MIKE KEELER: Why Did Charlemagne Stab Himself in The Head?

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Some of you may be enjoying a little quiet summer time, maybe reading a book, or playing some cards…which might lead you to wonder, “Why did Charlemagne stab himself in the head?”

Well, it was a mistake that got integrated into today’s standard deck of cards. The story begins in the 1300’s, when Italian traders brought playing cards into Europe from the orient. From there, the French took them up, and produced the first modern deck at Rouen in 1565.

Then the British – always obsessed with standards – got involved. In 1611, King James patented a version that he demanded all printers use; this is the version that got shipped everywhere and took over the world.

(Fun fact: In that same year of 1611, King James also standardized his version of the Bible, thus forever linking sinful gaming and salvation. Pretty smart! James received a royal tax when his subjects misbehaved, and when they repented.)

Deconstructing the “King James Deck,” it’s likely that the number of cards represents the 52 weeks of the year, broken into four seasons (suits), ruled over by various Jewish, Greek, Roman and Medieval nobles, who may also represent the 12 signs of the Zodiac. The Kings are largely believed to be David (Spades), Charlemagne (Hearts), Caesar (Diamonds) and Alexander (Clubs). The Queens are the Greek Minerva, Judith of France, and Rachel. The fourth is Argine, an anagram of “Regina” meaning “Queen.” The Jacks are Ogier, who was a knight of Charlemagne, La Hire, who was a buddy of Jean D’Arc, Hector of Troy and Judas Maccabee.

There have been some updates to the standard deck from James’ time:

Jacks were originally called Knaves, but it was confusing to have both “K”s and “Kn”s in the corners, so a term was stolen from the game All Fours, where the Knave of the trump suit is called the Jack.

Originally a “one,” the term “Ace” comes from the smallest Roman coin, the “as.” Aces became more powerful than Face Cards after the French Revolution, to symbolize the power of the common man over the King.

The Ace of Spades is the only card that’s certain, since it represents Death and Taxes. It was the card historically stamped by the crown to verify a tax had been paid, so all makers today use that card for their copyright. It has also come to mean death in many societies. For example, during the Vietnam War, the American military scattered them throughout the jungle in an attempt to scare the VC.

The Joker is an American invention, naturally. It was brought in as the highest card in Euchre, also pronounced “Juker,” and evolved from there.

The “orb” held by the King of Clubs originally represented Caesar’s control of the earth; Caesar and Alexander later flipped suits.

The nine of diamonds is “The Curse of Scotland” but nobody can really remember why.

The four of clubs is “The Devil’s Bedpost”; it does look like a four-poster but the sinister origins are unknown.

And then there’s the “Suicide King,” the King of Hearts, Charlemagne stabbing himself through the head. Well, that was a mistake. Originally Charlemagne wielded an axe like the King of Diamonds. But a bad print job resulted in later designs showing him running a sword through his head. It eventually became a gruesome standard.

It’s just another example of how art directors are the source of all error, or the source of all power, depending on how you look at it.

Mike Keeler