A Rational Disposition

Symbiosis: Institute for Comparative Studies in Science, Myth, Magic and Folklore




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 centred 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 synthesised 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, all eastern learning especially fascinated the more sophisticated classes, and the Neo-Platonic literati – 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 emphasised, 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, memorising 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 memorised 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 recognised 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. It is in fact based on the 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 cards 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.

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 devoid of any alpha-numerics or captions whatsoever. The 52-card pack contains two levels, the 78-card three. The lowest of these levels is common to both forms and is formed as a circuit of forty cards, grouped into four decades. Each decade is signalled 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 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.

With this second level, in 12 figures, a 52-card pack ends.

A 78-card pack has a third and still higher level, again of pictorial figures.

There are no emblems on the 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 Auriga in a form that tells us we have in Auriga the prototype for our later ‘Magus’ among the Atouts.

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 a player in late medieval Christendom looked at this 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 is that omission of inscriptions. Users had nothing but internal cues to tell them about such fundamental matters as the cards’ relative sequences and hierarchy. And it is not as if card-play is yet common, or the practice of putting labels on images unknown. Saint’s pictures, tomb portraits and even figures in manuscripts could have their names attached. Inscriptions are not added because they are not wanted.

Moreover, the pack settled almost immediately into one of those two most common forms: the 52 or 78 card pack. Those forms then remained constant, while the imagery set on cards developed – equally immediately – an extraordinary and somewhat bewildering variety, considering that the highest level, especially, gave no written indication of right ordering.

So, in one pack, we may find a picture of a creeping assassin, in another, the picture of a ship, or a gardener who stands with watering can and pruning blade. Which of the standard Atouts are these for? Even today, some early packs cannot be played with. There seems no way that we may relate the pack’s structure to, say, a series of unlabelled birds or to the series of Trojan heroes.

Such variation is simply irritating if one’s aim is only to play familiar number-games. One’s hand had to be organised rapidly for play, and this could only be done efficiently if such variations connected, in the player’s mind, with some well-entrenched pattern already memorised – not only by him but by the majority of players-to-be.

Our player of the fourteenth century, faced with yet another set of unlabelled and uncaptioned figures, and expected to assign each its precise place in the deck, had to think immediately something along these lines: ‘Gardener: cuts down yet waters plants … small sickle: curvus saturnus. Watering can: ‘water in the ground’ and so immediately leap to a placement: “Ah! highest level, fifth position – or the equivalent.

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 fourteenth century saw Arabic terms replacing the Latin in astronomical studies, and the Arabic terms remained standard in western astronomy until 1880.

However, in general, it is not easy for us to instantly analyse pictures and emblems in such a way. It could not have been entirely easy for the original card-players either.

Imagine if, sitting down to play at cards you found the pack had no Court cards, graduated as we have come to expect by social status, and with equivalent number-values established already in your mind. What if, instead, you had never seen a pack before in your life, and were faced with 12 apparently random figures of musical instruments, whose hierarchies and quarterings you were expected to work out for yourself! That, in effect, is what occurs with a great many of the early decks. What benefit could variety of that sort conceivably have? It is not just the Atouts and Court cards that have to be arranged without assistance, but the groups within the lower 40 as well. Cup is greater than gold, rod than sword. One might learn that fairly easily, only to be confronted the next time one sat to play with a pack whose suit-signs were an eye, an urn, an arrow and a whip, or 4 printer’s tools- to give just two examples. How was the rapid sorting done?

Well, given our 12 instruments, if you knew the usual organisation of a classical orchestra, you might split the pictures of brass instruments from those of the strings, then the woodwinds and percussion, and so complete the first stage, dividing the 12 (or 16 figures) into four complementary divisions. And then within each quarter you would need just a glance to arrange them ‘high to low’ according to (say) the instrument’s range or the usual location for that piece in the bank of an orchestra. You have matched the 12 or 16 apparently random images to an existing conceptual structure. And ‘First quarter, second position’ then becomes not only a reasonable category, but also one you can easily match to a specific card. In, say, the Japanese card-game Hanafuda, one sees very clearly how this same principle was applied to the patterns of the year and its produce.

The conceptual structure displayed in our pack of cards, made of 52 or 78 tokens, must thus be widely known. We can narrow our field a little. We are looking for an ordered arrangement, a conceptual structure, common to most people and which permits representation of its positions – its loci – in a great number of ways.

We are not speaking of a modern player, who has seen packs of cards all his life, but the earliest western players who had, supposedly, never seen anything like them before. The common conceptual structure has to be better known than the composition of a classical orchestra today. It must permit reduction to two levels, or extension to three, and the latter version, at least, must include reference to the realm of the stars.

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 be.

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, Earth as terra, but the perceptible world, the whole 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, too, the paths of sun and moon with their marker-stars were assigned to the mid-level, because these marked the limit of the temporal world. Outside them stood the stars of the higher and lower heavens, whose principal use was as timing and guiding stars. They were used mainly by herders, mariners and desert-dwellers to determine time and direction.

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 to be played by aristocrats, he says, who may play as they wish, using tokens of any material in any manner. Nobles using the 52 card pack 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 figures for themselves, so long as these are based on a worthy text.

This worthy text is unspecified. It provides one – not with the raison d’etre for the pack, but with suitable exemplars for each individual locus in the conceptual structure. An example for the ‘Destroyer’ position in the upper level, for example might be the Greek Chronos, or Saturn as the god (not the planet-messenger), and so on. As the packs’ imagery devolves –as 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 dependence on text-based and memory-based learning. Numerals and Captions come to be added to the figures and the older meaning is all but lost before the seventeenth century.

But – to return in spirit to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – we will begin with an ordinary sort of person as our player. He is an average resident of late medieval Europe, and is thus conservative, Christian, affected by prevalent attitudes, and has been educated mainly by the events of his daily life but a little, too, by formal training 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.

Our player’s sports are seen as practice-contests for serious activities, not games in our sense. 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. One ends work, eats and then sleeps immediately after supper, unless there is more work to do. Candles are far too expensive to him to waste on sitting about. Our player may be permitted to leave his work to join a welcoming crowd for some visiting dignitary. On high holy days our player 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.

Assuming him literate, our player’s basic primer for both word and number will have been the Book of Psalms, which he will have ‘read’, that is memorised verbatim, along with any marginal comment provided by the tutor. Formal learning is always conducted in Latin, and the habit of using a core text to set the pattern for memorised learning is entrenched. It has evolved from religious scholars’ habit in adding commentary to the margins of manuscripts. Marginalia annotates, illustrates, explains or expands text by cross-reference to other written works. Whatever matter the tutor might know of historical, geographical, geometrical or other things was added verbally, in the same way, while the player memorised his sequence of Psalms. To read is to memorise, line-by-line, word-by-word, assigning to each part of the work a locus in memory.

Here again, the medieval style is alien to us. We tend to study by discrete subjects, not by layers of information attached to a single text. But books were rare, the method aided memory and is certainly relevant to our understanding of how the various loci in a pack could be represented by a myriad possible forms. Let’s consider the dispositions of the lower forty, and how our player may have understood them. Our problem at this level is essentially numerical and geometrical.

So – let us step back to the time of Rhaban Maur, when a revival in ancient and classical learning infused Charlemagne’s realm. At this time, the phrase ‘monastic scholar’ was a tautology. Maur was inevitably a monk, and here is introducing to his fellows Euclid’s Elements written a thousand years earlier, c.300 bc.

The following account comes from Maur’s memorial work de Universo. Like Euclid’s Elements, de Universo would remain an absolutely basic text into and beyond our player’s time. Maur’s concern is not with geometry alone, nor with religion per se but with an immutable, divinely ordered world – whose basic figure is routinely taught and which is known to all.

Maur began in the usual way, by formulating the qaestio, or problem by reference to the words of the Psalter, and so setting it (conceptually) as commentary on those 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”

In fact, the Gospel reference (Matthew 24:31) does not say ‘four corners of the earth’ but ‘four winds’. The habit of naming direction by the winds was so entrenched that cardinal ‘wind’ and ‘world-quarter’ were all but synonymous terms. Maur, I think, deliberately re-translates this phrase. He intends to consider the geometry of the stars in relation to the earth and does not want that simple theme confused by reference to the world’s intermediary region of winds, elements, sun and moon.

The world described by the Latin term mundus [rather than terra or universo] was this three-tiered, everyman’s world. The onion-model so often cited today is proper to Europe’s professional calculators – mathematical astronomers and astrologers.

Maur regards Euclidian geometry as plain measuring, specifically the measuring skills 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 a standard part of 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 informs marginalia.

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.

Maur sees the fundamental pattern of the world as a circle marked at four equidistant points. He sees the horizon line as being like a monk’s waist-cord with its knots, and recognises its similarity to the surveyor’s measuring-cord, worn in the same way. But the figure Maur has just begun to describe is the ancient figure for the world in microcosm. He suggests as much, speaking of the ‘Eye’ as urbis (city) and orbis (orb/circle). His arrangement is consonant with that of the card-pack, by means of which, as that Dominican wrote, one could represent all the levels and ways of the mundus – ‘by figure and description.’

The Foundation of the World.

. Taking east as his primary point, Maur then locates the heart of the world as the microcosmic ‘city’, the foundation. 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.”

To our player, taught by the Psalms and by the tutor’s knowledge of basic geometry, this circuit of the 40 cards, in its quarters, being advocated as a means for describing the mundus, must inevitably evoke recall of the lowest level, that of the world’s compasso, with its 4 cardinal quarters and its horizon. The very number of 40 signified the lower world. It was the place of earthly sorrow and penitence. Christ’s stay in the wilderness was 40 days, the forty days of Lent….

So again we see that the Catholic Encyclopaedia, treating of the word status, speaks continually of a division of things into three ‘ways’. The lowest is always the slowest and most painful way. So, for example we are told of,

“ the division of the spiritual way since the time of Pseudo-Dionysius into the “purgative way”, the “illuminative way”, and the “unitive way”

Laying down the forty to represent the curve of the horizon, the compass of the world below, and the penitential way, our cardinal points must be marked by the Aces.

Whether or not our player knows it, the King of France already has a great map of the world, formed in four sheets, where the tarot emblems of Rod, Sword, and Coin are used to indicate the directing governors of the Eastern, Northern and Southern quarters, respectively. On the map, the fourth sign is a whip, not a cup, but reference to the languages of Islam shows us these are equivalent emblems. The cup or the whip signifies west, because both forms realise common verbal figures for the Pleiades. In western sources, the Pleiades are referred to as a rosette or as the ‘cup’ called Fortuna major. It appears in astrological and geomantic works based on near eastern divinatory style.

The worldmap’s ‘governors’ of the quarters are drawn as embodiments of the virtue proper to their quarters, in the microcosmic and the microcosmic scale. That is to say, the four represent historical persons and, at the same time, become quintessential representatives of their own people’s virtue in the wider world of Islam. 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. In most near eastern languages, the word for any director or ‘governor’ is Naib. The root sense is of someone appointed to keep us on the right paths. The term describes the eminent person, the king, the governor, the religious prophet, and the pointer teeth of an astrolabe, a compass needle.

Then we read of a chronicler in Viterbo, in Italy, writing for the year 1379, the year that the Papacy returned to Rome from Avignon and four years after the completion of that world map that,

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.

For the moment we’ll take ‘gioco della carte’ as referring generally to card-use, but may return later to speak about more specific definition. 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. The Popes had just returned from Avignon.

Our player is told that the tarot games have a rule that for half the suits you must play the sequence from 1-10 in ascending order, while in the other two suits you must play them in descending order. It is not hard for him to remember, because if our Aces mark the cardinal points about the circuit, the midline of the circuit – east-west or south-north – is ‘zero’ latitude or longitude, so the pattern for laying down the whole ’40’ easily creates that precise arrangement. Two arcs must rise up from, and half descend from that mid-line. For two of the four quarters, the pattern will naturally be an ascent of 1-10, and for the other half, equally naturally, a descent. Easily remembered.

But what does he himself connect with the cardinal directions? Why does he think that the circuit is reasonably defined by 40 blocks? What about the central square?

All formal learning was conducted in Latin. The terms ‘cardine’ [cardinal] and ‘decumanes’ (tenths) suggested – to the more broadly educated – the pattern of the city, laid our an ordered grid. Carthage, in North Africa, had been laid out in this way after the Roman conquest, as a grid of larger and smaller roads called cardines – highroads, or main streets – and decumanes – by-roads, or side streets. Our ’40’ is the binding cord, the horizon that, in the old Egyptian way, Maur understands to mean both the circuit of the world and the city/house of the king. Our circuit has ‘within it’ that central square.

Cardines and decumanes are also metaphorically equivalent to the memory-grid, with its highways and byways, its text and marginalia, its themes and points.

’40’ thus suggests not only the basic form of the world but also of the Latinised city. World in microcosm. We are laying down grids of ‘placements’ – loci that pertain to both the external and internal world.

In the east, the same figure of square in circle as 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 a 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 those consigned to the quarters of the world below. And as any basic training in Latin would tell, the letter C, the initial for Christ, represented the perfection of the 100.

Maur was describing his foundation figure, using Euclid’s Elements, only very shortly after the Muslims of Persia formally acquired their translations of that work. Baghdad’s foundations had been laid out by older, non-Muslim surveyors who ‘regarded the stars,’ as the contemporary commentators said. Most prominent among the Persian communities of the region were the Egyptians of Harran, who adopted the name ‘Sabeans’ when pressed by the incoming Arabs to prove their membership in a religious group known to Mohammad, and the Christian community of Persia, whose original home had been Syrian Edessa. These same communities would provide the next Caliph, Ma’mun with the necessary founding texts, directors, librarians and accountants for the first Muslim university, the Beit al Hikmah. In all likelihood, Maur’s copy of Euclid’s Elements had come with the embassy sent by Harun al Raschid to Charlemagne in Aachen. The Elements was, in any case, first translated from their liturgical language of Syriac into the Arabic.

The instrument by which Sabean and Harran both made their measurements for sidereal surveying was the astrolabe. This may have been the ‘table of devils’ of which Sophronius, bishop of nearby Tella, was accused of having had knowledge in earlier times. He “participated in the table of devils, of the abominable calculations, and of the motions of the stars… of divination.”[4]

An astrolabe is formed with a flat, circular base, enclosed by a small raised ‘wall’ that is marked by the circuit of degrees. On its back there are usually inscribed the names of various important cities, together with the celestial latitudes and longitudes of important stars. Inside the sunken floor at the front of the astrolabe, a plate is inset, showing the heavens visible within a particular band of latitude on the earth’s surface. The plate is engraved by stereoscopic projection from the point of due south. It is overlaid with a vine-like fretwork, set with protruding spikes or teeth, on which the names of the most prominent stars are engraved. Naib… naibyy. The astrolabe’s circuit of cardinal points and its gridding make tangible a correspondence between heaven and earth. The most common form of calculation diagram – including horoscopes – was that of a square quartered diagonally.

Thus we have the world, the city, and the foundation, schematised as circle marked with four cardinal points, and then quartered. We see the quartered square in circle as a figure in magical and religious texts, in practical and scientific ones. It soon becomes a mnemonic for the world of learning. So the Dominican of thirteenth century Avignon, Hugh of St. Victor, begins his great blueprint for the memorial arca noe with that central square, and extends its points to make the first division of the ship’s deck.

We see square in circle in Ibn Khaldun’s encyclopaedic Muqadimmah, written (again) in the thirteenth century. There the figure is inscribed to demonstrate a formal correlation between this pattern for the world and that of the Muslim scholar’s internalised universe. In Persia of the fourteenth century, a collection of memorable phrases, called in the west an epitome or florilegium is termed the Sefinat – the ark book. In Carthage, formerly the city of mariners, Augustine had begun one essay.

I come to the fields [campos] and spacious palaces of memory [lata praetoria memoriae] where are the treasures [thesauri] of innumerable images…

“Campos stellae” – fields of stars – were how the Latins described our constellations, while ‘spacious palaces’ is also a fair rendering of what is implied by the Arabic manzil – [lunar] mansions. To the sequence of lunar inns, Muslim learning bound the 28 letters of Arabic, the 28 prophets of Islam, the names of God and so on. Twenty-eight is well known as a perfect number, the sum of all numbers to seven: 1 +2+3+4+5+6+7. The two lower parts of the 78-card deck equal a doubling of this happy number.

Another customary form of memory-‘book’ in Islam was known as an ara’bin, a ’40’. It was normally made of 40 separate sheets, each recording – for Muslims – one of forty sayings ascribed to the Prophet Mohammad (on whom be peace). They were made very beautiful by the attentions of a professional calligrapher. A kind of meditation list, the ara’bin were considered desirable because Mohammad (on whom be peace) had promised entry to paradise to whoever memorised their ’40’.

While there is very little evidence whatever for the use of playing-cards among Muslims of the late thirteenth century, terms immediately taken up in Europe to describe cards and card-play do suggest Islamic influence of some kind. One finds mention of the quartres Saracines, for example, or the joc Moresche. Isma’ilism constantly stresses that Mecca, which is physically to the east, must be equated with spiritual North, and thus with the celestial foundation of the northern circumpolar region, to which ascended souls had been thought destined since the days of the Pyramid texts in Egypt. In western manuscript art, after Charlemagne’s day, the same locus is pictured as the circumpolar, and thus circular City of God.

Prior to the card-pack’s dissemination through Europe, our only documentary evidence for card-use in Islam is found in the Thousand and One Nights, where the user is not a native born Muslim. The story tells how Harun al Rashid questions a slave girl about her knowledge of the stars, those on the solar and on the lunar paths. She answers by reference to a set of cards. According to Amer Ali, card-play became the fashion for a while in Persia but was superceded with the arrival of chess. The Thousand and One Nights are formally set in Raschid’s Baghdad but are in origin a collection of Egyptian bazaar-stories. Lunar mansions are often represented by the shorthand of the geomantic figures, as we see on a thirteenth century divinatory device and again on the charts accompanying a world map given to Charles V of France. Southern China, virtually an Islamic colony by this time, produced another collection of bazaar stories known as “Marginal tales” or ‘Tales of the water-margins”. The characters then appear on cards marked with ‘star-dots’ like dominoes.

The Square in circle figure, like the arab’in, and the ‘double-dice’ cards has its purpose and meaning defined everywhere by explicit link to the authoritative Word, whether the Gospels, or the Psalter or the body of memorised learning, or a long narrative ordered to that pattern. Square in circle signifies foundation, basic patterns of memory, basic levels of knowledge. The lower forty ‘encompass’ the ways of learning and memory, of direction and even of time. A world in microcosm.

The conceptual structure of our card-pack, whether 52-card or 78-card is that of the world itself.

Reading Emblems

Given the basic reference of the horizon-circuit and its four cardinals, our card-player would have no difficulty assigning meaning to its emblems. This he does by reference to the same basic division of the world that Maur used.

Regardless of whether our ordinary player knows anything of the card-pack’s ancestry, he has ready to hand a memorised pattern which will confer a meaningful order on his 52-card pack, both its structure and its suit-signs.

The number of 52, divided by 4, quite easily suggests his agricultural year. The four emblems can be understood as emblems for four saints, according to their times in the church’s roster. Whether the signs are the four seasonal emblems commonly seen in northern packs, or the tarot’s circle, cup, rod and sword, he is not greatly discomfited.

To read the meaning of emblems is second nature to him. 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 trade shops and most commonly of all, in the statues set around the church, where they define the saint’s identity, history and character. Such figures appear, too, on the badges worn by people home from pilgrimage. 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 accepted as a saint by Rome. Her worship as a dog in France was especially popular with old women expert in sortilege, lot-casting. They divide by the sword for divination, like the old Etruscans. The Visconti-Sforza and the other ‘new nationalists’ of Italy are very keen on things Etruscan. They revere Frederick II for having, as they say, preserved the Etruscan language.

The emblem of the Rod or staff our player may associate 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 rod is the sign of the master and teacher, in a time when learning (it was 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, a saint greatly revered throughout all of Europe, whose shrine is a pilgrimage centre more popular than Rome. 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 this sword 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 travelled no further than his village market, our player has therefore heard of Sinai and Zion, Jerusalem and Illyricum, Ephesus, Galatia and Macedonia. And he knows that St. Paul also went to Spain.

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 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. Today we think of Joseph’s cup as the Arthurian Grail, but Joseph of Arimathea and his cup still have their day in the church’s roster. Moreover, there exists still, in our player’s time, an English royal ‘Cup of the Lamb’ that 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]

These ‘wheels’ may shift their primary point, depending on whether he considers them by reference to direction or time. The Cupbearer, Joseph, bore his cup to the northwest, yet his feast-day is on March 17, the time of Aester. In summer we have the feast for St James of Compostella, who appeared to Constantine in the northern, not the hot southern heavens – July 25. Regina of Burgundy with her staff has her feast in the autumn: September 7, though one knows the Rod signals east. And St. Catherine with the sharp points of her southern wheel is remembered on Nov. 25, in bitter winter. The complementary rotas of saint’s days and seasons offer two possible mnemonics for the four emblems. They connect neatly with the cardinal points: Cup/west; rod/east; sword/north; wheel or gold – south.

It is perhaps a little premature to mention these true equivalences for the signs. Our everyman player is not necessarily in a position to know our sources, though one of higher social status might. Still, he is not far wrong if he assigns them by the roster of saints.

In fact, the four emblems are’shorthand’ for the four constellations marking cardinal direction.

To the more highly educated, and probably to our player, who rises early and sleeps after dark, they are perfectly familiar. The four are: The Rod for Orion, the Sword for Ursa major, the Cup for the westering Pleiades and the ‘pressed gold’ for that hidden southern Pole star believed to shine over a river of southern gold. This gold has been mined since the days of the Pharaohs. When Mansa Musa emerged from Mali to go on pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, he brought with him such a wealth of gold that its price in Cairo was depressed for ten years.

The star of the southern celestial Pole, obscure though she is, is thought to endure darkness, oppression and longeur with extraordinary physical and moral strength. Pressed gold is the sign for south. On cards, the woman of the broken Pole is this southern celestial Pole star.

To regard Ursa Major as the northern Polar constellation, as is done here, was more habitual than correct. It reflected the classical Latin texts and custom, over the Carthaginians’. Many Muslim scholars followed the same Roman tradition. 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”.[6]

The Indians, of course had the right of it. Neither identification made by al Biruni is right. The lesser Bear, Ursa Minor, occupies the northern Pole. The Greater Bear our card-player knows as 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 the 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, and the rule of ‘L’. It is the star of the southern ship, of the original testament, whose manifest is borne, as often as not in the Carolingian imagery, by King David. Canopus is the Davidic star in near eastern lore, too, the star to which God gave the secret of metalworking. David is author of Psalms, and is commonly pictured in later western art as the quintessential penitent. The Visconti-Sforza Hours show several excellent examples of this figure, though by now they know that Canopus is not the southernmost figure, and that further south from him is a dark ‘cave’ his laura. Canopus is the penitential ‘Hermit’, the light-bringer and pilot star also known to both Babylon and Egypt as that ‘light-bringer’ or Lucifer.

Our player has heard another version, that under the southern Pole star lies long Eve, mother of all, bound to her bed. We see her shown that way in a number of western manuscripts from the turn of the first millennium. She is also carved into one of the keystones 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 are endured with fortitude but still contrast sadly with the momentary days and timeless Te Deum of the northern celestial circle. In the Guildhall cards we see Demeter and Persephone together contemplating the home of the dark lord.

Workers in the Fields – above as below.

Our common man knows a good deal, not only about how to mark the directions, but the character attributed to each, these which he associates closely with their seasonal and directional winds and stars. Dominant in its own season, the wind of each quarter impels the ships from the extremities of the world, bringing something of its original native virtue, also imbued in everything from that region. It is only in the spring that one can set out for Jerusalem by sea.

The wind of the east – ventus orientalis – says one work, “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 wind, the threatening branch and the rain under the eastern Rod, so with the teacher’s gusting words, his stick and the squalling child. East, as we will see, means Orion.

As he contemplates his pack of cards, seeing the emblems and the factors of 40, 10, 12 arranged in the lower two levels, our hypothetical player will certainly know that the circuit, quartered, describes the foundation of his world. If his daily work is in the fields he will already know his quarters by their winds and at least the 12 seasonal constellations, which oversee the year’s roster of work in the fields.

He knows why God made there to be 12 months and 12 constellations for the path of the sun. It is because Christ would appoint 12 Apostles, 12 because their task was to take word of the triune God to all four quarters of the world: 3×4 is 12. Each of the zodiacal constellations is routinely associated with an Apostle.

That association is not just allegorical. It is actual. The original calendar of church feasts was organised by the stars. Our German card of John the Baptist belongs here, among the mid-level 12, as an exemplar for Aquarius. [Peter is moved up, to stand as gatekeeper of the northern circle].

In the Roman church calendar, John the Baptist has 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 star/soul ‘triumphs’[7] above the earthly clay on that day. Some still thought the stars were living souls. Stars and religious prophets were both termed ‘Naib’ in the east, for they served as pointers and directors of one’s way.

Correspondence between the zodiacal and the Apostolic 12 was remembered, certainly, as late as 17th century, when Cellarius published Schiller’s map of the Christianised Heavens. It is a last and somewhat poignant expression of moralised Christian heavens, a tradition by then a thousand years old in the west. Schiller observes the older habit of identifying St. Peter as Pope with the constellation of Bootes, formed like a rock in the northern circumpolar limit. He pictures the northern ship as that of Peter’s city/ship. Bootes is the Pope of our packs, specified in the ‘Charles VI’ set, as in Schiller’s map, as Sylvester II.

But we have risen too high.

The complex of matters that our ordinary player will associate with the two lower levels, and with the structure of a 52-card pack is very nicely demonstrated in a book called the Kalandar and Compost of Shepherds. Though not published until 1492, and in England, it is as Hopper notes ‘a thoroughly medieval document.’

It was also the first book published in England for the common man. Its contents are unexpectedly broad, perhaps, even though – again as Hopper says – [the] ‘mass of information .. is obviously considered both elementary and basic.’

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 3×4 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.[8] )

Now, 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 sets of 12s, imagined as parallel layers of association: articles of the Creed, 12 Apostles, 12 zodiacal constellations, 12 parts of man, 12 houses of heaven and earth. Our sets of 4s: seasons, quarters of the zodiac, complexions, elements and keys to Purgatory. Our sets of 10s: commandments of God; 10 commandments of the devil. And so on.

Given a worthy text, these instances of the virtue of each locus can be changed. The conceptual structure remains constant.

The Continents

On the other hand, while he connects the four quarters of his pack to the four ‘complexions’ of the world’s races, and again with the cardinal directions and the four humours and so on, our player may be ill-informed about persons actually living in these 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 one 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.”[9]

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

Our Dominican named John of Rheidenfeld also says, in 1377, that commoners will be provided with generic information about regional customs, where nobles will be given specific names – presumably for the kings of the quarters after the style of the Majorcan work given to Charles V. The King of the south and its gold is there named Mansa Musa.

The map is complemented with four sheets of diagrams and charts, so that one may calculate everything ‘under the sun’.

The Circuit of the Year

Our player’s pack of 52 relates easily to cycle of the year, which for him is paced by the seasonal changes and the roster of saint’s days. As workingman, our player begins his working day before first light and ends it with the setting of the sun. He knows the month over which each of the zodiacal 12 presides.

Being a man he may, or may not, attend Mass every Sunday, but he has heard a lifetime of sermons from local and itinerant preachers, whose carefully constructed illustrative stories move from events of this world below, to the words from ‘above’ and the lesson to be applied to his own life. The stories remain in his mind, as they are meant to do. Dominicans, especially, are noted for creating vivid verbal imagery from their knowledge of the marginal figures drawn by rivers of text. Pictorial and verbal figures press text into an unforgettable form. Peripotamoi, the Greeks say, ‘margin figures’. Pointers.

But our time is running out. There is just enough to speak of one Atout, and since we have promised Perseus, it will have to be that one.

Our player’s Reaper in the sky is associated with the smaller sickle, which rises to the pinnacle of the sky when the winter wind comes from the northeast, sweeping low whatever may be left in the fields.

This bitter wind is said to come from Persia, cold and sharp. The Preacher says the small sickle is part of the 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, that this star is permitted by God to hold the pinnacle of the sky in the time of earth’s 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, for see how this figure has no permanent abode in the highest place, unlike the figures of our Pope and Emperor, and the ship called Peter’s barque which is formed of stars in Ursa Major. Thus, like death for a man, 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, rejoicing at the message of the Christian Easter. 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.

All things in the universe are arranged by their like natures. It is common knowledge.

“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.’[10]

Our player lives in a world whose every aspect, object and phenomenon is part of a rationally arranged universe, ordered by a purposeful God. All things, all events, all qualities of number, form and proportion, are designed to speak to humankind.

Nihil in Universo est inordinatum says doctrine. Loosely translated ‘there is nothing random about God’s universe.’

Everything disposed by its kind, and natural placement in the world, signalled by the quarter’s character. 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.

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 become mnemonics for the via dolorosa.

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

The foregoing description of the east wind and the peach were taken from a kind of economic geography, combined with medical information, which was being circulated in the courts of western Europe in the late fourteenth century [query]. Known as the Tacuinum Sanitatis, the Tables of Health, it had been written in the eleventh century by a Persian Christian doctor. The medical school of the Christians of Persia, based as it was on the school of the Egyptian healers, is still acknowledged as having been the cradle of Muslim – and thus of Islamic – medical practice.

The original text consists of a list of goods, arranged by their seasons, and described to a rigid pattern of seven points, for their easier memorisation. Our quotation follows an abridged copy made for the House of Cerrutti in Lombardy, in the valley of the Po River, late in the [query] century. The same region was an important early centre for card making.

The book is divided into four parts, by the seasons. In each quarter the season’s goods are described, the winds and fabrics, foods, herbs, clothing and even orientation of rooms to suit the season. Our copy has illuminated headers above each good’s description, and those headers show figures upon a river margin, not only to indicate a discursus [verbal marginalia] but also to indicate connection to the medical schools of ‘Babylon’ – Baghdad and Cairo.

The figures of the Tacuinum Sanitatis are again peripotamoi – marginal figures. A similar convention is seen in some of the earliest remaining cards, including those made by Cicognara for the Visconti-Sforza. Egyptian influence is again evident, though whether or not at second hand we do not know. Thus Cicognara’s ‘Star’ is Sirius, as the Egyptian sothis ‘the piercing.’.

The fifteenth century French card tagged Death (La Morte) – in the Charles VI set – beautifully links virtue, direction, time, place and constellation as functions of locus.

It depicts the constellation of Perseus very carefully. The form is of a scythe-wielding skeleton on that dark horse which is called in the east, al kumait. The card’s smaller details – its devices – are formed by a literal rendering of the Arabic names for Perseus’ component stars.

Our ordinary player would have no cause to know those Arabic names, but he could easily identify the Persian Death by its characteristic (Sassanian) head- and waist-scarves. Death is the Persic star. And wind. And peach. And Saturn…. And so play at cards with a king.

And so for the other times, and winds, humours, market goods and important stars, each in their quarters of time and place. The world is perceived in three tiers: the fields of earth, the level of intermediary winds and elements, and the stars above.

Twelve winds make the circuit of the Mediterranean bussola, in the classical manner, and are still remembered by Dürer. Sixteen points for the wind rose of the mariners in the late medieval Mediterranean. The 52-card pack is for the landsman in his fields, the 78 for the mariner in the ocean of the world, the ‘all encompassing’ as the Arabs call it.

[1] The common dismissal of the opinions of the Abbe Cout de Gebelin and ‘Monsieur de M’ on the grounds that Champollion was the first European to decipher Egyptian hieratic script is ill informed. Not only had Ptolemy also commissioned a work in Greek on Egyptian religious beliefs that was then disseminated throughout the Hellenistic world but also Domitian (to name the most prominent of the ‘Egyptophile’emperors) had had his edicts translated into hieratic, carved into stone and in that form posted in Rome. One presumes sufficient people existed conversant with both Latin and Egyptian to see that the emperor was obeyed. That we do not have Manetho’s book, nor a classical Latin-Egyptian dictionary does not mean they were necessarily unavailable in the fourteenth century. In any case, there is no certainty that the ‘ancient Egyptian’ religion which de Gebelin was told informed the cards’ construction was not Coptic Christianity. It is certainly the ‘ancient Egyptian’ style to which Ficino appealed in justification for his liber vitae, the other two forms being those of the Persians and Syrians, the ‘Chaldean’ church in the terminology of medieval Rome. 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 ….p. 122.
[4] Quoted in Green, Harran: City of the Moon God p. 84.
[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]Al Biruni, India

[7] Najum. Majid comments on the usage in the fifteenth century, when speaking of the Pleiades.

[8] 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
[9] Benjamin of Tudela: Itinerary.
[10] 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 troubadour 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.

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2 thoughts on “A Rational Disposition

  1. RE “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.”

    I couldn’t tell if these two paragraphs were meant to be read together (the second with a smirk). The following is based upon my belief that they are tied together:

    What little info I have been able to find seems to say that amount of peach kernels (6 or 7) shouldn’t be bothersome to most people, certainly not fatal. Am I not understanding what you are trying to say (a good possibility)? Or am I just not well informed (as usual)?

    If the amount and effects are correct, shouldn’t you include a cautionary line or two to discourage those who would try it without reading the second paragraph (or without understanding its snideness)?

    What is Aester? It wasn’t explained.

    A well written, extremely enjoyable, thoughtful and very informative bit of writing – needs images, though – include a couple hundred illustrations with individual explanatory paragraphs and you’d have a great coffee table book and probably make some money from it.

    Don of Tallahassee

    • Dear Don
      (a) this paper was offered by me at a seminar, and illustrations were shown.
      (b) I have never been asked for, nor given, permission to have the paper published in part or in full by anyone but the convener of that seminar.

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