergy, but I've 
always wondered if
some of the other scenes that are illustrated might reflect folktales 
or other things
from popular culture that the common people of the time would 
recognize, but I haven't
seen any discussion of it. It would be nice to be able to point them 
out to customers
when I'm telling them about the history of cards -especially if any of 
the folktales are
still recognizable by an "Amurrican" audience.

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