The Master of Playing Cards

Games of chance come up on a few occasions in issue 13 (such as Lisa Congdon's collection of ephemera or my own article on fortunes). In 15th century Europe, printers could rely on two products for which there was always a market: Bibles and playing cards. Those two things have over their history been very much at odds, but early printers such as Johannes Gutenberg relied on both for their income. And they often used the same engravers to illustrate both their Bibles and playing cards. 

One of the most intriguing characters in the history of games of chance is an enigmatic engraver known as The Master of Playing Cards. He was a contemporary of Gutenberg, and it's speculated that he contributed engravings both to Gutenberg's Bible, as well as the Giant Bible of Mainz, although it's always difficult to determine exactly where one master's work ends and his pupil's or rival's work begins. But his playing cards are well-recognized. 

At the time, decks with five suits were most popular in Germany. Suits were not formalized, as hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades are today. Different decks would include different suits: Flowers, Birds, Bears, Lions, Wildmen, Ladies, and Frogs are some of the different suits that appeared in cards of the era. In some instances, his cards were made with a single plate; on other cards, each figure was on a seperate plate, so that different combinations could be recombined for different cards (not unlike how Gutenberg was using movable type at the time).