The Servant’s Almanac, Soldier’s Deck of Cards, or Cards Spiritualized

In Part 1, I gave examples from 1377, 1525 and 1529 of how playing cards were used for moral allegories. Sometime in the late 17th to early 18th century this trend gave birth to a popular storyline that has continued, little changed to this day. The story goes that, in order to justify carrying a pack of cards, a soldier (or a servant) explains that the deck reminds him of the calendar and of God. Some variation on this story quickly appeared throughout Europe and has continued to metamorphize in interesting ways. That the character usually mentioned is either a Richard Middleton or Richard Lee of Glasgow, suggests its origin was probably the British Isles.

The oldest example of each number card being spiritualized is found in 1666 in Belgium, in a book illustrated by cards, called Het Geestelijck Kaertspel, “The Spiritual Card Game with Hearts Trumps, or the Game of Love,” by Joseph a Sancta Barbara in which each of the Hearts cards is equated with a Christian subject. The King references God the Father, the Queen is the Virgin Mary, the Knave shows the rich and mighty [made humble?] before the Crucified Christ, the ten shows the ten commandments. Then there are the nine choirs of angels [see at right], eight Christian virtues; seven works of mercy; six goals in life; five wounds of Christ; four last ends, the three members of the Holy Family; the worship of God the Father and Mary the Mother; and the one Truth that must reside in a Christian heart. (Hargraves, A History of Playing Cards, p. 161.)

If this sounds a little like “The Twelve Days of Christmas” you aren’t far off, since a similar catechism-type song, with religious imagery called “The Twelve Days” or “A New Dial” appeared in 1625.

The next example, known as “The Servant’s Almanac” is found in Brett’s Miscellany by Peter Brett, 1748, which I’ll quote in full as it contains the main elements found in the later versions:

A Certain Gentleman having two Servants, one Servant complained to his Master of his fellow-servant, that he was a great Player of Cards, which the Master would not allow in his family; he called for the Servant complained of, and tax’d him.

He knew not what Cards meant.

At which the Master was angry with the Complainer, and called him to hear what he could farther say; Who desired, he might be immediately searched, so he believed, he at that Time had a Pack in his Pocket. And accordingly he was searched and a Pack found in his Pocket; which he would not own to be Cards, but said: That it was his Almanack.

His Master asked him, How he made it appear to be his Almanack? His Answer was,

“There are in these Things you call Cards, as many Sorts as there are Quarters in the Year; that is four, Spades, Clubs, Hearts and Diamonds: There are as many Court Cards as there are Months in the Year, and as many Cards as there are weeks in the Year; and there are as many Pips as there are Days in the Year.”

At which his Master wondered; asking him, Did he make no other Use of them ? He answered thus :

“When I see the King, it puts me in Mind of the Loyalty I owe to my Sovereign Lord the King; when I see the Queen, it puts me in mind of the same; when I see the Ten, it puts me in mind of the Ten Commandments; the Nine, of the Nine Muses; the Eight, of the Eight Beatitudes; the Seven, of the Seven liberal Sciences; the Six, of the Six Days we mould labour in; the Five, of the Five Senses; the Four, of the Four Evangelists; the Tray, of the Trinity; the Deuce, of the Two Sacraments; and the Ace, that we ought to worship but one God.”

Says the Master, “this is an excellent Use you make of them; but why did you not make mention of the Knave?”

“Sir, I thought I had no occasion to mention him, because he is here present,” clapping his Hand on his fellow-Servant’s shoulder.

By 1762, the version known as The Soldier’s Prayerbook is recorded in an account/common-place book belonging to Mary Bacon, a farmer’s wife. (Mary Bacon’s World. A farmer’s wife in eighteenth-century Hampshire, published by Threshhold Press (2010).) This seems to be the first mention of what became the best-known version.

The most famous example is from 1776 in London Magazine: or, Gentleman’s monthly intelligencer (Vol. 45), which tells the story of Richard Middleton. It begins:

“One Richard Middleton, a soldier, attending divine service with the rest of the regiment in a church in Glasgow, instead of pulling out a bible, like his brother soldiers, to find the parson’s text, spread a pack of cards before him . . .” [He is taken before the Mayor and asked,] “What excuse have you to offer for this strange, scandalous behaviour?” (Follow the link above for the full story.)

Histoire du Jeu de Cartes du Grenadier Richard appeared in France in 1811, but is most often found bound with an even more interesting Explication morale du jeu de cartes from 1776 (see comments for more information & thanks for the correction, Ross). Marie-Anne-Adélaïde Lenormand published it as Almanach du bonhomme Richard in 1809, and later, in 1857, the Chevalier de Châtelain included it in his translation, Fables de [John] Gay & Beautés de la Poésie Anglaise. The English poet and playwright, John Gay (1685-1732), best known for the play, “The Beggar’s Opera,” did not include it in his two volumes of Fables (although a couple of his fables feature card-players), but it could be a lost work, printed originally in broadside.

By 1926 the story had metamorphized (considerably and without the moralizing) into a magician’s card trick called The Adventures of Diamond Jack, as advertised by Herman L. Weber (Namreh) in The Sphinx. It and The Perpetual Almanac or Gentleman Soldier’s Prayer Book appear near each other in Jean Hugard’s Encyclopedia of Card Tricks (1937), showing that they are considered to be of a similar type. Another irreverent version, called Sam the Bellhop has become popular through performances by Bill Malone and James Galea, as seen in the following youtube videos.

The next (and truer) metamorphosis was as a country song, “The Deck of Cards,” first made famous by T. Texas Tyler in 1948, written about the WWII North African Campaign in the little town called Casino.  It’s been recorded by at least a dozen musicians including Phil Harris, Tex Ritter, Wink Martindale (on Ed Sullivan), Max Bygraves, Hank Williams, Prince Far I, John McNicholl, and many others that can be found on youtube, including the parody, “A Hillbilly’s Deck of Cards” by Simon Crum.

This song was updated with a twist for the Korean war as “The Red Deck of Cards” by Red River Dave McEnery in 1953 (which I first heard from labor organizer and folklorist U. Utah Phillips).

“It was during the last days of the prisoner exchange in Korea,  I was there as they came through Freedom Gate. Shattered, sick and lame. There in a red cross tent as the weary group rested, a soldier broke out a deck of cards.  A look of hate crossed the tired face of one boy as he sprang up—knocking the cards to the ground.  As the cards lay around, many of them face up, he picked up the Ace and began.

“Fellows,” he said, “I’m sorry, but I hate cards.  The commies tried to use them to teach us their false doctrine.  They told us the “ACE”, meant that there’s one God, the state.  We knew that to be untrue for we were religious boys.”  “And the “DEUCE” meant there were two great leaders.  Only two. Lenin and Stalin. And we couldn’t swallow that either . . . ”

There is, of course, a Vietnam version (by Red Sovine), the Gulf war (by Bill Anderson), the 2nd Iraq war (1-with photos & 2-Al Traynor), and an e-mail variation currently circulates featuring a soldier serving in Afghanistan:

“A young soldier was in his bunkhouse all alone one Sunday morning over in Afghanistan. It was quiet that day, the guns and the mortars, and land mines for some reason hadn’t made a noise. The young soldier knew it was Sunday, the holiest day of the week. As he was sitting there, he got out an old deck of cards and laid them out across his bunk . . .”

“What does this all have to do with tarot?” you may ask.

All the above variations center on storytelling (or “destiny narration” as Cynthia Giles called it) and advice giving, plus number symbolism. Number symbolism is one of the key techniques used in interpreting the cards, and tarot authors, in writing about the meaning of numbers, often point to the  same religious motifs as sources of ideas used to interpret the cards. Like the illustrated “prayer cards” above—whether simply evoked in the mind or made into a deck—they suggest a book of signs that are meant to guide us in making the best decisions. They also serve as memonic aids (for instance, the song goes, “The ten reminds me of . . . “), and the tarot was originally thought to have served as part of the Ars Memoria. And, of course, the magicians doing magic tricks perfectly emulate the patter of the Bagatto, Montebank or Magician of the Major Arcana.

The sample cards above come from a deck illustrated to match The Soldier’s Prayerbook, and are available here.

[I've been wondering if this story might first be found in a book I haven’t been able to access from 1613: The Carde and Compasse of Life Containing Many Passages, Fit for These Times. and Directing All Men in a True, Christian, Godly and Ciuill Course, to Arrive at the Blessed and Glorious Harbour of Heaven, a manual of advice to the prince. By Richard Middleton. It’s a long shot, but if anyone has access to the libraries holding it, I’d love them to check it out.]

Check out Part 1 on the early moral allegories, and read Steve Winick’s discoveries that he has so generously contributed to the comments on this post.

Continue on to Part 3 on Social Reformation.

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