Sunday, November 6, 2016

June 2, 2016: before 1377? Poland

Translator's introduction.
(by Michael S. Howard}

This is the second in a series in which Franco investigates alleged references to playing cards before 1377 in different European countries. The first was Italy, at; now we have Poland, translated from Besides Franco's summaries, I am indebted to a friend who is a native speaker of Polish, but not a linguist, for the translations of the passages in Polish.

In the first text Franco cites, there is reference to a game of "bones". The same word in Polish means both "bones" and "dice", and both indicate games. Bones, my friend says, is a game of skill in which the player throws a bone into the air and then has to rearrange a group of other bones on the ground in a complex geometrical pattern, then catching the bone in the air. These days the game is still played--also in Italy, Franco tells me--but in Poland at least, with stones rather than bones.

All the material in brackets (sometimes double brackets) is from me or my friend. I first posted this translation at My own comments on Franco's note are combined with comments on Franco's companion essay on Bohemia, as listed on the right-hand side of the blog-page.

Playing cards in Europe before 1377? - Poland
 (by Franco Pratesi)


The study presented here, related to the early history of playing cards in Europe, has a rather distant origin that can be fixed in the year 1377; in that year for the first time in Italy there was certain documentation from Florence on the spread of playing cards. For the same year we have information from Basel contained in the Tractatus of John of Rheinfelden; but in that case there is some uncertainty whether on the evidence of the existence of multiple types of playing cards, it should be attributed to 1377 (a date that some experts only allow for the original drafting of the main part of the work), or 1429, the date of the first copy known today. If we lend credence to the description in the Tractatus of playing cards already present in such a variety of types in Basel of 1377, it becomes mandatory to reconstruct as far as possible the preceding path. One possible origin has been suggested of Prague (1), based on a nineteenth century book on commerce in the kingdom of Bohemia (2). In that same book he states in particular the following:
Die ältesten zuverlässigen Nachrichten vom Gebrauche der Spielkarten in Böhmen finden sich im Jahre 1340 vor, allein da solche schön früher, wie dies Urkunden darthun, von polnischen Edelleuten zum Zeitvertreibe angewendet wurden, ....

[The oldest reliable news of the use of playing cards in Bohemia can be found in 1340, but, as documents show, already earlier they were used by Polish noblemen for pastimes ....]
Thus not only in Bohemia were games played with cards already in 1340 according to information worthy of belief, but Polish nobles would have played cards to pass the time in previous years. The plausibility, or less, of the information derived from those documents for Bohemia stands in part on examining if really they passed a long time wandering in the Kingdom of Bohemia of those years, on investigating these possibly nonexistent playing cards. Meanwhile, I can present an investigation for confirmations relative
2. F. L. Hübsch, Versuch einer Geschichte des böhmischen Handels [Attempt at an Investigation of Bohemian Commerce], Prague 1849.

only to Poland, on the basis of the writings of Polish authors who have dealt with playing cards.

We can begin our review with the oldest manual of card games among those under examination; the author published this book (3) under the pseudonym of Old Player (Stary Gracz, see Fig. 1); in recent bibliographies he has been identified as Piotr Jaksa Bykowski, but some copies printed in the same year reported the author's name as Stanislaw Kozietulski. As for us, we can definitely be satisfied with the pseudonym, save for one comment about it: after this Polish book about card games appeared another, with another pseudonym for the author. The fact that these authors were using pseudonyms (with clear reference to the first on the part of the second) does not attest fully to their reliability: writing under a pseudonym, one is freer to make questionable claims, with reduced liability. We have to bear that in mind a little when uutilizing the information that can be drawn from them.

The book under review is a manual of card games that has the advantage, important for us, of being provided with a historical introduction in which various notices are collected. I copy below what is most interesting for us.
Gra sie u nas rozpowszechnila w polowie wieku XVI, wszakze nie wzmogla sie tak, jak w innych krajach, gdzie ja scigano prawem. Satyrycy zas nasi i kaznodzieje do tej pory potepiaja koster ów, pijaków i biesiadników, ale o kartach milcz. Widocznie i u nas - koscie poprzedzily karty, bo konstytucya 1593 r. pierwszy raz nadmienia o graczach w koscie czyli t. zw. kosterach, ze ich „nigdzie zaden urzad cierpiec nie ma, ale takowych kazdego stanu po upomnieniti pierwszem i wtórem, a za truciem rózgami - bijac wygnac precz z miasta. Snadz kartownicy jeszcze sie wówczas nie rozpowsiechnili, kiedy o nich glucho w prawie i w satyrykach. Zdaje sie, iz zycie przodków lowieckie, obozowei sejmikowe, zycie gwarlhej pogadanki byloprze- - byloprzeciwnem jednostajnosci prózniaczej zabaw karcianych. Dopiero w 2-ej polowie XVI wieku, pisarze wspominaj o kartach: ... W karty grywano najpierwej u dworu. ... W XVII stuleciu gra w karty rozpowszechnila sie po calym kraju.

[Translator's note: Even for a native speaker, this text soon becomes difficult, with many words too archaic to identify precisely, especially in the quotation from 1593 (starting with quotation marks. My friend, not being a specialist, offers an approximation for parts using archaic wording (which includes even some of the 19th century part), but faithful to the general meaning. On the game of "bones", see my comment at the beginning of the post.]

[The game in our country spread in the mid-sixteenth century, but not as intensely as in other countries, where it was prosecuted. Satirists and preachers until now criticize kosters, drunks and revelers, but of cards stay silent. Apparently, with us - dice [or bones, koscie] preceded cards because Konstytucya [Constitution, but there was no Constitution of that date, so the law], 1593, first mentions dice [or bones] players, that is, kosters, with their “anywhere the magistrate would not endure them [would not want them] so after the first chastising and after the second chastising and after the beating [flogging] they just throw them out of town.["] Apparently kartownicy [card players] had not yet spread [multiplied] when there was no mention about them in the law and in the satirical papers. It seems that life and ancestral hunting, participating in legislative gatherings and lively discussions was the opposite from the monotonous, idle and pointless time spent playing card. Only in the 2nd half of the sixteenth century do writers mention the cards ... First card games were played in court [a word that may refer to, or include, country estates]. ... In the seventeenth century, playing cards spread all over the country.
3. Stary Gracz, Gry w karty dawniejsze i nowe dokladne sposoby ich prowadzenia, poprzedzone krótka historya kart [Old Player, The oldest card games and new ways of playing them accurately, preceded by a short history of cards.] Warsaw 1888. pp. 9-13.

Figure 1: Frontispiece of the first book studied (see, p. 3)

For times after those of our interest, in a part not copied, the author also mentions several popular song titles in which playing cards were mentioned. The fact, decisive for our research, is that the information starts with the mid-sixteenth century. The few readers who were not able to follow the entire reasoning can simply focus on the beginning and the end, claiming something of the following sort: "The game spread with us in the mid-sixteenth century. ... They played cards first at court. ...In the seventeenth century playing cards were scattered across the country. "

Wytrawny Graz 1930

After the Old Player, we arrive at the Veteran (wytrawny) Player (4), in whom I hope that the attribute is limited to emphasizing his long experience and not the possibly associated wear. Unfortunately, passing from the one player to the other, almost half a century later, historical knowledge seems to go backwards, because here we do not find information on the initial spread in Poland but vague repetitions of old legends that go back to the French court and the Gypsies.
Poczatek gry w karty siega XV stulecia, t. j. chwili przybycia cyganów do Europy. Ogólnie zas karty staly se glosnemi od chwili wprowadzenia ich jako jedyny na ówczas srodek leczniczy, uspakajacy wariacie Karola VI Szalonego. Jak nastepnie karty rozwinely nastepnie goraczke gry i zlota, najlepszem swiadectwem sluzyc moze panowanie Ludwika Swietego, który kara batogów karcil gre we Francji. W XIII juz wiec stuleciu spotykamy gre te bardzo rozwinieta. ... W Neapolu i dzis napotkac mozemy przecietnego gondoliera, który bez wachania lata calej swobody swej stawi na jedna karte.

[The beginnings of card-playing games date back to the fifteenth century, i.e. to the arrival of the Gypsies in Europe. Generally cards became famous after they were introduced as the only remedy to calm the lunatic king Charles VI the Mad. As to how then card games developed into a fever of card-playing and gold [i.e. gambling], the best testimony can be served by the reign of Louis the Holy, who imposed the punishment of lashing to chastise the players in France. Already in the thirteenth century card games already were highly developed. ...In Naples even today we may meet an average gondolier who, without hesitation puts years of his freedom [i.e. his earnings] on one card.]
The historical introduction appears in this case is completely unreliable. He begins by saying that card games began in the fifteenth century and, after some digression through the French court, at the end of the period tells us that the game is found extensively developed in the thirteenth century. The author, in a part not copied of what follows, adds a welcome nod to the origin by the Saracens and previous Chinese and Japanese games with ivory tablets. Not content with this, he even dates the players (we cannot presume the cards) back to ancient Rome, recalling episodes reported by Horace and Tacitus. The overview is rounded off by an example of his era, similarly significant, criticizing the excessive attachment to the game by a typical Neapolitan gondolier. In short, if this is history, it should at least be considered fictionalized history.
4. Wytrawny Gracz, Gry w karty polskie i obce. Najdokladniejszy przewodnik gier. [Veteran {or Consummate} Player, Card games Polish and foreign. The most accurate guide to the games]. Warsaw 1930.

Andrzej Hamerlinski-Dzierozynski 1976

The richest Polish treatise on card games that I know is that of Andrzej Hamerlinski-Dzierozynski (5); for our purposes I cannot imagine a work more suitable than this. For one thing, the book (see Fig. 2) contains an unusually high number of pages, indeed 421; but the decisive advantage over all the other studies reviewed is that this book is not a manual of card games provided with a historical introduction, but rather is dedicated entirely to the history of card games in Poland.

Figure 2 - Cover of the most complete book
5. A. Hamerlinski-Dzierozynski, O kartach, karciarzach, grach poczciwych i grach szulerskich : szkice obyczajowe z wieków [About cards, card players, kind-hearted games and shady games: moral sketches of the 15th-19th centuries]. 15.-19. Krakow 1976.

I am not in step with the times but cannot imagine that there have been major publications since then (apart from any recent reprints of even older books than those reviewed here); for those interested in Polish card games, the first obligatory reference is now the usually extraordinary site by John McLeod (6). However, I do not think a richer book than this could be released in the field of our specific interest. In short, our task is reduced to looking at this important book for information useful for the most ancient times, to which the entire first chapter is dedicated, pages 7-29. In fact, much less is sufficient for being able to do the verification, because the systematic exposition begins early in the sixteenth century, which surely does not concern us here, and continues into times still more recent to us. Everything needed is in the first two pages; which I copy below.
Jeszcze sie w Polsce nikomu o kartach nie snilo, gdy nad Renem i Sekwana, za Alpami i Pirenejami owladnela juz ludzmi szulerska namietnosc. Owladnela tak gwaltownie, ze roku 1379 sw. Bernard ze Sieny az klatwe na karciarzy cisnal, ten i ów monarcha musial edyktem poskramiac nadmierny hazard, a dostojnicy duchowni nieraz surowe napomnienia slali do klasztorów, gdzie braciszkowie, zapomniawszy obowiazków reguly i godzin modlitwy, bezwstydnie trawili czas na grze. Podpisywali tedy królowie i ksiazeta Kosciola potepiajace pisma jedna reka – a druga siegali do skrzyn, by nierzadko bajeczne sumy placic za talie przedziwnie piekne, zdobne filigranem gotyckich ornamentów, w mozolnym trudzie dlugich miesiecy komponowane przez najbardziej bieglych mistrzów wykwintnej miniatury, a pózniej za urzekajace swa uroda renesansowe cacka, kunsztownie malowane na malych, sklejonych warstwami tekturkach. Gdy zas w polowie XV wieku rysunek zaczeto odbijac z drewnianej formy i takie spod stempla dobyte karty star czylo recznie juz tylko zabarwic – na zaraze zbraklo lekarstwa; rozpanoszyla sie po calej Europie. Wtedy tez wtargnela i do Polski. Przywiezli ja ludzie, którzy najczesciej i najdluzej bywali poza krajem – dyplomaci, duchowni, kupcy. Nie tylko oni zreszta. Takze wedrowni bakalarze, scholarowie, uniwersyteckie obiezyswiaty. Bo przeciez to wlasnie z kregu krakowskiej Al-mae Matris pochodzi jedna z pierwszych u nas – jesli nie najpierwsza – wzmianka o kartach: zwiezly zakaz ich uzywania zawarty w artykule De ludorum abstinentia ogloszonych roku panskiego 1456 ustaw bursy „Jeruzalem”. Grywali wiec w karty nasi przodkowie (a raczej: karty grawali - tak sie wtedy mówilo) juz w pietnastym stuleciu. Znal je dwór wawelski, znal

uniwersytet, znaly najwieksze miasta, Kraków zas przed innymi. A i na pierwszego wladce-karciarza nie musielismy dlugo czekac. Byl nim Zygmunt Stary.

[In Poland, no one yet dreamed of cards, when at the Rhine and the Seine, the Alps and the Pyrenees, crowds were already overtaken by the card-playing craze. A craze so sudden that already in 1379 St. Bernard of Siena hurled a curse at the gamblers, and the ruler had to restrain excessive gambling by issuing an edict; clergy and dignitaries often sent harsh admonitions to the monasteries, where the brothers, forgetting the rules of the monastery and the schedules of prayer, shamelessly spent time on the game. The kings and princes of the Church signed the condemning letters with one hand - and with the other paid often fabulous sums for beautiful decks, with gothic ornamentation, composed in the arduous toil of long months by the most skillful masters of exquisite miniatures, and later Renaissance masterpieces, artfully painted on small pieces of hard paper, glued together in layers. When in the middle of the fifteenth century they began to make woodcuts from a wooden mold and the only thing left to do was to color them by hand, there were so many decks that it was a "plague" of card playing – for this plague there was no medicine, and the plague reigned over Europe. Then the card playing craze also invaded Poland. It was brought by the people who most often traveled and stayed outside the country - diplomats, clergymen, merchants. Also itinerant bachelors, scholars, people who traveled from one university to another. Because certainly it is precisely the circle of Krakow's Alma Mater from which comes one of the first - if not the very first - mentions of cards: the concise ban on their use contained in the article "De Ludorum abstinentia", announced in the year of our Lord 1456 in the set of rules of the student residence "Jerusalem". So they played cards, our ancestors, already in the fifteenth century. The Wawel court knew the cards, the university knew them, the largest cities knew them, Krakow before others. We did not have to have to wait long for the first card player ruler. It was Sigismund the Old.]
I am bound to an uncertain literal translation but I can summarize the essentials. The beginning is not very promising because it makes the preaching of San Bernardino exactly one year before his birth, but it says that the cards (like the plague he had mentioned earlier) arrived in Poland from the west, and what happened when the game was already widely practiced in its countries of origin. It makes a distinction between the original cards, necessarily of great value to the richness of the materials and the necessary processes, and the more common ones produced using wooden molds, spreading from the middle of the fifteenth century. The cards are spread throughout the population, but more frequently among those who have more opportunities to travel abroad (diplomats, clergy, merchants, students). The first certified is precisely among the students in a circle of the University of Krakow, where a brief ban on their use is found included as De Ludorum abstinentia in the regulations of the student residence "Jerusalem" in 1456. Once the game had spread to these areas, there was not a long wait, because they had their first card player ruler: Sigismund I the Old (1467-1548).

Richard Sabela 1990

Some more readily accessible notices can be found by making another step forward in time and resorting to the study of Richard Sabela, dedicated precisely to the beginning of card games in the Polish kingdom: "Über die Anfänge der Spielkarten im Königreich Polen des XV und XVI Jahrhunderts" [On the beginnings of playing cards in the Polish Kingdom of the 15th and 16th centuries”] (7); it is an article of few pages, but it systematically collects all the notices that we are looking for. The first documented date for the playing cards in Poland is reported as 1456, corresponding to an order to the students already met for the University of Krakow. Until the year 1500 there are indicated only six testimonies tor card games in Poland; the center is again Krakow, but there are involvements by citizens of Wroclaw in 1482,
7. R. Sabela, The Playing Card , Vol. XVIII, No. 4 (1990) 121-127. [Online at For succeeding pages, click on the "next" button.]

the princely Hungarian court in 1498, and the city of Neisse in Silesia as a source for two active papermakers in Krakow in 1499. The part essential for our study is reproduced below.
Die schriftlich nachweisbare Geschichte der Spielkarten in Polen beginnt 1456, also zur Zeit der dortigen Renaissance, die auf die Jahre zwischen 1450 und 1600 datiert wird. ...Krakau, die damalige Hauptstadt Polens und Sitz seiner Könige, entwickelte sich zum bedeutenden internationalen Handels- und Kulturzentrum... Eine wichtige Rolle für die wissenschaftliche und kulturelle Entwicklung Polens spielte in dieser Zeit die Jaggellonen-Universität zu Krakau. Sie entstand 1364 als zweite in Mittelleuropa, 16 Jahre nach der ersten deutschsprachigen in Prag. Im XV Jahrhundert war die Krakauer Universität schon eine international anerkannte Bildungsstätte. ...In dieser internationalen Atmosphäre konnten selbstverständlich die Spielkarten nicht fehlen. Die erste, bisher bekannte Erwähnung der Spielkarten in Polen trennen zwar von jenem berühmten Verbot aus Florenz ganze 79 Jahre, dafür aber “... in Krakau der Renaissance haben alle Karten gekloppt. Vom Monarch bis zun letzten Pauper”. ... 1456 In ‘De ludorum abstinentia’, einer Hausordnung des Studentenheims ‘Jerusalem’ der Krakauer Universität wird das Benutzen von Spielkarten verboten.

[The history of playing cards in Poland demonstrable in writing begins in 1456, during the period of the local Renaissance, which dates to the years 1450-1600. ... Krakow, the former capital of Poland and the seat of its kings, developed into a major international commercial and cultural center . ...At this time the Jaggellon University in Krakow played an important role in the scientific and cultural development of Poland.. It was created in 1364 as the second in Central Europe, 16 years after the first German-speaking one in Prague. In the 15th century Krakow University was already an internationally recognized educational institution. ...In this international atmosphere playing cards could of course not be missing. The first known mention thus far of playing cards in Poland separates it from that famous prohibition of Florence by a whole 79 years, but "... in Krakow of the Renaissance, cards have hit everyone. From the monarch to the last pauper ". ...1456 In 'De Ludorum abstinentia' of the house rules of the student residence 'Jerusalem' of Krakow University the use of playing cards is prohibited.]

Studying the treatise of John of Rheinfelden and then the book of Hübsch, it was not enough to pass from the Rhine to Bohemia; Another ancient kingdom has been brought up, that of Poland, which brings us to another area in the East of Europe; by itself, that cannot disturb [us], because just to the East, even in Asia, it is known that playing cards originally were born and propagated. In this area, however, something contrasting is met. Nobles called Polish are summoned in the cause because they could live in comfort and possibly use the cards to stave off boredom; but these nobles were the same who boasted of their superior culture, closer to South-central Europe than to that of the East, starting with their mastery of the Latin language. In our specific case, however, it is not, as is usual, to find a country that had privileged commercial and cultural contacts with Western Europe, so as to be able to reproduce before others some fashions popular in the higher layers of the population. Here intermediate regions are sought

for a possible propagation in the opposite direction, from east to west, and Poland should be seen rather as an intermediate region nearer to Central Asia.

To me it seemed decisive to examine what Polish authors wrote who are also interested in the history of card games: they do not communicate to us any official document, nor any memory handed down in popular accounts of the time of our interest in time, i.e. the years of the third quarter of the fourteenth century, or even of ones before 1340, as indicated by Hübsch. Indeed, despite some diversity in the related information, they are all in agreement in considering the entry of cards into their ancient kingdom as rather late, with no testimony before the mid-fifteenth century.

Once the late entry of the cards in Poland is agreed, the task of verifying the strange notices for the previous century can be considered exhausted. However, regardless of Prague and similar uncertain references, it would still be a point to understand the role of the court in the early spread of cards in Poland during the Renaissance:. We find conflicting signs of the two possible ways, from top to bottom and from bottom to top. According to some authors the court circles would be the ones to introduce cards into Poland, according to others (that convince me most), the first Polish king who played with the cards would have only continued an already widespread use, at least in sections of the population with increased contacts with foreign countries.

Turning to the previous century, we would need to think that like the oldest traces of playing cards in Nuremberg, and even in France, those from Poland would also have left some traces, [if] only in Prague, and traceable only by Hübsch in the mid-nineteenth century, neither before nor after; at this point the acts of faith truly become too many and too unreasonable. For us it becomes inevitable to trace back the route taken: we arrived in Krakow starting from Prague, but now Krakow can be deleted. We must go back to Prague, but with increased uncertainty about the validity of the information. It is a little as if we had found a tree to prune and instead of trimming the branches cut a root: in the end, if we continue, the whole tree.falls.


Some rather uncertain notices led us to a kind of "line of credit" for scrutinizing the situation of the first card games to arrive in Poland. The idea is derived from a citation of Polish nobles who routinely played with cards before 1340. That date if it were true would be considered extremely early and explainable only by an arrival of cards in Poland directly from the eastern territories of Europe by way of a land route even from Asia (where, however, we know that playing cards originated).

None of Polish authors who have dealt with the matter gives us a minimum of support in such circumstances, so that we are forced to consider invalid the news from which we began. Playing cards are documented in Poland only from more than a century later! We can score a point against the reliability of the source that gave rise to this research, the book by Hübsch, which now will be reviewed in particular for its news on Bohemia from which we started

Franco Pratesi – 02.06.2016

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