Sunday, November 6, 2016

April 26, 2016, Various cards at Basel in 1377 or in 1429

Translator's note: 
(by Michael S. Howard)
Here is my translation of Franco Pratesi's new note, as of April 2, 2016, on John of Rheinfelden, in Italian at While adding nothing new, it highlights points of special value and seems to me an excellent summary of the literature and statement of the present state of the problems. Comments by me are in brackets, mostly confined to translations of Franco's Latin and German quotations, which he leaves in the original languages. All I can say about the Latin is that I looked up all unfamiliar words (i.e. most of them) in Wiktionary online. Comments in brackets are mine. The small numbers in the left margin above text are page numbers in Franco's pdf. This translation originally appeared in the Tarot History Forum at

Various cards at Basel in 1377 or in 1429
(by Franco Pratesi)


Many years ago I did some studies on the first Florentine evidence on playing cards, of March 1377 (1), when it was also considered to be the earliest evidence for the arrival of cards in Europe. Recently I could also point out how in the summer of the same year, in Florence, they were commonly played with [si giocave] on the streets of the city (2). The impression one gets from that information is that locally, play with them [il gioco] had now become widespread and common and that it could have been introduced a few years earlier, without its memory being preserved.

For the same year 1377, I will now discuss a piece of information that comes from a distant city, Basel. Unfortunately, in the case of Basel and other foreign cities potentially involved, I have no new discovery to add to the already known documents. A justification for my reflections on known documents, and on the published corresponding discussions, comes from the possible correlation with the Florentine situation of the same year and the associated problems of interpretation. It was also stimulated by the presence in the discussions that can be read about in historians like Rosenfeld and Bidev, who at the time exchanged various ideas (then, however, especially on the history of chess).

Treatise with the moralization of playing cards

The main document that is the focus of this study is a treatise by a Dominican inspired by a similar treatise that another Dominican had completed about a century before: the first example was the Liber de moribus hominum et officiis ac nobilium popularium super ludo Scachorum [Book of the Morals of Men and the Duties of Nobles and Commoners, on the Game of Chess] and of Friar Jacob of Cessole [also known, in Latin, as Jacobus de Cessolis], which had regarded chess as a model of society; the succeeding Trac-

1. F. Pratesi, The Playing Card, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1989) 107-112. [Online starting at For the succeeding pages, use the "next" button there.]
2. F. Pratesi, The Playing Card, Vol. 44, No. 3 (2016) 156-163.

tatus de moribus et discipline humane conversationis, id est ludus cartularum moralisatus [Treatise of morals and the rule of human conduct] of Brother John of Rheinfelden [also known, in German, as Johannes von Rheinfelden], of interest to us here, does such an operation, associating roughly the same social categories, with playing cards instead of chess. The book by Jacob is known in hundreds of manuscript copies, while that by Brother John is known in only four copies of the fifteenth century; although even if another copy is found, it is still a work that clearly at the time of its compilation was not a success comparable to that of Jacob, even remotely.

The manuscript copy of the Tractatus that we are looking at is the one preserved in Basel (3). Fortunately it is a copy that has been inserted in full for the disposition of the public in the "Virtual Library of Manuscripts in Switzerland" and therefore can be found very easily, at least by all who are capable of reading it (4). The manuscript ends with the postscript of the copyist, copied below.
C. 183r: Anno domini m°cccc°29° finitus est liber iste per manus Petri Johannis Hüller alias de Wiscellach civis et scolaris Basiliensis. Sabbato post festum Assumptionis beatissime et gloriosissime virginis marie hora vesperarum. Deo gracias. Dentur pro penna scriptori celica regna.
[c. 183r: Year of our lord 1429 finished is this book by the hand of Peter John Hüller, otherwise citizen of Wischellach and scholar of Basel. Saturday after the feast of the Assumption of the blessed and most glorious Virgin Mary, hour of vespers. Thanks be to God. Let be given the scribe’s pen for the heavenly realms.]
This scribe is also known for the signature left on other manuscripts; his name has been variously interpreted as also Hiller or Miller, but the reading of Hüller should be considered secure. It is revealed in the conclusion that the copy was completed in the same city where it is still preserved.

More complicated is the author's name, with the localities involved; the name that is mentioned most often is Johannes von Rheinfelden, but it seems almost sure that he was originally instead from Freiburg im Breisgau, an ancient city in the past a Catholic stronghold in the Habsburg Empire and now part of the German State of Baden-Württemberg. The city of Freiburg is close to France and Switzerland and not far from the Rhine, which often serves as the border between the neighboring states. The other two cities in some way involved, Basel and neighboring Rheinfelden, are in addition built on the two banks of the same river, and while at the city of Basel was also kept a corresponding

3. Basel, Universitätsbibliothek, F IV 43.

area on the right side of the Rhine remaining entirely Swiss, in the case of Rheinfelden the two sides to the left and to the right of the river now belong respectively to Switzerland and Germany. The other three known copies - preserved in Vienna, Utrecht and London - are many decades later, but were found to contain no significant changes to the text. The discussion in general turned on how the copy preserved in Basel could be faithful to the original, dating back more than half a century earlier. With regard to the dates, it actually focused on only one, the year 1377, which is explicitly mentioned as that of the composition of the work. It is possible do that, but in doing so one must draw some consequences that are not easy to accept. The other dates are 1429, which would lead to different consequences, and possibly 1472, which are the dates of the oldest copies of John’s Tractatus among those preserved.

The chapters and the moralization

The Tractatus is a quite extensive work, but most of the text is given to the moralization, which understandably constituted the recurring core in preaching, while the initial part, for us the most interesting, because it documents the various types of playing cards, comprises only a few sentences. To get a more precise idea of the whole content of the work one can refer to the attestation present in the book all the individual chapters, as listed below according to a study of Pavle Bidev (5), with minor corrections arising from the control of the manuscript of the "virtual Library". [translator’s note, I have inserted my attempt at a translation of each chapter summary, straining considerably my poor grasp of Latin; the first five are adaptations of Betts’ translation as posted by Michael J. Hurst at ... ribus.html]
C. 3r: (Prima pars huius tractatus erit de materia ludi in se.) Et in capitulo primo erit mencio de materia ludi et de diversitate instrumentorum.
[(The first part of this treatise will be of the matter of the game in itself.) In chapter one will be stated the matter of the game and the diversity of instruments.]
C. 7v: In secundo capitulo declarabitur quod in ludo isto connotantur actus morum virtutum et viciorum.
[In the second chapter will be set forth that in this game there is a moral action of virtues and vices.]
C. l0r: In tertio capitulo declarabitur quod ludus iste valeat pro allevacione et requie laboratorum.
[In the third chapter it will be suggested that it is of service for relief and rest to labor.]
C. 12r: In quarto capitulo demonstrabitur quod ludus iste hominibus ociosis est utilis et quod valeat pro solacio eorum.
[In the fourth chapter it will be shown that it is useful for idle persons, and may be a comfort to them.]
C. 16r: In quinto capitulo ludus iste comparabitur statui mundi currentis quo ad actus nature simul et morum.
[In the fifth will be treated the state of the world, as it is, in respect to morals.]
5. P. Bidev Die Schachallegorie von Jacobus de Cessolis und die Spielkartenallegorie von Johannes von Rheinfelden. Igalo 1982.

C. 25v: In sexto capitulo manifestabitur quelibet pars aliquota numeri sexagesirni et proprietates ipsorum numerorum.
[In the sixth chapter will be demonstrated the aliquot parts of the number sixty, and the properties of numbers.]
C. 38r: (In ista secunda parte huius presentis tractatus que est de principibus seu nobilibus qui sunt in curia regis erunt quinque capitula.) Primum capitulum erit de rege et eius bonis condicionibus.
[(In this second part of this present treatise, which is of princes or nobles who are in the king's court, there will be five chapters.) The first chapter will be of the king and his good conditions.]
C. 65r: Secundum capitulum erit de regina et eius honestis moribus.
(The second chapter will be of the queen, and her honorable conduct.)
C. 81v: Tertium capitulum est de principali principe et eius diligenti providencia.
[The third chapter is of the chief prince and his diligent providence.
C. 100r: Quartum capitulum est de regimine principali et eius decenti prudencia.
[The fourth chapter is of the principal regimen [?] and its fitting prudence.
C. 104v: Quintum capitulum est de principe milicie et eius excellenti experiencia.
[The fifth Chapter is of the knights to the sovereign, and of their excellent experience.]
117v-117r. (In tertia parte huius presentis tractatus erunt 12 capitula.) Primum capitulum est de vulgaribus puta de mechanicis in generali et in confuso.
[(In the third part of this present treatise will be twelve chapters.) The first chapter is of the purely ordinary, of the mechanical in general and in confusion.]
C. 120r. Secundum capitulum est de hoc quod artes mechanice non fuissent in paradiiso.
[The second chapter is of the fact that the mechanical arts were not in paradise.]
C. 134r. Tercium capitulum est quod ut rex in mensa panem habeat indiget pistore molitore et agricolis.
[The third chapter is that so that the king have bread at table, he needs bakers, millers and farmers.]
C. 139r: Quartum capitulum quod ut rex vinum habeat indget cupario et vindemiatore cellerario seu pincernis.
[The fourth chapter, that so that the king have wine, he needs vat-maker and grape-gatherer, wine-maker or cup-bearers.
C. 145r: Quintum capitulum quod ut rex cibum regium habeat indiget mercatore carnifice piscatore venatore et cocis.
[The fifth chapter, that so that the king have royal food, he needs merchant, butcher, fisherman and cooks.]
C. 149v: Sextum capitulum quod ut rex vestes decentes habeat indiget sartore textore tinctore et qui lanam et fila tribuat.
[The sixth chapter, that so that the king have suitable clothes, he needs tailor, weaver, dyer, and those who bestow wool and thread.]
C. 153r: Septimum capitulum est quod ut rex calceos habeat decentes indiget cerdone carnifice pastore et qui calceos suat.
[The seventh chapter is that so that the king have suitable shoes, he needs cerdone [cobbler?], butcher, shepherd, and those who sew [?] shoes.]
C. 157v: Octavum capitulum est quod ut rex pellicia et varium habeat indiget venatore carnifice pastore et qui indumenta ex pellibus faciat.
[The eighth chapter is that so that the king have various furs [fur coats], he needs hunter, butcher, shepherd and those who make clothing from skins.]
C. 160v: Nonum capitulum est de fabris eorumque materiis et instrumentis.
[The ninth chapter is of the craftsmen of their materials and instruments.]
C. 167r: Decimum capitulum est de medicis eorumque regimine et medicinis.
[The tenth chapter is of the governance of physicians, their regimens and medicines.]
C. 171r: Undecimum capitulum est de aliis operariis puta de carpentariis cementariis pictoribus et lapicidis.
[The eleventh chapter is of other workers, such as carpenters, masons, painters and stone-cutters.]
C. 176r: Duodecimum capitulum est de sellatoribus equorumque pastoribus navibus et nautis.
[The twelfth chapter is of saddles [saddle-makers?], horses [horse-trainers?], shepherds, ships [ship-builders?] and sailors.]
It is thus found that the Tractatus was structured in three parts, the first divided into six chapters, the second five, the third twelve. As can be seen from the list of titles, the chapters have very different lengths, with a larger portion understandably dedicated to kings and queens. As a rule, at the beginning of each chapter a large white space in the margins is left for the insertion of the corresponding figures (which could also give us a more precise sense of the playing cards, if the program were completed).

Evidently the association between each card and the corresponding personage, exemplifying an entire category of professions and trades, occurs in groups, since the deck of cards taken as the base contains sixty. In particular, after the first part, devoted to a presentation of the game, the picture cards are used in the second part to associate them to noble personages of the court, while in the third part the number cards are used to associate the various trades and professions of the lower classes, grouping typically four examples per chapter.

One of the oldest packs of cards among those kept in the territories of the Empire may be useful for displaying a similar association of the various personages of society with playing cards, precisely of this genre: This is the notable Ambraser Hofämterspiel, a deck of 48 cards of the mid-fifteenth century, preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, one, if not the only one, among the old decks that have down to us in which even on the pip cards of the four suits different personages are depicted.

Here we are not interested in the details of the moralization, but it is especially this specific association to which we must attend. After indicating the presence of packs of cards of various structure and numbers of cards that vary over a wide range, the author decides that the deck of cards best suited for his purposes is one containing sixty cards.

The number sixty is very important and as everyone knows was adopted by the Babylonians for the numbering system that survives today in the case of minutes and seconds, fractions of a degree for angles and of the hour for time. Perhaps the preference for that number could also extend to the most suitable choice for playing cards. As regards the structure and composition, it is evident that a deck of 60 playing cards could be usefully formed in numerous ways: in addition to the "normal" case of four suits of 15 cards, it could have had 12 cards in five suits or even 10 cards for six different suits. In any case, it appears highly unlikely that any theoretical preferences of the monk could be of any practical influence on the choices of players.

Brother John imitates Brother Jacob; this is not surprising; both were Dominican preachers. John had the Treatise on moralized chess available, and this is impossible to doubt, also considering the enormous circulation enjoyed by the Liber, and not just

in the convents. The large circulation was motivated by an interest in the specific moralization, with all society analyzed and described in its social structure based on its vertical rules [vertici regali]. Perhaps even more, those manuscripts were sought because of the game of chess; in fact the content on playing technique is very low, but at the time when those circulated, copies of true chess manuals were in fact unknown, except for some collections of problems and game endings, like the Bonus Socius (Good Companion), used especially useful to win bets.

The transition from chess to cards, to transfer the moralization of Jacob, is not a trivial matter. For chess it was easy to argue that it was a pleasant and intelligent game, while saying something similar about cards required a lot of courage, especially considering everything that was being said, or had been, to the contrary, by the Franciscan preachers. In popular tradition, the vision of the Dominicans as severe defenders of orthodoxy in contrast to the charitable Franciscans in solidarity with the poor. Their attitude towards games appears inverted, with the Franciscans showing themselves more severe; thanks to this type of reversal, at least towards games, in our case the Dominicans seem more "modern" (even if, to be sure, that is not enough to forgive them for previous struggles against real or alleged heretics conducted in a bestial manner, as true "dogs of the lord" [domini cane], as they sometimes were called).

The book by Jacob can also be associated with an enhancement of chess, but it was already recognized as a noble game; enhancing playing cards instead demanded a strong conviction, putting the author in a reckless position, at least to the extent of being able thus to see his book burned on the market square in one of the Bonfires of the Vanities. One must in fact appreciate additionally the commitment of John, even his courage: the originality of the moralization is not extraordinary, as it had been for the previous Jacob, the pioneer he took as his example, but it is great to pass from the easy basis of chess to found the allegories on a much weaker set.

The Cards

The point of our exclusive interest is related to the initial description of the cards, which is of such importance as to require the reproduction of the entire passage in which they are described.
C. 3r. Incipit tractatus de moribus et disciplina humane conversationis. Et in capitulo primo erit mencio de materia ludi et de diversitate instrumentorum. Circa ludum qui ab hominibus ludus cartularum appellatur diversi diversimode ipsas cartulas depingunt et alio et alio modo ludunt in ipsis. Nam communis forma et sicut primo pervenit ad nos est talis quod quatuor reges depinguntur in quatuor cartulis quorum quilibet sedet in regali solio. Et aliquod certum signum quilibet habet in manu. Ex quibus signis aliqua reputantur signa, bona, alia auten malum significant. Sub quibus duo marschalchi sunt quorum primus sursum signum tenet in manu eodem modo ut rex, alius autem idem signum tenet pendenter in manu. Postea sunt alie decem cartule eiusdem quantitatis et forme ab extra. In quarum prima predictum signum regis ponitur semel, infra bis et sic consequenter de aliis usque ad decimam cartulam inclusive, in qua decies predicta signa regum ponuntur. Et sic quilibet rex est met(?) tertiusdecimus. Et erunt in simul cartule omnes quiquaginta due. Postea sunt alii qui eodem modo ludum faciunt de reginis et cum tottidem cartulis ut de regibus iam dictum est. Similiter sunt alii qui cartulas seu ludum sic ordinant quod sunt duo reges cum marschalchis aliisque cartulis suis <sequentibus prelato. Et sic variatur ludus iste in forma et materia a multis>. Et due regine eodem modo cum suis. Item aliqui recipiunt V reges, alii sex quilibet cum marschalchis, aliisque cartulis suis secundum quod cuilibet prelato. Et sic variatur ludus iste in forma et materia a multis.

[(Betts/Bond translation, except first sentence:) C. 3r. Begins the treatise on morals and the rule of human conduct. In the game which men call the game of cards they paint the cards in different manners, and they play with them in one way and another. For the common form and as it first came to us is thus, viz. four kings are depicted on four cards, each of whom sits on a royal throne. And each one holds a certain sign in his hand, of which signs some are reputed good, but others signify evil. Under which kings are two ' marschalli,' the first of whom holds the sign upwards in his hand, in the same manner as the king; but the other holds the same sign downwards in his hand. After this are other ten cards, outwardly of the same size and shape, on the first of which the aforesaid king's sign is placed once; on the second twice; and so on with the others up to the tenth card inclusive. And so each king becomes the thirteenth, and there will be altogether fifty-two cards. Then there are others who in the same manner play, or make the game, of queens, and with as many cards as has been already said of the kings. There are also others who so dispose the cards or the game that there are two kings, with their ' marschalli' and other cards, and two queens with theirs in the same manner. Again, some take five, others six kings, each with his 'marschalli' and his other cards, according as it pleases them, and thus the game is varied in form [and matter] by many.]
The variety of cases presented is much higher than what one would expect on the basis of a new game just arrived from outside, as documented for example in Viterbo a couple of years later. Here it is spoken of a pack of the most common cards that arrived first and of other variants developed later, with the participation of female pesonages, and with different numbers of cards, even divided into more than four suits. All this evidence would seem necessarily to involve a period of time not too short, rather than documenting the moment of arrival of a new game.

We cannot immediately accept the hypothesis that the description of playing cards by Brother John is not that of his hand in 1377, but was inserted later by some later copyist and maybe by that very monk who in 1429 compiled the earliest preserved copy. In the corresponding page there are not obvious additions and also reading

the text one does not sense changes in the logical train of thought or other variations in style that would allow suspicion of a modification of the text after its initial compilation. In short, the reason why one comes to assume that the description of playing cards of Brother John corresponds to the year 1429 does not result from doubts born from reading the text, but can be traced back to the desire to avoid the complications arising from admitting that all those cards from various types of game were already present in the year 1377. The problem is all here. One can accept that the entire description is dated to 1377, not finding evidence to the contrary from the examination of the text; but if we accept this easy interpretation, we are obliged to draw some consequences, ones far from easy to accept.

Bitter argument among historians

After several brief quotations in earlier bibliographies, the first major description of the Tractatus is in 1878 (6); in that study all the essential information is already present. The author, Edward Augustus Bond, later appointed Sir, was a more than qualified person, as he was describing the copy of the Tractatus preserved in London right in the British Museum, in which he held the post of Principal Librarian 1873-1888.

The notice did not escape the historians of playing cards, and among the various citations must be reported at least one present in the important book by Schreiber (7), in which the dating of 1377 for cards is accepted, but only for the 52-card deck: "Es ist doch ganz undenkbar, daß im Jahre 1377, in dem das Kartenspiel zuerst in Basel bekannt wurde, schon so viele Varianten ersonnen sein sollten" [It is quite inconceivable that in 1377, when the card game first became known in Basel, so many variants should already have been devised.] The Tractatus was later at the center of a prolonged discussion among a few historians, who also achieved high levels of aggression. Hellmut Rosenfeld in his extensive study, which devoted a small space to the book in question, concluded that "Die früheste Handschrift freilich stammt aus dem Jahre 1429 und hat die inzwischen entwickelten Spielvarianten in den Text eingefügt" [The earliest manuscript of course, comes from the year 1429 and has meanwhile developed game variations inserted into the text] (8). In the same article he wrote that a
6. E. A. Bond, The Athenaeum, No. 2621, 19 Jan. 1878, 87-88.
7. W. L. Schreiber, Die ältesten Spielkarten und die auf das Kartenspiel Bezug habenden Urkunden des 14. und 15. Jahrhunderts. Strassburg 1937.
8. H. Rosenfeld, Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, 52 (1970) 353-371.

discussion stimulated by him was not completed. What is interesting here is the opposition of Rosenfeld to accepting the year 1377 for the description of those playing cards: the friar who compiled the copy of 1429 would have updated the text by adapting it to the situation as it had developed since then. A considerable subsequent intervention came with a long article by Peter Kopp published in a Swiss journal of archeology and art history (9). The article in question discusses especially several old Swiss cards, but in the historical introduction gives value both to a document of Berne 1367 and the Tractatus of 1377 at issue here. The study is presented very accurately, with the transcription of the text of interest, also providing notes with textual variants in the other preserved manuscript copies. The problem of whether it is too early to observe all those playing cards does not arise, as Kopp believed that they were already in circulation for some time. (Among other things, in that study he emphasizes the sharp contrast in the attitude towards the game, positive by Jacob and John, negative by Bernardino and Capistrano, wrongly considered in the same order.) To this position Rosenfeld responded with a brief comment in the same Swiss journal (10), in which appeared later also a defense of his position by Kopp with an editorial note that he intends to close that unusually prolonged discussion (11).

The two historians debated more points, but on the question under examation did not refute the date of 1377, passing to that of 1429 for the composition of all the Tractatus; the two roads forked because of one thing: they could agree that the Tractatus was in 1377, limiting themselvs to choosing between 1377 and 1429 only for the description of the playing cards. If 1377 is chosen, it is assumed that the same Brother John has described the cards as soon as they arrived in Basel; if 1429 is chosen, it is admitted that the description of those playing cards was not present in the original manuscript but only interpolated into the copy, done more than half a century later. Among other scholars who have studied the problem we must at least mention, for his great authority on any matter, the intervention of
9. P. F. Kopp, Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte, 30 (1973), 130-145.
10. H. Rosenfeld, Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte, 32 (1975), 179-180.
11. P. F. Kopp, Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte, 33 (1976), 67-68.

Michael Dummett (12), who recapitulated the various positions and concluded that "my personal inclination is to think that Dr. Rosenfeld has more of the truth of the matter". As usual, Dummett masterfully summarized the problem: the first cards described perfectly match today's deck of 52 cards, except for the variation of the two marshals present instead of queens and jacks. The appearance of the other decks, however, was compatible with German cards known only by the next century. In particular, today it would not be possible to reconstruct an original that would not include in the initial presentation these "subsequent" packs, because the whole moralization is not based on the "original" deck, but on one of sixty cards.

As if there had not been sufficient discussion between Kopp and Rosenfeld, a third author accustomed to controversy, Pavle Bidev, Serbian chess historian, inserted himself forcefully into the discussion, mainly to combat Rosenfeld’s theory of playing cards coming from the Arab world, which instead were born in Spain, as he argued in the study mentioned above. In Bidev’s writings the polemics are recurrent, and more unusually fiery stands are presented even in contrast to his own contributions written at different times. However, the study by Bidev cited is among the few that gives serious consideration to the Tractatus and discusses it in full, in parallel with its predecessor in chess, the Liber of Jacob of Cessole.

Later, a discussion also took place in this regard in the official journal of the International Playing Card Society, and it may not be surprising considering the importance of the date of 1377 for the history of playing cards in Europe. It is three short articles, very short but quite important for us. The first was written by Ronald Decker and concluded that the Tractatus was originally written not in 1377 but later, at a date to the early fifteenth century, if not close to the 1429 of the copy (13). The main reason, as with all those who have problems accepting 1377, is that there existed too many variants for a game that had just then arrived. However, compared to other historians who had taken positions on it, Decker added a couple of interesting points. The first has to do with reading, in which he suggests a possible error of transcription by the scribe of the single sentence that in the
12. M. Dummett, The Game of Tarot. London 1980, 10-12.]
13. R. Decker, The Playing Card, Vol. 18 No. 2 (1989) 46-47 [online at For succeeding pages click on "next" button].

Tractatus introduces the cards: “Hinc est quod quidam ludus qui ludus cartarum appellatur hoc anno ad nos pervenit viz. Anno domini m.ccc.lxxvij” [Hence it is that that game which is called the game of cards this year to us came, viz. Year of the lord m.ccc.lxxvij]. It would not be for Decker to suggest an interpolation of additional phrases inserted in the original period but simply a different reading of “in hoc anno”: only this, that it was the result of a copying mistake such that 1377 remains true for the arrival of cards, but not for the compilation of the Tractatus containing their description. The reconstructed sentence of the original would then be read as follows: “Hinc est quod quidam ludus qui ludus cartarum appellatur ad nos pervenit in Anno domini m.ccc.lxxvij” [Hence it is that a certain game, called the game of cards, came to us in the year of our Lord m.ccc.lxxvij]. In essence it is not a completely absurd hypothesis, though it remains precisely in the field of hypotheses and would require some independent confirmation.

Decker’s other useful consideration comes from a simple reflection on the author: considering his profession, he was not with security the most suitable observer for reporting with immediacy the "technical" innovations that were developing among card players. The conditions of the card games presented plausibly appears the result of observations carried out logically in the course of a rather long period of time; and for a friar the time needed to become aware of these developments would have been even longer. Perhaps Decker presents this as of secondary importance in his contributions, yet it remains the easiest to share.

In the next issue of the journal, a letter of comment was published by the author of important books about card games, David Parlett, who drew attention to the fact that Bond had already reported the presence in the Tractatus of more clues and information on contemporareous facts which independently made the dating of the book to 1377 convincing (14). Soon after, the same journal published a letter with Decker's response to the comments of Parlett (15); pushed by the recall of the historical facts mentioned in the book, he identified a significant event in precisely 1429, which led him to suggest that the manuscript of 1429 had been copied from the original only a few months after the drafting of the latter.

After the description in his seminal book, Dummett added to the debate in his Italian book, quoting and commenting also
14. D. Parlett, The Playing Card, Vol. 18 No. 3 (1990) 73.[Online starting For succeeding pages click on "next" button.
15. R. Decker, The Playing Card, Vol. 19 No. 1 (1990) 20-21. [Online starting]

on the contributions that in the meantime had appeared in The Playing Card (16).

Remaining in the field of historians who have contributed professionally to the playing card field, the opinion of Gherardo Ortalli must be remembered, who, also accepting the basic criticism of Rosenfeld, considered it reasonable to assign the dating of playing cards in the form documented to 1429, the date of the copy (17).

[Translator’s note: the text from Dummett’s Game of Tarot is reproduced at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1094#p16817, search "Game of Tarot pp. 11-12" . The relevant passages of Decker, Parlett, Decker again, and Dummett’s Italian book (with translation) are two posts later, at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1094#p16827.]

After these interventions and the corresponding discussions, there have been other analyses and stances. Probably the most important is in the catalog of an exhibition of Swiss cards edited by Detlef Hoffmann, one of the most important historians of playing cards at the academic level. In fact the main contribution in this regard, in the catalog of the exhibition, was made by Arne Jönssen; then for many years he continued to study the Tractatus in order to publish a complete critical edition, which should now be in print, or soon published. As for dating, Arne Jönssen prefers to consider 1377 the true one, not only for the redaction of the text in general, but also to the specific description of playing cards of the period (18). The conclusion of Jönssen is presented, unlike many others, based on a careful examination of the text preserved in the various copies and quite independently of bias resulting from acceptance of one preliminary hypothesis or another on the initial diffusion of playing cards.

In conclusion, the uncertainty between considering 1377 or 1429 as the dates associated with the playing cards described in the Tractatus remains, and unfortunately the decision between one or the other is not not usually dictated by considerations of text analysis, but depends essentially on how the two dates would fit into a preconceived vision of the initial evolution of the playing cards.

There are in fact two roads open for the interpretation of this document, and between the two any compromise solution does not seem possible. Either you choose one path or the other. Obviously, it is impossible for the two opposing interpretations to both be valid, precisely because of their difference. Unfortunately, it seems that the criterion that helps in choosing one of the two has little scientific basis or logic; for now it is almost as if one had to choose between two religions: you have to make a leap of faith. Once you have made the leap into the void, and only then,
16. M. Dummett, Il mondo e l’angelo, Naples 1993, 23-25.
17. G. Ortalli, Ludica 2 (1996), 175.
18. D. Hoffmann (editor), Schweizer Spielkarten 1: Die Anfänge im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert. Schaffhausen 1998, 135-147. [For a summary of this and others, see]

can the new "believer" receive the satisfaction derived from the vision of a landscape that finally presents itself clearly and consistently. However, before the Court decides in which direction to take that first step, the problem is right there.

Probably the most convinced advocate in favor of the date of 1377 today is Lothar Teikemeier (19), who has discussed the question again after reporting that a complete copy of the Basel manuscript was made available through the Internet (20); in the same forum the discussion continued both on the implications of the dates in the Tractatus and on some remaining doubts about the composition itself of some decks reported in the Tractatus, especially involving Huck and Mikeh. It should also be reported that Teikemeier holds that already in 1377 a multiplicity of models for playing cards does not create any problem, since he has been convinced for some time that cards were used earlier in other European regions, especially in Bohemia (21). Again on these other reconstructions it would be good to do a study of verification.


A moralization of playing cards by a Dominican monk known as Johannes von Rheinfelden was commented on, with frequently debated interpretations among interested historians. At the base of the study and the discussions are mainly two dates, 1377, indicated for the original manuscript under review, and 1429, the year of the oldest copy preserved. The description of playing cards at the beginning of this book would be quite compatible with what we know from other sources for the year 1429, but there are no obvious traces of subsequent interpolation in the original text. If vice versa it is considered that the cards could be present in the variety of types already in 1377 in the center of Europe, it becomes almost essential to assume a rather long and wide diffusion also for earlier times and more distant regions than
so far documented with certainty, requiring assumptions to be verified and documented as far as possible. A more valid judgment on the
20. viewtopic.php?f=11&t=345&start=250#p16440

historical contribution of this extraordinary Tractatus can only be derived after a more extensive reconstruction of the initial diffusion of playing cards in Europe, but if it is accepted that in Basel such different decks of cards were already widely used by the population in 1377, the times and locations yet to be explored expand very much, against expectation.

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