A Rational Disposition: the internalised world of the medieval scholar and the pack of paper tokens
Article by Daana Mindon


Much 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.

In the 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.[1]

One of 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.

On the 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.

Attempts 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.

Perhaps 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.

If 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.

Acquaintance 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:

The rock-crystal… 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.[2]

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.

If this 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, unique.

Unlike 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.

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.

The 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 Harran.

However, few persons in fourteenth century Europe would be in a position to find that information useful.

Early 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.

By 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.

 It 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.”[3]

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.

Exceptions 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 dissatisfied.

Neither 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.

Contemporary eyes

Tonight 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.

Both 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.

Upon 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.

The 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 such.

With this second level, a 52-card pack ends. 

A 78-card pack has 16 figures for that level, and then a third, higher level -  again formed of pictorial figures.

There 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.

It is 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’.

Today, 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.

When an 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 in Structure

Readable 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.

Our 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 ordering.

It is 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.

Today, 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?

If 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 connection. 

Therefore, 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.

In 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 the equivalent.

Each locus had to have a particular character to it, enabling all variant forms to be immediately connected to their places.

We may 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.

The 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.

An 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.

 Nevertheless 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.

What 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.

What do our early references to cards tell us?

In 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.

Status 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.

Since 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.

As a working hypothesis, then, our players may be seeing in the pack a common, conceptual form of the world itself.

By why 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?

Our 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.

Nobles 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.

This 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.

John’s 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 ‘skeleton’ structure.

Examples 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.

But -  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 century.

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.

He has 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.

Our 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.

Images 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.

It 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.

Here 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.

The Basic 40

Our 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.

This is 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[4] and Swords.

Good, 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’.)

Directions and Emblems

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.

Now I 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.

Maur 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.

Our 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.

This 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.

Maur 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.

Maur 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.

Known 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 Number.

Gregory 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.

So, we 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. 

One 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.

Treating 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 way."

It is 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.

Let us return to Rhaban Maur to see about this forty; he may be able to help.

The Foundation of the World.

.Taking 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.”

Compare 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.

But then, again, perhaps since all education was conducted in Latin, we should consider the associations of the Latin terms.

The 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.

The 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.

In 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.

 Our ‘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 microcosmic city.

Other Microcosmic ‘Cities’

Maur’s 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.

In the 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.

Again, 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’.

Emblems of Virtue:

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?

Reading 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 fairly right.

To read 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.)

The 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 body.

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.

The 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.

The 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 king’s treasures. [5] The character of the cup is devotion and ultimate victory.

This ‘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 diffused.

It is 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.

In 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.

To the 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.

The star of the South, obscure though she is, is thought to endure darkness, heat, oppression and longeur with extraordinary physical and moral strength..

We see 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.

Nihil in Universo est inordinatum says doctrine. Loosely translated ‘there is n othing random about God’s universe.’

Our 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.’[6]

About the directional emblems, though, he may feel a little puzzled.

The 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”.[7]

The 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 chariot’

The 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.

 The 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.

The 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.

Workers in the Fields – above as below.

Our 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.

In 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.

It is 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 meaning dissolves.

In 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.

That 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.

But, 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 prevail.

‘Death 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.

Everything 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.

The 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.

Death is an instantly sobering thought, as we would say.

It is 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.

One could find other examplars from other times or places. Any subject matter, carefully considered, may produce such a pattern.

So, for 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 the constant.

In many later sets, the first of the Atouts becomes the sorrowful Christ.

And so 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.

The mid-level

And so 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.

For our 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.

He also 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.

The 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].

In the 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 greater importance.

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’[8] 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.

“There came at last to Viterbo the gioco della carte, which is called in the speech of the Saracens: Naib

The 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.

But ‘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.

Atouts: Governing Stars

Our 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.

Contrary 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 navigational stars.

I say ‘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.

Thus, 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.

The 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 quantities.

The Vertical ‘Slice’

We have considered each level in brief. But now we should consider the ‘ways’ by their vertical arrangement.

Before 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.

For all that his literacy was limited to the Book of Psalms and its commentary, though, our player had an ‘elementary and basic knowledge’ surprisingly broad.

The Kalandar 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.

The Kalandar 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 4’.

(In her book on the Visconti-Sforza cards, Gertrude Moakley discusses this factor 7 in regard to the permutations of the tarot pack.[9] )

We quote Hopper’s summary of the Shepherd’s Kalandar:

After [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.

So here are our some themes if we want to make a set of cards using this ‘worthy text’:

For the 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.

Our sets of 4s: seasons, quarters of the zodiac, complexions/races/countries, humours, elements and keys to Purgatory.

Our series of 10s: commandments of God; 10 commandments of the devil. And so on.

These 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.

Though 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.”[10]

So wrote Benjamin of Tudela about Monpellier, city of physicians, in the thirteenth century.

Our 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.

The Verbal Arts. Ascending and descending through the levels.

A poem 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][11] and this of the [4] elements, do not disdain to serve the lesser world. The lesser[12] [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 Writ.

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[13] 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.[14]

This is 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’.

He is 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.

Furthermore, 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.

[1] 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.

[2] Beckwith, John, Early Medieval Art, London: Thames and Hudson, 1964 p.68

[3] Seznec, Jean, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, Princeton University Press, 1972.p. 122.

[4] Originally, perhaps the suit of the upraised Shield.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] Al Biruni, India

[8] Ar: Najum.

[9] 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

[10] Benjamin of Tudela: Itinerary.

[11]  For which the Atouts stand.

[12] Or ‘microcosmic’ though I would prefer to avoid the term.

[13] Which implies they are stars, not the ‘swerving’ messenger-planets as emissaries of the constellation-god.

[14] 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.