660-670, China: First example of printing on paper. Early xylography was accomplished with hemp paper and woodblocks.
Like most forms of art, it is difficult to trace this one back to its beginnings, because of the nature of cards; they deteriorate, and are lost over time. This means that there are few surviving examples, and piecing together the truth takes a great deal of patience and time. I hope that more scholars will be brave enough to risk being tainted with the occult in order to discover the factual history of this fascinating custom.
What can we say, for certain, about the origins of the Tarot? Decks have been created by a wide variety of people for a wide variety of reasons, but based on the archaeological record it appears that the custom of playing and gambling with cards arrived from the east but was modified to suit Western sensibilities after its arrival. The creator of the Tarot, who almost certainly lived in Italy in the 14th century, saw these modified cards and combined them with a group of trump cards, which together represented his or her cosmology. Read about the appearance of cards in europe »
The tarot playing card deck pattern was created for the purpose of playing games that involve trick-taking (Such as those in our Games section). Its use across Europe was once far more widespread than it is today.
Just at the close of the Middle Ages, playing cards suddenly started popping up all over Europe. We know that mostly because the use of playing cards in Europe is followed very rapidly with bans and bulls and other admonishments from the authorities, not ranting about the danger of cartomancy, but rather warning of the dangers of gambling.
But of course, that’s not the interesting part of the Tarot’s history. The interesting part is, Why were the trumps added? Why are they filled with so many symbols foreign to the common man? What did the original artists of Tarot cards believe in? What were their hopes and fears? Tragically, these are the parts of the story which are currently lost to the sands of time. Only a concerted effort of practitioners, historical archaeologists, and art historians can answer these mysteries, because at the present time the data simply do not exist.
All too often, the human side of the history has been pushed aside in favor of the history of war. Unfortunately, I don’t have any historical archaeologists or art historians lying around, so I am faced with the task of presenting to you the current best information as faithfully as I can from the existing written record. Thankfully, due to our increased sense of nostalgia, we are now becoming more sensitive to the quirky, precocious side of our past, so scholars are beginning to recognize the artistic and cultural value of the Tarot.
The game was often referred to as "gold speckled leaves", which does make it sound quite a lot like early gold-leaf Tarot cards. Many scholars will tell you that playing cards were invented in 827 because they have conflated these two games. If there is any relationship between these games, which I doubt, it is this:
On the twenty-third day of the sixth month in the thirty-first year of the zhiyuan period (17 July 1294), we caught Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Zhugou playing cards, and have also found wood blocks to print cards. Each person has admitted to the truth of the accusation. We have, according to the rules, passed judgement and punished correctly the organizer Lu Donger, accessory to gambling Zheng Zhugou, the owner of the premises Jiang Sier, and the block printer Ye Lin, and dispatched to the Ever-abundant Treasury for deposit the nine cards (zhipai) that were about to be destroyed, and...
1364, St. Gallen, Switzerland. A local ordinance forbids dice, allows board games, and leaves the subject of cards untouched. This is often cited as the date before which cards could not have been known in Europe.
1377, Basel, Switzerland. A Dominican friar by the name of John describes various types of playing cards in detail.
We know playing cards entered Europe in the 1370s because there are no references before this time, and suddenly they start appearing across the continent. In St. Gallen, an ordinance made in 1379 forbade the use of playing cards.
In 1372, the belfry was added to the already leaning tower of Pisa, completing the structure.