500-year-old playing cards found

Lady luck is shining brightly on an archivist from the canton of Nidwalden. While restoring the cover of a medieval court record last week, he uncovered 90 playing cards dating from 500 years ago. The chance find is only four cards shy of a complete set. And the discovery is one of only a handful to yield a group of so many cards of this vintage for a game seen as a predecessor to one of Switzerland’s national pastimes — Jass.

Emil Weber pulls a smartly-restored book, and a piece of card stock to a table in his office in Stans.  Inside the card stock are 90 crisp and remarkably preserved playing cards.

“Let’s have a look,” he says, adding that it’s no problem to touch the cards. “We just discovered them. That’s the reason they are in such good condition.”

Weber says the cards are “more or less” 500 years old, likely made in Basel in the 16th century. They feel like a light cardboard and were hidden beneath a flap in a book cover.

“So it’s quite common today to find inside book covers old documents. But to find playing cards, that is a rare find,” he says with pride.

Weber says he spends most of his days filing modern records in one of the canton’s three storage rooms, but he still takes pleasure in historic finds like this one, if only for the speculation it allows.

“If you imagine how they lived, or how they played with these cards: talking about the politics of the time, laughing together, that’s quite amazing sometimes,” he says.

Weber says Nidwalden actually banned certain card games in 1572, with an offense costing you 10 gold pieces—or a month’s wage.  The only games specifically allowed were those played with tarot decks, like a game called The Empress, or Tarock.

The Swiss gold standard for card games nowadays though…is Jass.

Jass is so popular it is broadcast on public television on a Saturday program Samschtig Jass.

Small light brown cards in a pile
Cards found in the binding of a book were used centuries ago to play games. (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

With his 500 year old cards, archivist Emil Weber describes the game’s premise

“There are four colors..Schilde, Rose, Schalle, und Eichle (shields, flowers, bells, and acorns),” Weber says, using his 500 year old cards to describe the game’s premise.

“It’s similar to poker cards and the higher card beats the lower card, and that’s how you play,” he says.

So opponents work in teams to play high-value cards to earn as many points as possible, vaguely similar to spades, or bridge.

“So in the 16th century the highest card is the king. Then comes we say the Ober, then the under or farmer today, and then comes the banner (flag), and then come the number cards.”

Weber admits there are many questions and not many answers with these cards, but they are another piece of a rich history in Nidwalden.

The cards will likely end up behind the flood-proof, bomb-proof vault door where the canton’s written history is held.

“This charter dates 1218, that’s the oldest we have. This is parchment, you can feel the hide,” he says.

1218: more than 70 years before Nidwalden (at that time called Unterwalden) signed a defensive pact with Uri and Schwyz to form modern-day Switzerland.

And that historic pride is not lost on residents.

Weber says a couple dozen people have come in off the street in the last week to see the old Jass cards. Weber admits it’s not every day his office finds something so special, but he certainly likes the attention.

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