Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Clubs Diamonds Hearts and Spades

Where did these suits come from?

The English, French, American suit system with a King

The short answer is that nobody knows - but read on bearing in mind I'm offering thoughts not definitive answers. Like a lot of things to do with playing cards there is a great deal of speculation and not a lot of facts. However, these were certainly not the first suit signs on European cards. I'm not going into the history of playing cards in this blog, this is just about some different suit systems but I will say that it is possible that the notion of four suits came from four sided chess games, as chess type games seem to be older than playing cards. In Europe we can be sure that cards had appeared by the latter part of the 14th century from indisputable documentary evidence. There are stylistic links with playing cards from further towards the East, India and Persia in particular (but not China) but the origins and arrival of playing cards in Europe is pure speculation. Suffice it to say that prior to the Italian four suited cards there do not appear to be any others like them anywhere in the world. And lastly, there are many regional variations to styles and arrangements on playing cards, so there are many exceptions to the general points below.

Italy has the first suit system in Europe

The Italian suits shown her with one court card are coins, cups, swords and batons. These were the first suits to appear on European cards. One can guess that they might have their origins in representing four sectors of society, coins for the merchant class, cups for the church, swords for the military and batons perhaps for the legislature thinking of the old Roman fasces the bundle of magistrates rods. However, these suits have most probably given us our SPADES from the Italian for swords spade and also CLUBS from the Italian bastoni for batons.

Spain is similar

The Spanish suits of today are exactly the same as the Italian suits but they are arranged differently on the cards and the batons have become knobbly wooden CLUBS. The swords and batons are not interlinked as on the Italian cards. Also the frame on the Spanish cards identifies the suit, there are either no breaks, one, two or three. Spanish cards generally still have single ended (or standing) court cards, double ending the design as seen on the English French and Italian examples here was a 19th century development.

Germany is very different

Playing cards from the region now called Germany and beyond are fascinating for their regional variations. The diversity is a study in itself. But they all have the same suit system and it is quite unique. Acorns, HEARTS, hawkbells and leaves. We now have the origin for three of our Anglo-American suits. Modern German regional patterns are either single ended like the one shown or double ended. Incidentally you will notice that some cards shown in this blog are numbered and some are not. These numbers are called indexes or indices and are also a late 19thC development - the subject of another blog to come.

A Swiss variation

The Swiss suit system has similarities with the German system in acorns and hawkbells, but has two new suits of shields and flowers. The German system is found throughout the old Austo-Hungarian region of Europe.

France is the last link

The suit system that we have of clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades most certainly came to England from France which, like Germany, had many regional variations although most of these have died out. How the French settled on these suits, well ... who knows, but the diamond suit carreaux in France, paving slabs, is the one suit not before seen in Europe. Another peculiarity of the French cards is that they named all the court cards with names of characters. And incidentally not every suit system has a King Queen and Jack, far from it, many do not have a Queen - another blog for the future.

So the English suit system is a total mixture
Chinese chess cards for 2 and 4 handed games

I haven't presented anything new here, I've only scratched the surface and I'm sure there are people doing academic research into these things. There is already a fair amount of literature, but I say again, very few facts - part of the fascination of playing cards.

To finish this blog I'm adding three more pictures, one showing Chinese cards from a two and four handed chess pack; one showing Chinese playing cards with money suits; and playing cards from India, mainly to show that the relationship to

Chinese playing cards

 European cards is virtually non-existent to dispel the myth that playing cards came to Europe from the Far East. The connection with Indian cards is stronger in that each suit in the ganjifa set shown below has two 'court cards, a mir and a vizier, but that is about as far as it goes.

A final word for thought is this, the popularity of the Anglo-American style of card came about with the spread of games like Bridge and Poker from the late 19th century.

Indian ganjifa cards showing the 8 suits and one mir

But prior to that, cards with the different suit systems shown above can be found all round the world mainly as a result of trade and the huge popularity of card playing from the late medieval period onwards. The influence of some countries can still be seen in the types of card which are commonly used today.

To see many more styles of card visit my website
All the illustrations are from my stock or collection and copyright.

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