Pretty straightforward. I know playing cards arose with the printing press, but would it be impossible to have some before the printing press is invented? I’m mostly looking at divination cards, granted, so the need to avoid cards being marked isn’t as strong.

But I’ve seen early medieval type settings in movies or shows where people have cards that look like they’re made of tree bark or hardened leather or something.

I’m not sure how parchment would feel like, if it is fragile or would withstand shuffling. Same with velum and even papyrus (possibly more so). Paper might not have been invented in this part of my world at the time, and so for something thin but resistant I’d mostly picture leather? Possibly with the symbols being burned into it.

Would that be possible or is it too unrealistic?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ You are confusing the printing press with printing with mass produced movable type. See a detailed explanation in one of my older answers. Briefly, the printing press predates the work of Gutenberg by centuries; playing cards were printed using woodblock printing, sometimes colored by hand. They were used in China since the 9th century AD, and in Europe since the 14th century AD. They were always made of some sort of paper or cardboard; playing cards are cheap $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 12, 2020 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP yes but the cards in both Europe and China came about around the time printing came about. Whether woodblock or otherwise. Hence why I said printing press. I’m talking early Middle Ages. Think end of Roman Empire, 5th to 8th century Europe. $\endgroup$
    – Nierninwa
    Dec 12, 2020 at 23:31
  • $\begingroup$ One can of course make playing cards by hand. We do have some examples of hand-painted medieval cards; but those were luxury items. The thing about playing cards is that they are intended to be cheap mass produced articles; hand-made playing cards would not serve the very purpose of playing cards. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 13, 2020 at 0:02
  • $\begingroup$ Whether or not you need a printing press is entirely dependent on how many copies you need or how much you're willing to pay to support parallel labor. A medieval printing press could easily take the place of hundreds of employed copyists. So, how many copies do you need? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 13, 2020 at 4:12
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP this should be an answer, because... it is an answer! $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Dec 13, 2020 at 8:31

2 Answers 2


Before there was a printing press, people hand drew things. These are illuminated manuscripts. They could be on parchment, or vellum which is made from hide. You can buy hand drawn tarot cards today if you like.

Ho hum. I propose something different for your world.


mah jongg tiles https://www.vpr.org/post/little-tiles-big-happiness-brief-history-mah-jongg#stream/0

Your divination cards are carved into tiles like these mah jongg tiles, or like dominoes. The cards themselves are ivory or bone. Bone divination tiles seem appropriate. Divination cards need be no more detailed than these cool tiles. If this has been done I could not find it. A fine idea for an art fair: tarot tiles.

Tiles are durable indefinitely. People have been carving bone since the Neolithic.

  • $\begingroup$ My issue is that these aren’t easy to hold all at once, stacked. At best they’re put in a bag. I guess using a support of some kind you can hide them scrabble style and play but it’s got a different feel from actual cards imo $\endgroup$
    – Nierninwa
    Dec 12, 2020 at 23:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Nierninwa tile was common in Roman and used for several of their games in some form (these were more board games). Its also where playing cards came from (Chinese pái could mean tile (bone) or paper and the first paper pái came from domino tiles). To answer your "holding" question - early examples of dominoes can be pretty thin (shaved bone) so could "hold them" while with modern (like 12th century+) you did not hold the tiles (or only a few to check which you can do with one hand) but you stack them sideways facing you so only you can see the face (you can use a rack but its not required) $\endgroup$
    – LinkBerest
    Dec 13, 2020 at 1:55

It's quite possible have cards prior to Gutenburg, and if you look at https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/see-fate-via-stunning-medieval-playing-cards-cloisters-410417 you can see lots of examples from 1430-1540, from an exhibition at the Met.

enter image description here

For the stock, you can use paper. Just glue several layers of paper together to make card. Hand paint the cards (or use a non-movable printing process, these existed prior to Gutenberg) Leave the backs plain or in a single colour. You can use parchment, it is very tough and can withstand a lot more rough handling than paper (but you probably want to layer it to reach the right level of stiffness.)

There are other technologies for making cards. Hanafuda cards in Japan were made from Mulberry bark and were considered suitable for high stakes gambling by yakuza.

  • $\begingroup$ My point wasn’t necessarily Gutenberg but printing in general. As for Hanafuda cards, they arose after the Portuguese introduced playing cards in the 16th century apparently… and they’re probably from the 18th. And I’m not sure if that means an 8th century Western Europe style civilisation could invent cards on their own… $\endgroup$
    – Nierninwa
    Dec 12, 2020 at 23:36
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Well like I say, you can hand paint, or use any of the existing medieval printing technologies. The point of Hanafuda is that a fairly simple process using bark can create effective, tough, resiliant cards, without needing modern technology. An 8th century Western European could invent cards: glued layered parchement would work well if paper isn't available. $\endgroup$
    – James K
    Dec 13, 2020 at 0:11

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