Tarot marks a fascinating convergence of medieval (and later Renaissance) art and symbolism, faith, folk culture, and gaming.
Our first verifiable glimpse of the cards in history is in Northern Italy in the early 15th century. When you understand this culture and time, the nature of the Tarot and its images becomes far less mysterious.
The life of the Church dominated the calendar with feasts and fasts. Local festivals were deeply imbued with religious meaning. Carnivals were simultaneously a time for fun and a time for devotion. Pageants reenacted Biblical stories in a festive atmosphere. Art, music, food, play, and worship mingled in different ways to create a vivid culture deep with meaning, but also capable great lightness and frivolity.
The notion of sacramentality has always been essential to the Catholic expression of faith. We understand everything through the lens of the incarnation. God took on flesh to ennoble it. Matter became a conduit for grace. The entire world is alive with meaning, and God can be understood (in a limited way and never entirely) through the things he created. We, then, become subcreators, giving back the glory to God that is rightly His through our art and expression.
This is what explains Catholic material culture, from cathedrals that were prayers in stone to music that lifted the soul to heaven. Folk culture also aspired to this kind of connection, and thus the stories, songs, games, plays, and art of the common man often merged the sacred and the profane. It uplifted the common, and provided a way to express faith in everyday life.
Card play was becoming more popular in Europe by the turn of the 14th century. Playing cards had their origin in China (where the cards were also the money used to bet), and came to Europe through contact with Islamic culture, probably some time after 1366. In works written in the 1360s, both Chaucer (England, in The Knight’s Tale and Book of the Duchess) and Petrarch (Italy, in De remediis utriusque fortunae) fail to mention cards among lists of other games. It isn’t until the 1370s that references to card games start to appear.
Among other documents referring to card play, we have a sermon by Dominican priest Johannes von Rheinfelden, who describes various games and the moral lessons they offered. One of the novelties he describes is pack of 52 cards used for trick-taking games. Trick-taking games were perhaps the most common form of card play. They usually had simple rules—cards played in turn, with high-card winning—with complex scoring mechanisms.
At some point—perhaps around the year 1425—someone created a deck that added a set of trumps to the standard four suits.This suit triumphed (“trumped”) over all other suits. The set included 21 cards illustrated with allegorical and theological images, with a “Fool” as a 22nd card to create a 78-card deck.
The remainder of each deck was comprised of 14 cards in four suits, using the larger royal court of King, Queen, Cavalier (Knight), and Fante (Jack). The order of the trumps varied from region to region, but in time the decks would become more standard and cards would be numbered one to twenty-one, with specific images for each value.
Since the cards developed in Italy, they used Latin regional suits of Swords, Cups, Batons, and Coins. Later, in France, they would adapt to common Franco-English suits of Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, and Spades. This use of Latin suits is one of the things that gave Tarot decks their mystique in France, England, and America, but these suits are common.
Developed in Milan, Ferrara, and Bologna Italy, the decks were known as “carte da trionfi”: “cards with triumphs,” also called Tarocco. (A fourth region—Florence—developed a 97-card deck for the game Minchiate, which has 40 trumps.) From Milan, the decks spread to the rest of Europe, becoming immensely popular until the invention of the occult connection caused their decline as gaming devices.
The earliest game that we know for sure was played with this deck is called Tarock.
By the time its way to France, it acquired a more familiar name: Tarot.