While there certainly have been plenty of prohibitions historically against playing cards, usually the focus was anti-gambling. There have also been laws allowing card playing, especially during certain times of the week or year and sometimes even allowing penny bets. Right from the beginning there have been those who saw cards as a popular artifact that could be used as much for moral purposes as immoral. The point that I want to make in this series of posts is that people have seen playing cards in terms of allegories that point them toward the best (or worst) ways in which to live their lives. There is something about these loose leaves that through shuffling allow ‘fate’ to herald triumph or loss that has always appealed both to the imagination and to our belief that we can be guided to a morality that will result in triumph.

Those who have seen the Showtime production “The Tudors” might recognize the name Hugh Latimer. He was one of the foremost Reformation preachers in the courts of Henry VIII and Edward VI.

Hugh Latimer (c. 1490-1555) was said to have done more than anyone else to establish the principles of the English Reformation in the minds and hearts of the British people. His homely simplicity of style, practicality and humor made the zeal and wisdom of his sermons palatable to the masses. These sermons are still read today as a model of the craft.

When his two “sermons on the cards” resulted in a major controversy at Cambridge, Henry VIII came to his support, returning the favor of Latimer’s support for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. As court chaplain and an ardent promoter of reform, Latimer earned a brief excommunication by the pope. With the creation of the Church of England, he was named Bishop of Worcester although his path continued to have its ups and downs. Eventually he became chaplain to Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk, who was Catherine Parr’s close friend and, it was rumored, was being considered as Henry’s seventh wife. Under Edward VI, Latimer was court preacher, but upon the ascendancy of Queen Mary and the return of Catholicism, he was burned at the stake, becoming known as one of the Three Oxford Martyrs. Latimer appears as the chaplain of Catherine Parr in the recent TV series “The Tudors.”

The statutes of St. John’s College, Cambridge, following the usual practices of the time, forbade playing with dice or cards except at Christmas (excluding underclassmen). As this popular activity would obviously draw the holiday interest of university students, Hugh Latimer used the metaphor of ‘Christ’s cards’ in a game of Triumph for his Christmas sermons in 1529.

Trump or triumph was a 16th century British card-game, using a regular playing-card deck, based on earlier trick-taking games such the German Karnöffel. Their descendants include whist, hearts and bridge. Karnöffel was first described in Bavaria in 1426, and its name may have derived from the Persian Kanjifah and Indian Ganjifa, which speaks for the historical movement of playing cards from East to West (see discussion here). Karnöffel may even have been a precursor to the tarot in that certain cards, when played in particular ways, were given names: the Seven of Trump became the Devil when it was the first card played in a trick, the Six was the Pope and Two, the Kaiser.

In Triumph, twelve cards were dealt to each of four players with four cards left in a stock pile (sometimes called the ‘widow’). The top card of the stock was turned up for trumps.


by Hugh Latimer

The Tenor and Effect of Certain Sermons Made by Master Latimer in Cambridge, About the Year of Our Lord 1529

December, 1529, the Sunday before Christmas

The first sermon begins with the question “Who Art Thou?”* and Latimer answers that we are natural [beastial] man and woman, and therefore ‘the true inheritors of hell and working all towards hell,’ that is, until we are baptized and given ‘Christ’s rule.’ Latimer’s two sermons explain the key tenets of ‘Christ’s rule’ as viewed through an analogy with a card game in which all who follow this rule can win. [*The question “Who Art Thou?” reminds me of the Oracle of Delphi, who counseled “Know Thyself.” -mkg]

We’ll pick up in the middle of the first sermon:

“Now then, what is Christ’s rule? . . . And because I cannot declare Christ’s rule unto you at one time, as it ought to be done, I will apply myself according to your custom at this time of Christmas: I will, as I said, declare unto you Christ’s rule, but that shall be in Christ’s cards. And whereas you are wont to celebrate Christmas in playing at cards, I intend, by God’s grace, to deal unto you Christ’s cards, wherein you shall perceive Christ’s rule. The game that we will play at shall be called the triumph, which, if it be well played at, he that dealeth shall win; the players shall likewise win; and the standers and lookers upon shall do the same; insomuch that there is no man that is willing to play at this triumph with these cards, but they shall be all winners, and no losers.

Here Latimer makes the point that as opposed to ordinary card games where there is one winner, everyone who follows Christ’s rule wins.

“Let therefore every christian man and woman play at these cards, that they may have and obtain the triumph: you must mark also that the triumph must apply to fetch home unto him all the other cards, whatsoever suit they be of. Now then, take ye this first card, which must appear and be shewed unto you as followeth: you have heard what was spoken to men of the old law, “Thou shalt not kill; whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of judgment: but I say unto you” of the new law, saith Christ, “that whosoever is angry with his neighbour, shall be in danger of judgment; and whosoever shall say unto his neighbour, ‘Raca,’ that is to say, brainless,” or any other like word of rebuking, “shall be in danger of council; and whosoever shall say unto his neighbour, ‘Fool,’ shall be in danger of hell-fire.” This card was made and spoken by Christ, as appeareth in the fifth chapter of St. Matthew.

“Now it must be noted, that whosoever shall play with this card, must first, before they play with it, know the strength and virtue of the same.

Latimer thus explains that the first card drawn determines trump and that this winning trump is the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” Furthermore, that under the ‘new law’ of Christ, this extends to ‘killing’ a person with damaging feelings and words. When he continues, he characterizes such evil actions within us as ‘Turks,’ which can make us slaves. [If the word, Turks, used in this way, offends you, think of the intent as being evil genii or germs that affect our morals. See note at the end.]

“These evil-disposed affections and sensualities in us are always contrary to the rule of our salvation. What shall we do now or imagine to thrust down these Turks and to subdue them? It is a great ignominy and shame for a christian man to be bond and subject unto a Turk: nay, it shall not be so; we will first cast a trump in their way, and play with them at cards, who shall have the better. Let us play therefore on this fashion with this card. Whensoever it shall happen the foul passions and Turks to rise in our stomachs against our brother or neighbour, . . . we must say to ourselves, “What requireth Christ of a christian man?” Now turn up your trump, your heart (hearts is trump, as I said before), and cast your trump, your heart, on this card; and upon this card you shall learn what Christ requireth of a christian man—not to be angry, nor moved to ire against his neighbour, in mind, countenance, nor other ways, by word or deed. Then take up this card with your heart, and lay them together: that done, you have won the game of the Turk, whereby you have defaced and overcome him by true and lawful play. . . .

“Then, I say, you should understand, and know how you ought to play at this card, “Thou shalt not kill,” without any interruption of your deadly enemies the Turks; and so triumph at the last, by winning everlasting life in glory. Amen.

The Second Sermon

“Now you have heard what is meant by this first card, and how you ought to play with it, I purpose again to deal unto you another card, almost of the same suit; for they be of so nigh affinity, that one cannot be well played without the other. The first card declared, that you should not kill, which might be done divers ways; as being angry with your neighbour, in mind, in countenance, in word, or deed: it declared also, how you should subdue the passions of ire, and so clear evermore yourselves from them. And whereas this first card doth kill in you these stubborn Turks of ire; this second card will not only they should be mortified in you, but that you yourselves shall cause them to be likewise mortified in your neighbour, if that your said neighbour hath been through your occasion moved unto ire, either in countenance, word, or deed. Now let us hear therefore the tenor of this card [essentially, he speaks of reconciling with thy neighbor]. . . .

“The first card telleth thee, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not be angry, thou shalt not be out of patience. This done, thou shalt look if there be any more cards to take up; and if thou look well, thou shalt see another card of the same suit, wherein thou shalt know that thou art bound to reconcile thy neighbour. Then cast thy trump upon them both, and gather them all three together, and do according to the virtue of thy cards; and surely thou shalt not lose.”

Johannes de Friburgo, 1377

The moralization of the Game of Cards did not begin with Latimer but with Johannes de Friburgo (also known as Johannes von Rheinfelden) in 1377, Basil, Switzerland. This work is one of the earliest mentions of playing cards in Europe and is known as: De Moribus et Disciplina Humane Conversationis, id est ludus cartularum “Of the Manners and the Instruction of Humane Conversation, that is the game of cards” (described by E. A. Bond in The Anthenaeum, Jan, 19, 1878).

Johannes proposed to “moralize the game, or teach noblemen the rule of life; and to instruct the people themselves or inform them of the way of labouring virtuously.” In other words, the game of cards, according to Johannes, can be used for teaching manners and humane conversation. He further writes: “Hence it is that a certain game, called the game of cards [ludus cartarum], has come to us. . . . In which game the state of the world as it now is is excellently described and figured.”

[See the discussions of this work by Michael J. Hurst and also at trionfi.com. The image is from Roman du Roy Meliadus de Leonnoys, c. 1352 (Naples).]

Martin Luther, 1525

Martin Luther, who elsewhere spoke against gambling, declared himself to be God’s Ace who trumps the pope. Bells are a German suit-marker. He gives cards identities similar to those in Karnöffel in this quote from 1525, four years before Latimer’s sermon:

“If I were rich, I would have myself made a golden chess set and silver playing cards as a remembrance; for God’s chesspieces and cards are great and mighty princes, kings, and emperors; for He always trumps or overcomes one through another, that is lifts him off his feet and throws him down. N. [Ferdinand] is the four of bells, the pope the six of bells, the Turk [Devil] the eight of bells, and the Emperor is the king in the pack. Lastly, our Lord God comes, deals out the cards, and beats the pope with the Luther, which is His ace [Daus].”

[Tischreden 1:491-2, no 972, quoted in “Playing Cards and Popular Culture in Sixteenth-Century Nuremberg” by Laura A. Smoller, in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 17, no. 2, (Summer, 1986).]

NOTE on the word “Turk”: Both Hugh Latimer in England and Martin Luther in Germany used the word “Turk” as roughly synonymous to the Devil. Today this is, of course, not considered politically correct. In the 16th century the Turks were the boogey-men that all children were taught to fear. Constantinople had fallen to the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453, ending the Christian Byzantine Empire. Even more recently they had temporarily captured a part of Italy, and then, in 1529, after several earlier forays, the Turks sailed up the Danube and besieged Vienna. Although they were driven out, Europeans lived for a couple of hundred years with anxiety about an impeding invasion by the Turks. A helpful summary of the Ottoman Empire and its rapid spread can be found here.

Continue on to

Part 2: Cards Spiritualized

Part 3: Social Reformation