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The Collation

Fortune’s Fools: early tarot cards

As several of you guessed last week, this month’s crocodile mystery showed an early tarot card.

When treating a copy of a 1673 edition of Vincent Reboul’s “Le Pelerinage de S. Maximin,” Folger conservators discovered two tarot cards used to reinforce its binding.  I came across these cards, which were given their own call numbers and catalog entry when they were removed, some years ago and snapped this photo. In addition to the Ten of Swords (part of what is now known as the “minor arcana” or “pip” cards) the binding also contained “The Emperor,” one of the “major arcana” or “trump” cards usually illustrated with allegorical figures.

Folger ART File T191 size XS no. 1 and no. 2

Most people from English-speaking countries, even if they are entirely unfamiliar with the details of tarot cards, will recognize them as a tool for telling fortunes—or at the very least, as frequent props used to provide a suitable sense of foreboding in horror films. Sadly for film buffs and fans of magic, the association of tarot cards with divination is a relatively recent invention, beginning around the end of the eighteenth century. For at least the first part of their history, tarot cards were just used to play games—many of which are still alive in continental European countries today.

Playing cards likely arrived in Europe in the fourteenth century from Mamluk Egypt, brought in through Italian trading hubs. Some decks evolved into cards with the suits we are all most familiar with today (spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds, with kings, queens, jacks, and aces), while others evolved differently as the games and cards traveled to various countries and regions. Tarot decks were popular in Italian states through the fifteenth century, after which they spread to the rest of continental Europe. Although surviving decks from before 1700 are rare, the increased interest in tarot cards as tools for cartomancy or divination starting around the 1760s may have contributed to the survival of a large number of complete eighteenth-century decks. Today, there are even a variety of beautiful facsimile copies of different historic tarot decks available for hobbyists and collectors.

Tarot Basics

Today, and historically, most European tarot decks include 78 cards. 56 of these cards, like other playing card decks, are divided into 4 suits: wands (also known as cudgels or rods); swords; cups; and medallions (also known as coins or pentacles). Known today as the “minor arcana,” these cards are “pip cards,” meaning that they only include “pips:” basic, repetitive symbols of their suit used to denote their numerical rank. The 22 remaining cards, known as the “major arcana” or “trump” cards, do not belong to any suits, and are illustrated with a variety of allegorical figures (such as “Justice,” “the Fool,” “the Hanged Man,” and “the Empress”). Suits and trump cards vary, according to the time and location of their creation. Today, the artistic opportunity of tarot decks means that there is a wide array of different kinds of decks from which to choose—for example, I own a copy of the Aquarian Tarot by David Palladini (circa 1970), and a delightfully wacky deck called the “Weird Cat Tarot” by Gabrielle Kash.

Fans of the popular twentieth-century Rider-Waite tarot deck may be pleased to know that the Folger holds several of artist Pamela Colman Smith’s Shakespearean prints and watercolors, which are available on our digital assets platform.

Tarot de Marseille

One of the most well-documented families of historic tarot decks is known as the Tarot de Marseille. This family includes tarot cards printed primarily (but not exclusively) in France from the mid-seventeenth through the end of the eighteenth century. Printed from large, carved blocks on a common press and then hand-colored, Tarot de Marseille decks are all clearly related in design and coloration, with subtle differences in detail. Based on comparison with scholarly sources, it seems clear that the Folger’s two cards are part of such a Tarot de Marseille deck, as Angela Cockburn guessed.

Example of a carved block used to print tarot cards in full sheets, after which they would be hand-colored (either free-hand or using stencils), and cut apart. Circa the eighteenth century (BNF: Paul Marteau Playing Card Collection).

Intriguingly, while our two cards are very similar to those in several Tarot de Marseille editions, they do not match exactly with any cards from established decks that I have been able to locate. Here is a side by side comparison with some of the more well-known decks. These images are broadly digitally available thanks to institutions such as the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Yale’s Beinecke Library, and the British Library:

Once more, the Ten of Swords and Emperor from an unknown Tarot de Marseille deck (Folger Shakespeare Library ART File T191 size XS, nos. 1 and 2).


Left: The Emperor and the Ten of Swords from the Tarot de Marseille of Jacques Vieville, Paris, circa 1650 (Bibliothèque nationale de France). Right: The Five of Swords and the Emperor from the Tarot de Marseille of Jean Noblet, Paris, circa 1659 (BnF). Unfortunately the Six through Ten of Swords cards do not survive from this deck, so the Five is the closest comparison available. (click to enlarge)


Left: The Ten of Swords and the Emperor of the Tarot de Marseille of Jean Dodal, Lyon, circa 1701-1715 (BnF: Paul Marteau Playing Card Collection). Right: The Ten of Swords and the Emperor from the Tarot de Marseille of Jean Payen, Avignon, circa 1713, reprinted circa 1760(?) (Yale, Cary Playing Card Database, record ID 2466). (click to enlarge)

Although it’s impossible to say with certainty, the Folger cards certainly seem to have the most features in common with the Dodal (Lyon) and Payen (Avignon) cards, making an early eighteenth-century date appear likely. Since the Folger cards were located inside the binding of a book, it may be possible to infer an approximate date of creation from clues related to the binding. Unfortunately, we have no conservation records about the care and treatment of the 1673 “Pelerinage de S. Maximin,” and no photographs of the book itself. Until the collection returns, it won’t be possible to examine the binding and determine whether or not it is possible to establish a date more firmly in either the seventeenth or eighteenth century, or even to a particular region. The book was printed in Marseille, written by a Marseille author, and focuses on three saints (Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Lazare, and Saint Maximin) with a special connection to a holy grotto (Saint Baume) just outside of the city. Since it must have been in an at least near-contemporary binding, given the apperance of these cards, and given Marseille’s long tradition as a card-producer during this period, it certainly seems possible that they could have been printed locally.

It is also interesting that these two cards were found inside a binding on this particular text. Although as mentioned previously tarot cards were not utilized for divinatory purposes until later in the eighteenth century, the Catholic Church has never looked kindly on card games and gambling. One of the earliest references to tarot cards in Europe comes from an angry sermon railing against their evils, given by a fourteenth-century Dominican priest. It is ironic that three centuries later, they would end up in the binding of a book focused on Catholic saints, written by a Marseilles Dominican preacher. Although it seems unlikely, it’s entertaining to think that this might have been the binder’s idea of a joke.

Can you tell us anything more about these cards? Feel free to leave a comment below, or email!

Depaulis, Thierry. Tarot, jeu et magie. Paris: Bibliothèque nationale, 1984.
Farley, Helen. A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Academic, 2009.

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