hist-games: Tarot in England from the late 1500s?

Michael Hurst mjhurst at earthlink.net
Fri Oct 5 12:06:52 PDT 2007

Regarding mid-17th century games in England, in the Preface to his The 
Game of Tarot, Michael Dummett quotes a snippet from James Cleland’s 
1607 Institution of a Young Nobleman. The passage runs: "His Maiesties 
[King James I] permission of honest house games, as Cardes, French 
Cardes, called Taraux, Tables and such like plaies, is sufficient to 
protect you from the blame of those learned men, who thinke them 
hazards; as for myself, I thinke it great simplicitie and rusticitie in 
a nobleman to be ignorant of any of them, when he cometh into companie: 
yea I would wish you to be so perfit in them all, that you may not be 
deceived or cousened at play." (The passage has been mentioned by 
playing-card historians going back to Singer in 1816.) A young English 
nobleman might naturally desire familiarity with the pastimes of 
Continental nobility, and Tarot was certainly such a game.

Dummett writes that "such occasional references do not controvert the 
proposition that neither in Spain nor in England has the game ever been 
generally known." This is a reasonable conclusion in the absence of 
additional evidence, but the claim that some "permission" had been given 
for Tarot suggests that the game was sufficiently well known to generate 
official notice. It also suggests that a document, recording some such 
official notice, might be lurking undiscovered. Cleland might have been 
referencing a specific permission mentioning Tarot (rather than simply 
cards) granted a couple decades prior to the famous declaration (the 
"Book of Sports") of King James I, or his 1620 license to Clement Cottrell.

An 1861 essay by James Pinkerton, in Notes and Queries, mentions the 
Cleland passage and discusses other documents which indicate that Tarot 
cards were in fact printed in England during the late16th century. A 
card maker named Bowes appears to have produced them.

Patents for Inventions:
Abridgments of Specifications Relating to Printing, p.56-57
By Great Britain Patent Office, 1859
Printed by G.E. Eyre and W. Spottiswoode

A.D. 1571, June 13.
Esquires, to import playing cards into this kingdom, and dispose
of them in large or small quantities, notwitstanding any Act, &c.
formermade, &c.

A.D. 1588, October 18.
ALLOWANCE by the Stationers' Company to RAFFE or RALPH
BOWES. "The whole sute of mouldes belonging to the olde
"fourme of plaieinge cardes, commonly called the French cardes,
"with the Jew Cisian dozen, and all other thinges thereunto
"belonging. Item.--The newe addition of the whole sute of
"new Mouldes belonging to the olde and newe forme of playeing
"cards, commonly called the French cards, with the Jew Cisian
"dozen, and all other things thereunto belonging."

A.D. 1589, January 8.
ALLOWANCE by the Stationers' Company to RAFFE or RALPH
BOWES (ante, p.50) to be printed, "the wholle sute of carved
"mouldes in woode or caste in mettal belonging to the oulde
"fourme of playing cardes, commonly called the French carde,
"with the Jew Cisian dozen, and all other things thereunto

A.D. 1590-1, January 12.
ENTRY at Stationers' Hall for RAFFE or RALPH BOWES "to
"print these markes folowing, which are to bind up cards in,
"viz., a dozen m'ke. Jtem, a Sizian m'ke. Item, a Jew m'ke."

In his essay, Pinkerton explains the bizarre "Jew Cisian dozen" 
reference by noting that the 78-card Tarot deck (and the game) is jeu 
soixante-dix-huit (zhew swahsah(n)t-dee-zweet), which might readily be 
corrupted into "jew cisian dozen". This fits perfectly with the 
playing-card context of the entries, and the reference to the "French 
cardes", the same term used by Cleland two decades later: "French 
Cardes, called Taraux". Pinkerton wrote:

"With deference, but thorough confidence in the correctness of my 
opinion, I would suggest that the words "Jew Cisian dozen" are a 
corruption of Jeu soixante-dix-huit, a phrase still used in France to 
designate a pack of tarots; just as, in contradistinction, the pack of 
common playing- cards is termed jeu de cinquante-deux. I scarcely need 
to observe, that the word jeu signifies a pack, as well as a game or 
play of cards : the German spiel karten, having exactly the same literal 
signification. I consider, then, that the “Jew Cisian dozen” meant a 
pack of tarots, which contains seventy-eight cards; and the “old form of 
plaienge cardes, commonlie called the Frenche carde,” was no other than 

Pinkerton also gives a specific anecdote showing how travelers might 
have become familiar with the game. He quotes an 18th-century account 
from Lady Miller's Letters from Italy, written in 1770-71 and published 
in 1776. Discussing Prince Charles Edward Stuart, (the Young Pretender 
was born in Italy, and "spent almost all of his childhood in Rome and 
Bologna", so the tale is probably true), Lady Miller acknowledged that 
the Pretender was an affront, not to be spoken to by a decent English 
gentleman loyal to the Crown. However, "it struck me as very ridiculous 
for me, a woman, not to reply to the Pretender if he spoke to me, as 
such a caution would bear the appearance of passing myself for being of 
political consequence; added to these considerations, I had great 
curiosity to see him and hear him speak." Her conversation was related, 
including the following discussion about Tarot, which they were about to 
play. This is her account:

"This evening, after quitting the Cardinal's, we were at the Princess 
Palestrine's conversazione, where he was also. He addressed me as 
politely as the evening before. The Princess desired me to sit by her; 
we played with him: he asked me, if I understood the game of Tarocchi, 
(what they were about to play at); I answered in the negative, upon 
which, taking the pack in his hands, he desired to know if I had ever 
seen such odd cards: I replied, that they were very odd indeed; he then 
displaying them said, Here is every thing in the world to be found in 
these cards, the sun, the moon, the stars; and here, says he, (showing 
me a card) is the Pope; here is the Devil, (and added) there is but one 
of trio wanting, and you know who that should be. I was so amazed, so 
astonished, though he spoke this last in a laughing, good-humoured 
manner, that I did not know which way to look; and as to a reply, I made 
none, but avoided cultivating conversation as much as possible, lest he 
should give our conversation a political turn."

In any case, there appear to have been (assuming Pinkerton's 
interpretation is correct) Tarot cards produced in England in the late 
16th century and recognized as a permitted game and a desirable social 
skill (for young noblemen, who might well play the game when abroad) in 
early 17th century England.

Best regards,

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