Rational Disposition: the internalised world of the medieval scholar and the
pack of paper tokens
Article by Daana Mindon
has been written about the western card-pack, but its origins remain obscure.
Traditional packs and rules for number-games are being collected and compared.
Histories of leisure consider the patterns for dissemination through Europe.
A great many studies exist of the 78-card pack, called the tarot pack.
seventeenth century it was said that the tarot was more than a playing-pack,
that it represented the plates or tables [Fr: lames; Lat: lamellae] from a book
about Egyptian religious beliefs, and that the pack had been used as an
instrument for divination. More
recently focus has been on possible connections to Neo-Platonist philosophy,
Jewish kabbala, Manichean Christianity, fourteenth century poetry and so on.
None of this, including the Egyptian theory, is entirely out of keeping with the
fourteenth century, but we seem to be no closer to a definitive provenance.
the difficulties with the Kabbalistic thesis, for example, is that kabbalism
emerged in North Africa only after six hundred years of Muslim rule, and appears
to have been an attempt at synthesis between non-mainstream forms of Judaism
once centered about Kairouan, and the Muslim religious philosophy, known as
Ismai’lism, to which the whole of North Africa had been converted in the
second wave of invasion. Ismai’lism itself consciously synthesized and
reformulated ideas taken from the Jews, the Buddhists, the Egyptians of Harran,
the people of the Yemen, eastern Christian churches and other cultures then
within the borders of Islam. Kabbalist thought was strongly disapproved by
Judaism proper and to some extent is still viewed with concern. A certain
disquiet originally greeted the advent of Isma’ilism, too.
other hand, Aquinas, an Augustinian, urged his brothers to read
Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed,
which is now considered a work of the Cabbalist corpus. The Dominicans were
called in to adjudicate between the Cabbalists and the orthodox Jews of Spain
and so had the opportunity to add that scheme of learning to the others which
they so assiduously collected. In late medieval Europe, the more
sophisticated classes, and the neo-Platonic literati especially were fascinated
by all eastern learning -
especially if it could be related to matters of health. The dissemination of our
card-packs coincides very closely with the time of the Black Death’s progress.
have been made, also, to establish an historical line for the pack from origins
in Persia, Armenia, India or China, but without any great success.
because the pack frustrates discovery of its origins, the more recent tendency
has been to consider the pack more in terms of present uses: prognostication,
meditation or number-games.
cards are being studied as an instrument of leisure, it is often assumed that
any figures must be ornamental, as they are on modern packs. If prognostication
or meditation is emphasized, then the opposite is true: the images become a
central focus of comment and are treated as creations of their painter, or as
archetypal forms. Jungian archetypes are being widely invoked. In the modern
literature one finds allusion to nineteenth century works – Jung’s studies,
or Frazer’s collection of anthropological notes (the Golden Bough) – as often as to Dante’s poetry.
Thematic picture cards about geography, astronomy and so on –
regardless of their age - tend to
be put in an entirely separate category.
with the history of medieval painting and culture tells us that several, if not
all, of these approaches must take us wide of the mark. The medieval painter had
little autonomy, for example, nor was there the expectation that his imagery
would be original. On the other hand, art as mere ornament was barely heard of.
The pictures painted on fifteenth century cards cannot be random, are most
unlikely to represent subversive ideas quietly foisted on oblivious patrons, and
were almost certainly not the painter’s invention. But equally surely, the
figures were meant to be read.
In those days, one read an image in the way recommended for reading (that is, memorizing verbatim) written works. Hugh of St. Victor, a most influential educator, insisted on a particular order in reading: basic narrative, then higher allegorical meaning and finally by uniting the two, the message for the present reader. His method was itself based on conservative tradition. By and large, this way is still the way we approach and read a medieval picture, because it is the way pictures had long been constructed. Here, for example is the description of a crystal bowl made for Lothair III, from a modern history of medieval art.
First we have the plain narrative, where the eye runs over the pattern and elements of the image, seeking in it allusion to the formal text on which it must be based:
is carved with eight scenes of the story of Suzanna…
Our text is the Biblical Book of Judges. Then the picture’s ‘higher’ meaning, which we will have memorized in reading or hearing that story:
[which story] was
regarded as a symbol of the persecuted Church and the Redemption of man from the
powers of evil …
then what the reader can find directly useful for his or her needs:
the preciosity and rarity of the materials implies an exalted and personal patron.
A present-day reader looks for practical information as the third stage. The medieval reader looked for something personal. He might read an implied message that any injustices suffered in this world would meet their eventual redress in the next. That lesson was one taught him when he heard or studied the original narrative.
seems uncomfortably close to the cartomantic method, it cannot be helped.
Western esoteric style is deeply rooted in medieval methods and ideas. And the
origin of the western medieval pack, so far as we know so far, lies in the
medieval west itself. The form of the western pack and the majority of its games are, so far as we can discover,
today’s designers of cards, the designer of a fourteenth and fifteenth pack
could prove if challenged that his designs reflected specific written
text or texts, in the accepted manner, and so did not contravene the truth.
was thought enshrined in the arrangement of the divinely ordered world and in
written works about that world, whether the books concerned the gods of Greece,
Rome, Assyria and Egypt, or the seasonal flowers and their virtues or the story
of Suzannah - whatever matter was being represented. The opposite of truth was
‘invention’. One recognized words of truth; one invented lies. Individual
creativity, in our modern sense, was not much appreciated and apart from a rare
portrait or two, it is safe to say that all pictures of the period when cards
first emerge in Europe are meant to present the words of text, or proverbial
verbal figures, in visual form.
tarot pack’s figure of the Papess may seem an invented figure now, but our
player needed only to refer to the local scholar, the cleric or monk, to
discover that in the eastern church there had been popes who were allowed to
marry. In addition to the Roman Pope, there had been the Coptic Pope of Egypt,
the Chaldean Pope of Syria and Antioch, whose way was followed by Byzantium, and
a Pope of Jerusalem. The Jerusalem office lapsed after the rise of Muslim
government in the seventh century of the Christian era. While a monastic scholar
might not approve of the image, one with access to broader sources could at
least explain it at the basic, narrative level. As a figure on card, its higher
level of meaning is astronomical, though it does not represent a zodiacal
constellation. The pair of Pope and Popess is possibly based on memorial stele
which stood for a millennium and a half before the temple of the Moon god in
few persons in fourteenth century Europe would be in a position to find that
Atouts do show a general reference to the ways of the eastern churches. One of
our earliest remaining figures on card reportedly came from a German monastery
and shows John the Baptist. Its painting style betrays a marked influence of
Coptic Egypt. We will return to it somewhat later.
reference to canonical texts, too, even at the height of the Italian
‘Etruscan’ Renaissance, Michelangelo explains his every figure in terms of
the corpus of Christian learning.
Michelangelo assumes his figures of virtues and vices, of Day and Night, of the
classical gods are all expressions of Christian culture and many supposedly
classical forms for the older gods copy exactly descriptions made by Rhaban Maur
– a scholar-monk of the Carolingian period.
was possible to include pre-Christian deities in Christian art and history
because, in the early days of the Church, it was asserted that the gods of the
ancient nations had been living people, benefactors or ancestors who were then
elevated to the heavens by a grateful people. So the god of each people and its
region in the world could be identified with one constellation or another, and
thus be included in the scheme of Christian historiography. A modern writer,
Seznec, complains of this habit when speaking of Pierre d’Ailly’s Compendium
Geographie. He says that the author
“considers the [stellar] gods sometimes as heavenly bodies, sometimes as [historical] rulers who gave their names to various parts of the world.”
As Seznec himself points out - that was the usual way. We
will see the same matter in our cards. And so, when we also read of a cleric
from a later and less broad-minded period castigating card-use and saying that
the cards represent the gods of the nations, we should not assume him ignorant
as well as censorious. He is right; the Atouts did. We will look in detail at
the figure for Perseus, star of the Persians, as that star/figure/god was
included in the pack.
to the general rule about authority in picture-making did exist. Maps or charts
were often left to experts. The making of an illuminated book could be left
entirely to monastic scribes, educated to produce sound, ‘speaking’ images.
Maps were normally provided with their marginal figures and scraps of text, by a
reading of fuller, written works - to which the scraps then served as index and
mnemonic key. But in the main, the person commissioning a picture was
in a position to decide its content, form, colors and even grades of
paint, and to require a picture altered is
the patron nor the painter would have thought in categories as broad as Jungian
archetypes, though the educated knew Aristotle’s archetypal forms.
Neither would have had source materials sufficient to envisage a Fool
card as equivalent to – for example - a
Tungu shaman or American Indian. I am inclined to think, in any case, that a
Tungu shaman would more likely find his own archetype (as it were) in the Pope
or the astronomer than in the Fool-card. But this is all by way of preface.
I would like to see the pack, as far as possible, as if through the eyes of a
fourteenth century player, making or ordering his or her set of cards. We are
going to assume that the 52-card and the 78-card packs are variant forms of the
one object. It will be a little while before mass-produced packs are common.
forms of pack consist of figures, presented devoid of any alpha-numerics or
captions whatsoever. The 52-card pack is composed in two levels, the 78-card
pack, in three. The lowest of these levels is common to both versions. It is
formed as a circuit of forty cards, grouped into four decades. Each decade is
signaled by the presence on its ten cards of an emblem, indicating not only the
quarter but also, by the number of times the emblem is repeated on the card,
just where in its quarter this card is to be placed. Each decade thus forms an
arc, as it were, in the circuit of 40. Cards are normally described by cardinal,
rather than ordinal number. Thus ‘two of swords’, not ‘second of swords’
nor (properly) ‘two swords’. These things suggest the compasso or circuit of direction. However, in play the suits are
ranked in value, so beginning and end are not sequential.
that quartered 40 is another circuit of cards, again quartered. This time they
are not quantitative figures but characters, normally pictured as four different
kings with their supporters. The 52-card pack provides two supporters for a
king. The 78-card pack has three. Again, at this level, the emblems serve to
indicate the quarter ‘upheld’ by that king and his court. The emblem,
however, appears only once on these cards. One has their quarter given, but has
to determine the relative value for each figure by ‘reading’ its status
according to what one knows of the world. King, Queen, Rider and valet are the
usual figures forming each quarter of this level in a 78-card pack and, as a
rule, the figures are ranked in that order. It is not an inevitable order. In
some societies the woman would be assumed of lowest rank since the other three
figures are of men.
emblems vary. In 78-card packs they are normally the Cup, Rod, Gold token and
Sword. In 52-card packs they may be a flower, a leaf, a bell, a rose or some
this second level, a 52-card pack ends.
78-card pack has 16 figures for that level, and then a third, higher level -
again formed of pictorial figures.
are no emblems on this last group of cards, although of course the emperor will
have his sword. No quartering is immediately evident. These figures are
sometimes called the Major Arcana or triumphs, but we will call them Atouts, as
modern players in France do, without wishing to imply that either of the other
terms is inaccurate. Indeed ‘arcana’ may well be the older term. It is used
in Sicily during the time of Frederick II, a full century after a Spanish Muslim
pilgrim named Ibn Jubayr notes card-play there. And in Michael Scot’s
astronomical text, written for Frederick, there is a marginal image showing the
constellation of Auriga in a form that tells us that Auriga is the prototype for
our later ‘Magus’ among the Atouts. The Atouts, we can say now, are
constellation-figures depicted by their proverbial character and their ascribed virtue.
Scot who wrote, while in Sicily, that ‘the more one contemplates the arcana
of God and the arcana of the human
heart, the more mysterious they seem’. At the time, ‘Arca’ signified a
container of treasures. One has the arca noe, the great floating emporia,
opposed to the man-o-war (Noe means ‘peace’); one has the arca as the heart,
container of all things remembered, and again the arca as book-chest whose
contents had been committed to memory and so on. Nevertheless, we shall use the
term Atout which simply means ‘over all’.
Atouts bear tags: the Pope, the Emperor, the Fool and so on. Originally they
bore none: no written cue to character, no overt cue to their relative order.
They had to be ‘read’ at a level of understanding higher than the 40s and
higher than the Kings & Courts, before one could even begin to play.
ordinary person in late medieval Christendom looked at this new object of the
card-pack, in its carefully ordered arrangement with its tiers and sequences and
figures, what did he think he was
seeing? Did he see nothing but memorised number values? Why use these figures
among the myriad well known and easily available? Why suit-signs of cup, rod,
sword and gold? Why limit the lower sequences to a decade each? Why have the
variation between 12 or 16 for the mid-level? Why the variable number of Atouts
in early decks? How did our player read the imagery? And in that imagery,
exactly what was he reading?
meaning the pack must have had, and meaning not at the discretion of the
painter, nor random, nor buried in a written work too obscure, but rather a
meaning so accessible that it was immediately intelligible to card-users of
western Christendom regardless of their class. Like everything else of the time,
access to information and learning was stratified.
clearest indication that we should look to the pack’s structure for its
meaning before considering its
imagery is the variation in images and the omission of inscriptions.
Users had nothing but internal cues to tell them about such fundamental
matters as the cards’ relative sequences and hierarchy. Yet even though the
pack quickly settles into those two predominant forms, which remain constant,
the imagery on cards develops an extraordinary and somewhat bewildering variety,
especially given that the packs offer no captions to assist identification and
not as if the practice of putting labels on images was unknown: saint’s
pictures, tomb portraits and even figures in manuscripts could have their names
attached. Nor is it because card-play is yet common. Plainly, inscriptions are
omitted because they are not required.
some early packs cannot be played with, because we are unable to clearly relate
the structural parts of the pack to, say, a series of unlabelled birds or to the
series of Trojan heroes. One pack will contain the image of a creeping assassin,
another, the picture of a ship, or a gardener who stands with watering can and
pruning blade. Which of the standard Atouts are these?
one’s aim is only to play familiar number-games, such variation causes nothing
but irritation and confusion. It slows the game. One’s hand of cards has to be
organised rapidly. It could only be
done efficiently, in such circumstances, if all our variations connected, in the
player’s mind, with some well-entrenched pattern independent of the pack
itself, but to which the arrangement of the deck immediately signalled
the meaning of the pack as a whole must be represented by its structure, by that
arrangement of 40+12 or 40+16+Atouts. And for each of its individual parts, its loci,
the various images must be exemplars.
effect, when faced with yet another set of unlabelled and uncaptioned figures,
our fourteenth century player has to think immediately along lines something
like this: ‘A Creeping Assassin’ figure. Traitor. Like Judas. Like Hanging
Man’ – which is what we still do when looking at the old cards. But we have
a set idea of what a deck “should” look like. The original players had never
seen one before in their lives. And so, presented with a card which showed, say,
a Gardener with small sickle and watering pot, he had to think in terms of the
picture’s own details: ‘Gardener. Sickle and watering pot’. Cuts down
plants, yet waters them … and then refer to what he had learned. ‘ Small
sickle: curvus saturnus. Watering can: ‘water in the ground’. And finally he
had to make a leap, connecting these things to a particular locus in the pack: “Ah! highest level, fifth position” – or
had to have a particular character to it, enabling all variant forms to be
immediately connected to their places.
cheat a little here and say that the gardener in this case is Perseus, the
fundamental reference of figures captioned ‘La Morte’. Curvus saturnus was the Latin term for the small pruning sickle and
for one part of the constellation of Perseus, whose name means ‘the
Destroyer’. And one of the Arabic names for the Pleiades, Thurayya was construed as meaning ‘water in the ground’. Perseus-with-Pleiades
had together formed the constellation of the Persian nation since Babylonian
times. The monk who complained that the cards represented the gods of the
nations was quite right. They did.
fifteenth century French card in the Charles VI set, one of our earliest
remaining, makes the Destroyer/Perseus figure as a beautifully designed
mnemonic. The constellation is carefully depicted as a scythe-wielding skeleton
on that dark horse which is called in the east, al
kumait. The Pleiades are omitted, but card’s
smaller details – its devices - are formed by a literal rendering of the
Arabic names for Perseus’ component stars.
ordinary player would have no cause
to know the Arabic names, though astronomy was then a basic subject and the
fourteenth century saw Arabic terms replacing the Latin in astronomical studies.
The Arabic terms remained standard in western astronomy until 1880.
he could identify and place Charles VI’s Persian Death. He did so by
assigning the card a locus according
to its ‘Virtue’ – its innate quality – which had already an assigned
position in his organisation of memory. In general, it is not easy for us to
imagine memory in this way, nor to analyse pictures and emblems so quickly. And
even though moralised astronomy was once a standard part of the curriculum, it
could not have been entirely easy for the original card-players either.
was the nature of that model our player used?
That conceptual model is the key to the pack, and will tell us the
meaning perceived in the whole, as well as in its individual parts and figures.
our early references to cards tell us?
1377, when the card-pack springs suddenly to view in Europe, a Dominican monk
writes that by means of this newly-come ludus
cartarum, one can represent, by figure and description, ‘all the ways of
the world’ until now. The latin phrase he uses is status mundi, using terms
which have not been considered, hitherto, as closely as they might.
meant more than social level, it meant a point in either place or time, a level
of being within a progression of spiritual, physical or other advancement. Mundus
did not mean the geographic world, that is, Earth as terra, but the whole perceptible world, the environment of
humankind. The mundus was normally
described in three levels: the ground, the stars above, the intermediary region
of winds and elements. By convention, the paths of sun and moon - with their 12
or 28 marker-stars - were assigned to this mid-level too, because they marked
the limit of, and the tempo of, the temporal world. Outside the ecliptic band
stood the stars of the higher and lower heavens, whose principal use was as
guiding stars. They were used mainly by herders, mariners and desert-dwellers to
determine time and direction.
we have seen that the Atouts, the highest possible level of cards, represents
figures for the stars, our most natural correspondence between the full
pack and this mundus would be to have the ‘40’ as the circuit of
earth, the 12 or 16 to represent the intermediary region - of winds, elements,
sun, moon and ecliptic stars. Atouts represent the highest, astronomical level.
Thus each level of the 78-card pack should equate with one level of the mundus,
while the 52 card pack would refer only to the lower two parts.
working hypothesis, then, our players may be seeing in the pack a common,
conceptual form of the world itself.
represent the lowest level by 40 cards? Why the variation of 12 or 16 for the
mid-level? How do the emblems for suit-signs fit in with this working model, and
what decides the choice for the Atouts’ numbers and identities? How much of
this was universally known?
Dominican of 1377, known as John of Rheidenfeld, then went on to say that he
would proffer three ways of play [not three cards, as is often assumed]. The
highest level is for nobles, he says, who may play as they wish, using tokens of
any material in any manner. Atout figures on card thus become optional.
using the 52 card pack, says John, will be given the names of the eminent
personages, while commoners will be only told about the customs of the world’s
peoples. He then says that the common
people may make sets of 52 figures for themselves, so long as these are
based on a worthy text.
makes a good deal of sense. Learning, like everything else, was stratified by
class, and as we have seen, the amount of prior information one needs to read
the figures also increases, level by level. The mid-level does relate, in most
cases, to eminent persons. Kings were considered ‘intermediary’ figures,
appointed by God to rule.
worthy text is unspecified. It is plain that any worthy text might provide these makers and players
– not with the pack’s raison
d’etre, but with suitable exemplars for each individual locus in a
for the ‘Destroyer’ position in the upper level, for example, depending on
one’s text, might become (as we see on early packs) the Greek Chronos, or
Saturn as the national god (not the planet-messenger), or a horseman of the
Apocalypse and so on. As the
packs’ imagery devolves –and it does within about a century and a half
- one finds that any skeletal figure will do for this position. This
devolution follows fairly rapidly on the introduction of printed cards,
occurring in parallel with a rejection of the older text-based and memory-based
learning, and the prevalence of number-games over the older and freer kind of
play – which there is good reason to suppose was verbal. A particular kind of
verbal contest-exercise, known as the joc,
was enormously popular in the courts of France, Germany, Italy and Majorca at
the time. ‘Joc’ is one of the terms immediately applied to cards and their
games. With the passing of the older style in learning, numerals and
captions come to be added to assist in play, and by the seventeenth century, the
original system of meaning is all but lost.
to return in spirit to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries - we will
begin with the lowest level - the
‘40’ - considering it from the point of view of an ordinary sort of person,
a male from the lower social level, living in Europe of the late fourteenth
He is a
resident of late medieval Europe and the prevalent Christian culture and
attitudes, not a Jew, nor a Manichean, but perhaps only formal in his religious
observances, and educated mainly by the events of his daily life but a little,
too, by basic lessons taken in monastic and clerical classes. Times of leisure
in our modern sense of the word are unknown to him. The Latin word we now
translate as leisure – otium- meant
then a separation from daily routines in order to meditate or study.
no conception, either, of leisure games in our modern sense of the term. His
sports are seen as ludi -
practice-contests for serious activities. Even football is understood as a
contest between parishes to assert boundaries. Games children play are seen the
same way, as practice of adult skills. A boy’s valedictory speech, like a
master’s dissertation on education, is called a ludus.
player ends his daily work, eats and then sleeps immediately after supper,
unless there are further tasks to be done. Candles are far too expensive for him
to waste on sitting about chatting, or playing board-games in the evening, as
some aristocrats do. Our player may be permitted to leave his work to join a
welcoming crowd for some visiting dignitary. On high holy days he may also have
the opportunity to play at chess, thanks to the generosity of the local lord,
who sets this and other board-games out under an awning in summer. Not to work
at other times is the sin of sloth, unless one is on pilgrimage. But one
sometimes has difficulty explaining sloth to apprentices. The pattern of the
year is repeated all his life.
represent words, written or spoken. Assuming him literate, our player’s formal
learning was molded by the Book of Psalms, the basic primer for both word and
number. This he will have ‘read’, that is memorized
verbatim, memorizing with each word
and phrase along with such marginal comment as his clerical tutor can provide.
Formal learning is always conducted in Latin, and the habit of using a core text
to set the foundation learning is entrenched.
evolved from religious scholars’ habit of adding marginal comments in
manuscripts. Marginalia may be images or a few words, which annotate,
illustrate, explain or expand the basic text by reference to other written
works. Whatever matter the tutor might know of historical, geographical,
geometrical or other things is added in just that way to the text of the
Psalter. These too the player memorizes as he goes, line by line, word by word,
assigning text and commentary to the compartments of his memory.
again, the medieval style is alien to us. We tend to study by discrete subjects,
not by layers of information patterned to a single text. But books were rare,
the method aided memory and is certainly relevant to our understanding of how
our player perceives the various loci of his internalized world.
problem at this level is not to do with pictures, apart from the emblems used,
but is more numerical and geometrical. We need to know whether, and how, this
system of subdivisions might reasonably conform to our player’s idea of the
lowest level of the mundus.
For his geometry in relation to the earth, we must turn to Rhaban Maur, writing at a time when ancient and classical learning suddenly infused Charlemagne’s realm. The phrase ‘monastic scholar’ was a tautology at that time. Maur was inevitably a monk, and here introduces to his fellows the text of Euclid’s Elements written a thousand years earlier, c.300 bc. Maur’s memorial work de Universo, from which our passage is taken, like Euclid’s Elements, will remain an absolutely basic text into and beyond our player’s time.
Maur’s concern is with an immutable, divinely ordered world - whose first figure is still routinely taught in the fourteenth century.
Maur began in the usual way, formulating his quaestio, or problem, by reference to the words of the Psalter, and so setting geometry (conceptually) as marginal commentary on its verses.
“It is well” he begins,
that we should enquire what the Psalmist means by the circle of the earth and why, in several other places, he says that the earth is comprised of the same figure. On the other hand, in the 106th Psalm[Vulgate numbering: Ps cvii.3] he comprises the earth under four cardinal points, saying: From the east and the west, from the north and from the south. A very similar statement appears in the Gospel – where it says: He shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet and they shall gather together from the four corners of the earth”
Following this pattern, we lay down the forty to represent the circle of the earth. Our four cardinal points must be marked by the Aces. This means the emblems should stand for the four directions, and the circle of decades should not form a continuous circle, but should have some form of notional line – equivalent to the equator, from which the upper and lower arcs step up or down, as our lines and degrees of latitude, the medieval ‘climes’ do.
so. Like players of traditional tarot games today, our player is told that the
tarot games have a rule which must be observed.
“ the order of the [tally cards] should ascend for the red suits of Cups and Gold but descend for the black suits of Measuring-sticks and Swords.
but all this tells us is that one half of our circuit has the cups and gold,
while the other half has sticks and swords. Is the dividing line a meridian,
running north-south, or the Equator, running east-west? We don’t yet know.
So we lay down the whole ‘40’ to create the arrangement as best we
can. Two arcs must rise up from, and half descend from the mid-line. The pattern
of the world. Easily remembered. (Kings
and Courts always hold their places above this mutable ’40’.)
Whether or not our player knows it, the emblems used on tarot packs are already equated with the directions, on a great worldmap which was presented, about 2 or 3 years earlier, to the King of France (Charles V). The assignment of the emblems there will set our circuit of 40 correctly, and tell us the nature of the tarot pack’s midline.
On the map’s north African shore, the emblems of Rod, Sword, and Coin indicate the Eastern, Northern and Southern quarters of north Africa, respectively. On that map, the fourth sign is a whip, not a cup, but reference to the languages of Islam shows us the two are equivalent emblems. The cup or the whip signifies west. The worldmap is part of a compendium known as the Atlas Català. One hears of cards being described as the joc Moresche.
So, our circuit has the ‘ascending’ half as the western side – gold for south and cup for west. We go ‘backwards’ towards the east. Our mid-line is the meridian, not the equator. We face the way of the sun, moon and stars. Ahead is the gold and the cup of ‘fortuna major’, behind us the sufferings of war and the sufferings of learning; the sword and the Rule. We understand, now, why the four suits are ranked as they are: black suits lower in value than red, and the cup suit being highest of all. Our tarot pack is oriented by west-facing, across a line drawn from the southern to northern Poles,
But back to Rhaban Maur, to understand the significance of the number 40.
Maur’s Gospel reference was to Matthew 24:31, which does not actually say ‘four corners of the earth’ but ‘four winds’. The habit of naming direction by the winds was so entrenched in the ancient and medieval world, that cardinal ‘wind’ and ‘world-quarter’ were all but synonymous terms. However, Maur intends to consider the geometry of earth in relation to the stars and does not want his theme confused.
Maur regards Euclidian geometry as plain measuring, specifically the skill of the sidereal surveyor, who measures and divides the earth by imposing on it the patterns of celestial markers. The same skill aided the pyramid-builders and to this day remains standard in the surveyor’s repertoire. Applied to the surface of the sea, the same method informs sidereal navigation. For Maur’s purposes, Earth and stars are enough. Heaven on Earth is his main theme. The Psalms is his text. Euclid will now add to its marginalia. Factors in many of our earliest card-games show they were made only for the ‘40’ or for the 40 with Atouts.
So Maur continues:
Whence it is fitting
to enquire how far the quadrate and circular shapes of the earth can agree, when
the figures themselves, as geometricians maintain, are different. The Scriptures
call the shape of the earth a circle for this reason: because to those
who look at its extremity [i.e around the horizon] it always appears as a
circle. This circle the Greeks call a horizon, signifying that it is formed by
the four cardinal points; these four points signify the four corners of a square
contained within the aforesaid circle of the earth.
think Maur means that by reason of the circuit’s having four cardinal points,
it contains the potential of the square, so that circle and square become
identical verbal figures for the earth. However, most later writers thought of
the circuit of the world as ‘containing’ the square as a separate figure.
also sees the horizon line as akin to a monk’s waist-cord with its knots, and
recognizes its similarity to the surveyor’s measuring-cord, worn in the same
way. With that cord, that ‘horizon’ the surveyor marked out the foundations
of a square-built house, just as god made the circle of the world.
fourteenth century player, taught only by the Psalms and traditional commentary
on its verses, could still recognize in a circle, quartered, the geometric
figure for the lower world.
figure is something more. It is the very ancient figure used to signify the
‘world’ of God and world of man. The microcosm, the world-city, the ship as
self-contained microcosm of the earth.
suggests as much, speaking of the measuring ‘Eye’ as being at once urbis
(city) and orbis (orb/circle). His understanding of the word horizon also
reflects the influence of Egypt, for to him the word horizon means both the
circuit of the world and the square-built house, just as the Egyptian term did.
Maur’s conscious etymology, though,
is the Greek. And it is important.
implies the etymology ‘Oura-zone:
the band or belt of hours/eras. It is not an etymology we would accept today but
that is irrelevant. It connected the term horizon
to the conceptual meridian of the Milky way, the celestial ‘road’ which
spirals from the southern to the northern Pole and whose stars
provided many of the early monks with their intervals for recitation of
the Psalms. The same great circle above the earth provides us with most (if not
all) of our Atout stars. They are marginal figures in still another sense. Peripotamoi.
as the Liturgy of the Hours, the antiphonal singing of the Psalter, in its
entirety, once, twice, even three times a day gave an immensely strong
connection between the pattern of learning and the pattern of times, seasons,
stars and hours. It brought in knowledge of the river of stars as it did of
music - astronomy and music being two of the four ‘ways’ for applying
of Tours, in his cursu stellarum ratio, explained that monks should rise at 2am
in winter, and 3 am in summer, patterning their Hours and antiphonal singing of
Psalms by certain stars. He made it
clear that he preferred the old country names, not the Greco-Roman ones. And by
those descriptions our Atouts are also drawn. Our common man often rose as early
as a monk, if he lived in a rural area and, like the monks, his pattern of
learning was organised by the sequence of the Psalter, fixed firmly in mind by
continual repetition and by music.
have an acceptable reason why our cards should make the circle of Atouts from
stars on the same line as that which divides the circuit of 40, and why that
division should be by a meridian, rather than by the equator, but not why we
should have 40 blocks to the circuit.
could suppose that the number is 40 represents the lowest level of the 3 as the
first and most tedious level, that of the beginner, the bottom of the heap, the
penitential way in religion, the earth as a place of pain and suffering and so
on. 40 was the number of penitence, of the Lenten season, of Christ’s fast in
the wilderness, of the Israelites’ years in the wilderness.
of the word status, as way or level,
the Catholic Encyclopaedia constantly organises status as ‘ways’, into threes. The ways of beginners, of the
advanced and of the perfect … the division of the spiritual way into
the "purgative way", the "illuminative way", and the "unitive
all right as an explanation, but not entirely satisfactory. Connection here to
the Cathars and their lost tresor is relevant, of course. Tresor was another
name for the epitome book, intended to aid memory.
return to Rhaban Maur to see about this forty; he may be able to help.
East as his starting point, Maur locates the heart of the world, the microcosmic
‘city/cabin’ as a foundation square within the circle. He says:
For if you draw two straight lines from the East, one to the south and one to the North, and in the same way also draw two straight lines from the Western point, one to each of the two aforesaid points, namely the south and north, you make a square of earth within the aforesaid circle. How this aforesaid square (demonstrativus quadrus) ought to be inscribed within the circle, Euclid clearly shows in the Fourth Book of the Elements.”
with our arrangement of the forty. Two pairs of lines – drawn from the east
and from the west points to the mid-line. That fits well.
then, again, perhaps since all education was conducted in Latin, we should
consider the associations of the Latin terms.
terms Cardinal and tenths, in Latin, are highly evocative terms. They describe a
Latin city, principally Carthage in North Africa. After the Romans had conquered
the city, the histories tell us, the city was formed into a grid in larger and
smaller roads, cardines – highroads, or main streets
– and decumanes – by-roads, or side-streets. Our circuit of forty, by
reason of its cardines and tenths therefore has ‘within it’ that central
square, symbolic of a core city or house or arca,
each side being measured as ‘10’ units.
grid of Cardines and decumanes is equivalent to the highways and byways of
memory. To the main text and its marginal discurses. To one’s chief theme and
its numbered points.
Italy of the sixteenth century, the verbal exercise-games are revived and are
played with a neo-Platonic ‘tutor’. They are organised by the reading of
letters, from which are taken exercise-themes and points, in sets of ten. The
joc had begun as a Provençal poetic form, disseminated by the troubadors, many
of whom were monks. A questio would be set.
The contestant had to organise his response by subject and points,
illuminating his commentary with all the treasures of word and memory.
‘40’ suggests not only the circuit and square, the horzon and directions,
but also the grids of ‘placement’, a way of establishing loci
by which one might indeed describe ‘all the ways of the world by figure and
description’ – not only of the external world, but the internal world, the
copy of Euclid’s Elements is most
likely to have come from Persia, and less than a generation earlier, with an
embassy sent by Harun al Raschid to Charlemagne in Aachen. The majority in that
embassy appear to have been Persian Christians, from a community formerly
centred in Edessa. They, with their neighbours the Egyptians of Harran, would
provide the next Caliph, Ma’mun with the necessary founding texts, directors,
librarians and accountants to establish the first Muslim university, the Beit al
Hikmah. Even its name suggests Edessa, whose ancient cathedral of Holy Wisdom
had been destroyed. The Byzantines named their new Cathedral, too, Hagia Sophia-
Holy Wisdom. The Persian Christians had only recently translated Euclid’s Elements
from the Greek, (or from their liturgical language of Syriac), into Arabic for
the use of the conquering Arab tribesmen.
east, the same figure of square-in-circle for a city-microcosm is ancient. At
Meccah, for example, the central building is the Ka’abah or cube, which sits
within a circuit still followed by Muslim pilgrims, running the course
anticlockwise. Meccah predated Mohammad, on whom be peace, and remained a city
shared between Jews and Arabs for centuries after the advent of the Muslim way.
the city of Baghdad, the only circular city in the world in Maur’s day, had
recently been built to the same form, four gates inset into its circular wall
and within, the great square of assembly, the Murrabba’. Baghdad too was
designed as a microcosmic world, its foundations set out by sidereal surveyors
who were not Muslims.
When St. Peter’s at the Vatican was redesigned, it was set with an assembly- square in its circle, but that circle was left incomplete, like the broken wheel of St. Catharine. The faith had not yet embraced every nation on earth. Those admitted into heaven would not, in any case, include souls consigned to quarters of the world below. And as any basic training in Latin would tell, the letter C, the initial for Christ, represents the perfection of the 100. Ten squared.
In the medieval curriculum, there were only three subjects: Number, Word and Religious understanding. By reference to the book of Psalms, all three, with all their ways, could be taught. That memorised text could thus provide the ‘highway’ for all other learning, but then so could the figure of circle and square.
It is used to begin Hugh of St Victor’s description of the memorial Arca Noae. Ibn Khaldun, in his encyclopaedic historical-geography inscribes his figure of the square-in-circle with all the subjects of the Muslim scholar’s learning. The key to organisation of matter becomes recognition of similar ‘directional’ qualities in the all-encompassing grid. Our forty stands for ‘foundation’.
The four kingly governors shown on the Atlas Català, who bear the rod, sword, gold and whip are at once historical persons who lived on earth shortly before the map was made, and at the same time exemplars of that virtue normally associated with their own quarter of the larger world. Each is the very figure of someone of their kind, one of the ‘four races’ of the world, descended from Noah and his three sons. This we learn from the inscriptions, but there is not time tonight to describe them in detail.
In brief, he of the Sword, is a quarrelsome and divisive Saracen from the North; he with the southern Gold is from Mali, most generous and noble … and so on. Emblem and character are of like character.
But does our ordinary player in Europe associate the same qualities with his cardinal points and their emblems?
Given even a basic reference of the horizon-circuit, our
card-player would certainly have no difficulty assigning some meaning to the
quarter-signs, the better to remember them. And even without knowing the right
arrangement for the four signs, he would probably get their correspondences
the meaning of emblems is second nature. Formal
emblems are keys to purpose, character and often to the history of a person or
object; he sees them used in heraldry, on the doors of inns and shops and most
commonly of all, in the statues set around the church, where they define the
identity, history and character of the saint. A man on a horse spearing a dragon
– that is saint George. The hound and serpent is for St. Guinefort, worshipped
as the holy dog in Provence, but known to the Italians as a man and warrior,
most effective against plague. (Thanks in part to the generosity of the
Visconti-Sforza and the special devotion of the people of Pavia, she/he will
soon be formally accepted as a saint by Rome.)
emblem of the eastern Rod or staff our player may associate, in the same way,
with St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monastic order, renowned as
teachers and established everywhere, within and without Europe. Or if he lives
in France our player may prefer to think of St. Regina, shepherdess of Burgundy,
because he knows that she too is invariably ‘named’ by the rod she bears.
The character of the rod-bearer is that of the master and teacher, remote
and superior in wisdom, bringer of tears and of benefits. This is a time when
learning (it was still thought) had be driven into the heart by blows on the
Sword he may associate with Guinefort, or with James of Compostella, in
Spain. James is another military saint, who rode at the head of an army of
angels and who revealed the form of the Chi-Rho as a dreadful sign to
Constantine. But perhaps our player prefers to identify it instead as the
straight beheading sword, depicted with St. Paul, whose letters [charta] to the
early churches form a regular part of the liturgical roster.
Though he may have traveled no further than his village market, through
Paul’s letters our player has heard of Sinai and Zion, Jerusalem and Illyricum,
Ephesus, Galatia and Macedonia. And he knows that St. Paul also went to Spain.
The sword’s character is fierce, cold, divisive and/or incisive and warlike.
emblem of the wheel he may link with St. Catharine, patroness of Egypt and of
the Sinai, patron saint of preachers, philosophers and maidens, all of them
oases of delight in the barren world. Catharine is a saint especially popular in
Germanic speaking countries after the time of Charlemagne. The other 13 of the
fourteen holy helpers serve as patrons for all the ancient trades. Other
card-players see the circle of solid gold as a country loaf, rough ground but
sustaining. Others again see it as the token of southern gold, root of all evil.
The character for the wheel or gold is enduring, against weariness, pressure and
grinding hardship. A noble or sterling character.
fourth suit-sign, the Cup, recalls for our player Saint Joseph of Arimathea, to
whom Christ gave the chalice used at the Last Supper, and which Joseph then bore
to the west, to England as some say. Joseph of Arimathea and his cup still have
their day in the church’s roster. There exists still, in our player’s time,
an English royal ‘Cup of the Lamb’ which shows the story of St. Agnes. It
was quite possibly confused with the legendary cup of Christ, a common epithet
for whom is “Lamb of God’. A full century after cards emerge in Europe, this
‘Cup of the Lamb’ may be one of those three viewed by Leo Rozmital among the
The character of the cup is devotion and ultimate victory.
‘wheel’ of directional emblems is naturally linked, in our player’s mind,
with qualities of place, and again with the quarters of time. Each subject
requires a shift in one’s primary point of orientation. The Cup-bearer,
Joseph, bore his cup to the geographic north-west, yet his feast-day is on March
17, the time of Aester when the sun is in the east. In
summer we have the feast for St James of Compostella, who appeared to
Constantine in the cold northern, not the hot southern sky - July 25.
Regina of Burgundy with her (eastern) staff has her feast in the Autumn:
September 7. And St. Catherine with the sharp points of her southern wheel are
remembered on Nov. 25, in bitter winter. The complementary rotas of saint’s
days and seasons offer two possible mnemonics for our player to associate with
the four emblems. They connect with the cardinal points as we see them on the
map: Cup/west; rod/east; sword/north; wheel or gold/ south. But for him, the
seasonal allusions become reversed: Rod for autumn, sword for summer, wheel for
winter, cup for spring. The makers of printed packs used in the
Germanic-speaking countries, and using agricultural suit signs, also become
ambivalent. Is the rod the spring shoot or the pruned vine of Autumn? Is the
rose for late summer, or for spring.. The meaning of the emblems becomes
perhaps improper to mention the true equivalences. Our everyman player is not
necessarily in a position to know our source in the Atlas Català, though one of
higher social status might have seen that Majorcan map. Still, our player is not
far wrong if he locates the emblems purely by their locations in the world.
fact, the four suit-signs have their form, reference and character as they do
because they are ‘shorthand’ symbols for the four constellations used to
refer to the cardinal directions.
more highly educated, and probably to our player, who rises early and sleeps
after dark, the four are perfectly familiar. They are: The Rod [or club] of
Orion, the Sword (not sickle) of Ursa major, the Cup of the westering Pleiades
and the ‘pressed gold’ of that hidden southern Pole star believed to bear
the weight of heaven and earth, while shining over a river of southern gold.
That southern gold had been, and has been, mined since the days of the Pharaohs.
On the worldmap, the holder of the gold emblem is named Mansa Musa, who had
emerged from southern Mali in 1324 to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. He brought with
him such a wealth of gold that its price in Cairo was depressed for ten years.
star of the South, obscure though she is, is thought to endure darkness, heat,
oppression and longeur with extraordinary physical and moral strength..
her shown in many western manuscripts produced by Cistercians, and later by
Dominicans, after the turn of the first millennium. She appears as long Eve,
bound to her bed. She is also carved into one of the key-stones of Norwich
Cathedral, where she seems remarkably cheerful, all things considered, and wears
a triple tiara. With more classical emphasis, her figure becomes
Demeter/Persephone, whose days of tedium and longeur in the underworld are
endured with strength of purpose. In the Guildhall cards we see Demeter and
Persephone together contemplating the home of the dark, southern lord.
It was the innate quality in things which the medieval
scholar studied. For him an object
or person’s innate quality - its virtue
- spoke of where and why God had
placed it in the world. All
things in the universe are arranged by their like natures, our player thinks. It
is common knowledge.
in Universo est inordinatum
says doctrine. Loosely translated ‘there is n othing random about God’s
player lives in a world whose every aspect, object and phenomenon is part of a
rationally arranged whole, ordered by a purposeful God. All qualities of number,
form and proportion have purpose.
“It is only proper
that the world should be ordered [wrote Ramon Llull in the thirteenth century]
for if it were not, the work produced and created by God’s great wisdom
would not reveal great wisdom in God, because the more perfect and better
ordered is the product, the better is represented the master who ordered it.’
the directional emblems, though, he may feel a little puzzled.
sword is for Ursa Major, but to regard Ursa Major as the northern Polar
constellation is more conventional than correct. It reflects first the Egyptian
and then the Roman style. The Egyptians saw it as a kopsh, where the Romans saw
it simply as the marker of the Northern Pole. But because of the reverence for
classical Latin texts and custom, many in the west maintained the idea that
Helice was the northern constellation. The same traditions were followed by many
Muslim scholars. In the tenth
century, for example, we have the Persian Muslim scholar and astronomer al
Biruni writing with surprise and with a little contempt, I think, that the
people in India were of a different opinion. He began….
“It is well known”, he said. “that the north pole
with us is called the Great Bear; the south Pole is Canopus”.
Indians, of course had the right of it, as had the Phoenicians in the
Mediterranan. Neither identification made by al Biruni is right. The lesser
Bear, Ursa Minor, gives us the true star for the northern Pole. The Greater
Bear, as our card-player knows, is the countryman’s wagon, the Carls’ Wain,
or as some say, Charles’ Wain. It figures in the card-pack under the tag ‘Le
Wain of Ursa Major is shaped somewhat square, like a tumbril, and is used for
carrying weighty loads. It is some
distance from the northern celestial Pole, just as Canopus is some distance from
true South. One would think that our player could know nothing about those
hidden southern skies, but if he has been taught by a monk of the Cistercian,
Benedictine or Dominican orders, he may know a little.
southern Pole is envisaged as the bent pole, the broken axis, collapsed under
the weight of heaven and earth. It is alluded to as the southern rule, the rule
of ‘L’, or fifty. It is the
star of the southern celestial ship, which was called Argo navis, of the
original testament, whose manifest is borne, as often as not in the Carolingian
imagery, by King David of southern Judah. Canopus is the Davidic star in near
eastern lore, too, the star to whom God gave the secret of metal working. David
is author of Psalms, and is commonly pictured in later western art as the
quintessential penitent. All these things are reflected in the relevant figure
in the Charles VI cards.
Visconti-Sforza Hours show several excellent examples of the same figure, David
as the aged author of the Penitential Psalms, though by now they know that
Canopus is not the southermost star, and that still further south there is a
dark ‘cave’ - his laura where the
southern woman waits. Leaving the maw of Hell,
Dante takes ship with him, in the person of Cato, Marcia being Dante’s
exemplar of the southern woman. Dante compiled a table of stars, giving both the
Latin and the Arabic names, for persons using astronomical instruments made in
Islam. All the better to follow his narrative. In our cards, Canopus is the
shown as the light-bringer and pilot star; in ancient Babylon and Egypt it was
regarded in the same way, as the ‘light-bringer’ or lucifer.
common man knows a good deal, not only about how to mark the directions by
geometry and the stars, but the character attributed to each quarter, as it is
manifested in the seasonal and directional winds, goods and stars. Dominant in
its own season, each wind brings with it something of its original native virtue,
also conferred on every native good. It
is only in the Spring that one can set out for Jerusalem by sea.
Spring, the wind of revival is dominant, the wind of the east – ventus orientalis – as
one work says, “is by nature moderately warm, and if it travels over meadows
and rainy lands it kindles the spirits, multiplicat
spiritus… it is however painful to the eyes and nose… chiefly when it
causes gusty squalls and trees begin to bend threateningly…”
As with the tree and the east wind, threatening branch and gusting rain under the similar form of Orion, so with the teacher’s gusting words, his upraised stick and the squalling child. Such is the virtue of the east.
the perceived virtue common to all things of a given quarter, and locus within
that quarter, which permits our player to order his Atout cards, whether the
images show the quarters of the year or of the world. The flourishing Ace of
Clubs, or the spring leaf. But some makers of cards become confused. They make
the newly-pruned shoot the sign of the Rod, the leaf assigned to the south, as
‘flourishing’ summer. Or they think of the Rose for summer.. and so the
winter, our player knows well the bitter wind that comes from the north-east,
sweeping low whatever may be left in the fields. At the same time, in the sky,
his Reaper appears, the small sickle, taking for a time the pinnacle of the sky.
bitter-sharp wind, is said to come from Persia, over to the north-east. The
Preacher says the small sickle is part of a greater figure which the Greeks call
Perseus, signifying a Destroyer. That seems right and fitting to our player.
And, says the preacher, the stars of the sickle are Latined: curvus
saturnus, death’s scythe. That is also right and proper, it seems to him,
that such a figure should be permitted to rise up over the earth, at the time of
its seeming death.
says the preacher, God has written on the immortal scroll of the heavens, (as
the Bible describes the sky), that Death shall have no Dominion. This figure has
no permanent home in the highest place, unlike the figures of Pope and Emperor,
(Bootes and Cepheus) and the ship called Peter’s barque, formed of stars in
Ursa Major. Thus it is written that like death for a man, this star, sign of the
Saracen triumph, may be bitter but it is only a temporary thing. It cannot
shall have no dominion. Death where is thy sting?’ wrote St. Paul, The words
are read at every burial. The bitter wind from Persia, the bitter sickle-blade,
the bitter and temporary victory of the Saracen with his curved sword – curvus
saturnus. Perseus is very well known as the star of Death and the Saracen
Persian. The Cartomantic tradition is justified in saying that the
figure symbolises change and temporary set-backs.
disposed by its kind and virtue, its
natural placement in the world, and the character for that quarter. So the
native fruit of Persia, the Peach, is accorded the same ‘bitter’ character
as its star and its winter wind.
Peach tree [Persica] comes from Persia and it is said it was originally deadly
(poisonous/bitter) and that in Egypt the fruit became harmless, regenerated by
the fine climate. … Six or seven of the kernals of the peach taken before
drinking prevents drunkenness.
is an instantly sobering thought, as we would say.
this complex of information concerning direction and time, which enables the
player to recognise that he is seeing in the images of skeleton death, of
Chronos eating his children, and of the gardener exemplars of the same locus.
could find other examplars from other times or places. Any subject matter,
carefully considered, may produce such a pattern.
example, Christ said in his mental agony in the garden of Gethsemane, ‘Let the
cup of death pass from me, but not my will but thine be done.’ He told Peter
to put aside the sword, he was sold for gold, and was beaten with the rod. The
four symbols may be linked to the Gospel and become mnemonics for the via
dolorosa. By others they may be linked with subversive fellowships, with
works of private devotion, which other religious philosophies. The structure is
later sets, the first of the Atouts becomes the sorrowful Christ.
again for the other directions, with their associated seasons, and winds,
humours, market goods and important stars, each in their quarters of time and
place. The compassi reduce to the basic pattern of the world, the quartered
circuit, with its directional emblems.
we move up, to the next level, again marked in quarters. The 52-card pack has
twelve figures. The 78-card pack has 16.
In the scheme of our player’s internalized world, the number twelve, linked with emblems of the quarters, inevitably suggests the 12 winds which in the classical system make the circuit of direction. Dürer depicts the twelve winds about the earth as late as the fifteenth century. Sixteen points for the mid-level indicate the mariner’s wind-rose, the bussola or pyxis nautica. Twelve for the landsman and scholar, sixteen for the mariner and trader.
player, it is perfectly natural to see the lowest ‘40’ as the lower world.
If his daily work is in the fields, he knows well the wind for each quarter,
too, and its particular character. He is used to seeing the 12 zodiacal
constellations appear in turn, to watch over a month of the agricultural roster.
And he knows the stars for all four directions.
knows why there are 12 figures in the zodiac. God made there 12 months and 12
constellations, he will tell you, because Christ would appoint 12 Apostles. Why
12? Because their task was to take
word of the triune God to all four quarters of the world: 3x 4 is 12. Each of
the zodiacal constellations is routinely associated with an Apostle, an
association confirmed by the roster of saint’s days.
original calendar of church feasts was organized by the stars. Our German card
of John the Baptist belongs here, in the mid-level 12, as an exemplar for
Aquarius. [Peter is moved up, to stand as gatekeeper of the northern circle].
system of 12 winds, each cardinal had a ‘supporter’ in the form of an upper
and lower (or inner and outer) wind. Northern cards have for the king two male
adherents, one called the upper and one the lower man. For the mariner, it is
not the cardinal wind, but the one ‘off’ the cardinal point, which is of
The Roman church calendar gives John the Baptist two feast-days: the general feast on June 24, as Aquarius becomes visible in the northern sky; and the major feast, John’s martyrdom, on August 29, when Aquarius culminates at midnight. In the eastern idiom, when a star reaches its apogee, it is said to ‘triumph’. John’s identification with Aquarius is as old as Christianity. On August 29 his star/soul ‘triumphs’ above the earthly clay. John is reported as saying that he was as one crying in the wilderness ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’. As late as the nineteenth century, on pilgrimage to Mecca, Burton hears the same cry in the streets, ‘Naib! Naib! Tariqi Naib.’ Religious prophets, other eminent persons and like the needles of astrolabe or compass or the stars themselves are known in medieval Islam as ‘Naib’. A naib is any person of object which indicates right direction.
If our original player is introduced to the pack of cards in 1377 or 1378, as they first emerge, he will not know that in the following year, when the Papacy return to Italy after 70 years in Avignon, an entry will be made by the town chronicler of Viterbo. It will read:
fu recarto in Viterbo il gioco della carte, che in Saracino palare si chiama Nayb.
came at last to Viterbo the gioco della
carte, which is called in the speech of the Saracens: Naib”
speech of the Saracens was Arabic and it was mandatory for all persons in Islam, regardless of religion, race or culture.
Viterbo, by the way, was a papal seat second only in importance to Rome, and not always second when things became politically heated in the capital.
‘Naib’ embraces all the ideas we have covered so far; the ‘naib’ is a
governor of earthly and of religious ‘direction’, a point to steer by. The
cardinal figure becomes the ‘Naib’; the points adhering to it become the
‘clusterers’ naibyy – another
term applied to cards.
word ‘govern’ comes most recently from the Latin gubernare, to steer a ship.
Governing stars are steering stars. And while one can define the geographic
circuit, the compass of earth, by schematising the 12 of the zodiac, one cannot
sail by the line of the ecliptic alone.
to what is usually said, the Atout figures do not represent the zodiacal 12
constellations but as mentioned earlier, a series of stars set along a notional
south-north line. They may be used for time-keeping but they are primarily
‘notional’ because, if all were set on a true north-south meridian, one
would have times of year when very few were visible, and one needs to see
several at any given time if one is to triangulate for direction.
while the stars of our Atouts may be organized formally as the line of stars for
a compass rose, as indeed they have always been used in the eastern oceans, in
fact they form a spiraling path, Pole to Pole in the sky, appearing at different
latitudes and different times of year. Thus their nations ‘triumph’ at the
meridian, and over their different regions, in their proper seasons. Status
mundi. Each nation’s triumph has its time in the scheme of things.
stars were thought to imprint their character on all things in their own region,
power flowing from an even higher level, identified with Unity, through to the
level of earth and the myriad creatures. The three levels of the mundus are
therefore seen as interconnected but as strata formed as a pyramid of
considered each level in brief. But now we should consider the ‘ways’ by
their vertical arrangement.
moving on, we must farewell to our ordinary player, who cannot follow us here,
into the realm of the professional orator and scholar, the aristocrat and other
people with especial expertise is in word.
that his literacy was limited to the Book of Psalms and its commentary, though,
our player had an ‘elementary and basic knowledge’ surprisingly broad.
and Compost of Shepherds was not published until 1492, and in England, but
it is as Hopper notes ‘a thoroughly medieval document.’
It was the first book published in England for the common man.
opens with the division of the year into four seasons, each of which is named…
Emphasis is placed on multiples and combinations
for factors 2, 3 and 4, especially 3,4,7,10 and 12. It was routine to explain
the 7s importance by reference to the 12. Thus the 12 Apostles, as 3 x 4 also
represent the sum of all seven virtues, ‘since 7 is 3 and
book on the Visconti-Sforza cards, Gertrude Moakley discusses this factor 7 in
regard to the permutations of the tarot pack.
quote Hopper’s summary of the Shepherd’s Kalandar:
[a] painfully elaborated exposition of the relation of the microcosm to the
macrocosm, (Hopper says) [there follows] a regular calendar of saint’s days,
lunar cycles, and the position of the sun in the zodiac. In succession then are
given the 7 dolours (sorrows) of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the trees of
sinner’s vices, showing the branches of the seven deadly sins, the 7 petitions
of the Lord’s prayer, the 12 articles of the Apostles Creed distributed among
the 12 Apostles, The 10 commandments together with the ten commandments of the
devil, the 7 virtues, the 12 signs of the zodiac correlated with the 12 parts of
man, the four humours, the 7 planets and their domination over the parts of man,
the 248 bones of the human body …
the cycles of the planets, the four parts of the zodiac, the 12 signs, degrees,
minutes, seconds, thirds, the 5 zones, the 12 houses of heaven and earth, the
rule of the 7 planets over the 7 days of the week, the four complexions again,
now related to the four elements and humours) and the 4 keys to Purgatory of St.
Gregory. The conclusion is a poem on the sounding of the last trump.
are our some themes if we want to make a set of cards using this
set of 12: the articles of the Creed, the 12 Apostles, the 12 zodiacal
constellations, the 12 parts of man, the 12 houses of heaven and earth.
sets of 4s: seasons, quarters of the zodiac, complexions/races/countries,
humours, elements and keys to Purgatory.
series of 10s: commandments of God; 10 commandments of the devil. And so on.
examples correlate the virtue in each quarter and locus. And so as he makes or reads his pack of cards, though the
imagery may be changed, our player’s conceptual structure for the pack as
model of the mundus remains constant.
he connects the four quarters of his pack, by their emblems, to the four
‘complexions’, and again with the four humours and four races and so on, our
player was probably ill-informed about persons actually living in those quarters
of the physical world. Of Jews and Cathars, Muslims and Chinese, Africans and
Mongols he knows little except what is seen and heard in the market place and
pulpit. Of course, if he has had the opportunity to attend the markets in such
cities as Montpellier, he may know a little more.
“men.. from all
quarters, [are there] from Edom, Ishmael, the land of Algarve (Portugal),
Lombardy, the dominion of Rome the great, from all the land of Egypt, Palestine,
Greece, France, Asia and England. People of all nations are found there doing
business through the medium of the Genoese and Pisans. In the city there are
scholars of great eminence.”
wrote Benjamin of Tudela about Monpellier, city of physicians, in the thirteenth
Dominican named John of Rheidenfeld also says, in 1377, that nobles will be
given specific names – presumably for the kings of the quarters after the
style of the Majorcan worldmap – but commoners will be given only generic
information about customs.
call de Vetula, wrongly thought to
have been written by Ovid, was being much quoted and copied in the early
fifteenth century. It speaks of the levels of the mundus, grouping the three levels into two, termed mundus
major and mundus minor. These groups equate with the levels depicted in the
tarot pack and to the cartomantic style in speaking of the 78-card pack as
composed of aracana major and arcana minor. But the grouping differs. Mundus
minor in de Vetula equates with the ‘40’ tally cards and mundus
major with all the picture cards. In
part the poem runs:
The divisions of the universe [mundi partes], namely that heavenly [part] and this of the  elements, do not disdain to serve the lesser world. The lesser [mundus minor] is man, whose life derives from the heavens; and sustained by these elements thus it was said it/he [mundus minor] was made in the greater’s likeness.
It is the picture of Michelangelo’s Adam at creation.
[the original Latin…]
Mundi partes, celestis scilicet illa, hec
elementaris, mundo servire minori/non dedignantur. Mundus minor est homo, cuius
e celo vita est; et victus as hiis elementis sic dictus, quia sit mundi majioris
ad instar factus.
Another well-known text, revered in monastic circles from
the tenth century or so was the Asclepius III, a Hermetic dialogue. It was
considered a proto-Christian work. When the people of Harran adopted the
description ‘Sabean’ they also nominated the Hermetic texts as their holy
Having carefully distinguished from God himself, first: the deified humans who were stellar gods and secondly, those ‘gods’ who governed the world, the latter two classes are then described:
The celestial gods dwell in the heights of heaven, and there each one of them unswervingly accomplishes the part assigned to him in the ordering of the Kosmos but these our gods on earth below see to things one by one, predict events by means of sacred lots and divination, forsee what is coming and render aid accordingly; they assist, like loving kinsmen, in the affairs of men. Thus the celestial gods rule over things universal; the terrestrial gods administer particulars.
As late as the sixteenth century, Elizabeth I of England wrote to her father recalling this sentiment.
Just as the circuit of the lower ‘40’ serves as mnemonic pattern for things and virtues learned by rote, so the vertical ‘profile’ of the mundus evidently served as a pattern for the arts of word, the three ways which informed oratory and discursus.
In the process of
setting words in memory, the twin axes of geographic placement and natural
virtue were almost inextricable, as we have seen.
And that common character in the region, people, wind and produce was believed by the ancient, classical and medieval world to be either reflected by, or imprinted by, the region’s governing star. It was an idea so pervasive, while being quite distinct from astrology as such, that a thirteenth century German cleric could still write about it as conservative opinion. What makes his utterance so very interesting is that he organises his thoughts and his specific points in ascending and descending sequences.
After acknowledging God in the first place, this thirteenth century cleric first employs the ascending pattern, moving up through the world’s three levels, from stones to stars, so:
As God gave their [healthgiving]
power to stones-and-herbs and to words, so also he gave power to the stars, that
they have power over all things, except over one thing. …
Now - concerned with particularities - he descends…
The stars have power over trees and over vines, over leaves and grasses, over vegetables and herbs, over corn and all such things; over the birds in the air, over the animals in the forests, and over the fishes in the waters and over the worms in the earth: over all such things that are under heaven, over them our Lord gave power to the stars, except over one thing. … man’s free will: over that no man has any authority save thyself.
formal and professional oratorical
method. In describing temporal things beneath the stars, he descends, level by
level, in the manifest order: trees are more
prominent than vines, which in turn grow higher than leaves, and grasses,
and vegetables, then herbs, then seed (which lies on the ground). And having
finished the sequence of one thing – say the plant kingdom, he gathers them in
a group and then sets that lot aside, using the phrase ‘all such things’.
performing the same conceptual deed as that which we perform in following suit
and then gathering up a trick or round of cards. His motifs are the quarters of
only two kingdoms, as we say, the vegetable and animal ‘kingdoms’,
but this is the Catherine Wheel, broken. And two are enough for his purposes.
in religious thought of that time, as mentioned earlier, the half-circuit may
stand for the whole.
At this time, the thirteenth century, there was not yet quite so fierce an avoidance of the old star-road imagery that would soon arise. The figures which informed our Atouts vanish suddenly from the monastic works soon after, and are replaced from that time onward by a notably heavy and insistent emphasis on the solar line. The illuminations in the famous ‘books of Hours’ notably omit all overt reference to the hour-stars; they are books of months.
Our German cleric’s definition of the stars may still mean all of them, especially those outside the trails of the sun and moon. His cadences run: upward for general truths, down for particularities. The double stairway; perhaps the double helix. Christ the healer had been a favorite image for the priests of ‘ancient’ eastern churches of Persia, Chaldean Syria, and Egypt. And it was through their verbal imagery that knowledge of the older stars and the celestial road north, to the city of God, had first come into Europe – about the eighth century.
 The common dismissal of the opinions of the Abbe Court de Gebelin and ‘Monsieur de M’ on the grounds that Champollion first deciphered the Egyptian hieratic script is ill-informed. Not only had Ptolemy also commissioned a work in Greek on Egyptian religious beliefs, one that was disseminated throughout the Hellenistic world, but Domitian (to name the most prominent of the ‘Egyptophile’ Roman emperors) had had his edicts translated into hieratic, carved into stone and in that form posted in Rome. One presumes that in Rome there were ennough people conversant with both Latin and Egyptian to ensure the emperor was obeyed. That we do not have Manetho’s book on religion, while we have the other, does not mean they were lost in the fourteenth century. In any case, there is no certainty that the ‘ancient Egyptian’ religion about which de Gebelin was informed was not Coptic Christianity. Copts are certainly the ‘ancient Egyptian priests’ to whose example Ficino appealed as justification for his Liber Vitae. These matters cannot be pursued here.
 Beckwith, John, Early Medieval Art, London: Thames and Hudson, 1964 p.68
 Seznec, Jean, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, Princeton University Press, 1972.p. 122.
 Originally, perhaps the suit of the upraised Shield.
 See note in Letts, Malcolm, (trans and ed.) The Travels of Leo Rozmital, Hakluyt Society (Series II Vol. CVIII, 1957), Cambridge University Press, 1955 p.52n2.
 From ‘The Book of the Gentile’, 4:1, quoted in Bonner, Anthony (trans. and ed.), Doctor Illuminatus: a Ramon Llull Reader, Princeton University Press, p.111. Lull is a most important figure in the pattern of cards’ dissemination. As a toubador within the cultural domain of Provence he was acquainted with the joc, a poetic discursive form; he knew Regiomontanus the expert on mathematics and calendar, and was part of the circle of neo-Platonists about Bessarion. Llull is now best known for the ‘tree and flower’ diagrams which set the world into orders of ‘natural logic’ for the purposes of verbal argument. Through him chairs were established to teach and disseminate knowledge of Islamic culture and particularly to teach the Arabic language. His death occurred four years before Dante’s.
 Ar: Najum.
 Moakley, Gertrude, The tarot cards painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza family: an iconographic and historical study, New York: New York Public Library, 1966
 Benjamin of Tudela: Itinerary.
 For which the Atouts stand.
 Or ‘microcosmic’ though I would prefer to avoid the term.
 Which implies they are stars, not the ‘swerving’ messenger-planets as emissaries of the constellation-god.
 I am indebted for the quotation to Tester, who cited it on p. 178 of his History of Western Astrology, Woodbridge: Boydell, 1987. I feel some hesitation in supposing that Berthold of Regensburg limited his number of influencing stars to those forming the twelve zodiacal signs.