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Welcome to Episode #109 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

With court records of Mary Queen of Scots playing cards, as well as James I of England preferring the game Maw when entertaining royal dignitaries, we know that playing cards was not just popular for royals but a pastime at all levels of society during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it was a relatively new arrival to England overall. Playing cards did not reach Europe until 1360, and the first mention we have of playing cards in England comes in 1463 when King Edward IV banned the import of playing cards to England in an effort to bolster the English economy by focusing production of cards at home. With the influx of French and Spanish playing cards during Shakespeare’s lifetime, along with laws trying to have cards made in England exclusively, what did the average playing card look like? There is a representation of a six of diamonds on the wall of a small Suffolk church in Hessett, near Bury St Edmunds, which dates from the 15th century and that provides one example of design, but the pack of cards which has historically come to be associated with England specifically is a pack from Rouen, France, designed by Pierre Marechal. As playing cards grew in popularity, so did their design and the invention of various games–some of which like Noddy and Maw show up by name several of Shakespeare’s plays. The suits, size of card, as well as material used to make playing cards was also widely varied in the 16th century, so how do we determine what counts as historically accurate for William Shakespeare?

To find out this week, we turn to Kathryn James, Curator of Early Modern Books and Manuscripts at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. She joins us today to share about the collection of 16th century playing cards in house at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library with some key insights on the economics, design, and appearance of playing cards from the life of William Shakespeare.

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Kathryn James is the Curator of Early Modern Books and Manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.  She is a Lecturer in the Yale History Department and the co-founder of the Yale Program in the History of the Book.  Her new book, English Paleography and Manuscript Culture, 1500-1800 (2020) is available through Yale University Press.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Kathryn James about :

  • In the 16th century, what was the typical size of playing cards? Were they larger or smaller than what we have today?
  •  Historical research into card decks divided the style of cards into two categories: Standard and Non-Standard. Kathryn, will you please explain the difference between these two?
  • There is a set of cards from 1544 by Virgil Solis which are unique because they have been hand painted, and made with straw. Kathryn, what were cards normally made of, and were they always hand painted the way the Virgil Solis cards are?

  • … and more!

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If thou dost play with him at any game,
Thou art sure to lose;

Soothsayer

Antony and Cleopatra (II.3)

A sample card from 1511 showing the Knave of Hearts. From the “History of Playing Cards” by Edward Samuel Taylor. Read online at Google Books Here (pg. 144). 

The Traditional Suits for English Playing Cards

Standard playing cards had four suits in a deck, but what suits those 4 were pictorially depended on where it was made. 

Modern playing cards uses the suits of Hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades.

In Germany they used hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves.

France used trefoil, clover, tiles, hearts, and pikes.

Italian cards used swords, batons, coins, and cups.

Regional and national variations existed, as well, even beyond these few examples. The standard for what a suit needed to be within a deck of cards varied depending on where it came from. For historians, that is now one way of discovering a card's source is by examining the pictures used on the cards themselves. In England, they would be familiar with hearts, bells, aconrs, and leaves of German decks, but mostly The English preferred for play with clubs, clover, diamonds, and spades. 

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She's impudent, my lord,
And was a common gamester to the camp.

Bertram

Alls Well That Ends Well (V.3)

These two cards are a faithful recreation of Jost Amman's 1588 card deck showing from l to r the 1 and 5 of ink-pads. Source

Josh Amman's 1588 Pack of Cards

Jost Amman's 1588 pack exhibits a completely original suit system of Books, Wine Cups, Vases, and Ink Balls joined with new court figures of musicians, dancing peasant couples, and soldiers. Kathryn describes the family of characters as  

“Jolly people working in a press room.” but goes on to explain that while entertaining both in its' day, as well as to us in posterity, Josh Amman's set was, for the 16th century, not to be considered anything close to standard, or even widely available. His creation was meant as an art piece.

While truly delightful, the cards would not have been used for playing a game. 

Incidintally, I asked Kathryn to explain “ink balls” since they were part of the ne system Josh Amman created with his 1588 deck of cards and she explains that “Playing cards were created many of the same techniques as book illustrations. Amman was a woodcut artist originally, and then with ink balls he made were essentially stamps with hand presses to print the cards. Ink balls look like boxing gloves visually, they are used to roll ink (oil based) onto the woodblock so it could be pressed.” You can see ink balls (and they do, indeed, look like boxing gloves, on surviving copies of his cards.)

Unknown artist paints a portrait of Jost Amman c 1769. “Portrait des Schweizer Kupferstechers Jost Amman.” Source

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Hark, the game is roused!

Belarius

Cymbeline (III.3)

Pictures of Virgil Solis' card deck featuring parrots, peacocks, lions, and monkeys as the suits within the deck. C. 1544. Clockwise from top left, 8 of peacocks, 2 of Lions, 4 of Monkeys, 4 of Peacocks, and 9 of Parrots. Sothebys describes the deck as “31 cards (of 52), each 92 x 62mm., engraved (with the artist's monogram on each ace card), plain versos, 13 mounted in a frame, the rest in a folder attached to the back of the frame, lacking 21 cards (5 monkeys, 6-10 lions, 3 parrots, 2 peacocks, and all court cards), a few marginal paper repairs” Source

Virgil Solis 1544 Deck of Cards

In the 16th century, there was a massive market for novelty cards. Card games themselves were popular, but true to Elizabethan culture, opulence among the wealthy and selecting gilded every day items to flaunt one's wealth was also popular. One of the most prominent places we can see this opulence is in the surving card decks that are literally, cased in gold.

One such example is from 1544 when Virgil Solis created a deck of cards which appear to be hand painted and were made with straw. In his book, “A History of Playing Cards” CD Hargrave remarks that The most beautiful cards of all are those of Vergil Solis, a goldsmith of Nürnberg; these are very rare…The cards, particularly the numerals, are examples of most exquisite conventional design” (C.P. Hargrave, A History of Playing Cards, 1930, p. 94). Source

Kathryn explains that Virgil Solis was a goldsmith in Nuremberg, Germany, and that this unique set from 1544 is exquisitely designed with lions, parrots, and peacocks. The court cards (what we call Face Cards here in the United States) show the costume of the nobility in elaborate detail. They were sold to audiences that sold this elegant show off kind of cards. One of the features of Virgil Solis' set which is most fun is that he also has specific cards which show elaborately dressed horses.

Sotheby's auction house sold the original set of Virgil Solis' cards in 2013 for 3500 GBP. Source

Portrait of Virgil Solis. Artist: Jenichen, Balthasar, printmaker – German artist, fl.1560- before 1621; Classification(s): print, print, engraving; Acquisition: given by Charrington, John, 1933, housed currently at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. Source

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The game's afoot…

Henry V

Henry V (III.1)

 Facsimile based on playing cards by Pierre Marechal of Rouen, c.1567 which are the ancestors of the English pattern. The Queen of Hearts is located on the top row, second from the left. She does, indeed, look remarkably like Elizabeth of York. In this deck, the original Jacks of Hearts and Diamonds were missing but have been replaced with two similar cards also from Rouen. Published by Rose & Pentagram Design, 2006. Source

The Queen of Hearts

While not all decks of cards had what we know today as Face Cards, some of them did–and there is a theory that the Kings and Queens of a card deck were fashioned after real Kings and Queens of England. 

Several decks contains court cards which are named after particular historical features. The game PK does this specifically as part of the rules of play. 

There is a long standing tradition in England that the  English Queen of Hearts is modelled after Elizabeth of York. Kathryn thinks this travels back to the 1800s and while the Queen of Hearts does seem to resemble portraits of Elizabeth of York, the theory is far of universally accepted. There is another faction which believe the Queen of Hearts might be modelled on Anne Bolyen, but, as Kathryn points out, the card of the 16th century were so varied in terms of the artists who made them as well as the content displayed upon them, (as were the portraits of the Queens!) that is is truly impossible to be certain which Queen fo England might have inspired the Queen of Hearts originally.

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Books & Resources Kathryn James recommends:

 

Related Books Cassidy thought you might enjoy:

David Parlett's games website is invaluable. 

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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