St. Joan vs. Boris Karloff

Karloff in "The Lark"

Karloff in “The Lark”

I’ve loved the classic Universal monster movies since I was a kid in the 1970s. That was the decade of the “Monster Kids,” who became fans thanks to a combination of TV showings of classic films, Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein magazines, and endless parodies of the characters made famous by Karloff, Lugosi, the Chaneys, and others.Lark_2.inline vertical

Karloff was always my favorite, and not just for his roles. By the time of the monster boom, we had an image of him as a kind of gentle old uncle hosting programs like Thriller and telling stories on record albums and the occasional cartoon. To this day, Karloff films are still my go-to viewing to cheer me up, which I guess is pretty perverse. The pathos and humanity he brought to his characters gave me an escape from dark times, and they still do. I’ve been delighted to be able to share the classic films with my kids and have them become fans too.

I have quite a few monster sites, blogs, and pages in my feeds, and one thing that crops up again and again are picture of Uncle Boris sipping tea. Tumblr is kind of a mystery to me, so I thought I’d toss up some of these pictures and other Universal and classic monsterabilia for a lark at a site called Boris Karloff Drinks Tea because why the heck not.

Today’s shot has some Catholic overlap: it’s Karloff in Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, a play about St. Joan. He originated the role of Pierre Cauchon, the French bishop and English partisan who persecuted St. Joan of Arc (played by Julie Harris). The full text of the play is here. You can watch it here. Karloff was nominated for a Tony for the performance.

lark

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The Real History of Tarot

The Aces of the traditional Latin suits: Cups, Clubs, Swords, Coins.
These are used for all Italian-suited cards, not just Tarot.

Note: This is the second of a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.

Tarot marks a fascinating convergence of medieval (and later Renaissance) art and symbolism, faith, folk culture, and gaming.

The Hermit from the Tarot de Marseille (15th century), one of the earliest decks

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.

The Pope from the Tarot de Marseille

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 trump 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.

Third trump of the French Ducale Tarot (19th century). Not the distinct lack of occult symbolism.

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.

Next: The Fake History of Tarot

NOTE: I would urge people who are inclined to be irritated by this piece–both Catholics who think Tarot are nothing but evil and Tarot users who find pleasure in the cards–to wait until the end of the series before rendering any judgement. We have a long way to go through the following posts:

  • Reclaiming Tarot
  • The Real History of Tarot
  • The Fake History of Tarot
  • The Bishop’s Dice Game
  • The Meaning of the Cards
  • Playing Tarot

Reclaiming Tarot

Note: This is the first of a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming. If we demystify the occult Tarot, it loses its hold on people.

Let’s begin with the obvious: unless you plan to hit on 20 or bid a blind nil, there’s no way to tell your future using cards. That quirky character reading Tarot cards down at the midway knows no more about your future than the hot dog vendor. The divinatory powers of Tarot are, simply, a grand and ongoing hoax.

This hasn’t stopped two centuries of occultists, New Age gurus, and hucksters from claiming otherwise, weaving elaborate fictions about the origins of the unusual “Major Arcana” of the Tarot deck and the powers of cartomancy. The cards go back, some claim, all the way to ancient Egypt (a civilization that didn’t have paper and didn’t use cards at all, but never mind) and are informed by the mystical symbolism of Kabbalism, and perhaps even encode the wisdom of an ancient lost civilization!

They’re nothing of the sort.

The fake history of the Tarot began in the 18th century, when Antoine Court de Gebelin found the cards and speculated on their ancient origins.

The real history of the Tarot, however, begins in the early 15th century in Italy, and their story is an important part of gaming and cultural history that was lost for centuries. They were created to play games, not tell fortunes.

The Tarot deck introduced the concept of trumps to card play. “Trump” is related to the word “triumph,” meaning a card that beats every other card. Eventually, the dedicated trumps of the Tarot deck were dropped and one of the four suits of a standard 52-card deck took over this function, but without Tarot, we may never have had Whist, Spades, Bridge or the entire class of trump-based trick-taking games. (Karnoffel, developed in Germany at the same time, has similar mechanics, but it was Tarot that spread and influenced other games.)

Beginning in the 1980s, the fiction began to dissolve thanks to the work of philosopher Sir Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. One of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, Dummett’s work focused on language, particularly the way it conveys truth. He was also a convert who wrote frequently about Catholic issues, particularly for New Blackfriars, where he criticized certain liberalizing trends in in the post-conciliar era such as revisionist scripture scholars. (Though he defended tradition, he also questioned the logic underlying Humanae Vitae.) His knighthood was not only for his intellectual achievements, which also included developing the Quota Borda system of proportional voting, but for his work as an advocate for immigrants.

Sir Michael Dummett

Tarot lore and play was one of Dummett’s hobbies, and he collected a vast amount of original material trapped in old documents or acquired via field work and interviews with players. He was fascinated with the cards, and recognized their origins in medieval European Catholic culture rather than ancient Egypt. His first book was The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City (Duckworth, 1980) and his last was A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack (E. Mellen Press, 2004), a two-volume, 900-page magnum opus written in collaboration with John McLeod (founder of Pagat.com). Dummett and McLeod also published a 75-page supplement to their History adding new research and correcting various errors. (This is available as a free download at TarotGame.org.)

Dummett passed away in 2011, but other historians and collectors of playing cards continue adding to our knowledge of the real history of these fascinating game devices, with new material appearing on the internet and in The Playing Card, the journal of the International Playing-Card Society. Due to their work and the ability of people to connect with other card enthusiasts on the internet, Tarot games are beginning to make a comeback.

Catholics have been conditioned to avoid Tarot because of its New Age and occult connotations. That’s a mistake: Tarot is part of our heritage. It reflects Catholic culture, symbolism, history, and theology. Its images are useful not just for play, but for contemplation, as Catholic mystic Valentin Tomberg explores beautifully in Meditations on the Tarot.

Tarot belongs to us, not to the con artists. This post is the first of a series on the both the real and imagined history and use of the Tarot. They are adapted from a feature I’m writing for my magazine, Games, with the focus shifted a bit to emphasize the Catholic elements of the story.

Tomorrow: The Real History of Tarot

NOTE: I would urge people who are inclined to be irritated by this piece–both Catholics who think Tarot are nothing but evil and Tarot users who find pleasure in the cards–to wait until the end of the series before rendering any judgement. We have a long way to go through the following posts:

  • Reclaiming Tarot
  • The Real History of Tarot
  • The Fake History of Tarot
  • The Bishop’s Dice Game
  • The Meaning of the Cards
  • Playing Tarot

This is neither a “Tarot is awesome!” nor a “Tarot is meaningless!” series. The images do indeed have meaning and symbolic resonance, and they can indeed be used improperly to the spiritual detriment of some.

What they don’t have is mystical powers above and beyond what the user brings to them.