The Fabulous History of Playing Cards in France

The Fabulous History of Playing Cards in France

Meet the heroes and villains who inspired the familiar faces on our playing cards

With roots in ninth-century Asia, the popularity of playing cards gradually fanned westward to Europe. Today’s standard deck originated in France where the earliest recorded reference to playing cards was a 1377 ordinance forbidding card games on workdays.

French cards were more enjoyable to play with, and easier and cheaper to manufacture than those made elsewhere in Europe. Long before the invention of the printing press, French cards were handmade from stencils or woodcuts. Throughout the Renaissance, cards were made in many French towns; Marseille, Bordeaux, Troyes… There were over 200 card makers in Lyon alone between 1650 and 1675. However, modern cards have their heart in 16th-century Rouen, where a deck produced in around 1567 by Pierre Maréchal is the blueprint for today’s playing cards.

Catherine de’ Medici from the 1580 deck


The French deck consisted of: the Coeur, a Heart; the Pique, a pike staff equivalent to Spades; the Carreau, a tile, equal to Diamonds; and the Trefle, a three-foil representing a clover, or Clubs. Historians suggest these suits represent the four classes of medieval society; the court or clergy, the military, the mercantile class and the agrarian peasantry.

The face cards aren’t just royalty; but are drawn from history, mythology and the Bible: the King of Hearts is Charlemagne; the King of Spades is David, who dealt with the biblical Goliath; the King of Diamonds, armed with a battle axe, represents Julius Caesar; and the King of Clubs is Alexander the Great. Kings and Queens made unlikely couples: the Queen of Hearts is Judith, the fearsome widow from the Old Testament; the Queen of Spades is Pallas, Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare; Rachel, the Queen of Diamonds, is another biblical figure; and la Dame du Trèfle – Queen of Clubs – is Argine, an anagram of Regina, and thought to be Marie d’Anjou. Jacks were court valets. The Valet de Coeur – Jack of Hearts – was the formidable French soldier, La Hire; the Jack of Spades is Hogier, a Danish hero; and Hector of Troy, a crusading knight, became the Jack of Diamonds, perhaps meeting Lancelot, Jack of Clubs, at the Round Table.

King of Diamonds from the 1567 Rouen deck


The success of card-making continued unhindered until 1580. Fabricants de cartes had a naughty habit of lampooning public individuals on their face cards. Briefly, the King and Queen of Hearts were the mother and son duo, Catherine de’ Medici and King Henri III. The Queen Mother held the King’s sceptre while the effete and beardless Henri held only a fan. French royalty weren’t averse to playing a round of cards, and King Henri didn’t appreciate this critique of his reign.

It’s not accidental that Henry III’s 1581 Parliament prohibited caricatures on playing cards and invoked taxes on their sale. Although many card-makers refused to ante-up and left for Holland and Germany, a huge number remained to continue this golden era of French card-making.

From France Today magazine

Lead photo credit : The evolution of the King of Hearts over the centuries. Wikimedia commons

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After experiencing an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay, Hazel Smith is currently a mature student of art history at the University of Toronto. Blogger and amateur historian, she has also written for the online travel guide and for Fascinated with the lives of the Impressionists, Hazel has made pilgrimages to the houses and haunts of the artists while in France. She is continually searching for the perfect art history mystery to solve. She maintains the blogs Smartypants Goes to France and The Clever Pup (

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