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Claim: The four kings in a deck of playing cards represent Charlemagne, David, Caesar, and Alexander.
Origins: The origins of European playing cards are highly speculative, with Chinese, Indian, and Persian parentage all claimed of them. Despite our lack of knowledge concerning exactly how playing cards came to Europe, we can determine when they arrived with a fair degree of certainty. Although the Italian scholar Francesco Petrarch
The composition and design of playing card decks varied with time and locale (particularly the number of cards in a deck), but the inclusion of both numbered cards and court cards (or "royals") — and the division of cards into different suits — were standard features from early on. Italian decks contained fifty-six cards, included four types of court cards (king, queen, knight, and knave) and were divided into four suits (cups, swords, coins, and batons). As the popularity of card games spread throughout Europe and the demand for decks of playing cards increased tremendously, they ceased to be expensive, hand-painted luxuries and became cheaper, mass-produced commodities manufactured by master card makers via the use of stencils. Around the same time, knaves were dropped from the subset of court cards to bring the composition of a standard deck down to fifty-two cards.
As the Spanish adopted playing cards, they replaced queens with mounted knights (caballeros). The Germans similarly excluded queens from their decks, naming their royals könig (king), obermann ("upper man") and untermann ("lower man"). German card masters also modified the suits, replacing the earlier French/Italian symbols with bells, hearts, leaves, and acorns. The French made further changes, dropping the obermann and re-including the queen; and adopting the German hearts and leaves (the latter turned upright to become the more familiar spade symbol), adapting the club from the acorn, and replacing bells with diamonds (from carreau, a wax-painted paving stone used in churches).
Over the years, various scholars have put forth the notion that the four suits in a deck of playing cards were intended to represent the four classes of medieval society. The Italian cups (or chalices) stand for the Church, the swords the military, the coins the merchants, and the batons (or clubs) the peasantry. Similarly, the German bells (specifically hawk bells) symbolize the nobility (because of their love of falconry), hearts the Church, leaves the middle class, and acorns the peasantry. On French cards, the spades represent the aristocracy (as spearheads, the weapons of knights), hearts once again stand for the Church, diamonds are a sign of the wealthy (from the paving stones used in the chancels of churches, where the
Early choices for the identities of the kings included Solomon, Augustus, Clovis, and Constantine, but during the latter part of the reign of
In summary, the court cards in decks of playing cards were not initially identified by name. The assignation of identities to the kings (as well as the queens and knaves) was a temporary practice unique to French card masters that began around the
Last updated: 29 September 2007
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