Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook

By Vicki K. Janik; Emmanuel S. Nelson | Go to book overview
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The Tarot Fool

( Europe and the United States: 1440-Present)

David Conford


BACKGROUND

The Tarot Fool is the most important card in the tarot deck. The tarot at its most elemental level is a deck of cards: twenty-two (usually) numbered and labeled unsuited major trumps, including the Fool, and fifty-six cards arranged in four suits from ace to king, the court cards consisting of page, knight, queen, and king. Neither the origin of the deck nor that of the term itself is known. The earliest reference to the trump cards dates from 1442 at Ferrara, Italy. The earliest extant set of twenty-two trump cards dates from the same general time and place and was probably painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Sforza family in the 1440s in a similar location ( Giles4). Although suited playing cards predate tarot decks by close to a century, the fifty-six minor trumps of the tarot with their suits of swords (spades), wands (clubs), cups (hearts), and coins (diamonds) are inarguably the progenitors of today's standard deck. The Fool (joker) is the only major trump to survive that transformation, and, as in the tarot deck, the two fools or jokers in the suited deck are, by default, the two most powerful cards and, when included in a game, may trump any court card or serve as an invincible wild card.

Like all elements of tarot card design, the Fool in tarot has remained similar in design during the deck's history of more than 550 years. In particular, the symbolism of the major trumps has been carefully preserved. While there is no proof that the major (trump) and minor (suited) arcana were originally designed as one deck, it may be contended that they have both played a part in the Western world's cultural history.

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